The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r064.htm
s064g02 Lockleys 3/11/02 Sunday 31 First Communion
"call no one your father on earth" Matthew 23.9
Astute people will notice that we omit a number of verses in the reading of the 23rd chapter of Matthew. Verses 13-36, the ones that we do not read, are Jesus haranguing the religious authorities for what he perceives as their apostasy. It is perhaps sad that we miss them out, for it may lead us to miss the reasons for the antagonism towards Jesus, and the real reasons for having Jesus killed.
Down through the ages the paradigm of the religious establishment being confronted with a word from outside the official channels is not unusual. So Amos tells the authorities: "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees". (Amos 7:14).
It might be thought that this is an infelicitous reading for the occasion when our recently confirmed members come to receive the Holy Communion for the first time. We might wince inwardly when we hear these words, particularly here where it is the custom to address me as "Father". I personally do not mind the title, for at least for me "Father" denotes a relationship. Other titles ascribe to the person a particular "religious" or "spiritual" quality - "Reverend", "Venerable" or whatever, and the members of my family will be quick to assure you that these are not very apt - if you hadn't discerned this for yourselves already :-) With these I am much less comfortable. But as I am wont to say, I really don't mind what you call me - as long as it's not "late for dinner" :-)
Yet I actually think that it is a particularly helpful reading for our occasion this morning, for Jesus says to each and every one of us, that our own experiences are the most important ones. Everyone has one and the same teacher, one and the same Father, one and the same instructor. No one can claim a relationship closer, better or higher than anyone else. God deals with each and everyone of us, equally and directly. No one is dealt with second-hand. So we do not have to experience someone else's experience to be a kosher "christian". The words tell us that we will find God in our own experience if we care to look. And, because Jesus was crucified because he sat down and ate with sinners, the same is true for everyone else. All people will find God, not by travelling down someone else's path, or experiencing someone else's experience. Everyone will find God in their own lives when it becomes appropriate to look.
When I was in New York, I took the opportunity to write a daily journal, sometimes on the bench in front of the Manhattan Youth Castle, where I stayed. One of the residents once commented how she would like to be able to do this herself. I had to confess to her that I didn't normally do this anyway. Normally I'm too busy. And the same was true for her. Being considerably younger, it was natural that she was living life to the full. It is only when you get to my age, with senile dementia rapidly setting in, that recording one's memories, thoughts and reflections becomes necessary. It enables me to remember! And it gives me something useful to do while the young ones rage :-)
So I would want to say that there are times when it is appropriate to think about God and there are times when it is appropriate to think about other things. God is not a God who counts up how many times we come to Church, how many hours we spend on our knees, or how often heaven is in our thoughts. We are surely allowed to enjoy what we are doing, rather than "lying back and thinking of England" :-) God is actually much more concerned with how we relate to those around us, and to do this we must be relating to begin with.
Again while I was away, travelling on the subway "6" line, two identically dressed ladies came into the carriage where I was and sat opposite me. Both were wearing badges with "Sister ... " - though they were not wearing traditional habits - along with the name of a particular Church - but again not a mainstream denomination. They sat down and immediately took identical books out of their handbags and began to read them assiduously, oblivious to everyone around them. I wouldn't be sure, but it seemed they were both up to the same page! Perhaps they found the company around them confronting, or perhaps they just wanted to make the most of their time, I do not know. Somehow I don't think Jesus was reading the Bible or the latest devotional manual as he sat down and ate with the tax collectors and sinners - he enjoyed their company.
The other thing that I want to say, being a priest in the church of God, is that the religious authorities of Jesus' day, who attracted so much of Jesus' ire were not the ordained priests. The scribes and the Pharisees were lay people. The Herodians were again largely lay people, royalists. Clergy still try to keep any personal sympathies on such matters to themselves. It is quite true that the priests eventually became complicit in proceedings against Jesus, late in the piece, but Jesus does not speak against them like he does against the lay authorities. This alerts us to the fact that real power exists in the laity, and power can be misused by laity as well as by clergy, now as then.
