The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s089a04 Lockleys St Stephen 26/12/2004
"Lord Jesus, receive my spirit". Acts 7.59
Today my thoughts turned to martyrdom, and our preparedness, or otherwise, to "spend and be spent" in the service of God.
As I have gone through my life, I have tried to work out what my own faith is; and I suppose that if I were to analyze this, what I really have been doing is trying to find out what I would be prepared to die for.
I don't for one moment imagine that I am any different from anyone else. The diggers who volunteered to fight in the world wars did it because they thought they were fighting in the war to end all wars. Would that they were successful! Of course some did enlist out of a spirit of adventure, but even this can be seen as a preparedness to die for something other than the mundane existence of our routine lives.
Firefighters are prepared to risk life and limb to rescue other people, researchers are prepared to spend a lifetime trying to find the cure for this or that disease, protesters are prepared to confront the authorities when they see injustices being perpetrated. I am beginning to see that the real problem for Christianity is not that people are not prepared to give of their time and talents, but that people are not convinced that religion actually has any useful contribution to make to the wellbeing of society. Christianity is not a cause that they think is worth dying for.
A lot of what we regard as the mission of the Church, our giving to agencies like Anglicare, ABM, CMS, BCA, the hospital chaplaincies, are all us giving so that someone else might do missionary work. Of course, I am not saying that these agencies don't do good work. They do. But each and every one of us is driven by what we consider important to "make our mark". I suggest that each and every one of us here really have something that we already put our heart and soul into, something that we are prepared to die for.
You might think that this is all a bit far fetched, but how many of you who are parents would not gladly give their life for their children's wellbeing? I confess that I always find the dynamic of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac to be beyond belief.
When one thinks about how our society might look like without the dedication of teachers it might cause us to pause and think. The great advances in technology and communication hold the possibility of great benefit for all of humanity. The people on television and radio who entertain and inform us are bringing joy into our lives. Think what our streets might be like without those who take away our garbage! And the contribution that service clubs make!
So the question of martyrdom, the preparedness to die, is not about God cajoling us to follow to our own personal detriment, but us choosing what has meaning for us in our lives and how we are working toward it.
I was speaking to one of our Sudanese friends recently and he showed me bank receipts of money he had sent back to his family and friends in Africa. In five months he had sent a total of $1700. And my mind went back to that sermon by the Australian exhorting the Sudanese to tithe to God! His theme showed how little the preacher appreciated the predicament that the Sudanese find themselves in, coming to Australia, and having to adjust to a capitalist society. Each and every dollar this person sent to his relatives, he knew might well indeed mean the difference between life and death for people he loved. But he was also beginning to realize that he too needed money to live in Australia.
The problem is that we in the Church have compartmentalized society into "Christian" vocations and "non-Christian" ones. We don't honour people who don't come to church and honour what we do for God. Can we expect anything different if we don't honour the contribution that others are making to society?
Again I see the subtle influence of original sin: whose contribution to God is acceptable and whose isn't, and all, supposedly, in the name of God.
Many years ago, I recall the Warden of the Theological College where I trained saying that he had been asked to join a "society for the defense of the Catholic faith". He had declined saying that if the Catholic faith needed defending it probably wasn't worth defending. Similarly God does not need us to spring to his or her defense. If this were the case "God" would not be God at all.
The witness of the martyrs is the witness that people are what matter to God.
For me, the fact that Jesus was killed because he accepted the offerings of people other than the religious, means Jesus was killed because he asserted the divine importance of each and every individual in the eyes of God. This is what we mean when we say he died for me.
The gospel that all people matter to God is, for me, worth dying for. And in fact, when one looks at that list of things that, so-called, "ordinary" people do in their ordinary lives, how many of these are all about working for the betterment of other people. We all do this in different ways.
Politicians go into politics to bring about a better society. The people who collect our taxes do it in the hope that they will be used wisely for the benefit of all. So many people work towards an orderly society; the envy of many people; so much so that people are prepared to travel in un-seaworthy vessels at the mercy of unscrupulous operators to face an uncertain "welcome" when they finally reach Australia, if in fact they do. And we so often take these things for granted or complain when so many people don't also come to church.
God does not need us to die for the divine. All the dying that is necessary to be done; has already been done by God. God calls us to live in peace, one with another, and we do this by recognizing and appreciating the contributions others make to our loves and society in general.
Before Stephen died he prayed: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." In other words he prayed that the Lord would accept the offering of himself, that for which he was prepared to die. And the Lord accepted Stephen's offering, just as he accepts my offering and your offering and the offering of each and every person who makes a contribution for the betterment of others and not at the expense of others.
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