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

s038g14  Sunday 5  9/2/2014

'It is no longer good for anything’  Matthew 5.13

I am not a liturgist - I’m a lazy Anglican (Episcopalian).   I am content to use prayer book and lectionary.   My creative input is the sermon.   I’ve left the choice of hymns to the musicians and the intercessions to the person reading them.   So writing prayers and liturgies is foreign.   If I had to compose a new service each week I’d run out of ideas after a month!

However this last week I’ve been asked to bless a birthing suite in the hospital.   After the earthquakes where the maternity building was damaged beyond repair, we have been caring for mothers and new babies from the public system where there are no complications.   However we have converted an existing wing of the undamaged part of the hospital, and now have a real birthing suite, so St George’s will again be a place where many children are born.   But blessings for birthing suites are few and far between, and anyway I am beginning to think that a formal prayer from last century will not be appropriate.

So about 4am one morning, when the muse often visits, I got up and composed this first draft:
'We gather to acknowledge and remind ourselves of the sacredness of the mothers and the babies born here, the sacredness of parenthood and whanau (1);
'We gather to acknowledge and remind ourselves of the sacredness of the task and the sacredness of those who labour alongside parents to bring this new birth;
'And hence we gather to acknowledge and remind ourselves of the sacredness of this place and the sacredness of those who have laboured to provide and maintain this facility.
'We give thanks for our personal and corporate role in this hospital to assist in new birth, in this maternity suite as well as the operating theatres, and for the joy and fulfilment new birth brings to so many.’

It was lovely to share the leading of the service with the hospital Kaumātua.   (Kaumātua are respected tribal elders of either gender in a Māori community who have been involved with their whānau for a number of years.  2.)

Yes, this contains no reference to God, or Jesus, or the Cross - it is all about recognising and acknowledging the dignity of others.    It is my attempt to be salt of the earth, to bring out the distinctive flavour of others, not to make everyone else salt.   It is my attempt to be the light of the world, so that what is happening is clearly seen, good things, vital things.   It is my attempt to recognise that others do what they do because they feel called no less than any missionary, evangelist or pastor.   It is my attempt to acknowledge that we work in a team and that as a team we work miracles.   It is my attempt to say that extending dignity to all makes for a better community.   It is my attempt to say that however the divine is expressed, the divine is as present in the patients, the staff, the birthing unit and the operating theatres more concretely than any church, sanctuary, or sacrament.   It is my attempt to not impose on others my own theology, spirituality or religion.

Unfortunately some lectionaries stop the first reading from Isaiah 58 at verse 9a but the second half of that verse continues: 'If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil ..’   I suggest we have to remove the yoke of compliance to ‘christian’ teaching (as defined by ourselves).   The pointing of the finger is about those who are in an ‘inner circle’ pointing out those who are not.   The speaking of evil is all about who are not our spiritual children, those to whom we do not extend our forgiveness, our food and our blessing.  (3)

You see, we are supposed to be good for others.   If we are no good for others and for society as a whole we might as well be 'thrown out and trampled under foot’.   When we are a force for affirmation and inclusion within society we will be valued.   When we are a force for continuing divinely sanctioned division within society we deserve all we get.

One afternoon as I travelled home I listened to Episode 9 of 'Under the Huang Jiao Tree' by Jane Carswell on Radio NZ where the author is pressed to teach her Chinese students about Christmass, naturally without breaking the law against proselytising.   Her comment is that the Chinese government is trying to keep the largest family on earth together and they didn’t want any divisive religion to upset that unity.  She comments how, historically, Christianity is certainly divisive. (4)

If the Emperor Constantine promoted Christianity to be the official religion in the hope of unifying the empire, he would have been sorely disappointed. 

That which is really most important is not the salt but the earth which it seasons.   The earth does not exist for the salt but the other way around.  Similarly that which is really important is not the light but the world which it illuminates.   The world does not exist for the light but the light for the world.

Recently I heard about a good christian person visiting and praying for a sick person, a fellow parishioner, without being bidden.   It came across that the prayer was more important than the wishes of the person, and that the person praying was more important than the person being prayed for.   It was all about the importance of faith, prayer and the person praying.   It diminished the sick person rather than helped.   Most likely the person who did the praying remains blissfully unaware of the distress she caused and how a number of the sick person’s family are certain that they have no wish to support that form of ‘christianity’.

Again recently I read of a conservative evangelical lamenting the insistence of some of his colleagues on the primacy of the passage 1 Timothy 2. 11 and it’s implications for women in ministry.   This primacy reflects the widespread desire in the church to be right, to be important, and it really doesn’t matter if others are diminished in the process.   And it is not just St Paul’s words in the Bible which can be used to justify this desire to be right and to be important.   But Jesus ever calls us to magnify the other, to consider how others might feel - to be 'good for' everyone.

But not all in the church are so minded.   Again recently a good friend and parishioners died.   After a huge funeral (which my wife lead) I went to a local store to buy a birthday card.   The shop owner recognised me as one who was at the funeral and commented on how appropriate it all was.   And she proceeded to show the others behind the counter the service sheet with a picture of the deceased on the front.   Oh, they said, yes I knew her .. oh, she was lovely .. didn’t know her name .. has she died? .. sad .. Here was a person who was ‘good for’ others and she is sorely missed by many.

If we are just ‘good for’ those who acknowledge our importance, our orthodoxy, the primacy of our interpretation of the faith, then we are not actually going to be 'good for' very many others at all.   If we are ‘good for’ only those who follow Jesus’ words, ‘no one comes to the Father but by’ my interpretation of who Jesus was, again we will not be 'good for' many others at all.

The desire to be faithful to a literal interpretation of scripture is the orthodox facade to hide the delicious desire to rule over others, to marginalise, alienate and condemn others, to manipulate others in the name of a ‘god’ made in our own image.   As I ended my words last week: 'Let me repeat: the only way we escape a charge of idolatry is when affirmation and inclusion of others is the centre of our theology; the intricacies of our worship are pretty baubles.  The fate of two love birds is infinitely more important!’ (5)

It is only when affirmation and inclusion is central to our message that others are right to trust us.   It is only when affirmation and inclusion of all in the wonderful diversity of humanity is central to our message that we as church are actually likely to be ‘good for’ the world’.

1. Whanau, pronounced ‘farnow’, is the Maori term for the extended family.
3. Luke 11.13