The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s109g09 Sixth Sunday of Easter 17/5/2009
'your joy may be complete' John 15.12
I suppose I am no different than most who look at the conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua and the tribes of Israel as a fairly unhelpful paradigm of ministry. The concept of complete annihilation of the existing peoples 'the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites' (Joshua 3.10) seems unnecessarily brutal. It seems so exclusivist, so final. I guess I am not alone in wondering just what is going on here. And no doubt early white colonists in our country used this as justification to kill indigenous people with impunity.
The rationale given is that the other nations have to be destroyed lest the Israelites choose to worship the gods of the nations rather than Yahweh. This again seems self-centred, even egocentric. Is God really like this?
But as I thought about it I began to realize that the gods of the nations in the Promised Land were all about: 'I was here first it's all mine go away you interloper!' And this same god can masquerade as the 'christian' god as any other. So the white invaders came to dominate the indigenous nations as they feared domination.
The theme: 'I was here first' recurs throughout scripture. Lot and his family were strangers and sojourners in Sodom, and the **real** inhabitants made quite sure Lot his family and any of his visitors knew who ran **their** town.
The Israelite tribes in Egypt were seen as 'Johnnie come latelys', and the prosperity of their presence that had brought Egypt through the drought years now threatened the establishment and they were persecuted.
And of course Jesus was killed because he didn't demur to the authority of the hierarchy and do as he was expected.
I reflect that often Anglican parishes are founded on the principle of the sanctity of the past, so that newcomers are only here to admire and maintain that legacy, and never make any of their own unique contribution.
Recently I was given a parish paper which talked about a conversation between a 'christian' and a 'non-christian' - about how the 'non-christian' had to be convicted of sin and turn to the Lord to become a 'christian' and I certainly see parallels between this and plain old colonialism. Others have to accept their subservience and conform.
This 'god' of the established, the 'superior', has to be destroyed, for as we have seen in the altogether brief summary above, it still reigns supreme. It appears again and again to infect our spirituality. I'm right they're wrong it's them who have to change and conform - not me! I have the weight of scripture, tradition, or the gifts of the spirit to prove it?!
Jesus promises us: 'your joy may be complete' but the evidence of centuries is that spiritual selfishness is only personal selfishness writ large. It affects generations, not individuals. While the victor's joy might be real it will inevitably be short-lived as those who are marginalised and alienated hit back. The world resumes its spiral into internecine warfare so familiar to us all.
The third of the ten commandments is: 'You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.' (Exodus 20.7) How little harm is done by a non-church person using the name of God or Jesus as an expletive, in contrast to how much harm is done by a member of the church marginalising and alienating how many millions of others in the name of some 'god' or other and there is no insight to the magnitude of this harm at all.
Again, often those suffering mental illness have no insight as to how unwell they are - when it is blatantly obvious to those around them. These people usually only harm themselves and those they love. So, should we be surprised when those with religious and thoroughly 'orthodox' delusions have similarly no insight into how unwell they are and how they are seen as people to avoid, rather than people who might bring joy?
It is not insignificant that Lot and Sodom has been interpreted to be about homosexuality it gives some people joy to alienate a minority.
If the church is in a parlous state, it may be that we haven't destroyed the gods of possession, domination and superiority from amongst us. It seems we have imitated rather than destroyed the gods of the nations around us. Was not this why Lot's wife looked back? She envied the power of the establishment who were able to intimidate others.
Again the 'church' often speaks about personal sin and this usually affects only the person and those they love. How infrequently the 'church' speaks about institutional sin, the sin of possession of 'god' and how this marginalizes and alienates millions of others. Did not Jesus say: 'if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless.'? (Matthew 12.7)
What would make our joy complete? If you were to carry most theologies to their logical extreme, we would want all people to become Christian, Anglican or whatever. Everyone would go to church each Sunday, believe in identical terms, enjoy the same form of music, tithe, live wholesome lifestyles and not disturb our peace. Well, we have got buckley's chance of this ever coming about, and what a boring place it would be if it did! Of course it is all based on the premise that our joy is dependent on others fitting in with **our** perceptions of what is right and proper. Of course **our** perceptions of what is right and proper are the only ones that are identical with 'god's'?! And what power over us we give to other people! It is a recipe for failure, for others will delight in aggravating us if we are silly enough to give them such power. We will live very sad, disappointed and frustrated lives. Nothing of the joy God wants for all.
Jesus tells us that the fruit that we will bear will last. The most obvious lasting things are the great churches and cathedrals. They seem to be able to last forever. Yet their maintenance is a huge millstone around the necks of succeeding generations. How many countless people exercise their Christian vocation keeping someone else's monument presentable? I love buildings, but I don't think it is an act of love to condemn others to maintain my memorial. Not eternal joy.
And I wouldn't be sure but I don't think anyone who built a church or cathedral is much remembered beyond his or her family. None of the great saints built buildings. The church St Francis built was human, not stone.
What would make me joyful is if there was no fighting over religion. Surely people will always do the wrong thing, there will still be sickness and grief. But it ought not to be complicated by people criticising or condemning others over matters of faith.
Of course it was ever thus. The first murder when Cain killed Abel was because Cain perceived that God accepted his brother's offering over his own. So the knowledge of good and evil is not especially life giving! But we read these words again and again and continue to believe that we are right and everyone else is wrong and they will go to hell because that is how God is!
And it makes me wonder if this is the real essence of sin and how we can actually live sinless lives as Jesus himself promises us. When we associate with other people in equality rather than competitively, then despite our failures, we are without sin. And this points up the hollowness of the perceptions of those 'christians' who demand **others** repent of their sins completely oblivious to the fact that this shows up how unloving **they** themselves are!
Our God is a God of joy not competition. I remember once, a long time ago visiting an Anglican College and a teacher spoke about the Holy Spirit being built up in students as they competed on the sports field. Not being a sports-person my heart quailed within me. God is a God of acceptance, someone who builds people up so that they might become all that they were meant to be. God encourages, not as an ever dissatisfied coach, but someone who is gentle and accepting of where we are at and prepared to be with us as we go at our own pace.
How easy it is for me to type these words, and I need to hear them as much as anyone else! God deals with everyone equally as gently.
God created this world for joy, not for competition. If we as the church only contribute to the competition then is it any wonder that the world sees nothing in us that is different or likely to bring blessing for anyone other than the members of the church? Who really looks at the church and gets the impression that we are joyful?
God created this world for joy, and for our joy to be complete, it must extend to everyone, and we have a part to play in bringing this about.
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