The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://frsparky.net/a/r056.htm

 
s056g14 Sunday 23 7/9/2014!

‘if you are not listened to ..’ Matthew 18.16

As I re-read these words, I wondered if the world perceives the church as a place where they will
be listened to. I oft reflect that for the church, parishioners, like children, are to be seen and not
heard. This actually is a form of abuse, exacerbated by the failure to even recognise it as such.
The church has been the recipient of divine wisdom which she has felt called to impart to others,
both ‘in season and out of season ..’ (1) Pre-reformation, the manual acts of consecration during
the Mass were heralded by a bell being rung, so that the laity could stop their own devotions, look
up and cross themselves - supposedly their only real participation in the liturgy. Christian
education to this day is often proscribed by what the bible and the prayer book say, and attendees
learn the language of the church, and it is only when they learn the language of the church that the
church will deign to listen. Such a process is inevitably circular, designed to ensure that we only
hear what we want to hear, that we only listen to someone else who will faithfully reflect our own
beliefs, preconceptions .. and prejudices. Any innovation, inspiration and learning is essentially
locked out.

It was a startling thing to realise that the parable of the sower is one of the few instances of
teaching in the gospel of Mark. Nineham notes that: ‘although St Mark often pictures Our Lord as
teaching .. only here (Mark 4.1-34) and at 13.2ff (and perhaps in 7.1-22) does he attempt to give a
sustained account of the content of the teaching.’ (2) The very paucity of teaching in the first of
the gospel accounts (remedied by later evangelists) points to Jesus’ listening, being with people
and enjoying their company. (3)

Surely Jesus’ words about ‘two or three’ gathering in his name are predicated on an entirely
different dynamic, one of respectful listening, where the agenda and language used is not
proscribed, and people feel safe being themselves. I am not sure that any church I have ever
been in has come even remotely close to this ideal. It is the freedom of the internet and the
blogosphere that enable these.

And, again, it is so easy to take these words personally, and surely the world might be a better
place if we were able to do these things as individuals, but why should the church look down on
individuals who fail to measure up, when the church corporate is not able to talk - and listen - to
people of other denominations, people of other faiths as well as people of no faith? The very
existence of gay and lesbian people in church is often denied - no wonder they never expect to be
heard! Perhaps there would be less atheists and agnostics if we actually listened to them and
took their questions seriously.

One of the few things I have taken from my secular education, pre-theological college, was that the
first problem was to find the real question that was being asked. No matter how correctly you
answer the wrong question, the ‘correct’ answer will always be wrong. If all our answers are found
in bible and prayer book, I suggest we haven’t listened to the actual question we are being asked.

And we need to be listened to with the expectation that what we might say might be valued enough
to make a real difference in the end. I am not sure that I’ve ever attended a Synod where the
motions have not been pre-determined and the outcome assured.

In post-earthquake Christchurch after some time of working together, a Presbyterian minister
recently reflected how sad it is that we are each retreating to our own little patch of the
ecclesiastical landscape we inhabited pre-quakes.

In the antipodes, the Anglican Church faced a unique situation, where the Church was not
established, and a sizeable proportion of the population was Catholic or free-Church, neither of
whom were going to have establishment imposed on them. Churches were built wherever a
community decided, only later to have a central authority and bishops involved. Church of
England congregations came together in a ‘voluntary compact’ in a Synod - an agreement to
operate under the auspices of the Church of England, as it then was. So right at the heart of
antipodean Anglicanism is a reliance on lay people to build the church of their own free will - in
marked contrast to old-world Anglicanism where churches and the establishment were givens -
imposed by history and tradition. This has meant that antipodean spirituality is inherently more
democratic. In New Zealand there is a ‘number 8 wire’ mentality: ‘a term that epitomises the "kiwi
bloke" as someone who can turn their hand to anything .. meaning the ability to create or repair
machinery using whatever scrap materials are available to hand.’ (4) Born of necessity, since
most things have to come from somewhere else, this has bred self-reliance. If the church is still
talking about everyone being ‘miserable sinners’, it is not hearing the deep spirituality of the dignity
of self-reliant pioneers.

And in the antipodes parishioners have also had to be financially committed enough to afford the
stipend and expenses of the minister as well as providing the wherewithal for the construction and
maintenance of the church and associated ‘plant’ - a far bigger ask than where church
commissioners have the investments to pay for these. (5) In the past, churches were paid for by
the aristocracy employing labourers earning pittances. I have often thought how these things
have not even been recognised as we have been expected to measure up to our forbears and their
lovely Victorian architecture. So ‘the novelist Anthony Trollope visited (Christchurch) in 1872 and
referred to the "vain foundations" (of the Church of England Cathedral) as a "huge record of
failure”.’ (4) While I might agree with their sentiments, it is unhelpful for English bishops to venture
an opinion on what should be done with the damaged cathedral. (6)

The original plans for the Christchurch Cathedral by George Gilbert Scott actually ‘called for
wooden construction, but were changed with the discovery of a source of good quality stone
locally’; no doubt reflecting the doctrine that ‘real’ cathedrals were built of stone. (7) Probably it
would have survived the series of earthquakes far better if they had stuck to wood. Stone does
not like being thrown upward with twice the force of gravity. (8) These are but examples of the
church’s penchant to insist that others measure up to their standards.

The antipodes I suspect leads the way in the democratising of the faith, of championing egalitarian
values, of listening to others - through sheer necessity. And the earthquakes push us further as
we find the wherewithal to simply restore and preserve the past has gone.

It would seem that this world might be a little easier place for everyone to co-exist if people actually
listened to one another. Of course we will differ, yet when we listen, we allow ourselves and
others we will surely find our beliefs more grounded in reality, our preconceptions replaced with
knowledge and perhaps our prejudices softened. It is by listening that we show we love, which is
what we are commanded to do and surely this will have a more profound and global difference if
churches and faiths engage in it rather than just individuals. We, as church, need to be listening
to people of good will of other faiths and none, we need to be listening to scientists, politicians,
artists, humanists, all thinkers for we will be enriched as individuals and enriched as society.

And people of faith, as well as some of those with no faith, pray in the expectation that God will
listen. This is the essence of a loving God, one who will listen.

And finally I wonder, how often do I listen to myself? I do not mean listen to those persistent
voices that criticise and frighten me; but to take time to care for myself, because I am worth that
listening, that care, that love, just as much as anyone else.

1. 2 Timothy 4.2
2. ‘The Gospel of Mark’ p 125 (Mark 4:1-34 is the parable of the sower and the sayings including:
‘the measure you give will be the measure you get’ (verse 24). Mark 13:2f is about ‘the desolating
sacrilege’ ending with the injunction to ‘keep awake’ (verses 14, 37). Mark 7 is about the
controversy with the Pharisees about eating with defiled hands, with the crunch verse: ‘there is
nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what
defile.’ (verse 15)
3. Matthew 11.19
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_8_wire
5. http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2014/15-august/news/uk/commissioners-change-polleninto-%
C2%A3381-million
6. http://www.3news.co.nz/Archbishop-of-York-backs-demolishing-Christchurch-Cathedral/tabid/
423/articleID/337661/Default.aspx and http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/10390098/Welbyurges-
radical-design-for-cathedral
7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ChristChurch_Cathedral,_Christchurch
8. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10708326