The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s096g08 Christmass 1 Molong
'a light for revelation to the Gentiles' Luke 2.32
As you may have gathered I have been thinking about how the Church operates, and I guess this has come about because in the last three years I have been given the opportunity to look at the Church (for the first time) from the outside. When one is a parish priest one is so busy maintaining the status quo one really has little opportunity to look beyond this. Operating as a chaplain, I not only work ecumenically across the denominations but across faiths - as well as to those who profess no particular faith. For anyone who has done this, one soon recognises the enormous depth of spirituality that exists among people professing faiths other than Christian and in people who would deny that they were religious at all. In the psychiatric hospital setting I find myself thinking how heroic lives some of these people lead. It is astonishing how some people carry on with the multitude of difficulties they face.
One of the things that has guided me in this theological path is the realisation that we are all disciples, and as disciples we only follow Jesus. Therefore we will never go anywhere that Jesus has not already been. So I've never taken Jesus to anyone. The maximum I can do is to try to find out where Jesus has already been present in some other person's life and to rejoice with them that this is so.
We believe in the risen Christ, so that Jesus did not remain within that tomb, and he continues to go before each and every one of us.
Simeon glimpsed this promise of God, that God was not the God of the Jews alone, but was the God of all people. Now he could happily die in peace!
Someone said to me recently that they appreciated me visiting them because I didn't talk about religion, and it made me think of the reason I don't do this, for it would impose on others my ideas about faith, which are indeed relevant to me, but as likely as not quite different to their ideas about faith.
I was ordained as a priest in the church of God, not a priest of the Church of England or the Anglican Church of Australia. We recognise, sometimes, that other people do worship differently and that they too are, probably, also members of this church of God. But this is a dangerous concept, for it subverts much of our own raison d'etre.
These words show that right at the birth of Jesus, Simeon points us to the fact that this Jesus is for all people, which in the language of his day was expressed by including Jew and Gentile. We see in the ministry of Jesus that he had dinner at the homes of both Simon the Pharisee and Simon the leper. We see in the ministry of Jesus, him being criticised for associating with the tax collectors and the prostitutes; and (as I often say) being killed for doing so.
So this leads me to wonder how we as the Anglican Church of Australia measure up. Do we operate as if we listen to the religious experiences of all people and validate them or do we maintain the especial dignity of the Anglican way of doing things.
One of the things about being a bishop is that he or she is supposed to be the figure of unity in a diocese and the church. But how does anyone be a symbol of unity when one part of the church doesn't actually want to be in communion with another part of the church. Who would be the Archbishop of Canterbury today!
One of the great things about the Anglican Church is that we are episcopally and synodically governed. But the problem is that parish and diocesan councils and synod represent only those committed Anglicans and usually this means committed to the status quo.
Now I suppose in essence I don't have any particular difficulty with the status quo, but one doesn't have to go very far to find someone else equally committed to their status quo. One finds such people both inside the Anglican Church as well as outside 'our' denomination. Anyone with their ear to the ground and a modicum of computer expertise will find an enormous variety of people for whom their 'status quo' bears no relationship to ours. If we are reasonably open minded then we will find value in the Buddhist meditation practices, we will be humble enough to recognise that God can appear in different guises to different people and so the pantheon of the gods in Hindu belief is not unreasonable, even though we would maintain that God is one. I mean the list is endless. And one of the interesting things is that while we might say (confidently?) that Anglicans say the Nicene Creed in good faith, I would venture to say that many wonder why they are making such a statement which bears so little congruence with how they would want to express their own faith.
If the synodical side of our government actually addressed the spirituality of all people then this would indeed be valuable. I recall being told that a bishop once remarked after a synod that it was a good synod nothing happened! When the parish council or synod is not concerned to represent the tax collectors and prostitutes, then it behoves the priest or Bishop to try to encourage this otherwise the busyness of maintaining the status quo is all that gets discussed.
Some clergy assume that lay people actually believe what they say in sermons! In my young days I recall our family discussing what the Rector said in his sermon that morning over the Sunday roast. I can't remember what theological perceptions were espoused there or even whether they were predominantly pro or anti for I was the youngest of three boys and much of this debate went over my head.
So how can a priest or bishop be a symbol of unity in a divided denomination, in a divided church, in a divided world, all desperately clinging to their own version of the 'status quo' and so essentially clinging to division and dissension? Is it any wonder that the 'status quo' with its continuing divisions and antipathy continues?
If someone wants to suggest that this continuing division and dissension is what Jesus came to live and to die for then one might well wonder why God bothered! We would have managed to maintain this 'status quo' without such a sacrifice!
Simeon points us to an integration of Jew and Gentile; Jesus points us to an integration of the religious and the irreligious, indeed the incarnation itself points us to an integration of the sacred and the secular.
And I want to return to the business of busyness. I, and I guess I am not on my own, got so busy being the personal chaplain to the hundred or so committed people in a parish that there was no time or energy for anything else. The system seems to actively discourage anything other than this busyness in order to avoid change. It is little wonder that clergy experience high rates of burn-out.
Recently I was impressed to see a scheme where people from industry were going into schools to mentor students. The comment was made in the TV report that it served to broadened the horizons of the students and so gave them hope. The root meaning of 'salvation' is to make broad, and salvation brings hope to people.
And of course, if we are so committed to the preservation of **our** 'status quo it is not especially surprising that the church of our 'status quo' is dying no matter how brilliant a preacher, how much wit and charm or whatever a particular bishop or priest has. For "unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain." Psalm 128.1
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"