s086c98 Somerton Park 1/11/98 All Saints and All Souls
"the eyes of your heart enlightened ..."
Today we celebrate, as is our custom here at St Philip's, both All Saints and All Souls Day at the same time. We remember the heroes of the faith, some related to us only from the pages of history - at the same time as some others - those of perhaps "little faith" who we personally knew and loved. The importance of this occasion is that we acknowledge the importance of other people in our lives. The influence of some of those people, perhaps famous names of the past, we may even find initially difficult to quantify. But my thoughts go to the great evangelical reformers of the 18th century who fought to have slavery abolished, like William Wilberforce. What a different world it would be without his faith and energy! But we all have people who we have personally known who we have looked up to in our lives. For some these may be parents or uncles and aunts. For others these may be teachers, peers or clergy. We take this opportunity to thank God for them as they have been influences for good in our lives and again, to commend them into the loving care of our heavenly Father.
Some of you will be aware that I am an SFE supervisor, and the reason for Supervised Field Experience is to reflect theologically with students and they with me, so that new insights can be shared and ideas bounced off the other person. This is an exciting process, and that interaction is healthy for individuals and society as a whole. I sincerely believe that much of the racism in our society comes from the inability to listen with respect to the points of view of others.
Quite some time ago I was watching the news and the particular report was about a pedestrian who had been knocked down by a car. The words that the presenter used, and which make me prick up my ears, was that the driver "had to be comforted by those who witnessed the accident". It is a long time since I've noticed that phrase used and as I thought about them, I suspect the comfort needed and given was simply their presence. I suspect that few words were spoken, but perhaps not. The person who had been hit by the car needed and received the appropriate medical aid; but the other person, the driver of the car, needed comfort as well. Obviously there were one or two people who were prepared to stop, to hold a hand or give a hug. In ordinary circumstances such physical touching between people who had never met before would be socially inappropriate. But the accident and the need meant that that was the only appropriate response.
While I was on holidays I visited the church at Morphett Vale, when they were celebrating the feast of St Michael and All Angels. The priest spoke about the crowd at the MCG (the Melbourne Cricket Ground) the day before to watch the "Crows" beat "North Melbourne". He paralleled the crowd with the great crowd of witnesses described in Hebrews chapter 12. I thought how much the interest in the game was a function of both the skill, energy and the interstate rivalry, but also the presence of the crowd and the volume of the barracking!
As I look back over these various examples I note the positive things that come from respectful human interaction, world changing things, sources of inspiration, comfort and enthusiasm. Acceptance of people is powerful.
But we have to take into account the words of Jesus "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets". Does not this saying negate what I have been saying? That we should forget people and steadfastly follow Christ - disregarding people's opinion?
The answer comes in the words of Jesus that immediately follow. These are the "do" words, the prescription of how we follow Jesus. And we follow Jesus, not by meekly kneeling on our knees - there are enough charlatans around who will want us to kneel before them. We follow Jesus by trying to love our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us, offering the other cheek and the shirt, giving to those who beg ... How many times has Jesus to make the point??
Now being a priest, I suppose I would be counted as reasonably "religious", but I want to say that I find these things as difficult to do as anyone else. At the end of time I will not be judged on how many sermons I have preached, how eloquently I have preached them, or how many people I have converted - but how I have tried to treat others with respect in my day to day life. In this sense I am no better off than anyone else and I need as much grace to do so as others.
And there are enough opportunities in this life to be faced with those sorts of questions without having to look for them. How we relate to members of our own family, our colleagues at work or school. There are, of course, some people with whom we will never naturally relate, but I don't think these words should be taken to mean that we have to overcome these personality differences. However the ability to take the initiative and to "do to others as you would have them do to you" might simply be to allow someone else to be the person they want to be.
Sometimes the other person might be going in what we perceive to be the wrong direction - we might indeed have biblical justification for our insight that this is so. "Doing unto others" might be as simple as holding our tongue and refraining from giving advise. I have found I have learned most from my (many) mistakes, so it is indeed a dubious blessing to be informed that I am about to make another one.
As I pondered over these words I began to wonder how closely the mission of the Church is equated with the extension of a supposedly superior Hebrew/Christian tradition to those who have not had the benefit of it. How often do we think of the Christian faith in terms little different from the British Colonial Empire? And if we do think of the Christian faith in such terms, will it be any wonder if other faiths adopt similar methodologies and "evangelical" strategies? Does the Bible tell us to love our neighbour or to get others to accept "our" faith tradition? This leads me to ask are we essentially open to the culture around us, or are we ever constrained to try to redeem it - and by redeem, I mean here specifically to change it? How many wars would be fought over religion if we really did "Do unto others as you would have them do to you."
I am reminded of a young female teenager visiting Europe and England. Her parents, good Anglicans, were busy showing her all the wonderful places of worship. She was happy for a while, but she really wanted to visit a nightclub or two. In her heart of hearts she wanted acceptance of the normal teenage interest in becoming an adult. Ever since I have been a conscious Anglican, I have heard the lament that Confirmation is the great "passing out parade" of the Church. Somewhere behind this lurks the attitude that God blesses what we do here "in Church", and is unrelated to what we do out there, "in the world". That is not the God I worship.
The importance of the Bible, and in particular the record of the mission of Jesus, is not to set up a new and "correct" religion to which all others will be but a pale reflection. Jesus is the Son of God and has no need of a religion - new or otherwise. The eternal message of God is to love others.
On this All Saints Day, when we also remember those who have cared for us, loved us in our lives and perhaps passed on their faith to us, we are bidden to have eyes to see and praise God for the good things we have from others. We praise God for the legacy of the heroes of the faith whom we only know through the pages of history. We praise God for the legacy of those for whom we have particular personal reasons to be thankful.
But I believe this also means that we look at those presently about us with open eyes too. As our eyes are trained to see good in the distant and the recent past, may they also see good in the present. In doing so we will continue that tradition of being "light" to the world - illuminating the goodness, to the praise of our gracious God. In doing so we will continue that tradition of being "the salt of the earth" bringing out the unique flavours in other people. They may indeed be redeemed, but not by changing but by our perception of the good already there - our perception of good which makes that good clear to others too. And we might begin to see the possibility of good in the future, which I think might be construed as "hope".
The earlier readings from Daniel and Ephesians both stress how those of God are above the "four kings" who shall arise (Dan 7.17) and that Christ is seated "at his right hand in the heavenly places" (Eph 1.20). If this means anything, it must be that heaven is above the petty squabbling about which religion is right.
What motivated William Wilberforce if not the dignity of all people, even slaves? What motivates me in my SFE work if not to appreciate the perceptions others can bring to my life? What motivated the strangers who comforted the driver of the car involved in the accident with the pedestrian if not the dignity of someone stricken by human frailty? What motivates those who play football and who watch if not mutual admiration?
Jesus saw something of God in the poor of this world - and there is nothing the "world" despises more than poverty. Jesus saw something of God in the hungry, those who wept, those hated, excluded, reviled or defamed - he saw and he acknowledged and therefore he blessed. The "world" will still find this an affront to their existence as the powerful people found Jesus doing this an affront to their authority, and of course eventually Jesus was crucified. Jesus saw God in all sorts of people, people with no pretensions of being religious or "Christian", and bids us do likewise. For surely we would like Jesus to see a little bit of God in us.
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