The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s066e05 Lockleys Sunday 33 13/11/2005
"encourage one another" 1 Thessalonians 5.11
During these last three Sundays before Advent, we read the three different parts of Matthew chapter 25. Last week we had the parable of the five wise and the five foolish bridesmaids, this week the parable of the people with the talents, and next week the parable of the sheep and the goats.
It is important to see that there are three parables of judgement, put side by side. This invites us to compare one with another, to see how they differ and how they are the same. It might be stating the obvious but there is not just one parable of judgement, so different people are going to be judged differently. God could keep many more people out of the kingdom if there were just one standard of judgement, but having three allows more people in.
So God is about enabling different people into the kingdom, not keeping people out. God is not a harsh master.
If you look at the three parables, I think of the first as the standard of judgement for Christians -- that we are prepared. Today's parable is how people use their talents, and I think of this as the standard of judgement of the Jews. Next Sundays' parable is for those who are not Jews or Christians, those who know not the king, and this is how charitable they have been.
So we can encourage people by saying that God is not a harsh person, that God is all about enabling all to be a part of the kingdom -- Christians, Jews as well as people who are not of these faiths, even those who espouse no faith.
A while back, I was reading the story of the healing of Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram, healed of his leprosy by Elisha. At the end of the story Naaman asks forgiveness of Elisha saying, "please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the LORD. But may the LORD pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the LORD pardon your servant on this one count." He said to him, "Go in peace." " (2 Kings 5.17-19). Here we find Elisha encouraging the foreign enemy rather than demanding complete obedience as no doubt he could have done.
We are all so aware of the terrible tragedies this past year in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, in New Orleans, in Kashmiri Pakistan so many people have lost their lives in these places. So much human misery, it is beyond our comprehension. It seems to put our petty disputes in their place. I think that the relative importance of some of the issues that we face in Australia are actually miniscule in comparison. So many people get so "hot under the collar" -- about things where their own personal boundaries are crossed; when the Lord is calling us to respond compassionately, as we are able, to those whose lives and livelihood have literally been plucked up by the roots.
Some Anglicans in Adelaide are aware that Canon Roger Correll recently died - aged 96. He was Rector of Hawthorn for 17 years. One of my colleagues related this reminiscence: "Roger once said to me with that unassuming laughing tone that we all loved ..."one priest Š called me a "legend"!" He found this enormously amusing, but in an era when legends are few and far between I have often reflected that she was right. His depth of care and concern for people was indeed, legendary. His knowledge of family and local community history is almost a thing of a bygone era." I found the fact that one priest complementing another priest just so refreshing. It was obviously a long time ago. The priest herself is now becoming something of a "legend" herself.
On the other hand I recall the funeral services for another priest I suppose it was 15 years back. There were several of these services, and at each of them the eulogisers commented "they don't make priests like that any more!" Well actually I think that God does make priests like that priest still -- priests equally as talented and caring as he was.
Again, I once heard a senior priest commenting publicly of his curate, that he was a good priest, and would go a long way as long as "he didn't blot his copybook". Obviously the comment was meant to be encouraging, yet here is another example of how our conformity rather than our individuality is appreciated.
I sometimes suspect that we expect others to acknowledge and approve of our individuality yet deny others' their right to their own individuality.
Time and again, at his installation our new Archbishop called us to answer the question posed to the paralysed man beside the pool of Bethsaztha: "Do you want to be healed?" He spoke about the "institutional decline, inertia and comfortable half-empty churches" - a paralysis that grips the Church. And he made the point that "it is what we are prepared to receive that counts the more." He then moved to the vision in the Revelation passage of the river of life, giving life to all. I believe these two aspects are inextricably linked. It is as we recognise and affirm every persons' individuality and value, we become that river, giving life to those we meet.
We cannot find affirmation and healing as individuals without simultaneously recognising that God wishes us to heal others by affirming their individuality.
We are called to encourage one another. But don't we do this already?
At the installation of the new Archbishop, there was a jazz group led by the daughter of a clergy couple. She had an amazing and powerful voice, and a wonderful spiky hairdo. One of those from this parish who attended said to me that he had been told that some other people did not come to communion because they were offended by her hair.
I was sitting with my clerical colleagues. When the lovely young Sudanese dancers sang a welcome, which went on for a time, a priest behind me said: "This is when the Archbishop should exercise his Episcopal authority." He obviously has a very narrow view of what 'Church' is.
Am I not being discouraging in mentioning these things? The "Church Times" in England on their website is soliciting examples of "Church bad manners" under the title "I think you'll find that's my pew". It invites people to tell them "experiences of lapses in Christian behaviour. Crusty congregational members, gauche young curates, insensitive organists, overbearing vicars (or bishops) snide servers .. rudeness to children, women, elderly (the list goes on) .. Help stem the tide of bad manners by exposing it to the purifying light of publicity".
I am 54, yet I try to be young at heart. I've had enough time in country ministry to not wear suits when visiting farms and have the dogs jump all over me in welcome. Similarly I am beginning to like my hair long, because the pressures on young people to conform are legion. The young people I meet may never come to Church, but at least I'll be someone who was encouraging rather than conventional, and this is what St Paul today encourages us all to do.
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