The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r066.htm
s066e02 Lockleys 17/11/02 Sunday 33
"God has destined us, not for wrath ..." 1 Thess 5.9
We have in today's readings a mixture of threat and promise. The Old Testament reading from Zephaniah is uncompromising in it's prediction of unmitigated and inescapable disaster on "all the inhabitants of the earth." The gospel reading tells us that only two out of three act appropriately with the gifts of God, which is rather more promising. It is St Paul who relieves us and assures us that we are not destined for wrath.
Now a superficial reading of these lessons might lead us to assume that the Jewish people were wrong and the christians are right, so that everyone who isn't a baptised, confirmed, communicant, card carrying Christian who tithes, is assuredly going to spend the rest of eternity in the fires of damnation.
Now this might be comforting to those who are baptised, confirmed, communicant, card carrying Christians who tithe, but this means we have no good news for everyone else who don't live up to these precepts except if they become like us. The slippery slide of defining what "becoming like us" might mean is very indeterminate.
Recently I was reading an article by Professor Michael Horsburgh, the Editor of "Anglicans Together", a new and alternate web site for the Diocese of Sydney, focussing on including rather than excluding others. He was commenting on some words by the Archbishop of Sydney when he says: "I must confess at the outset that I find the phrase 'speaking the truth in love' far from reassuring. On the contrary, it sends a chill down my spine. This is partly because of my experience in the Diocese of Sydney. It appears with some regularity as a prelude to a savage attack, usually on a person. It is such a powerful signal in the synod, for example, that everyone sits up when the phrase occurs, the better to hear what is to come." I am reminded that when I was young we sometimes went to car races at "Rowley Park" on Friday nights and, of course, the real highlight of the evening was to see some spectacular crashes! We didn't want anyone hurt mind you, but I'm sure we only thought about this after a crash occurred.
No matter what the faith we hold or how diligently we worship, the threat of criticism is always lurking near at hand. I attended worship somewhere else recently. It transpired that the Crucifer was holding the cross 90 degrees from where she *should* have. The priest went over and, without a word, gently turned the cross to the correct orientation. And I suppose the Crucifer will continue to attend church, but if I was her I don't think I would have, after being very quietly but very publicly corrected.
And, of course, St Paul is not adverse to giving some good advise: "Let us not fall asleep as others do ..." What does this mean? Are we supposed to fall asleep standing up? Not many people do this :-) "Let us keep awake". Does this make a cardinal virtue of insomnia? There are people who take these words very seriously! I shall continue to fall asleep like everyone else and with the same regularity - by closing my eyes.
Some time ago I attended the funeral of a priest, and an option in the usual funeral service is the reading of Psalm 103. Actually it is now used especially for the death of a young child (APBA p741). Our Prayer Book gives an appropriate selection of verses (8,13-17), but again misses some out which deal with the wrath of God. So verse 9 and 10 begin: "He will not always be chiding ..." and "He has dealt with us according to our sins ..." This funeral deliberately and publicly included these words. It seems these wanted to use the wrath of God to publicly exclude others they felt didn't measure up. Terror is part of our religion, something we all handle each in our own ways, day by day, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less successfully.
When I was in the cadets in school the trick was to rise in the ranks so that you had an opportunity to inflict discipline some on others and get less inflicted on you! And I wonder if our Christianity can become like this. We rise in the ranks so that we can inflict a bit on others? We too can speak the truth - in love, of course!
I was cleaning my shoes the other day and my mind went back to a high school teacher who said that the measure of a person could be judged by whether they had properly polished the sides of the soles of their shoes. A slapdash person didn't bother. And I suddenly saw that this was also a slapdash way of evaluating another person. It was a way of seeing only the faults, and not persevering to see the strengths a person might actually have.
But of course, when we think about terror these days, we think of the World Trade Centre and Bali. We think of others inflicting terrible terrorist acts on innocent Christians. That, of course, is not fair, and we can be quite sure that God will punish the perpetrators. My point is that it is only a matter of degree separating the terrorist atrocities and "speaking the truth in love".
