s012g02 Lockleys Lent 1 10/2/02

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness. Matt 4.1

One of my favourite programmes on TV has always been the "Bugs Bunny Show" where a series of cartoons are shown. Timothy and I had great fun at "Movie World" when we visited Brisbane recently. Two of my favourite cartoon characters are Roadrunner "velocitus incredibilis" and Wylie Coyote "carnivorous famishous". One of the classic cameos of these characters is when the ever hopeful but perennially hapless Wylie has organised an overhanging cliff to fall on the unsuspecting Roadrunner when he passes underneath. The trap is set, the devise works but the section of cliff inexplicably doesn't fall, defying all the laws of gravity. In utter frustration Coyote gets a long stick, and goes underneath the cliff and starts prodding it from below. Eventually a few pebbles begin to fall, and Coyote suddenly wakes up. He holds up a sign to the camera on which is printed: "What on earth am I doing - exclamation mark, question mark, explanation mark". He then grabs a pitiful umbrella which does nothing to shelter him from the falling rocks ...

And I thought of Osama Bin Laden. One cannot conspire to have four planes hijacked and steered to inflict such massive destruction on innocent people of the most powerful nation on earth, and then expect God, however you care to name him or her, to save you from retribution ...

I think I have become a victim of my own theology, for I have begun to realise that there is little evidence in the Bible for anyone hearing God's word "in Church" - in the sermon. I guess this realisation began to come to me when I pondered on the essence of the prophecy of Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.8) That was followed by the Jesus' call of the fisherman while they were plying their trade. I had spoken a couple of times about God speaking to Paul, not when he was praying in the Temple, but when he was on the road, on the way to do precisely what the Lord didn't want him to do.

So I began to realise that there are few, if any, instances of God speaking to people while they were praying in the Temple. Indeed the exception that proves the rule is Samuel, where the Lord speaks to the young boy while he is trying to go to sleep. The message is a condemnation of the priest Eli's lax discipline of his own sons - again completely out of the context of worship.

The parable which inspired my recollection of Coyote was the prodigal Father and the son who "came to himself" in the far country.

If one looks to the first instance of a sermon being preached from a pulpit, we go to Ezra who spoke the word of God and the Levites translated it for the people. But even with all this effort the people got the message wrong - they began to mourn and weep when they were meant to be happy and joyful. (Neh 8.4-12.)

There is the classic instance when Paul was preaching in Troas and went on so long that Eutychus fell asleep and slipped from his elevated perch and fell to his almost death. (Acts 20.9)

You will by now know that I put some considerable effort into the production of my sermons, yet the reality is that God will get the message across to us all in our day to day lives, in ways much more irresistible than my words.

We will hear (or not) the word of God as we go about our day to day lives, not as we devote ourselves to this precious hour of worship, or as we listen attentively to these ten minutes of a sermon.

The work that God had to do in Jesus was accomplished in the wilderness, not in the Temple.

And the prophets tell us that God used Nebuchadnezzar, the alien king to accomplish God's message to the ancient people of God.

In the recent past we have been bombarded on the television news with the sad spectacle of detained people at Woomera and other places, in their desperation, harming themselves in order to try to put pressure on our government to accept them as refugees. And as individuals, confronted with these reports, we have all pondered what should be our response. I have had a number of people air their views to me. Oddly enough, I find I have sympathy with most of the views expressed. But in line with what I am saying, this Lent, I believe we will find the issues that confront us with the refugees are God calling us to follow, rather more than anything I might say to you in the sermon. And again, God's will will be done whether we follow or not. We can be thankful that we can have views and express them, without fear of recriminations. In fact, of course, this is one of the most precious commodities that so attracts people of other countries to want to come to live here in Australia.

God calls us to care for all people, and I don't believe I have heard anyone express a desire that these people should be shipped back home because of their race, ethnicity or religion. People have express a lack of sympathy because they have not followed correct procedures - because it is reported that some have "lost" their papers in order to frustrate attempts to come to some conclusion about the reasonableness of their claims to refugee status. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I personally haven't heard prejudice against them for any other reason. Yet, as now Archbishop Phillip said in his installation sermon, I am sure that we would do the same things if we were put in the same position in which they find themselves.

I do personally believe that Australia can accommodate more people - in fact we are already facing the prospect of an ageing population and a declining workforce to support the aged care system - simply because of the declining birth rate. We do need young people who are prepared to work. Some years ago I briefly considered adopting an orphan from Rwanda but the authorities deemed they should not be separated from their culture of birth.

I find it extremely difficult to appreciate all the conflicting pressures on a person like the Minister of Immigration, Mr Philip Ruddock, but I think that if I really thought I could do a better job, I ought to apply for his. I worry that it is very easy to say what someone else's priorities should be. I mean most people in every congregation I have ever been in have had very clear ideas of what my priorities should be :-) Most clergy have equally clear ideas of what the Archbishop's priorities should be :-) I was amused when Archbishop Phillip preached the sermon at his installation recently, saying that prior to his consecration as a Bishop he was quite an expert on what Bishops ought to be doing to lead the church forward. Since his consecration he was becoming less sure :-)

I must also confess some cynicism when church agencies demand that children be turned over to their care. One expects that the next demand will be for funds for the infrastructure for the agencies to care for them.

I would want to, very tentatively, suggest that some relaxation of regulations regarding unaccompanied minors could be in order, where there are families willing to foster such persons. But even then, I am immediately aware that I am operating under precisely the same paradigm which excused children being taken from their indigenous parents, fortunately in times past. I can still remember an aboriginal person speaking on television about he and his sister being abused when they were young by the very person their parents trusted, when their parents were jailed, and they had to be cared for by others.

Some people have expressed horror at some of the lengths that these people have been prepared to go in an attempt to force the governments hand. I also recall some people speaking deprecatingly of the "feminist" and the "gay" movement for their perceived stridency, but the reality is that sometimes stridency is needed to get a message across to those who are comfortable in their own small world. God used alien armies to reduce the Holy City to ruins. Real freedom is not given but taken. Some stridency is inevitable when issues of justice and injustice are involved.

There is no doubt that I could be quite wrong, and all the evidence is that sermons are a pretty poor method of changing people's minds. Fortunately God will have God's way, though I suspect it will not always be comfortable.

The real questions this Lent are not those about attending worship a little more or giving up chocolate, things that you might hear a preacher suggest. The questions God is concerned about are those about our relationships in our day to day lives - and these questions God confronts us with as we live in the midst of the world.


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