s064g99 Somerton Park Sunday 31 31/10/99

"See, your house is left to you, desolate." Matthew 23:38

We should be aware that the scribes and Pharisees who are described by Jesus as sitting "on Moses seat" were not ordained persons. The Pharisees were a lay movement, described by Günther Bornkamm as "innovators" not "a conservative reactionary group" (Jesus of Nazareth p 40), "who, after an initial alliance, soon formed a sharp opposition to the secularised priestly aristocracy". (ibid p 39) Hastings "Dictionary of the Bible" p 719) comments that the words of Jesus "the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat" (Mat 23:2) show that in the time of Jesus that they considered themselves, "not the priests ... the source of authority". They "were .. Churchmen ... they emphasised spiritual methods ... (and) their interests lay in ... missionary extension amongst the heathen".

I say this in the light of the words in the Old Testament lesson, that Israel's "rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money". (Micah 3:11). I am a paid full-time stipendiary priest, and I actually think that there is nothing wrong with earning a living. Indeed my first duty, as it is everyone else's first duty, is to provide for oneself and one's family. There is little point in pointing to these words and complaining at the level of the priest's stipend, which fortunately is set by a provincial committee elsewhere. Why should our boys be deprived of some of the "necessities" of life. Indeed of course most of those little luxuries have in fact come as Catherine has returned to employment, for the first time in our married life, nine years ago. For the ten previous years we as a family existed on the stipend alone, and while we did not lack for much, it was a struggle.

I suspect that the paying clergy a wage on par with the rest of the community, is a function of having married priests. In other systems unmarried clergy are traditionally fed, housed and cared for in some sort of community - a descendent of the monastic existence - so the paying of a wage may be less necessary. This is not a criticism of other systems, merely an observation that one cannot expect to have married clergy without the sorts of support systems that others provide and not pay a realistic wage.

It is also inappropriate to suggest that the role of the spouse of a member of the clergy is to support his or her spouse in their vocation. I have no doubt that Catherine's vocation is to be the nurse she trained to be. For others it may well be different, and this is not a criticism of those who do support their partner's ministry.

The earlier words of Jesus about not calling others "rabbi", "father" or "instructor" can be taken to mean that the only true Christian community is democratic socialism where there is no ordained hierarchy. The ultimate irony in George Orwell's book "1984" is: "all are equal, but some are more equal than others". For all the good intentions of every political system, it will be abused by those who want to and will be largely irrelevant to those whose wish is to get on with living their lives and respecting other people.

One of the realities of life is that there are hierarchies and more hierarchies. One of the classic hierarchies (rightfully outlawed) are "pyramid schemes", where it seems wealth is assured as the pyramid just gets bigger and bigger. Of course those at the top of the pile do make money, but at the expense of the (often back-breaking) efforts of those below to continue to make the pyramid bigger. The trick in pyramid schemes is to get in early; but of course one is never to know whether one is an early comer or a late starter. One phrase to look out for is "window of opportunity" and another "give away" is the sentiment: "I just wish I had got in sooner".

One of my "pet hates" are chain letters, a seemingly innocuous activity often undertaken by children. Sometimes I have seen the banal statement that this activity is approved by the postal authorities - I am sure it is. Why should the postal authorities complain if people use their service, if their views ever were in fact canvassed? Again it is a form of pyramid scheme, where someone, on the pretence of being a friend, cons others to get their friends to join in, with the delusion that everyone benefits.

But the trouble is with pyramid schemes is that they do inevitably collapse under their own weight; and I personally wouldn't want to benefit at the expense of a "friend" I had introduced to a scheme, when that friend in fact lost while I had benefited. Inherent to all pyramid schemes is the delusion that all will win. The reality, that particularly those "at the top" close their eyes to, is that they have benefited at the expense of others. But for these people the benefits outweigh the loss of respect, the loss of relationship.

For all the undoubted sadnesses that the "pokies" can bring to the lives of people, at least there is no pretence at friendship or deception. Pyramid schemes are, to me, inherently evil, in a way that "pokies" are not.

May I gently suggest that to cast the world into Christian and non-Christian camps is to deny the inherent dignity of every person. It is to magnify oneself at the expense of another. It is to begin a pyramid structure, where the aim inevitably becomes - get in early and get to the top.

It is the message of the parable of the labourers in the field and fundamental to Christianity that our God gives us what we need, not what we have "earned". It is fundamental to Christianity that our God has no interest if we are at the top or the bottom of the pile. Indeed, of course, Jesus seemed to more naturally associate with those at the "bottom of the religious pile" much to the chagrin of those who perceived themselves to be at the top.

So even though I dress in ecclesiastical garments to celebrate the holy sacraments, I am no less a sinner than anyone else here. Only narrow phylacteries and short fringes here :-).

Everyone who has ever lived is only a redeemed sinner. As Christians, the knowledge of our redemption should drive us to compassion not pride - to gentleness not bluster - and to an appreciation of the good things a person might contribute despite their failings.

A while back someone said to me that power is neither good or bad, it is how it is used that is important. I confess extreme hesitation at this statement (though I have much time for the person who made it). Jesus seemed to shun power. His sole concentration was on others. I do not know if I could trust myself to use power and authority rightly. I come with my own agendas and insecurities, and it would be so easy to use authority to massage my own insecurities, if I don't do this enough already.

I started with the words of Jesus: "See, your house is left to you, desolate", and the fundamental thing about a house is that it contains people. A house that is desolate is a house without people, an empty shell. Our priorities in life will indeed come true in the hereafter. If our priority is to get to the top, we are told that is a very lonely place. If our priority is to be with people, whoever they are, then that will indeed eventuate.

It is facile to point the finger at others, to try to lop the "tall poppy". It is said that this is a particular favourite activity of Australians, but not having been anywhere else, I can't verify the accuracy of this. Certainly the social freedoms which one and all so much take for granted in South Australia were largely begun and won by our late Labor Premier, Don Dunstan, often to the protests of the Liberal establishment. It is not that I am Labor or Liberal, it's the fact that we have a system where we cannot see beyond the "them" and "us" to the value beyond.

One of the joys of our Anglican system (for my money) is the existences of parishes. Despite those who want to do away with them, we have parish boundaries, which means that everyone within those boundaries can expect care and consideration from me. Obviously people come here to worship from outside "our" boundaries, just as some who live within "our" boundaries worship elsewhere. But our care covers everyone who lives in our parish, if they care to avail themselves of it, not just those who worship in this building. Obviously other traditions express the same truth in different ways to us.

So a resident of the Masonic Village asked a nurse a question recently about Anglican worship. The question came to me and it was answered. I mean it would have been answered if the person lived outside the parish. Jesus died for one and for all, not just those who worship here or in other Christian churches. Jesus didn't not die for those who don't come to Church, those who doubt, or those who believe in different terms to what we regard as orthodox.

It is a "level playing field", and it has lots of people in it, and all of us are simply redeemed sinners. This brings a richness to our community, quite the opposite of "desolate".

 

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