s094g11 Advent 3  11/12/2011

‘I am not the Messiah ..’  John 1.20

Recently one of my colleagues resigned from one parish to take up an appointment in another parish.   He said that one of the people had commented that they were sorry to see him go and said that they thought that he would be there longer.   It was not a ‘plum’ parish and had difficulty attracting clergy, and in fact he had been there considerably longer than most of his predecessors.

And this started me thinking how we make the person of the priest / minister important, and consider our relationship with him or her of more importance to our relationship with other members of the congregation; and by extension our relationship with the congregation to be more important than our relationship to others we might meet in our daily lives and work.  Similarly we consider our relationship with God more important than our relationship to others, and how the church has aided and abetted this.   It is not so long ago that Catholics weren’t permitted to enter a Protestant Church and vice versa.   I know of ‘Anglicans’ who would leave if a woman priest was to lead a service.

I am beginning to read Richard Holloway’s book: ‘Between the Monster and the Saint – Reflections on the Human Condition’.   In it he quotes J Gilligan who says ‘The prison inmates I work with have told me repeatedly, when I asked them why they had assaulted someone, that it was because ‘he disrespected me’ .. ‘chronically violent men .. have abbreviated it into the slang term, ‘he dis’ed me’.’ (p11)

And again, the church has a long history of disrespecting others.   We have condemned those who do not believe like us, worship like us and live in the manner that we consider appropriate to eternal damnation, which is a pretty effective way of expressing our disrespect!

My concern is that in the Church, our putting someone on a pedestal, be that the vicar, the bishop, the church or God, means that we can disrespect others with impunity.   Later Holloway quotes Hannah Arendt’s estimation of the Nazi, Otto Adolf Eichmann, that ‘he never realised what he was doing’ (p26).  

The preacher in the church I attended recently spoke about our vision for the Church, that it is there to make the world a more equitable and loving place, and I thought: how fabulous!   Clearly he didn’t believe that the church is achieving this because the parish is soliciting opinions of the congregation in a vision and mission questionnaire.   But during the service there was a baptism, and the words from the prayer book made me wonder if the child baptised was being made special (so that we can disrespect others who have not been so baptised)?   Do we realise what we are doing?

In a press report recently it was stated that young people give the Bible a miss.   "They don't see relevance to their lives today,"  "They are not even certain God exists  ... if they're uncertain about that, why would they read a book about him?"   http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/young-people-giving-good-book-a-miss/story-e6frea6u-1226207424686   Again, my problem is that some people read the Bible and see there a calling to disrespect others – people who don’t read the Bible like them, people who don’t go to Church, people who don’t believe in God, people who don’t live up to their expectations of a moral life, who express their intimate affections with people without the churches sanction – when and with whom.   Do we realise what we are doing?
But, lest I be perceived as being constantly negative, I was heartened to read the report of a denomination recognising the harm done in the past to new mothers and children when their babies were forcibly put out for adoption because the mother was unmarried.   It was a compulsion of which they, and others, were complicit.   http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/uniting-church-admits-to-forced-adoption/story-e6frea83-1226209667836   This is the latest in a series of practices which were just taken for granted as normal, the ‘stolen generation’ of indigenous children, the forgotten generation of children sent to Australia for a ‘better’ life, and the realisation of the extent of child molestation by clergy and laity in church and secular organisations.   And it makes me ponder, who really wants to return to the halcyon days of the church in the 50’s?

It was not just John the Baptist who distanced himself from claims to special status, Jesus regularly did likewise.   And I suspect that we who believe ourselves to be followers of Jesus need to follow the same example and distance ourselves from any pretentions of specialness, both personally and corporately.   There seems to me to be little point in me doing this personally, when the church corporate completely negates my example in my limited networks.

These words come to me again: ‘On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?'    Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'  (Matthew 7.22-23) and ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.   If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor.13.1-3)
Richard Holloway quotes Gitta Sereny: ‘Empathy is finally a gift’. (p27)  And this makes me wonder if we would be better translating Luther’s mantra that we are saved by empathy alone.   This would seem to preserve a dependence on grace, decry any sense of separation and resolve the faith - works debate.

And it is not just specialness in people.   The church regularly ‘consecrates’ places to make sacred spaces.   In a maternity hospital, what is more sacred, the chapel or the birthing unit?   I do know that it is good to be able to go to a space to be with others.   As someone who used to regularly practice Yoga, going to classes each week was indispensible for my daily practice sessions.   Yet this can be taken as if what we do in real life is not sacred.

What we do in church is actually to consecrate bread and wine to be taken, eaten and drunk, by those who are the most sacred things in the world, those in the congregation, those for whom Christ died, in the hope that they will in turn be empathetic enough to feed others.

We in the Church are expected to know what we are on about.   This was one of the reasons I was so appreciative of the preacher saying that the church is to be a force for equity and justice in the world.   This is the sort of thing the world wants to hear, because it is what they too want for society.   The trouble with asking congregations for their vision of the church is that all the training we have given them, they will only come up with things that will tinker around the edges, like lay participation and even lay presidency – all designed to retain the specialness of the church.   We have so inculcated the need for the church to be special that it is almost incongruous to suggest anything else.

We do need strength and courage to practice empathy, and we need to unlearn some of the things we have thought to be precious.   I continue to have to do this.   Indeed the exercise of preparing sermons is for me to learn this for myself.   It is a journey for us all to realise that we are not special, that we are just the same as everyone else, and the best thing we can possibly do is to realise that we are all in the same boat and try to get along with others whoever they are, whatever they believe, no matter what name they use for God, and no matter with whom they choose to share their intimate affections.

And we are saved by empathy alone, because 'we' is not 'me' writ large or 'us' as distinct from others.   Society as a whole can be save by empathy alone, not by myself being saved and in a supposed special relationship with the Almighty, or by us in the church being saved and in a supposed special relationship with God.

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