s046g99 Somerton Park Sunday 13 27/6/99
"a cup of cold water ... in the name of a disciple" Matt 10.42.
I find it interesting how frequently what I have to say in the sermons I produce come from conversations I have in pastoral situations. I suspect I am no different from other clergy.
What brought this on was some time back when I had a conversation with a person who was arranging with me the funeral service for her mother. Towards the end of this, she said, what with one thing and another, sometimes she questioned the existence of a God. She said how she couldn't be like me (!?) and envied those with faith. I responded by saying that I was no different. I have my times of doubt. The opposite of faith is not doubt - the opposite of faith is certainty. I said I had far less problems with people who have doubts than I do with people who are certain of their faith.
I am sure that St Paul before his conversion, and Hitler, believed what they were doing was "right". In an article in "Eureka Street" (June p34) by the Rev'd Tim Costello (Director of the Urban Mission, Collins St Baptist Church, Melbourne) he wrote that a Church report of the Hitler regime in 1934 stated: "It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold, where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown. The new Germany has burned great masses of corrupting books and magazines along with it's bonfires of Jewish and Communistic libraries".
And it started to make me think of this congregation and what we are doing here. I guess we are no different from any other congregation anywhere. I think that there would be few people here who come along proclaiming how much they believe. Most, if not all, in our heart of hearts, know of the little, and not so little, niggles of doubt that occasionally, or more frequently assail us. We too wonder how things would be if life was not as comfortable as it is. It only takes the death of a person close to us to strike home to us how fragile our faith and our existence really is. If it is someone close, or someone young, our "faith" is quickly shaken.
And we all say "We believe ..." as we dutifully recite the creed, and I guess there are times when we feel a touch guilty because actually we are not quite sure sometimes. For most of my life I don't think I would have ever much claimed to have understood the creeds. I suppose most of the time I've taken it "on trust" - trusting those who seem to know what they are talking about - because they believe it - and think it's a "good thing". Have the times when I've been in a time of doubt, been here in Church, under false pretences?
And the words of the Absolution often come back to me: "Almighty God, who has promised forgiveness to all who turn to him in faith ..." (APBA p120) Does this mean total absolution is denied when I have my doubts?
Or what I think is almost a "claytons" absolution of morning and evening prayer: "God pardons all who truly repent and believe his holy gospel. And so we ask him to grant us true repentance ..." (APBA p5) Some of my sins actually I somewhat enjoy ... In these cases is absolution only partially given? With some of the pictures of God presented, I wonder whether God is ever likely to be content with my human repentance ... I mean I suppose that there are many things I have "left undone (which I) ought to have done", but I can't say (in all honesty) that I really want to do much more for God than I already do. I'm not saying I do especially much.
I remember a wise clergy friend saying once - in the end probably we would all say that we would do it all again - including the things we did wrong.
Or my mind goes to the catechism: the requirements of those coming to communion: "They should examine themselves to see whether they repent ... and ... have a lively faith ..." I'm not exactly certain what constitutes a "lively" faith, let alone know if my faith is sufficiently lively enough to "pass". How many of my concepts revolve around whether I measure up? I, and we, have existed for so long under the tyranny that we have to live up to other people's expectations, including the expectations of the Church - that we cannot look at the Bible without reading it through these, indeed very jaded, glasses.
The issue has surfaced in England where the "Advertiser" reports (12/7/99 p50) that the "Methodist Church in Britain declared (yesterday) that belief in God was now an optional extra for its members". And I can only heartily agree.
And another conversation I had recently was about helping others. This person was saying how difficult it was for them to say "No" to someone else when the other person needed something. And I reflected how frequently this is the case. I have no difficulty saying "No" to those who come to the door asking for money. But if someone genuinely needed food or shelter, I would be the first to oblige. The difficulty is not that Christians are behind hand in giving. Quite the opposite. The difficulty is sorting out who actually needs our charity, and who is actually only trying to find the wherewithal to buy their cigarettes, alcohol, or other things. And yet how often is the Church's message that we have to give more? I am not sure if I have ever heard anyone pray a prayer for discernment in our giving. Perhaps I'll have to include this in our intercessions here.
