The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s064g08 Sunday 31 2/11/08
'you are all students' Matthew 23.8
I have been reflecting recently how one particular passage of scripture can be made so fundamental that others are completely disregarded. The particular passage that brought this to mind was Genesis 1 where controversy has raged over the six days narrative as if this was the most important fact to be conveyed in the whole chapter. But I was thinking that those who stress the creationist narrative are often those who also hold a subordination of women theology which is surprising when it is precisely this account that has men and women created simultaneously, and each equally in the image of God. Curious. It is almost as if the adherence to the creationist narrative excuses some from uncharitableness towards others.
Again others teach the importance of the words 'no one comes to the Father but by me' assuming that this puts a divine imprimatur on their own personal theology and teaching. They would never let themselves be called 'father' of course, but others will go to hell if they don't hold to 'their' theology and interpretation. They wouldn't see themselves as acting as teachers or instructors. Again, curious. It is almost as if the adherence to the dictum, 'call no one father' excuses them from uncharitableness towards others.
Matthew is often thought of as the gospel mostly concerned with how the church should operate, and I don't have any difficulty about this. The words of Jesus he remembers about forgiveness within the community of faith seem to bear this out. But we can be deceived by this too and see that we as the church are **naturally** in a position of superiority over others and we are here to lead others to God. We might not have broad phylacteries or long fringes, but these are only the outward signs of an inward disposition, remarkably similar to our own conception of the status of the church that we are **naturally** in a position of superiority over others and we are here to lead others to God.
A member of a congregation can similarly refuse to call a minister by any form of respect and can be quick to suggest that he or she ought to be **my servant** - after all he or she is the professional. The member can reason that they, as the volunteer supporter, are exempt from the words of Jesus!
Again I was reminded recently of the echoes that the words of Jesus "I am .. the way ..' have to the 'giving' of the divine name to Moses at the burning bush: 'I am ..' Of course these words to Moses are the divine evasion the divine refusal to be Moses' god or the Israelites' god but to be God of the whole universe. And if we make Jesus into **our** god (and no one else's) we too haven't learned the message.
We are all students, and we might decide that this means that we all ought to attend a bible study regularly. Well I don't suppose that I would criticise that, but again sadly this can have the effect of making the attendees consider themselves more spiritual than others who don't attend.
Jesus, in Matthew's recollection speaks about the spiritual persons of his day, and their relationship with the rest of the world. Their phylacteries and fringes are there for others to admire. They attend banquets, synagogues and the market place 'to be seen by others'. 'They tie up heavy burdens .. and lay them .. on others ..' So if we take Jesus' words seriously, we are to act as if we don't have anything to teach the world, on the contrary we are to be students of the world. If we are to be servants, then we are to take other people's burdens from them. It is not just that we oughtn't be superior to others in the church, we oughtn't be superior to anyone else, either within 'the church' or outside it.
I have been grateful for the ministry of the Rev'd Dr Peter Powell of the Pastoral Counselling Institute who has been leading an introductory course in chaplaincy and pastoral care here in western New South Wales. His emphasis is on always being like Sergent Schultz of Hogan's Heros' fame: 'I know nothing' - always curious, always ready to learn, always students! We are to be curious about the world and the people in it. In the field of counselling our questioning invites others to examine their own motivations and perceptions and perhaps decide to change them. Being curious, we learn from someone else, we stand in the other person's shoes for a short while advise that Atticus gave in the book 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee.
Our gospel reading for today ends with Jesus curse: 'See, your house is left to you, desolate'. If Jesus is **our** god then our house will be remarkably deserted. If we allow Jesus to lead us to the God of the universe, our house will be filled to overflowing!
I have often cause to reflect that when I leave the hospitals at 5 or 5.30pm to go home, I go home with a clear conscience that each and every person in the hospitals is in good care. They are in the care of the doctors and nurses. If there is any deterioration in a person's condition, immediate steps will be taken to remedy it. If someone requests a priest, the hospitals know how to contact me. So even those people who are particularly unwell, I can leave in God's care. I know that they will be cared for by those God has put around them.
A while back I attended a meeting of chaplains and pastoral care workers, and after the meeting as I was driving home, I reflected that there seemed to be an unspoken assumption that they as chaplains and pastoral carers brought pastoral care into the hospitals in which they ministered (with 270kms / 170 miles to drive, I had a fair time to reflect :-). Perhaps I'm being too blunt in this assessment, but it seemed pastoral care revolved around them alone. This has some immediate implications. One is that a gulf is dug between chaplains and other health professionals and another is that we are challenged to explain just what we bring into a hospital that no one else does. I want to suggest that this is an attempt to deny the incarnation, which is theologically strange for a 'christian', it fails to recognise the pastoral care that doctors, nurses and other health care professionals provide in their often more frantic schedules, and we may well find that we are at a loss to demonstrate any uniqueness to our care.
When I administer the sacrament of Holy Communion it may sometimes seem that some fail to perceive that behind the sacrament lies the death and resurrection of Jesus - it is receive like a pill. What lies behind the sacrament is God's care for us all. But when the doctors prescribe medicine, a nurse bandages a wound, a physiotherapist helps a person walk, a psychiatrist helps a person to get their thoughts straight, an occupational therapist helps a person with strategies to live back in their community safely the list goes on and on behind each and every action of assistance is an expression of care, one person of another. We can grumble at the medicine, but what lies behind each and every one of them is plain and simple care. In this sense each and every expression of assistance is no different from giving the sacrament of Holy Communion. We can accept it as a right or we can thank God for it and the person who makes it happen. It is all pastoral care.
The sacrament, the medicine, the bandage, the therapy, may or may not be effective, but if fails to bring us closer to one another then we are not likely to be happier persons, and we will have nothing to contribute to the happiness of the world either.
And part of becoming closer to others is to appreciate what other might contribute to our lives as well as being able to perhaps assist others as we are able.
I well remember (some years ago) visiting two ladies in a nursing home. Each was fairly debilitated. One had attended church all her life, one of the pillars of the particular congregation, and she spent her remaining years in the nursing home complaining to God that she had come to such a state. Even the Holy Communion brought her no peace. Nothing the nurses did could make her any more comfortable. The other had (I gather) a chequered history of church attendance. But she was grateful to receive the sacrament when I came. She joked with the nurses. Despite her disabilities, she was happy and grateful. I'm sure both ladies got precisely the same attention, but there are no prizes to anyone who guesses correctly which lady was the more pleasant to nurse.
Now I know that people are different, but it worries me that the traditional exclusive attitude of the chaplains and pastoral carers I spoke about earlier in a sense contributed to the grumpy lady's distress. She had been taught to look for God only in people wearing white robes on Sunday mornings or wearing a funny collar around their necks when they visit.
And I reflect that if we view pastoral care as something that only 'religious' people provide, is it any wonder that governments see us as blind to the pastoral care that health professionals provide and that we are trying to lead people away from the good things they have to offer? While we consider 'religious' and 'spiritual' care as our sole preserve, governments will be content to leave ourselves to find our own funding. If however we recognise that health is a partnership and complementary, then governments will perhaps be happy to assist us.
I have begun to learn the cello. My teacher is very patient. I manage 'twinkle, twinkle little star' but it still sounds pretty awful! A concert cellist I will never be, but while I remain a student there is always the possibility that 'twinkle, twinkle' might sound sort of OK!
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