The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s036g05 Lockleys 23/1/2005 Sunday 3
"So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan." Matthew 4.24,25
I have not especially thought about it before, but we hear today that Jesus' fame began in Syria, and that crowds from Jerusalem were traveling to him to find healing. It was no wonder that this ministry of Jesus caused such consternation amongst the orthodox.
And I wonder what might be a parallel today?
Few of us question our medical practitioners about the faith they hold. Indeed if we are admitted to one of our emergency departments, we are quite likely to be treated by someone who could have his or her origins anywhere in the world. They could be of any religion or none at all. Still they would all be using their God given gifts for the work God sets before them; the relief of our own illness.
Those of us who have been unfortunate enough to have had a rushed trip to hospital, know how fortunate it is that God blesses these other people with such skills and care. It is wonderful that God blesses people other than Anglicans and Christians. There are not enough of us to go around to do all that God would want.
And this is what the ministry of Jesus, recognized in Syria, tells us. Jesus leads us to experience blessings through people other than the orthodox. It is often the less than orthodox who are open to the blessings of God than the orthodox, and I am talking about Christians and Anglicans as much as anyone else.
When I visit hospitals, I see people from lots of backgrounds ministering there. And for this I thank God.
Jesus attracted a motley crew. They were not just the less than orthodox, they were all fairly incapable of being of much help to the cause.
Those in my real congregation (rather than my virtual one) will know that since I returned from Britain, I have modified the words of the invitation to the communion. Instead of the words: 'The gifts of God for the people of God' I have been saying: 'Broken things for broken people; holy things for holy people'. This practice comes from the Rev'd Marilyn Obersby, one of the leaders of the pilgrimage. I particularly like these words, because we are all 'broken' in some way; myself as much as anyone else.
I was also uncomfortable with the identification that we (alone) are the people of God. There are many others. Indeed I haven't met anyone who isn't.
Jesus was also a broken person like us, and it is in that very brokenness that we recognize his holiness. So the trick for us is to see in our brokenness, that which also makes us holy.
I do not often speak about holiness, and it is a concept that appears in the 'Windsor Report' in a couple of significant places. We mostly associate this with being separate and otherworldly. But one of the early uses of the word is found in the encounter of Moses with God in the burning bush. God calls to Moses and invites him closer, saying: 'take off your shoes, for this is holy ground'. Here was this dirty shepherd approaching the Almighty, just as he was; and he is invited to take off his shoes and come closer.
When we come to worship, we all used to put on our 'Sunday Best', wash ourselves, even polished our shoes (this was before everyone began to wear sneakers :-). Here God invites us as we are, to enjoy as intimate a communion as possible; as we are. This too is a symbol of our brokenness, and our acceptance as less than perfect people.
I can still remember the priest at Brighton saying he didn't care if people came to Church in their bathers; and this was 40 years ago. Swimming costumes have become considerably briefer since then however! So those of us who are male might find our devotions distracted :-)
In a similar vein, while I have no difficulty wearing vestments, I wonder if they imply that God likes us only when we are dressed up? No. God loves us as we are, especially our brokenness.
Indeed if it is in our brokenness that God's welcome as we are, is most clearly seen, then we value our brokenness more highly than anything else. In recognizing our own welcome as we are, we demonstrate to others that they are similarly welcome, as they are.
God calls us out of this Church and sacred space. We will find our own healing when we see Jesus amongst the unorthodox, and the multitude of broken people, just like us.
So the health of the Anglican Communion is intimately bound up in how much we see God elsewhere.
This is the same message as that very familiar parable of the lost sheep. We are wont to interpret this as God cares for the one or two people who don't come to Church, but they should come back to where they really should be (and it would be really good if they tithed as they ought! :-) I rather think that the real message is to the orthodox, to not separate them selves off from the rest of broken humanity, where God is still to be found. If we think that this is heresy, then perhaps we are reacting like those who were offended that Jesus was firstly recognized in Syria.
So the holiness of God is actually all about intimacy with all sorts and conditions of people; the less than orthodox, the less than morally perfect, the less than theologically erudite; not how distant the divine is.
So it might be a useful thing to think of our inadequacies as our greatest gifts, for they demonstrate to all that all are accepted, warts and all. So in this case these inadequacies are not to be cured and eradicated, but transfigured. Even the wounds of Jesus remained after he was raised from the dead. 'What a friend we have in Jesus' says the lovely hymn; but Jesus is a friend to all, just as intimately as he is to us.
What matters to me? It is clear that lots of things can be used to set ourselves above others: adherence to the Bible, adherence to orthodox teaching, adherence to the "Book of Common Prayer and none other except as allowed by lawful authority"; really the list is endless. For me the clue is whether or not I acknowledge that God blesses the other who worships differently to me, who interprets the Bible differently from me, lives a different lifestyle to me. Faithfulness to the Bible, orthodoxy or ritual can as easily lead us away from the acceptance of others, as they can lead us to accept others.
As I was listening to the readings from the Bible read last Sunday (/this) morning (and I do listen, even though I have already read them and prepared a sermon on them) I was struck by the words of the Lord to Isaiah: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." God is actually not interested in the survival of the Anglican Church except as it is an instrument of good news to others.
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"