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

s039g11  Sunday 6  13/2/2011  Amberley

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

‘first be reconciled to your brother or sister’  Matthew 5.24

At the very heart of our faith is our relationships with others.   It is more important to be reconciled to a brother or sister than it is to make our offering to God.   Time and again I have made the comment that you and I have been brought up to personalise the gospel, as if everything depends on my relationship with my brother, my sister.   In doing so the church exempts herself from considering her brothers, her sisters.   The church has blithely been content to condemn everyone who isn’t suitably subservient, compliant and tithing - to eternal damnation!

I guess I wasn’t the only one here in New Zealand who was horrified when I heard a news report of a woman who was found dead.   The report suggested that she was alive when she was doused with an accelerant and set alight and that she died as a result.   Without commenting on the specifics of this particular situation, I reflect that the concept of hell that some ‘christians’ have is that people are ETERNALLY subjected to what this woman was subjected to, hopefully briefly, by this God of love.   It seems that they believe hell is where people suffer eternally the fires of damnation and that they suffer as if they were alive.   You can’t suffer if you are actually dead.   Well, if others do not see a logical disconnect with this, I want to affirm that I certainly do!   We recognise the evil in the person responsible for setting the woman alight (whoever that person is), but we don’t see that a god who does this is an evil demon and no God.   God does not condemn people to eternal flames because his, or her, honour is besmirched.  

Our gospel tells us that our relationship with God is secondary to our relationship with others.   The ancient story of Cain killing his brother Abel was because Cain, rightly or wrongly, perceived that his brother’s offering to God was more acceptable than his own.   Our gospel tells us that the form of the offering to God is irrelevant.   It was the spirit of competitiveness that Cain had, his need to be right, his need to be better, that was his downfall.  

And so my question to the church is the same.   Do we not have the same spirit of competitiveness with other religions - whose offering is more acceptable and whose is less acceptable?   And our gospel message is that neither is important, it is our relationship with others that is important.

For me the answer to the question of the validity of the ordination of women is affirmed by this text.   If women have a legitimate grievance that they are being discriminated against on religious grounds, then God wants that grievance resolved before real communion with God is possible.

Often I hear of people seeking ‘closure’ after a traumatic incident.   It seems people look for closure through a suitably severe sentence being handed down on the perpetrator of the injustice.   I do not wish to seem critical, but this does seem to put one person’s emotional well-being in the hands of another - something which indeed might go one way or the other - irrespective of the effect it might have on the person wronged.  To take but one example, a judge might be lenient on the perpetrator, say, because it is a first offence.   If this results in the victim not finding ‘closure’ - clearly the victim may believe, as the aggrieved party, that his, or her, closure is the only thing that the judge must consider.   But some victims might well believe that closure for them would only come if the perpetrator was to burn alive, that they suffer like that woman who was alive and set alight eternally.   If closure was to cost this much is that fair?   In the end we must take responsibility for our own emotions, and seek help from others when we find them overwhelming.

Recently I have also been considering the relationship between sin and sickness.   I have no hesitation in saying that a particular person’s illness is never a punishment for a particular sinful act.   But much illness comes from our desire to be independent.   Much illness is exacerbated from wanting God, rather than doctors, to heal us.  And much illness comes from having to live up to the expectations of others, of not being loved for who we are, and of course the church has been an active participant in these things, sadly.   One of the things that the Anglican Church in particular suffers from is ‘salvation through respectability’ - but perhaps this is just on the West Island :-)   If my words about Paul and sin are true - that for St Paul sin is about religious imperialism - then we can see that this is a major contributor to the ongoing poverty, illness and premature death of millions.

Whoever wrote 1 Timothy, the author clearly is speaking in terms of which St Paul would approve when he describes his conversion: ‘I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.   But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.   The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners -- of whom I am the foremost.’ (1 Timothy 1.12-15)   St Paul’s sin was religious imperialism, and it was from this sin that he is saved.  St Paul realised that the God of religious imperialism is blasphemy, whatever name one uses for the divine.   He realised that his religious relationship with his brothers and sisters, of whatever ilk, was far more important than his orthodox devotion to God.   And the message for us today is the same, that our religious relationship, our acceptance of others, is paramount.  

If we merely swap one form of religious imperialism - Jewish - for another form of religious imperialism - ‘christian’ - of what possible use is this to other people?   And if it is of no use to other people, it seems to me that it is only of use to those initiates in the ‘holy huddle’ and is therefore essentially selfish.   And the God I worship has nothing to do with selfishness, religious or otherwise.

But of course you and I have been brought up submitting ourselves to religious imperialism.   It might be that we have had to affirm that the Bible, the Cross or Jesus as more important than we are, or the Church is more important than we are, or the Font, the Altar, or the Holy Communion are more important than we are, and some poor deluded people even have been taught that the Vicar is more important than we are.   Jesus didn’t die for the Bible, the Cross, for Jesus (?), the Church, the Font, the Altar, or the Holy Communion or especially for the Vicar.   The most sacred thing in this building is you and I, and nothing inside this building is more sacred than the thousands of millions of human beings outside this building.   It is this message to which our text points.

I want to return to the church.   The church that I was brought up in made it a point of pride to be not like the catholics up the road, much more couth than those Baptists on the wrong side of town ..   The church has made not being reconciled to others an art form, as if Jesus’ words: ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.   Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.   For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it’ (Matthew 7:12-14) means that those in the church have already entered through the narrow gate and therefore it is up to everyone else to do the right thing.   As I say the church has made an art-form of applying the words of scripture against everyone else and ignoring them herself.

I suspect that this will be regarded as high treason by some, but I would recommend people whose friendship I valued go to a Buddhist temple to pray, rather than some fundamentalist Anglican parishes.   And if this sounds like high treason, it would be well to avoid being angry with me, or insult me, or call me ‘a fool’, for Jesus has some specific words about these in our gospel for today.

One of the books that has had the greatest impact on me (other than the Bible) is Mario Puzo’s 1969 book ‘The Godfather’ - a fictional account of the activities of the Sicilian Mafia in America.   The Mafia are also known as ‘the Family’ - where everyone inside was safe and everyone outside who was in any way threatening was a target.   And this book has often led me to consider if we in the church are any different, though we pretend to wield eternal rather than present punishments?  When we realise that loving just those who love us is THE sin then Jesus words: ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.   And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell’ imply that we create our own hell, with those who like us, love us, but no one else.   And that hell looks a lot like the life those of the Mafia endure every day, and a lot like what some ‘christians’ endure every day!  And a bit like the person who doused the woman with accelerant and set her alight.   He (presumably the perpetrator is a he) would perhaps have been better to tear out his eye, to cut off his hand.   He was living in hell of his own making already, and he’ll have a job extricating himself from there.

There is no point in praying to God to deliver us from a hell we have manufactured for ourselves.  

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