The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s094g08 Advent 3 St John's Molong 14/12/2008
'among you stands one whom you do not know' John 1.26
Some people look back to the 'good old days' here in Australia in the 50's as the halcyon days of the Church, when Sunday Schools and Youth Groups were overflowing. But I am not sure that I look back with much fondness.
In the 50's, some parishes would not let girls serve at the Altar let alone admit that women could be ordained, lay people were not allowed to read lessons and certainly not the gospel, worship was still in the language of the 1662 book, women who separated from their husbands were quietly excommunicated, there was no place for divorce, let alone remarriage. In the world contraception was hidden away like the bottle in the brown paper bag. The greatest sin was a girl getting pregnant as if it was her fault alone. Boys' hormones were acceptable but not girls'. Gay and Lesbian persons hid away, too scared to 'come out'. I was intrigued to hear a reference on a television show to 'a 50's marriage' something that we are now fortunate to have got over.
I look at my own boys and marvel at how more academically qualified they are to what I was at their age, how more socially aware, how wider travelled, musically far more adept they even both earn more than I do already! They have been encouraged to stand up and make their contribution - they were not to be seen but not heard a form of abuse if ever there was one.
John the Baptist, rather than looking backward, looked forward. John the Baptist didn't think much of his own ministry, and didn't trumpet his achievements. He looked to someone else and was prepared to play 'second fiddle' to the newcomer. How frequently do we find people doing this? How often do we find clergy deferring to the up and coming generation?
In the Anglican Church we are particularly prone to sanctifying the status quo. There is the old joke about how many Anglicans does it take to change a light globe? Change never! Even the dust is sacred in some churches!
I am grateful to have had my attention recently drawn to a quote of noted author G. K. Chesterton: "The .. church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age" - and I thought how fascinating this is. The two fundamental events that define what our faith is all about are the incarnation and the cross of Jesus. For me, both of these are examples par excellence of willingly entering into the degrading slavery of life as it really is! What else can we be except a child of our own age? Is the Church here to save us from what we really are? Was not Jesus a child of his own age? We are no more called to be imitators of Jesus' Galilean lifestyle as we are to imitate the romantic lifestyle of a Victorian English lady or gentleman. We are called to follow Jesus, willingly entering into the degrading slavery of life as it really is. Hidden in this desire to hold ourselves 'above' the mass of humanity is to deny the incarnation and to crucify Jesus anew, who was killed because he associated with the 'riff-raff' of his day.
It is 50 years since Pope John XXIII was elected to that office, and his biography notes that on the day after Christmass 1958, when most 'normal' clergy are putting up their feet to enjoy some well earned rest: "he left Vatican City again, this time to visit the prison of Regina Coeli. "You could not come to see me so I have come to see you," he told the hastily assembled prisoners with a broad smile. When they cheered lustily, he called out, "Are you glad that I came? Are you glad?" "Viva il Papa!" they yelled back. He stood in the rotunda, four tiers of cells rising above him and all around him, and the men pressing close to the gallery rails to see. "My dear sons, my dear brothers, here, in this place, we are in Our Father's house, too." .. (Later) he raised his arms and his face to them, saying, "To tell you what is in my heart as I speak to you would be impossible. . . . My eyes look into yours‹no, no, do not weep! Be glad that I am here! Are you not glad? I have pressed my heart against yours. The pope has come‹here I am among you‹and, with you, I am thinking of your children, who are your poetry and your sorrow, and of your wives and sisters and mothers." He insisted on walking among them, and had his photograph taken with them. When he came to a section reserved for incorrigibles, sealed off from the rest of the prison, he asked that the gate be opened. "Do not bar me from them‹they are all children of the Lord." Inside, a convicted murderer fell to his knees and begged, "Can there be forgiveness for such as me?" For answer, John raised the convict and embraced him." That is what the Church is all about. ('I Will Be Called John' Lawrence Elliott p271).
Recently I was lent the delightful book "Keep Moving" an account of his life as a swagman during the depression - and in his foreword, Alan Marshall speaks of the author Frank Huelin: 'He was not only an enlightened man; he was a highly articulate one. Not only could he evoke a scene, create atmosphere, he could see himself in relation to the society around him. He saw himself as a part of a struggle in which he stood side by side with many other men experiencing the same conditions as himself. He was never bitter in his conversation, never cruel. He had experienced the finality of the slammed door, but understood that behind it were often problems akin to his own. This clear vision manifests itself in his book. He was always a fighter for justice at a time when such a stand earned one the reputation of being an agitator. Titles were cheap, they meant nothing to Frank Huelin. No matter what title was placed upon him, he always stood for what was fine in human relationships, for what was just in human values.' (p vii)
So we are to look for something better, we are to look forwards rather than look back and attempt to sanctify the past. But in looking forwards we look to associate with others rather than holding ourselves aloof from others.
If we are not to look backwards but forward, actually we are forced to look to those around us. We can only go on together and despite all we might try, we cannot choose those whom God puts around us.
Of course neither holding ourselves aloof or associating with others may in the end actually achieve anything - but holding ourselves aloof will only ensure that the fighting and inequalities of this life will continue as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Association with others at least holds out the possibility of peace. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce which is more likely to be doing God's will!
John the Baptist looked around him for spiritual companionship for someone to hand on the baton of faith. He knew and said as much that his contribution would be eclipsed by this other person and he welcomed that fact. He knew that the contribution the other would make would be different from his own. He only baptised with water.
I suppose that the present financial turmoil and the prospect of global warming could easily turn us inward, but there is much joy to our present existence as we are a far more accepting and caring community. I think that the Church has actually had a lot to do with this, though often with her children who have taken the real message of the Church out into the world that God so dearly loves. I suspect that they have left because the church has often seemed only concerned with a romantic ideal of a future resurgence for its own sake. I often think that we in the church only want others to come to church to admire, perpetuate and consecrate the contribution of past generations, when our real job is to recognise, facilitate and consecrate the contributions of others, whether they make those contributions in the church or in the world in which Jesus came to be born. For it is their contributions to the world and society that has really brought about that transformation in society that I spoke of earlier and which we often take for granted.
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