s051g99 Somerton Park Sunday 18
"He saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them" Matthew 14.14
Every Friday night or Saturday morning I log on to the Internet and access the "Church Times" web site in England. Each week they have the four leading articles and opinions of that printed issue, along with a uniquely Church of England cartoon, freely accessible to all. It is a very interesting source of information of what is happening in our Mother Church, the Church of England - though of course we are an autonomous Province within our National Church - and we make our own decisions without reference to England, the British Parliament or the Queen. I am very grateful for this ministry of "Church Times"- the Internet actually assists us to be the "Communion" we aspire to be.
Recently an initiative of the Archbishop of Canterbury is that he has set up an Archbishop's Council to provide forward directions for the Church. One of their first actions has been to canvas a representative 150 churchgoers in their views on the Church. The result of that canvas is that despite their fondness for the institution, and, most appropriately congratulations that their opinions are being sought, the laity believe that the "Church fails in key tasks". So if sometimes you feel the Church could be doing better here at Somerton Park, you are in excellent company. Similarly we should be encouraged that we here at Somerton Park are striving for the same ideals as the rest of the Church. We have surveyed our own congregation and are trying to respond.
None of the results of the English survey would come as much of a surprise: "The participants were asked to rank, in order of priority, 12 areas of the Church's work, and then rate how well the Church was doing. Top of the list of priorities came "spreading Jesus's message", followed by "accompanying people on their spiritual journeys", "caring for people" and "providing worship for all". "Debating human sexuality" came bottom of the list, and "looking after historic church buildings" came only just ahead of it. "Giving a moral lead in a changing world" was ranked fifth.
"But the perception was that the Church was not performing well in the important areas. People gave the Church only an average score of 2.7 out of 5 for its success in spreading the message; and its ability to give a moral lead fared even worse, rating only 2.4, which was nearly the lowest score of all.
"Nor did the Church get very good marks for "accompanying people on their spiritual journeys" (2.99), though "caring for people" (3.37) and "providing worship" (3.32) rated slightly better.
"Highest praise was reserved for "conducting baptisms, weddings, and funerals" (4.06; but ranked only ninth out of 12 in terms of priority) and "looking after historic church buildings" (3.9; but ranked 11th)."
How does all this relate to today's gospel reading? In two important ways I believe. The first is that we gloss over the word "the Church". If lay people believe that "the Church" fails, and if this is perceived as a criticism of the clergy, where do they see their own responsibility in the failure? Are the laity not part of the Church? I note in our gospel reading for today that Jesus first invited the disciples to feed the multitudes (Mat 14.16). I wonder what would have happened if Peter - or Judas Iscariot - had taken the loaves and blessed and distributed them? I am, personally, quite sure the same miracle would have occurred. For that is the sort of God we worship. So also here at St Philip's, do we look for miracles at my hands alone?
But perhaps more tellingly, the gospel speaks of his congregation. Just who was it for whom Jesus had compassion? We are told he had compassion on the crowd - on everyone who was there.
As a priest who unashamedly "baptises anything that moves and buries anything that doesn't", I do this precisely because I believe that this is a reflection of this wideness in God's mercy. When the rubber hits the road, I wonder what the families of those who come for baptism, marriage or burial, would think of me if I questioned their coming? Who am I supposed to please? The worshipping congregation only?
The reality is that many people desire the ministrations of the Church in their hour of need, yet find their own ministry in the real world of the caring for their children and in the work to provide for the sustenance and shelter for themselves and their loved ones. Is this Church only a place for those who have settled employment and with their children off their hands? Is the priest's ministry only to these people, because they can contribute to the stipend and regular worship of the Church?
During the week I was in Arkaroola, I heard a report that 20% of families now have no income-producing member. If such a family was to come to worship here, we would, of course, still expect them to take offering envelopes. Some places might even expect them to tithe!
It is significant that "debating human sexuality" came at the bottom of the list, for by far the majority of churchgoers have got their sexual expression sorted out, or it has ceased to have any relevance to their lives at all. But the reality is that this is a real issue for teenagers. If we don't debate this, or dismiss their questions as irrelevant - we are effectively saying that they are irrelevant. Guess how many teenagers will come to a church who think that they are irrelevant? And by crikey, the majority of teenagers, especially those who have not come into contact with "biblical teaching" on the matter, are likely to be far more accepting and compassionate than the traditional Church line is generally perceived to allow.
Jesus had compassion on the crowds, and at the end of the exercise, it was found that there was far more left over in scraps, than ever was started with. For that is the reality with compassion. When we have compassion on everyone, we will always find that our store of compassion is limitless. More than that, compassion engenders compassion in others, so we find it multiplying just as surely as the loaves were multiplied. When we limit our compassion, it shrivels and dies. Precisely because it is limited it doesn't engender compassion in others - and guess what - the world is indeed a poorer place.
Everyone in the Church laments the fact that crowds no longer come to Church like they did in the "good old days" - but I don't especially. In the past people came through necessity - the fact that there was no other social centre - or that they would "go to hell" if they didn't. Neither of these stem from the motivation of Jesus - who inspired the crowds through his evident compassion.
If we want crowds to come to Church as they flocked to Jesus then we have only to act with evident compassion. But surely our motivation should be that we want to act with compassion anyway, whether people come to our Church or not. The second commandment is to love our neighbour as ourselves - not strive to get everyone to worship in "our" way, in "our" building. Should we not be content that people are not raping and pillaging without for ever demanding extra things from them?
Actually I wonder if Jesus himself went around spreading a message at all. The earliest of our gospel writers, Mark, has, according to a commentator, only two or three sections giving "a sustained account of the content of the teaching". The first is the parable of the sower in Mark 4, then in chapter 7, about what defiles a person (though this is more a criticism of the practices of the religious authorities than teaching as such), and the third is the prediction of the destruction of the temple and warnings about the end time in chapter 13. (D. E. Nineham p125).
I wonder if this lack of teaching points us to the fact that, first and foremost Jesus travelled the countryside spreading compassion, not a formal defined message - our first priority?
And this leads me to comment on: "Giving a moral lead in a changing world" ranked fifth in importance. I doubt that Jesus would have been crucified if his message was to follow a modified form of the law - it would hardly have "brought condemnation, and would have been unlikely to lead to the new movement which Jesus initiated so forcefully" (J. L. Houlden, "Ethics and the New Testament" Pelican Original 1973 p 111).
The force of the question is important. It really doesn't matter what stance we take, we will inevitably be criticised for it. We are never going to be all things to all people, despite St Paul's personal endeavours in this direction. Giving personal directions actually might be welcomed by people, because it is often easier to follow directions than it is to make decisions.
We are indeed to follow Jesus, and if I'm to be crucified for doing so, at least I want to be sure that I am crucified for doing what Jesus actually wants. And my reading of where Jesus went and what he was crucified for, was that he didn't limit his visits to the righteous and the well heeled, but he went to others as well, to accept their contribution. I believe that this is the "moral lead" we as the Church are bidden to take, and it has got nothing to do with getting others to adhere to a particular set of rules for life no matter how "good" those rules might be "for them".
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