The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:  

s012g11  Lent 1  Amberley  13/3/2011

‘you will not dash your foot against a stone’   Matthew 4.6

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

In my time at theological college, last century, across the ditch *, those of us who lived in during the week were required to attend Compline each night at about 10pm.   This short service gave thanks to God for the day and asked protection during the night.   It marked the beginning of silence which was broken only after matins the following morning.  

One of the psalms set for this lovely devotion was psalm 91, which includes the promise: ‘For the angels of God have been charged: to keep you in all your ways.  They shall bear you up in their hands: lest you should strike your foot against a stone.’  (v12)   So the devil was quoting scripture to Jesus.   Therefore we can assume that not all those who can and do quote scripture to us are necessarily of God.

But these words are indeed lovely and comforting .. however .. an earlier verse reads: ‘A thousand may fall beside you, ten thousand at your right hand:  but you will remain unscathed.’   (v7)    Do we not care about the thousand and the ten thousand?   Are we so wrapped up in our own salvation and our own safety that, as far as we are concerned, everyone else can really go to hell?

I have sometimes reflected how many people in Africa and South America continue to suffer poverty, sickness and early death because of a religious objection to the use of condoms?   In 2006 I heard the Massey Lectures presented by Stephen Lewis appointed Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa by the then Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan.   Mr Lewis said that he spent the past four years watching people die.   He says: "Nothing in his adult life could prepare him for the carnage of HIV/AIDS."    One can only hope and pray that the Holy See (as well as some Anglicans) might listen to Stephen Lewis's words as they consider the use of condoms.    Are we so concerned for our own salvation that the very human plight of these MILLIONS is immaterial to us?

Quite some years ago I met a lapsed church person and her husband.   Her husband was hospitalised for some months so I did have the opportunity to get to know them rather better than most.  The lady said that she had left off going to church when the minister couldn’t answer the question why the Egyptians had to die in the Red Sea.   What had they done that was so wrong?

And my mother, God rest her soul, once taught Religious Instruction at the local primary school.   One day one of her students (a bit of a rabble-rouser) asked why so many people and animals died in the flood and only Noah and his family survived?   She promised to ask the Rector who explained that when you have part of an apple that is rotten you have to cut into what is good to make sure that you cut out all that is rotten.   I remember that the questioner actually was impressed that my mother did take him seriously and did keep her promise to get an answer.

Interestingly these betray a concern for the OTHER which is often sadly lacking when I hear some ‘christians’ talk about the certainty of their own personal salvation.

It is lovely to hear that some relief workers from overseas have commented that they will gain weight coming to help Christchurch begin to recover from the earthquake - they are being fed so well.   I don’t imagine this would be the case for relief workers in Haiti.   But it is stupid and unfeeling to say to someone who has lost house and possessions: ‘One does not live by bread alone’.  

Similarly it is stupid and unfeeling to say to someone who is shattered by the earthquake that they will be safe if they become a ‘christian’.   What balderdash!  

And worship.   It is stupid in the extreme to suggest that God will personally reward those who worship God in a particular way - it is the devil that promises rewards - not God!

At the exact time, one week on from the earthquake there were 154 confirmed victims for the earthquake.  Two minutes silence was observed across the country for them.   Observed, not just by ‘christians’, but by Atheists, Agnostics, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, Calathumpians, people of every faith and none.   Everyone cares about the lost - and what a different sentiment this is to the words of scripture: ‘A thousand may fall beside you, ten thousand at your right hand:  but you will remain unscathed.’   The local Press has a web page with a photo and brief words about some of the victims here:   It seems to me that this care is far more ‘christian’ than pious sentiments, however scriptural.

I have been reflecting that the ancient people of God were concerned about the survival of their national identity, and ‘christians’ have personalised this and we are concerned with the survival of our personal identity - which we assume ‘eternal life’ implies.  But there is a good deal of self interest in being concerned with the survival of the national identity and so praying for God’s blessing on a monarch might seem altruistic.    I am suggesting that instead of narrowing it down to the individual - our concern should properly be made broader and that the real message of the gospel is the survival of all.  This is eternal life, life with others, life with all others.

And it is interesting.  Of course other things have been happening in this world other than the earthquake in Christchurch.   There has been regime change in Egypt which has inspired similar movements elsewhere.   Our global world means that such things are more possible and that freedom and human dignity is possible for all.   I suspect it is far more ‘christian’ to concern ourselves with this rather than fussing about our own sinfulness - it is far more UNSELFISH to concern ourselves with the conditions others endure rather than eternal navel gazing.   And indeed people other than ‘christians’ do concern themselves with the conditions in life in Egypt, Libya and other places, in the well being of emergency workers in the aftermath of the earthquake, on those dying in Africa, on the Egyptians pursuing the Israelites through the Red Sea, on those not of Noah’s family swept away by the flood.

In the midst of our own personal concerns, soldiers and civilians are being blown up by suicide bombers, inspired no doubt by people who haven’t really heard the words of St Paul: ‘if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing’ (1 Cor 13.3) - surely sentiments that those sane people of all religions and none would consider true.

I want finally to return to a couple of things.   Those who quote scripture are not thereby necessarily inspired by God.   I can quote scripture for my own benefit, just as the devil quoted scripture to try to get his own way.   I could use scripture to manipulate others into doing things that enhance my own ego.   St Paul had cause to say to those in Galatia: ‘I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!’ (Gal 5.12)

And the other thing is that it is the devil who offers personal rewards at the expense of others.   So if the church’s proclamation of eternal life is a personal reward denied to others, then this is not of God.   This is not to say I deny eternal life, but it is something that everyone is already included.   Jesus modelled eternal life all his life being incarnated into real life, including not just the religious, but the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners.

* For those who are not Australians or New Zealanders the term ‘West Island’ is what New Zealanders call Australia and ‘across the ditch’ is the other side of the Tasman Strait, the body of water that separates the two countries.

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