The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r095.htm
s095e02 Advent 4 Lockleys 22/12/02
"the obedience of faith" Romans 16.26
When I think of the phrase "the obedience of faith" I think of all the precepts and doctrines by which we must live our lives, whether we like them or not - and of course mostly we don't like them! None of us like doing what we're told, least of all me :-)
I can remember being told, when I was young and one of those sinners who smoked :-), that I was polluting the temple of God, and I should give it up immediately and give the money I saved to the Church. Strange that they were having a stewardship campaign at that time :-) It was very kind and helpful of the person to give me this very worthy advise. Would that it was as easy as this! Having now given up smoking, I know just how hard that is to do. I certainly wouldn't be game to have even one cigarette, even now after many years.
I am reminded of the lovely section in Monty Python's "the Meaning of Life" where the husband (Graham Chapman) was avidly explaining that it was the mark of the Protestant to be able to use contraception, while his wife (Eric Idle) looked on wistfully, just wishing he'd do it more often :-)
It is easy to get weighed down with these sorts of things - I suppose I have been for most of my life, and I should not want to claim that I'm free of them now. Yet both Jesus and St Paul often seek to relieve us of any such anxiety. "Do not worry about tomorrow" says Jesus in Matthew chapter 6.34 and St Paul says "I want you to be free from all anxieties" in 1 Corinthians chapter 7.32.
And these words of St Paul about the obedience of faith are set in a hymn of praise to God. Does this mean that not only do we have to do what we're told but be happy and joyful when we do? "God loves a cheerful giver" does not in fact mean that God loves a reluctant giver less.
St Paul is not here burdened under a great weight of strictures to which to adhere. His praise is genuine, not forced. St Paul is not putting on a "brave face", when he would really prefer to be out raping and pillaging with his mates.
Interestingly these words are set to be read with the passage in 2 Samuel where David is promised that he would be blessed by God. He thought that he was called to do something for God. Nathan the prophet declares that God was going to do something for David.
And again, the reading for the gospel is the annunciation to Mary that she was to bear God's son. Now most women I know (of that age and stage of life) welcome pregnancy - perhaps those here today in the congregation might be less than pleased :-) The bearing of a child is one of those things that women rightfully feel is a fulfilment of their being. Of course, pregnancy is no "bed of roses". But generally it is natural and welcomed. It would be far more surprising, in those days, for a sixteen year old girl to not expect to be pregnant within a year or two. The announcement would be greeted with excitement not - oh here something else to do for the Lord after I've finished polishing the brass altar rails :-)
No, even after some reflection, Mary is able to sing that song of praise to God, the Magnificat, which is set in place of a psalm today.
Our faith is not a set of rules and regulations to which we have to adhere. It is not a set of rules and regulations for us, and nor is it for anyone else. Other people do not have to live up to our expectations before they can be a part of our community and fellowship.
Nor does our faith revolve around a political agenda. I believe that it is right and proper that our Archbishop calls our community to be open and welcoming towards asylum seekers. But we are not all called to march down the streets in protest however. I personally feel more comfortable helping with conversational English classes. I personally feel uncomfortable with those who get "hot under the collar" (on either side of the debate) and make allegations which cannot be substantiated, one way or another, in an effort to stir others up - but if the truth was known perhaps this sort of political action is necessary. People will express welcome in all sorts of ways.
Neither is our faith something we do on Sunday morning, a ritual, the meaning of which we are somewhat unsure, but which we hope will save us from pain, misfortune and grief. If we live and love as we are bidden, some pain, misfortune and grief are inevitable, for they are but the other side of the love we hold - indeed bidden to do so. I am reminded of the time when the disciples were in the boat, struggling against a head wind. Mark's account says that Jesus meant to pass them by (Mark 6.48). I take it from this that Jesus' primary ministry was not to make things easier for a select few disciples - those who held the right faith, those who made the appropriate prayers, or those who were suitably compliant.
Our faith is about a gracious and loving God who reaches out to all people in welcome and fellowship, and bids us to do likewise. The faith that I hold brings me into contact with other people, people who have as much to contribute to my life as I may have some snippet to contribute to theirs. So this is a joyful and affirming relationship where I as much as the other benefit.
But even as I type these words this is not just an optional extra, something we can do to have a fuller and richer life should we choose to do so. We take on this life of faith - in obedience. Blessings will indeed come, but we take it on because this is what we should do. The reality is that sometimes in the short term the blessings might not be all that obvious, but in the long term humanity will benefit as we live and love in this way. Or, put the other way, society will certainly continue to suffer the effects of terrorism, if we neglect the other.
And God commands this sort of openness to others because there is enough in this world, indeed there is enough in the bible itself where it can be read as if the obvious thing to do is to magnify divisions rather than reduce them.
I was astonished to read in the obituary column of the "Advertiser" on the 14th of December, (page 76) an account of Lucy Stirling's life. It is an instance where the Church has in fact changed to stop putting expectations on other people. Perhaps some of you don't know Lucy Stirling, but she was Diocesan President of the Mothers' Union some years ago. Under the heading "Trailblazer for women" it reported: "In the 1960's, the Mothers Union did not permit divorcees to remain members. Since the organisation is headquartered in London, it was not easy for those who believed this was wrong to change the rules. So Lucy organised all the Mothers' Union women to give a shilling a month until they collected enough to pay for a delegation to London to change (at least for Australia) the rules which forbade divorced women from being members of the union." And of course this was successful. But there are still women who were so scarred by the previous rules and will still have nothing to with what can be a very supportive organisation.
And God commands us, because it is so easy to get side-tracked into doing other things. So the Church has often spent it's time trying to get others to think, believe or act in the same way as herself - mainly in matters of worship - getting bums on pews. The Church has used all sorts of inducements and threats in this task, carrots and sticks, promising eternal bliss for the compliant or eternal damnation for the recalcitrant. Indeed sometimes I have thought that coming to Church has been seen as a license to do anything during the rest of the week. It's all forgiven once the priest waves the magic hand in absolution. Nothing could be further from the truth.
And God commands us because it is easy for me to become self centred, and I guess I'm no different from anyone else.
I found myself saying recently as a number of people are wondering about the upsurge in fundamentalism in recent years - it is not just Islamic fundamentalism - it is Christian fundamentalism too - I found myself saying that perhaps this upsurge is a response to the openness of the Internet. It is just so easy for people to now expose themselves to all sorts of views about all sorts of things. Of course there is much that is salacious on the internet, but even this availability breaks down the authority of traditional beliefs. Such openness is perceived as dangerous - it is reported that China restricts access to Internet search engines. People might come across too many democratic views?
The obedience of faith means that we reach out to the other (as we are able) because this is what God wants us to do. We will do it in different ways, for we all have an element of shyness, it is just that some manage to hide their shyness from others rather more successfully. However we do this, in covert ways or overt, we will be blessed and we will be a blessing to others, as we are meant to be.
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