The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s056g08 Sunday 23 7/9/08
'Take care that you do not despise' Matthew 18.10
Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and the official response was to have him killed. So often when I've heard this passage expounded, it has been that the minister of a congregation is charged with trying to get non-church goers to come to worship to admire the offerings of those who have attended and ensure that they continue, unchanged, world without end. Amen. This is remarkably the same an outlook as those who had Jesus killed had. And of course if the minister is not especially successful in this - well it is time to get another one!
As I've gone through the Anglican Church, I have often been amazed at how readily it has been accepted that the Church needs to change to survive. Everyone agrees that change must happen and it must be someone else who does the changing!
But I wonder if we are assuming an interpretation and if our assumption is correct. In Matthew 23 Jesus says: 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!' (37)
So we should not be surprised when Jesus refers to those who had him killed as 'little ones'. For the shear numbers suggest that the 99 are not those who go to church. Those who go to 'church', and in doing so separate themselves off from the rest of humanity, are the lost ones, those whom Jesus seeks out to bring back to the fold - humanity in its entirety!
So this is not the nice little saying with which we can whip our ministers into shape, but a scandalous suggestion that those who decry 'the world' need to be brought back into it. It is scandalous to suggest that the whole mission of Jesus was to do precisely this.
But I want to turn this around, and to see the joy of this saying, for there is much joy, for us and for all. I can see joy for us on at least three counts. The first is that God doesn't expect us to be religious. God looks at us and accepts us as we are. This, it seems to me, to be the essence of the incarnation. God blesses the ordinary with the divine presence. Secondly, God can be found in each and every one of those 99. Instead of seeing the church as a diminishing failure, we see the spirit of God acting in the whole world, and it is awe-inspiring. Instead of being negative and depressed, we are filled with hope and joy.
And thirdly, of course, it is good news for others, because seeing God in them, we value and affirm the offerings they make to those around them, rather than expecting them to admire the edifice of 'our' church, and contribute towards preserving someone else's contribution.
And it may well never happen, but it is far more likely that people will come to worship a God who accepts them as they are and acknowledges the contribution they make to society, rather than being constrained by the expectations of the devout.
It needs to be said that this is diametrically opposed to the doctrine that the church exists only as the gathered congregation. While this is most explicitly propounded by some Sydney Anglicans, in fact it is probably far wider than this. Whatever method is used to exclude others, none is more sacred or biblical than others.
The officials who had Jesus killed were notorious for despising others, so we, as followers of Jesus must be noted for our acceptance and appreciation of others.
But the church and individuals within it are often more noted for despising people, often themselves as well as others. Some Anglicans repeat: 'we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table' as if this is an accurate interpretation of the words of the Syro-Phoenecian woman, and as if God is interested in this sort of endless self-berating. Others repeat 'I am not worthy to receive you but say the word only and I shall be healed' just prior to receiving the sacrament. What happy people we are what good news we spread!!!
Anglicans have had a history of despising people who do not follow their version of Anglicanism, 'christians' have a history of despising those of other faiths and those who have no faith. Where will it ever end?
Recently my attention has been drawn again to the issue of paedophilia and I reflect how the 'love' that the perpetrators claim to have towards their victims when really they despise themselves and their victims. Their 'love' is self-seeking they groom their victims to gratify their own desires. And I have to say that much of the 'love' that the church displays is often self-seeking as well to get 'bottoms on pews'.
We are invited into a relationship of real love and without any despising of ourselves or others. Surely this is the basis of the 'love that casts out fear', (1 John 4.18) or 'life in all its fullness' (John 10.10) and of enlightenment.
Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners. As I often say it was precisely this that motivated those who had him killed. Had Jesus associated with these others in order to encourage them to become something other than what they were, to become religious, then Jesus would have been elected high priest, not crucified. If Jesus 'love' were ultimately self seeking then it wouldn't have been love at all.
But it is precisely this love that is not self-seeking that does indeed make the world go round. (Wikipedia says this was written by Bob Merrill in 1961 for the musical play Carnival!) And indeed 'All you need is love' (1967 by the late John Lennon).
May all come to not despise others - may peace reign, in our own hearts, in our community and in the whole world.
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