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

s048g14  Sunday 15  13/7/2014  Hororata

‘Such great crowds gathered’   Matthew 13.2

It is interesting, even when one thinks one has read and seen it all, sometimes even passages in the gospels jump out as if I have never seen them before.   So it was when I read a passage in Luke that has similar sentiments: ‘Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered in thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.’’  (1)   I had never ‘seen’ the word ‘trampled’ before.   It brings visions of the hysteria surrounding the visit of the ‘Beatles’ to New Zealand and Australia 50 years ago.   It became more interesting because Luke remembers Jesus saying ‘A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.’ (2)  If Jesus is the path ..

These words should alert us to the real desire for a different, more humane, world that continues to exist even in our day.   The situation today is no different than then; organised religion has compartmentalised and highjacked religion: (we are the way, the truth and the life) - when such compartmentalisation and highjacking is the complete antithesis of the incarnation we are called to follow.

Very frequently on ‘Facebook’ and other internet sources we read many aphorisms on how to let go of anger and doubt and embrace positive emotions.   I am not at all being critical, for I have found myself often enough being encouraged by such, and been grateful for that.   They provide a very necessary antidote to the (usually bad) news on our televisions and print media.   One of the lovely ones I saw a while back went something like ‘singing is massaging the soul’ but my efforts to find it again have been in vain.   (Mary and I enjoy chanting the canticles and psalms each morning as well as singing the Lord’s Prayer in Maori.)

But the difficulty with the expressions of positivity is that they are personal - they don’t confront the corporate cronyism of patriarchal religion which really ought to be affirming and inclusive of all.   Our personal health and well-being is indeed in our own hands, but we shouldn’t have to battle institutional bullying.   Those of us who are straight might not feel the reality of this, but woe betide those who think outside the square or do not comply to the accepted conventional lifestyle.   I have considerable sympathy for the young man who was suspended by his school principal last month for not cutting his long, curly locks.  (3)

But Jesus came to confront the compartmentalisation and hijacking of religion, and this was the reason he was killed.   The world will not be helped by continuing the compartmentalisation and hijacking of religion, whatever the denomination or the name used for the divine.   According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world.   (4)

The popularity of John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ is testament to this: ‘Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too’.    A UK survey conducted by the Guinness World Records British Hit Singles Book named it the second best single of all time, and Rolling Stone ranked it number 3 in their list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.   (5)   If our faith actually embodied true peace we might have great crowds.   Recently one of those ‘Facebook’ sayings appeared .. aliens above the earth .. gazing at humans fighting one another .. and the caption reads: ‘As far as I can tell, they’re fighting over which religion is the most peaceful’  (6)   Our epistle reading from Romans last week had the words: ‘the wages of sin is death’ and instead of taking these personally, I suggest we need to see that Paul is saying that the religion that kills others or that we have to die for - is sin.

The rise in ‘atheism’ is entirely due to the church’s failure to represent a God whose essential preoccupation is ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all’ and the world’s realisation that the church continues to fail to acknowledge and deal with the endemic cronyism typical of patriarchal societies.   The plethora of denominations is testament to this.

But as for ‘great crowds’, in western christendom these days it’s not a happening thing - as they say.

Yesterday I read a reflection on western christianity by a very senior member of clergy.   He lamented the parlous, indeed dire, state of some diocesan finances, the distrust between Anglican dioceses, and the lack of a central authority able to address issues such as child molestation by parish workers.   He stated, I believe quite correctly, that this points to a serious spiritual issue.   Certainly there are western mega-churches but often the reasons for their ‘success’ are essentially divisive.   The testimony of Mike Anderson begins: ‘Hello, my name is Mike, I’m a recovering True Believer.   I spent the decade after high school in single-minded devotion to a church movement that started at Mars Hill Church in Seattle.   I’m now very sorry for my participation.’   (7)

Compartmentalisation, division, distrust, cronyism, patriarchy are not attractive.   The opposite of these things, acceptance of diversity of thoughts, beliefs and worship, inclusion, affirmation, democratisation, and an appreciation of the feminine are gifts leading to a more humane society.   Underlying these things is an appreciation of the need to acknowledge and encourage individuality rather than decrying and shaming it.   These seem to me to be the things that continue to make Jesus attractive to many.

I continue to attend worship, certainly most comfortably in places where I know my unique individuality will not be impugned.   Being ordained does mean that I can express my individuality rather more blatantly - I ride my motorcycle when I can, keep my hair long, and wear jeans.   If people are confronted they tend to keep it to themselves.   But actually it is not about me at all - hopefully it is about allowing others to be themselves.   Yet my experience of many parishes is that new-comers are welcome provided that they support what is happening and contribute to maintaining the contribution of the past and present congregation.   Even clergy who might want to make changes are not really wanted.   As another Facebook cartoon has it, a Pastoral Search Committee is meeting, and the caption is: ‘Basically, we’re looking for an innovative pastor with a fresh vision who will inspire our church to remain exactly the same.’  (8)   This in not conducive to great crowds gathering and of course it will be the pastor / priest / minister who will be blamed!

There is indeed a spiritual issue here, yet there is little point in criticising parishioners who have kept the institution functioning in their generation.   There is something fundamentally missing from the faith we have been taught - the fundamental dignity of all people in all their diversity.   This is when those words will have their fruition: ‘as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’    Amen.

1  Luke 12.1
2  Luke 8.5
6  The Mind Unleashed with Jeana Wiley (thanks Khin-Wee :-)
8  Dennis Fletcher