The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r096.htm
s096e02 Lockleys Christmass 1 29/12/02
'you are no longer a slave ..." Gal 4.7
I guess that there a multitude of ways of trying to improve society and to get people to "do the right thing". I am reminded of the ladies walking along the path next to the Glenelg beach fearlessly challenging the rider to heed the notices telling bicyclists to use the other path. He retorted that he was in no way endangering anyone or hindering their own enjoyment of the path. Why live your life obeying all the signs? The reality is, of course, if everyone did this - chaos would ensue.
We live in a democratic country, and democracy is an attempt to try to please as many people as possible. Politicians have to convince voters that their policies are the ones which will most benefit the voter, or society in general. Sadly, I suspect the first is often uppermost in importance in many minds. Totalitarian rulers do not have to worry quite so much. They have only to keep people under their control - to keep them enslaved.
I was reading an article on Dr H. C. "Nugget" Combes, former long standing Governor of the Reserve Bank, who once observed that "if, despite the formal structures of representative and ministerial government, decision-making is to become the function of a wider range of groups, the exclusiveness of the relationship between bureaucracy and ministers will be significantly eroded". Perhaps the cynic might conclude that democracy is actually a way of making sure those who really make the decisions are kept well hidden and unaccountable :-) Shades of "Yes Minister", indeed!
I think that it is a reflection of the theology of C. S. Lewis, when he has Edmund complain when he is rushing off through the snow and rocks and fallen tree-trunks to the White Witch's house to betray everyone: "When I'm King of Narnia the first thing I will do will be to make some decent roads." ("The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" page 84) Fixing the world is often at the expense of other people.
As I ponder slavery, I wonder if God has always been in the practice of freeing people. So the people of Israel were brought out of Egypt, not because they were in any sense special, but because they had become enslaved.
I have observed before today that throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, individuals are lifted to their feet after they have fallen prostrate before the divine. The primal dignity of all of humanity, to stand on one's own two feet, will not be taken away. I find the pictures one occasionally sees on TV of "charismatic" preachers "slaying people in the Spirit" - where people fall on their backs and twitch uncontrollably, actually quite demonic. God lifts us to our feet, God restores our self esteem and self control. Never does God take these things away - even for an instant. We are our own worst enemies. It is humanity who feels compelled to fall down in the face of the Almighty - God always raises up.
Every time we offer a helping hand to get someone else 'back on their own two feet" we are doing God's work and will, in a way that motor-mouthed preachers would seem to dismiss.
I have wondered that perhaps the calling of Abraham was a calling out of the confines of home and family - perhaps slavery is too strong a term. The constraints which enslaved him were perhaps as much in Abraham's mind as anywhere else. Perhaps the younger son of the prodigal Father similarly needed to be freed.
I suspect that one of the chief ways we are enslaved is by our perception that our views don't carry much weight, that other people don't take notice of us. It is one of the privileged positions of being a member of the clergy. You have to listen to what I say, even if you don't agree with anything!
My comment earlier on the democratic process sometimes reinforces this view. (These comments refer to the process in Australia). We go to the ballot box because we have to, to vote for people who we hope will reflect our own views, but in fact may well not. Rarely do we vote on "issues" - we have the occasional referendum for those. But politicians are well aware that referendums promoting change are usually lost in Australia. So again most of us think our voice is rarely heard.
And the reality is that even being in a democratic country, there are few of us who actually believe that we are in control of our own lives. (Many of us are married after all :-) Most of us feel powerless against the forces of fate, insatiable industrialisation and global economics. Powerless and therefore enslaved. Few of us feel free. It is no wonder to me that the protesters that regularly try to demonstrate at the IMF and G8 meetings are very passionate. It can seem like the voice of the people is less and less able to be heard.
It is one of the primary tasks of the priest and a parish to enable all people to find their freedom - and their voice. I as a priest and we as a parish need to be able to hear the views of everyone. As someone who regularly gets to sprout their views, I find it is often only once I have expressed the views that I can move on to find further insights, which in fact may modify earlier *truths*. I would not want to claim that I hold the sole truth in its entirety.
Indeed one of the things that keeps me going as a priest is the new insights I get as I sit at my computer and struggle with the readings for the day. Some people would be astonished to find out that I have already done most of my sermon for Good Friday later this year. I did not set out to do it, but one gets an idea and runs with it before it gets lost. If one doesn't learn something new it would soon become stale.
And we learn from the perceptions of other people.
Actually one of the things I have noticed in the workings of this congregation here that people do support one another and their right to put their views even when that particular view doesn't have the majority support. There are a number of people who have made it their ministry to make sure that everyone's views are heard. This is a very healthy sign and it is a very valuable ministry.
Some people solicit my support for this or that, but of course that is a very fatal path for me to take. I can respect the views of everyone even when they hold diametrically opposed opinions to my own. I can see that there are reasons for their belief.
And indeed if I was to take a particular role of supporting this or that person, it may only lead people to think that I am the authority on everything, and their sole job was to comply with me. This is only another form of slavery.
In my planning for this year, I have invited the mission agencies to deputise while I am on holidays. One person responded saying that it was sad that I wouldn't be there to listen to their presentation. The Rector being there "said something" to the congregation. If I supported every possible request and passed it on to you as the congregation, I would have no time to do anything else, and you would feel like your only importance was how much more you could give. I am grateful to the Rev'd Dr Edward Chinn for the story, that "Bishop Sheen (commenting on the parable of the Good Samaritan) once observed wryly that the reason the religious professionals passed by the wounded man was that they saw he had already been robbed." :-)
Actually for me, one of the things which has liberated me from feelings of powerlessness is precisely to realise that appreciation of the views of others. I can have my say just like everyone else. My opinion is no more and no less valid than anyone else's. No one may agree with me and I may come to change my ideas later on. But it liberates me from the persistent idea that I must get my way. I can express a personal diffidence - but just because it is me it doesn't mean it becomes parish policy.
Christ came, St Paul assures us, that we and all people will no longer be enslaved. It is not just us getting our own way, for then others are enslaved. No, we and all people shall be free, free to worship in the manner that we find conformable, free to hold different views, free to be wrong and to grow and change our views, free to listen to others.
For the promise is that we will not be enslaved and that we will be a child of God - not however an only child - but just a child like others too. And the promise is that we will be an heir of the kingdom - not the sole heir - but an heir nevertheless along with others too.
The importance of the plural refers to us as individuals as we relate to those around us, as a congregation as we relate to our neighbouring parishes and the diocese, as the Anglican church as we relate to people of other denominations, as the Christian church as we relate to people of other faiths, as well as us as people of faith as we relate to those of no faith. It is a wonderful promise and well worth while pursuing.
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