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

s036g11   23/1/2011   Sunday 3

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

‘fish for people’  Matthew 4.19

It is a lovely turn of phrase and it says so much.

Jesus didn’t say that those who followed him would save people from their sins, teach them the true faith, heal people of all their infirmities, become leaders of a new religious movement, or earn their way into some sort of afterlife bliss.   Those who followed Jesus would gather people together.

One of the lovely jokes in the TV series: ‘Yes Minister’ is about the hospital without any patients that received an award for efficiency!   And sometimes it seems that the church would be a really excellent place, if it weren’t for the parishioners :-)   And sometimes it seems we erect creedal or confessional boundaries to try to help us get on more easily with those around us.   We exclude others who don’t worship like us, believe like us, or are intimate when and with people of whom we don’t approve - and we do this in the name of God - as if this is what God wants.   But Jesus calls us to gather people together, not exclude people.   It doesn’t particularly matter if we exclude others on scriptural grounds, sacramental grounds, spiritual grounds, mystical grounds, moral grounds, accoutrement grounds, grounds of age, gender or sexuality; in the end we are excluding others, rather than gathering others.

When I thought about this I recalled the ancient story of the tower of Babel and God scattering people over the face of the earth.  (Genesis 11)   The tower was a tower to the heavens, and I suspect that many people see the Church as a tower up which to climb to get to heaven.   But this is precisely the wrong way to go.   God doesn’t want everyone struggling and straining to get into heaven, God wants us to get on with those around us.   God has endowed people with various languages; not just the language of the Church.   If we find people who are not interested in the language of the Church it is perhaps because they have got the message that speaking the language of the church doesn’t actually confer eternal salvation, or help people in life.   God still calls us to gather people together, whatever language we and they use and whatever name we and they call the divine. 

And any efforts to gather people together to erect a spiritual tower to heaven will end up with the people being scattered.   We are called simply to gather people together, because it is together in an accepting community that we find health, both personally and corporately.

And the repentance to which we are all called is to accept with joy this gathering of one and all, just as the parables of the wedding feast picture the king ordering the streets to be scoured for guests, so that no one is left out.

But, of course, there are always those who don’t want to join in with the rest of humanity.   So the man without the wedding garment didn’t want to be there.   He was feeling like he was at a funeral he had to attend for someone he didn’t like anyway.   He was already ‘weeping and gnashing his teeth’ before he was thrown out.   (Matthew 22.1-13)   They were the same as ‘the Pharisees and the scribes’ who ‘were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”’   (Luke 15.2)   The excuses that those initially invited, were precisely that, excuses.   They were not the real reasons they didn’t want to attend.   Those initially invited didn’t want to be there - with others.

Recently I have been reflecting that God is bigger than anything we can humanly conceive (thanks Brian!).   Church people express this by claiming miraculous actions that reward gullibility but alienate those who think and reason.   Where in the bible does it say that there is a special place reserved in heaven for those who believe in the literal truth of the bible, the virgin birth or that God condemns those who call on the divine using a different name to the one we use?   These things limit God rather than magnify God.   And it also limits those who would worship God.

The parable of the one hundred sheep and the one that gets lost vividly illustrates this.  Usually this is interpreted as the one sheep which is the one that leaves the church and so is lost.   But Luke has this parable directed towards ‘the Pharisees and the scribes (who) were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.  (Luke 15.2)   It is the devout, the orthodox, the religious who are the ones who have wandered off from the rest of society and need to be brought back into the fold of humanity.   This implies that ‘righteousness’ is not a personal spiritual accomplishment, it implies incarnation into humanity at large.   No wonder God throws a party when a scribe or Pharisee repents and joins society at large :-)

So those who define God and so exclude those who don’t agree with their definition are the ones who are lost and for all their protestations that they are evangelistic, in fact they alienate 99% of humanity.   Certainly they may attract some followers, but 99% of people are not that silly.

And this puts paid to any necessity for me, or anyone else, to convert the world.   It is something I have to learn as much as anyone else.   God has got 99% of the world sorted, even though they don’t think like me, worship like me, live their lives like me, express their love for the divine in entirely surprising ways, and express their intimacy to persons who may surprise me too.

This also means that I don’t have to win the argument with the fundamentalists for they only constitute 1% of humanity and they go off into their own ‘holy huddle’, choosing to follow their own delusion.  And this is good news.   I can worship God in my particular way and I can allow others to worship God in their ways too.   I don’t have to become the leader of yet another variation on a theme; I have only to remain incarnated into all of society, doing my best to be helpful to all, without hesitation, without distinction and without expectation.   For this is the sort of church to which I would invite people whose friendship I really valued.  

Recently I spoke at the Cathedral on the feast of the baptism of Jesus and there I observed that immediately after Jesus’ own baptism (after a brief stint in the wilderness) Jesus immediately toured towns, city and countryside, indiscriminately healing and forgiving all.   As our reading today tells us: ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee’.   He accepted the hospitality of all, from Simon the leper to Simon the Pharisee.   Jesus didn’t hive off into a holy huddle.   And if we are to follow Jesus we are surely called to do likewise.

And as I have been the paid minister in congregations over many years, I have often felt like it was my job to encourage others to join that congregation, but really just to perpetuate the ministries that were already there.   People were wanted, but just to admire the contributions of the past in terms of the building, and the present, in the conduct of worship and the various groups.   People weren’t wanted if they sought to make their own contribution, that might have eclipsed what was there already.  

Some church people seem to think that God calls them to put their brains into neutral when they enter a church.   It is quite true that the writers of the gospels had a world view entirely different from our own.   They believed that God made the universe in seven days.   They believed that the universe was flat and three tiered, hell somewhere below, earth in the middle and heaven somewhere in the air somewhat higher than the moon.   They lived in a part of the world which was fairly arid.   I know the beauty of the arid Australian outback, but I know it because I don’t have to live there and I don’t have to eek out an existence there like they did.   They did not have the benefit of microscopes to see the beauty of the microscopic world or telescopes to see the beauty of the heavens.   They were dependent on the weather as / on subsistence farmers, life was a constant struggle, and fighting for life often involved fighting one’s neighbours to get the bare necessities of life.   So inevitably their religion was austere.   The conception that one could see God in the beauty of nature would be as foreign to them as suggesting that the earth circled the sun.   And so to suggest that this austere faith is the only one that is salvific (whatever that means) is quite frankly beyond belief.   Because life was such a struggle, strength rather than tenderness was vital.   A highly patriarchal society was the norm, yet we see in Jesus glimpses of something different.   And we see what such a society does to dissidents.

So the ‘church’ is actually 99% of society, those who do their best to be helpful to all, without hesitation, without distinction and without expectation.  And it is when we divest ourselves of the neo-colonial vestiges of the old church structures and accept all; that we can say that we have followed Jesus who was incarnated into real humanity and was killed for doing so.

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