And indeed this readiness to be of assistance is far more general than just "church" people. I recently had occasion to say to one of my friends that South Australians would have been quite disappointed if we had missed out hosting some Kosovar refugees. Of course we lament the necessity for their coming, and I don't think anyone wants to buy into apportioning causes or blame for the situation in the Balkans - but I don't think there would be anyone who wasn't pleased that we can do something to help the suffering of these people.
If we are not a community of fully convinced believers then what are we? We are, I suggest a community with a cup of cold water to offer to the thirsty because we want to follow Jesus. This is a rather more accurate description of who we are. We might believe that there might be a reward at the end of it all, or we might not. We listen, we accept, we love all those who enter these doors, and all who we encounter as fellow travellers in life.
All this moves me to ask the question: "Is St Paul's doctrine of justification by faith an end in itself, or does it point us to something else?" So often justification by works has been contrasted to justification by faith - James has been contrasted to Paul - the Catholic Church with the Protestant faith. Somehow both have led us to a "them & us" situation. Surely St Paul's faith is that "Christ died for the ungodly" - is that God has already bridged the gap, in the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. If God has bridged the gap, then everyone has their place in this community. So our faith always points us to Christ's acceptance of the other person - just as surely as any works we do. Our works point us to Christ's desire that we share what blessings we have with the rest of the Lord's children.
Our devotion to God, while this may be the first of the commandments, stems from our realisation of these truths. Neither our faith nor our works will ever excuse our "looking down our nose" at any other person, no matter how different they seem to be to us.
Recently I have begun focussing on the Psalms as I prepare the sheets of Sunday readings, with the APBA version rather than the NRSV. It is not my favourite book of the Bible - it is a sort of personal Lenten discipline, except we're not in Lent :-). I note that the APBA prayer to be appointed to be said after the reading of the psalms at evening prayer on Sunday asks for deliverance from selfishness (p387), on Tuesday morning and Friday evening the prayer asks that we might be cleansed from all hypocrisy (p397,417) , on Tuesday evening that we might never fail in love to our brothers and sisters, (p400), and on Wednesday morning that we might serve the good of our brothers and sisters (p402). These prayers recognise (and serve to counter) the fact that the psalms can be used to widen a "them & us" attitude, not diminish it. I mean the ultimate retribution on one's enemies is to be fed at God's table "in the face of those who trouble me". (Ps 23.5) How often is this psalm used publicly!
However I was taken when I typed out Psalm 136.6 which says: "For though the LORD is exalted, he looks upon the lowly: and he comprehends the proud from afar." God always considers the lowly, the outcast, the unrighteous - and this part of the Old Testament proclaims that God comes to these sorts of people. In the incarnation of Jesus, and made plain in the ministry of Jesus, sitting down and eating with saints and sinners, makes effective the words of the psalm.
And it is just water that we are bidden to share - "in the name of a disciple" - of Jesus. We cannot claim any personal merit in the provision of the body and blood of our Saviour in the sacrament here, for Christ died for one and for all. People don't have to thank US that Jesus died for them.
You will mostly be unaware - except for those who have been altar servers at some time - but one of the timeless little parts of the celebration of the sacrament is that the priest mixes (somewhere I read - not more that a sixth part by volume of) water with the wine. I have always thought that this was simply about the fact that it was the usual custom in the middle east to do this. However I will now look at this as a symbol that our acceptance of other people is called for too. This sacrament is not just for the religious, those who believe so strongly that they never doubt and those who live up to our expectations of faith and practice - but for all people - including those who might not believe, but who help others because it is the right thing to do.
For like acceptance, cold water costs us nothing - and yet in accepting ourselves and others as we and they are - the words of the gospel tell us - we accept Christ - and God.
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