I recall in my last parish, taking the sacrament to a very frail aged person in a nursing home. She was a delightful and gracious lady, who wouldn't have hurt a fly in her whole life. At the end of her life she was confined to bed. She was grateful for all that the staff did for her in circumstances where it would have been quite reasonable to lash out at the indignities that the aged have to endure. But each month I took her the sacrament which was a great comfort to her and month by month we dutifully said the confession together and I said the absolution. By that time the only "sin" she was capable of doing was falling out of bed, and of course after doing this a couple of times she was gently restrained. And I thought, more than once, God is interested in those who rape and pillage, not in the pangs of conscience that beset us all.
The second of the parables of judgement in Matthew 25 refers to the Jewish people. The first - the five wise and the five foolish virgins - refers to the standard of judgement of Christians. The third, the sorting of the sheep from the goats, is for people who are neither Christians or Jews. Again, there are three parables of judgement, because God wants all to be included. Anyway, two out of three Jewish people will be accepted into the kingdom - and I note with some surprise, for it is the first time I have seen this - that this is a rather better percentage than Christians (half and half). But the crux of the parable is do we believe the one who was thrown out, when he says "Master, I knew you were a harsh man ..." All the evidence points to this being incorrect. The Master gives talents to everyone and bids them use them.
This man is "thrown ... into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" but again the reality is that the man was weeping and gnashing his teeth when he was originally given the talent to use. We determine and take on our own fate ourselves - it is not so determined by God.
God gives good talents for us, and we use them by sharing them. Every blessing given by God can just as easily become our own personal curse - if we hide it away from others.
And if we look at that uncompromising lesson from Zephaniah we see it is people who are wealthy who are plundered, those who have houses, vineyards, those who think that their abundance of "silver and gold will be able to save them". God doesn't want the silver and gold, those are to be shared with others who need it. It is quite simple really.
If we believe God is a harsh person, then we will live our lives weeping and gnashing our teeth, lest we fail to live up to the demands of the harsh God. On the other hand we can see the talents God has given us, and realise that this means God isn't harsh. As we are freed to use these talents, we are given more to use.
So this parable gives us a choice. Do we choose a harsh God and find our fears realised? Or do we choose a generous God and find we are not disappointed? And I suspect we do well to choose happily, for it affects our salvation and how we relate to others. Do we choose a God of terror and become minor or major terrorists ourselves? Or do we choose a God of grace, and become gracious ourselves?
But choosing is not as easy as it sounds, even though it might seem obvious. For you and I - living in the relative security of Australia and Adelaide there are still forces that would cower us into submission. There is much in our upbringing which was negative rather than positive and affirming. It has been good to see the schooling these days trying to move from the old ways.
It may well be difficult, if not nigh impossible, for those who have been closely affected by tragedy or prolonged illness to believe in a gracious God. We need to say this.
I am sure that God understands that through shear force of circumstances, some people cannot believe. They will do their best to be kind towards others and they will seek to not inflict their disappointments on others, but they will not be able to believe in a God who is not harsh. We will proclaim a God who is not harsh to such people, not by explaining how God has been gracious to us, but by allowing them to be who they are and not criticising them.
I spoke to those recently confirmed that it was their experience which really mattered, not the orthodoxy of their belief. As they see God in themselves they are enabled to see God in others.
And just as I find it unnecessary to postulate a God-appointed place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth for the fearful character in the parable, for he puts himself there during his lifetime - so I also find it unnecessary to postulate a God-appointed hell where the whole of society will be consigned in terms of the prophecy of Zephaniah. The rich and the fearful bring upon society precisely the doom they fear. Surely the events of recent times tell us that there is plenty enough to fear in this life without having to resort to fear about the next.
For the message of the parable is that God is not harsh. God gives talents to each and everybody to be used and shared. We can't blame God for the terror which pervades us all. Sharing the talents as we are bidden to do, and by extension allowing others to do so as well, might well lessen that terror.
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