The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s099g06 Lent 2 12/3/06
"Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering" Mark 8.31
I have no idea who the person was who began the saying that life itself is a sexually transmitted terminal illness, I suspect in response to the hysteria surrounding AIDS a decade or so ago. It seems some people suffer more than others, yet appearances can be deceiving. Some of the greatest people suffered mental illness. Winston Churchill, who inspired Great Britain to hold out against the attacks from Nazi Germany suffered from depression; Spike Milligan the amazing actor and comic suffered from Bipolar Disorder and John Nash the Nobel Prize winning mathematician suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. These are widely revered. In fact, of course. there are few people who escape without episodes of illness, physical or mental, during their lives.
I think of the families of those young people killed at Mildura a few weeks ago, or the thousands in the Philippines killed in the mudslides. The amount of grief that so many people have to contend with is beyond my comprehension. My little griefs and woes seem miniscule by comparison.
But in this I can rejoice, that while I have not lived a sinless life or a life free of suffering, I have not deliberately been the cause of someone else's grief -- and I suspect that this applies as much to you as it does to me. Generally I have been content to "live and let live".
I have no desire to kill someone because they do not follow the faith in precisely the same terms as I do and I am quite happy for people who do not profess the faith precisely as I do to live in the same community as me.
I do not threaten people with eternal damnation if they do not profess the faith as I do. After 29 years of full time parish ministry and 3 years of full time theological study before that, I am only now beginning to feel confident of what I actually believe. If others are unsure of where they actually stand, then I am happy to give them time.
I do not ask others to live in the manner in which I have been brought up. I was brought up to believe that Australia had essentially one culture and that this would prevail. This was not "drummed into me" -- it was simply how my parents saw the world -- because they had little or no other experience that would have modified this. White, anglo-celtic, and heterosexual was the "norm" and would prevail. While my parents were aware of people who were other than these things, they saw these as a minority and of little account. They would, I think, have recognised their right to exist, but would have doubted that they would make much of a mark on our society. Today we rejoice at the variety of people who make up our community, the contribution that others make to our existence, and the standard set by the word "normal" has perhaps diminished and "tolerance" has replaced it. We are allowed to be individuals, and we ask only that others be tolerant of our individuality as we are of theirs. I wonder if "Norm" the "couch potato" in the "Life be in it" campaign has served to aid this as well.
I recall the former primate, the Most Rev'd Peter Carnley preaching that "tolerance" was not the gospel -- the gospel calls us to "love" not "tolerate", and I have considerable sympathy with this sentiment. I wonder if our appreciation of pizza and spaghetti bolognaise has changed our tolerance of Italians into something rather more positive. I wonder if our appreciation of Asian cuisine has changed our tolerance of Asians into something more positive. I wonder if our appreciation of their openness to sexuality has changed our tolerance of gay and lesbian people into something more positive too. I certainly hope so.
In all these things, what is "normal" is becoming considerably less important, and this is, in my humble opinion, a good thing.
Computers do have their uses. A quick search of the Old and New Testaments shows that the word "normal" is never used in relation to a human being.
In the process of my recent move, I recalled a ditty one of my theological college colleagues use to recite: "How odd of God -- to choose the Jews" and it came to me that the Jews were always on the move. Abraham was sent off to distant lands; Joseph preceded the tribes sojourn into Egypt. Later they returned to the Promised Land but only to be later dispersed. Again some returned, but again in 70 AD the Temple was destroyed. It is only in relatively recent years that the nation of Israel has become again something of a reality. They were always on the move, and most often they were a great blessing to the nations in which they were exiled. Egypt, the bible tells us, prospered greatly under the stewardship of Joseph. This very mobility was somewhat unique and perhaps their real Promised Land was what Jesus would term the Kingdom of God -- a place of peace for all nations and tribes and cultures. It is easy to stick in one place, but to achieve this one must come into contact with others -- and hence the importance of mobility. If the Egyptians prospered from the presence of the tribes of Israel so long ago, and our Australia has been enriched by the presence of other cultures in our midst, then perhaps we might be encouraged to continue to look at the newcomer, the person who is different, as someone who brings blessings by being allowed to be themselves rather than conform to our expectations.
For it was those who couldn't accept that Jesus the newcomer, the person who was different, had any blessings to bring, who crucified him. Much suffering comes through our unwillingness to accept the newcomer in our midst.
Real suffering makes us mindful of the suffering of others and the need for and the blessedness of compassion between human beings. Those who haven't suffered much are content to remain "self-made" men and women and be aloof from others.
So while we might suffer, we might also take some heart that our suffering may have brought us closer to our fellow human beings, and caused us to be wary of imposing any standard of normality on others who are simple new or different, and initiating or exacerbating their suffering.
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