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

s057g14  Sunday 24  14/9/2014

‘Should you not have had mercy ..’   Matthew 18.33

A couple of weeks ago the local mosque held an open day for the general public and I took the opportunity to attend.   One of the things which was immediately obvious was the vast range of countries from which Moslems have come to New Zealand.   Wikipedia lists them as Chinese, India, Eastern Europe, Fiji, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South East Asia, (especially students from) Malaysia and Singapore as well as NZ European and Māori.   (1)

This was in stark contrast to my experience of services in Anglican Churches (both here in NZ as in Australia) where the immediate impression is that they are defined by a white Pakeha (European) middle-class monoculture.    The shear diversity at the mosque was so different and startling.

The Imam was giving a talk about their faith, and he spoke about the reasons Moslems use Arabic and pray in the words of the Koran.   The words of the Koran are the ancient received wisdom, (in my words) the well-spring from which all may draw water, which unify the billions.   And I thought about the Anglican adherence to the Book of Common Prayer - similarly it is the well from which we draw, providing identity and unity.    The issue of identity and unity are particularly important for the Moslem world, spreading across so many races, languages and cultures.   And I guess the same was for the Roman Catholic Church.   Pre-Vatican 2 the Mass in Latin served as an instrument of identity and unity, across a vast range of races, languages and cultures.  

Unfortunately the difficulty is that this desire for identity and uniformity, when it has become as ‘successful’ as it has in Anglican circles (where even Māori are largely absent, albeit greater involvement than the indigenous people in Australia) comes across as cultural imperialism.   If expressions of identity and unity are needed in a monoculture - we have become inherently inward looking.   Our identity and unity are not about faithfulness to the divine but the enthronement of our own predilections.

It was immediately obvious that Allah they worship is a God who brings vastly different people together - in stark contrast to the god some Anglicans worship, which separate us from others!   We need to hear those words of St Paul in our epistle for today: ‘Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?   It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.   And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.’   No one would dare accuse St Paul of being a trendy, wishy-washy liberal!  (2)

Which makes me question: Is our motivation in believing in the risen Christ to perpetuate resurrection by our faith?   God becomes dependent on our devotion.   We strive to ensure that our God prevails over Allah, the Catholic God, the Protestant God or whatever.

Now whatever else the command to forgive may mean, it is clear that ‘seventy times seven’ implies that it is relationships and community that are important.   And if it relationships and community which are important, surely these trump the perpetuation of a monoculture.  

If our compassion and mercy actually only extend to those who share our monoculture how are we as christians and Anglicans different from the Isis militants and the mafia?

Giles Frazer writes: ‘why is it that religion often does not have enough moral fortitude to resist its own capacity for violence? .. being exclusively allied to the truth is always a useful way of excusing one’s own violence, for it is all being done in the name of something else, something other than me.   For God, as it were.’  (3)   He notes that: ‘Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, the grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, said that Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida are “enemy number one of Islam”’ and we would be quick to agree.   But are we as quick to realise that some fundamentalist ‘christians’ are enemies of the sort of compassion and mercy being commended by our text?   Giles Frazer writes: ‘The best way of getting rid of bad religion – and by that, I mainly mean violent religion – is by challenging it in its own terms.’   This speaks to me because I have tried to find in the bible words that bring people together rather than words which marginalise, alienate and condemn others.   Surely this is what Jesus did and what incarnation is all about.   In the end the crucifixion is the ultimate demonstration and example of violent religion, and surely this is that from which we all need to be saved.

This is one of the reasons I resist those dismissive of politically correct language.   Politically incorrect language actually perpetrates violence on another, and it is worse because it is the same as the violence wrought by that old dictum ‘children are to be seen and not heard’, exacerbated by the fact that it is not even recognised as abuse.   It is especially important in public worship where God is invoked to edify our perceptions of life and dismiss the perceptions of others.

I am getting rid of my old theological college books from the last century for I simply cannot read tomes using gender exclusive language anymore.   I find I am no longer comfortable with phrases like ‘miserable sinners’ and ‘we are not worthy’ - they were never edifying!

As I rode my motorcycle to church and later to the mosque that morning, I thought of their custom of removing shoes for worship.   I remembered the time when I was at university, and my father exploding in anger when I visited his store not wearing shoes as one did in those post-hippy days.   It was undignified.   So by removing one’s shoes when having a beatific vision, reminds us that our feet are always be grounded in humanity.   It doesn’t matter if normally we would wear jandles (4) or Doc Martins.  It tells us that for all our dignity we are at one with each and every other person before the Almighty, for all our specialness of seeing something of the divine, we remain stubbornly human and fallible.

What do good and well-meaning Moslems owe us?   What do good, well meaning atheists owe us?   When are we prepared to forgive others that they don’t believe in our terms?   When are we prepared to forgive others when their circumstances in life lead them to deny the existence of any God at all, let alone the loving God that we find so comforting .. and comfortable? 

The other message I take from these words is that our worship is not demanded from us in order to pay off in full what we owe God for the death of Jesus at the hands of the orthodox and the devout!     I suppose this might seem a completely unnecessary statement to make - for those of us who find the style of worship we attend personally edifying and amenable - but for others, people who worship differently, people who don’t worship at all, people who call on God using a different name, gay and lesbian persons forbidden to express their intimate affections with the person of their own choosing - our worship might indeed be eternal torture to them!   Do we worship in our little holy-huddles thinking that others owe it to God to help us pay our bills and perpetuate our own personal idols?

Surely our identity and unity should be intimately linked to our faith in the inherent sacredness of each and every person, in all our diversity, questionings and failures.   ‘Should you not have had mercy ..’ is directed towards us.   Is our faith characterised by mercy towards all, towards ourselves as well as towards others?   James ponders: ‘But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.‘   Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.’’ (5)   So by extension is our mercy towards others evident in the diversity of our fellowship or is our liturgical correctness actually a camouflage for elitism?

2.  Romans 14.4
4.  elsewhere called sandals or flip-flops.
5.  James 2.18