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

s047g14 Sunday 14  6/7/2014

‘it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you ..’   Matthew 11.24

The original Revised Common Lectionary omit this verse in the gospel for today.   The Australian iteration of the RCL (of which I am more familiar) has all of Matthew 11:15-30.   Of course there has always been a degree of censorship when it comes to reading scripture.   Most lectionaries omit psalms 83 (verse 9 reads: ‘Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin at the Wadi Kishon’) and the end of 137 (the last verse reads: ‘Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’)   I am glad portions of Judges 19 never get read in church (where the Ephraimite cuts up his dead concubine into 12 pieces to rally the tribes to punish the men of Gibeah for gang-raping her).   Even the violence we decry on television doesn’t descend to this level.   I recall many years ago some evangelicals criticising the church for omitting passages of scripture which describe God’s wrath.   It was interesting, because I suspect they themselves are likely to be the butt of God’s wrath because of the righteous wrath they exercise towards others.   It seems that the words "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.   Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.   A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” apply to everyone else, except them!  (1)

We already think and reason, and a good thing too! 

We don’t need a statistician‎ to quantify how many millions live lives of poverty, illness and premature death because of the church’s disapproval of reliable contraception. 

Recently I was startled to watch a documentary on the White Australia Policy on Aljazeera Television ‘Immigration Nation’, my country of birth.  (2)  I have known of this academically, but the program clearly demonstrated that the social experiment which was the basis of the federation of Australia in 1901 differs little from the arian supremacist theories of Nazi Germany, with ‘british’ replacing ‘arian’.   Those of us descended from the Church of England would be well to recognise this heritage and the antipathy it properly continues to arouse in others.  Last night Mary and I were privileged to see the play ‘Blood Brothers’ at our local Court Theatre.   What a powerful play!   And the real devil was the class structure in England.  (3)

World Refugee Day happened on the 20th of June last and the numbers are staggering: ‘Developing countries host four-fifths of the world’s refugees. The 48 Least Developed Countries provide asylum to 2.3 million refugees.’   ‘By the end of 2011: An estimated 43.3 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced.’    (4)

My point is that we have to listen to the real questions that real people are asking.   Society is asking the church what is her solutions to poverty, illness, death, marginalisation, alienation, discrimination and condemnation - and if her answer is - well that’s society’s problem because it is society’s fault - we are deliberately blinding ourselves to what is so obvious to them.  If we have no positive solution other than everyone worship with us, like us, without deviation then we are failing to see we are just one more cause for division in society.   If we think this is what ‘god’ demands, then society will leave us to follow and get on with doing something more useful of Sunday mornings or whenever.   If society concludes that ‘god’ wants orthodoxy and devotion rather than solutions to poverty, illness, death, marginalisation, alienation, discrimination and condemnation, then it is right to abandon the church.

The church has often been the repository for literacy, thought and wisdom.   I am no historian but popular mythology has suggested that civilisation survived the ‘dark ages’ because of the monasteries.   I recall learning about the Venerable Bede of Jarrow and his astronomical calculations of the length of a year.   He wrote about the concept of a leap-year.

And the vicar was often the sole literate person in the village: the teacher, sheriff, judge and confessor.    The Book of Common Prayer ordered: ‘Then shall follow the Sermon, or one of the Homilies already set forth, or hereafter to be set forth, by authority.’   (5)  There was a book of homilies to be read by clergy who could read but did not have the academic acumen to compose their own sermons.   When I was first ordained only appropriately theologically qualified and licensed lay people could prepare their own sermons, so I prepared them early in the week so that lay readers could have material for services in those country centres where I couldn’t be that morning.   Indeed it has been one of the joys of my own internet sermon ministry to hear from people in remote places around the world who use my thoughts to help them prepare words themselves.    I am glad to have been an alternative resource, hopefully to encourage others to explore for themselves rather than conform to conservative voices.  The first one I put on the internet was nearly 18 years ago, the 25th of August 1996  on Romans 12.8  "the compassionate, in cheerfulness”  (6)

In fact, of course the study of theology properly goes alongside biblical studies, because interpretation always benefits from the perception of others.   It causes us to reason and to choose rather than blindly complying.   In doing these together, they encourage us to be fully human rather than servile.   Theology is really an exercise in communion, as is community involvement.

But theology ought not to be undertaken as an alternative to (because of the exalted status of the Fathers) real communion with those around us.   If our biblical and theological studies serve to blind us to the plight of the millions of people in third-world countries suffering because of the church’s ban on contraception or the plight of the millions of asylum seekers around the world we need to re-direct our priorities.   It betrays a church content to be another part of the problem, content to be just one more division within society, rather than part of the solution, a force for the integration of society, the affirmation and inclusion of all.

Now society thinks and reasons, and a good thing too!

I read that ‘Over the years, many elaborate traps have been devised to capture monkeys in the wild.   Often, no matter how imaginative the various devises have been, the crafty little creatures outwit the traps and escape.   It has been said the easiest way to trap one of these cunning creatures is to simply set a banana inside a closed cage with just enough space between the bars to allow the monkey to slip his hand inside and grab the banana.   The monkey will walk up to the cage and try to pull the banana through the tiny space.   Being a monkey, he will be unwilling to let go of the banana, which allows his captor to simply walk up and snare the little guy.   A simple banana has trapped the monkey.’  (7)   This has been applied personally, something to encourage parishioners to let go of their hard earned wages for a greater spiritual prize.   Yet it could more significantly be applied to the church as a whole.   There is a prize, yet the church has got to let go of her spiritual riches and be incarnated into society to grasp it.

Actually I suspect that ‘the land of Sodom’ is reviled because it was a bit like the ‘favelas’ in Rio de Janeiro - places where the drug lords rule, where people are not able to think for themselves and certainly not oppose the mafia bosses.   Yet we have to ask how much is the church the opposite of this - are people encouraged to think for themselves, to express their individuality, to recognise and name spiritual oppression?

For Jesus was not on about the flavelas of the world, but Chorazin! Bethsaida! Capernaum! - the very places where he himself had done his deeds of power.   And it should come as startling that Jesus was not especially successful.   They saw Jesus' deeds of power but these needed to be translated into affirmation and acceptance of others.

So those beloved words which end our gospel: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.   Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.   For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ - are predicated on a church where people are encouraged to think for themselves, to express their individuality, to recognise and name spiritual oppression.   The easy yoke and the light burden is the one that is shared with people of good-will, whatever name they use for the divine, whatever gender, race, affluence, influence, or choice of intimate partner.

I have mentioned before that I am attempting (in my old age) to learn to play the cello.   It is a bit of a fantasy of mine that when I’m in my old folks' home I will be able to put on my earphones (it’s an electric cello) and perhaps one day play ‘Twinkle, twinkle little Star’ without mistakes :-)   It is so difficult when one is playing all by oneself!   How much easier it is to play in a little orchestra, or even just with my very encouraging, patient and forgiving teacher, Naomi!   What is true in my own life, is equally true on the corporate level.   The church will find her existence much easier in communion with society rather than opposed to it.

We as church, know God’s deeds of power, so the question is to us: When will we do as Jesus wants and be incarnated into society, to embrace that easy yoke by doing it with others rather than trying to be in control and superior?   I am reminded by a comment that the church applauds someone when they are perceived as giving sacrificially.   How very different is the easy yoke of Jesus - to sacrifice our control and superiority (as church) and work with society!

1 Luke 6.37-38