So one does not have to have had a particular conversion experience, one does not have to "speak in tongues" or whatever. As I've gone through life, I've found that these sorts of things are imperatives laid on others as often by lay people as they are by those who are ordained.
Getting back to these our newly confirmed members of our Church. These words are meant to be an encouragement to live your lives to the full. These words are meant to be an encouragement to see God in yourselves and in those around you.
You may think that you are the youngest members of our Church and therefore the least important, the least likely to be listened to and the least likely to be taken notice of. You may think that you will have to get older before you are able to exercise a significant ministry. "Young people are to be seen and not heard", as the old phrase goes. Let me say that these words of Jesus tell us that to the contrary, God loves you just as much as God loves anyone else in this place, even me with my funny dress on! :-) God cares for you, as well as your friends as much as God cares for anyone. God is as present and active in your lives and in the lives of all young people, as God is active anywhere else. The most significant ministries are not when we put odd clothes on and take a role in leading worship, but in how we relate to others. You as young people do this as much as anyone else.
You may not see or appreciate this, but it is true never the less. I did not see this when I was your age. Indeed I am only beginning to really see the truth of this now. And you have an identical and no less difficult ministry as everyone else, as you relate to people, in schools, on the sports field or in the bands in which you play. In fact it could be argued that you have a more vital ministry, for often those who experience difficulties in life are those who have not found acceptance in their earlier years - and that is amongst their peers. I recall talking to the brother of a school mate of mine - we used to go to his home after school and play "Canasta" together. His brother told me, many years later, that his brother had a difficult time at high school. I thought I was the only one who had difficulties there! I hope I did not contribute to the difficulties he had.
So I am not asking you to be here in Church every week, or to try and get your friends to come - that would be the first and surest way to loose good friends. But try to be friends with the people you meet and you will find that glimpses of God will shine through.
While I was on the other side of the world, I did not wear a "collar" and I did not go around telling people what I did. If people asked me, I was happy to tell them I was a priest, and generally that didn't perturb them. But I was constantly amazed by the meaningful conversations I had with these young people - even before they knew what I did. Often they were trying to "make it in the big smoke", but they were courageous people trying to find a place to live and work in a city where there is stiff competition for these things. There were teachers, social workers, doctors, journalists, overseas aid workers, as well as volunteers expanding their experience. I, as a person simply "on holiday" was in very much a minority.
I want to return briefly to my statement about our experience being the most important. We do not have to have the same religious experience as others might demand of us.
Most of the things I treasure most are my experiences with and among other people. How we relate to family, friends, school colleagues as well as chance acquaintances, and the like, are the "stuff of life". It is here that the living of life can be so rich and rewarding and it is an ongoing thing. On the other hand, I have observed that those who insist that others have a particular religious experience *like them* generally will point to a particular time and place where this experience happened to them, and it is between them alone and God. It is not ongoing. And I wonder why it is not ongoing. Perhaps the initial conversion experience is primarily to show that we are not meant to be alone and the fact that it is rarely repeated means that we need other people as well as God.
As I've gone through my life, I've found an enormous number of people who have expected me to defer to them. I've had to defer to the wisdom of the past as expressed by the tradition of scripture or the fathers of the Church. To call no one "father" means to look into myself and accept that my wisdom is as valid and precious as anyone else's. And as I find God in myself, I will be open to see God in others and not expect others to defer to me. The religious authorities of Jesus' day expected Jesus to defer to them, and were griped when Jesus saw good in people they looked down on. It is instructive to see that power, in whoever hands it rests, lay or ordained, is often at the expense of someone else. Jesus used the power of God to include others not exclude them.
Jesus finishes this chapter on a wonderful and positive note. He says of God: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" God desires the company of all people, without precondition and without prejudice. And we, each and every one of us, by our acceptance of ourselves and of others, have a part to play in bringing this about.
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