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s116g12   Sunday 4  29/1/2012

 ‘A new teaching -- with authority!’   Mark 1.27

I wonder if we should not begin by pondering whether the exclamation mark should be a question mark.   Is it a new teaching and what is it, if it is?

In the past weeks we have been reading about the birth and call of the prophet Samuel.   It is all very picturesque until one realises that Samuel’s protector, the priest Eli first charged Samuel’s mother Hannah with being drunk.   Eli knew only too well the continuing abuses that his own sons were committing, and his inability to curb those abuses, and yet he lashes out on a defenceless woman.   And I guess there have been times when I’ve been less than charitable when I’ve felt powerless in my own life.   God calls the young 'orphan' Samuel to denounce the very person who had become a father-figure to him, and to denounce that father-figure’s own natural sons.   Little wonder that he tries to avoid the confrontation.

Samuel is called to cleanse the Temple of those who were unclean, the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, those who considered the offerings of the poor to belong to them rather than to God.   And the man with the unclean spirit realised that Jesus too was there to cleanse the synagogue and the Temple of those who considered the offerings of the poor their own personal possession.

I have often reflected that the words the minister or priest uses at the offertory as he or she lifts the collection, symbolically giving it to God, is the least recognised.   So often the collection remains the property of those who have contributed, to one or two treasurers I have met, and to the parish.   In times past stewardship campaigns have lauded large contributions and glossed over seemingly less significant ones.   It sounded as if some were taking the credit for the generosity of others.   What has Jesus to do with this?  

Again, it is easy to personalise this, when we really need to look at the wider picture.   As a church do we regard parishioners as ‘ours’?   Do we rate truth by the number of supporters it seems we have?   High church, liturgical, evangelical, bible faithful, charismatic?   Are the offerings of others somehow ours?  

The offerings that are acceptable to God are our own and not other peoples’.   The story of the prophet Nathan having to rebuke King David by using the illustration of the rich man taking his poor neighbour’s lamb to feed his unexpected guest tells us that the sacrifices we make to God must be our own and not someone else’s.   So it seems to me that God will not be impressed if we offer the fact that we’ve successfully kept others from using modern contraceptives, and then criticised governments for failing to help when the millions of children born live lives of poverty, illness and premature death as a result of our dictates.   Similarly God will not be impressed if we offer the fact that we’ve successfully stopped gay and lesbian persons from sharing their intimate affections.   It may be that some people are given the gift of celibacy, but that does not give anyone an authority to impose this on others.

No, the teaching is not new, for God’s defence of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the oppressed, the poor and the outcast is as much Old Testament as it is New.   God’s deliverance of the ancient people of God from Egypt was to release them from slavery.   The words of the Magnificat, the song of joy Mary proclaims when visiting Elizabeth is a faithful echo of the song of Hannah, Samuel’s mother. (1 Samuel 2.3-5,8) ‘Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.   The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.   The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. .. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.’  (Luke 1.51-53)

Religion of any flavour can be a force for evil.   We rightly wonder what motivates suicide bombers but fail to appreciate that some forms of ‘christianity’ and Anglicanism blithely condemn others to eternal damnation.   There is a form of double-speak when we quote Jesus’ saying: ‘no one comes to the Father but by me’ to mean that ‘no one comes to the Father but by us’ and ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ as if Jesus actually meant ‘God so hates 99.999% of humanity that God sent his only son so that 99.999% can be even more assured of eternal damnation and the .001% of the population who thinks and worships like me can exalt as those other multitude will be condemned to look on while God serves me at the heavenly banquet’.  (Ps 23.5)   Now perhaps ‘god’ might indeed be like this but I suggest that one cannot ever suggest that this is a god of love, and such a ‘god’ is more like a demon in disguise and certainly not worth worshipping.   One would only worship such a ‘god’ out of fear.   What has Jesus got to do with this?

No, Jesus reflects accurately the loving God of the Old Testament, but then, as now, the orthodox and the devout can get it entirely wrong.

But yes, it is a new teaching, in the sense that the activities of Hophni and Phineas in abusing the poor and the ordinary are typical of much that passes for religion, than as now.   As St Paul says: ‘some have become so accustomed to idols’.   Sadly there remains a need for others like Samuel and Jesus to this day, not to magnify themselves but to clear away those who would use and abuse others in the name of God.

It is a new teaching – that we are called to ‘do to others’ as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7.12) – not that this is new except in the sense that it gets put aside as a whole lot of other ‘church’ things which assume an importance which means that we do unto only .001% of the rest of humanity.   Jesus will have nothing to do with this.

At this present time much of the Anglican Church is considering an Anglican Covenant.   It is supposed to form a basic document describing our relationships one with another.   But Jesus ‘new’ command, to ‘do unto others’ is not just to Anglican colleagues, but also to gay and lesbian persons.   For me the covenant uses ‘double speak’ to limit the number of people with whom we have to ‘do unto others’, and the history of the Church is littered with this sort of thinking.   It seems that the church has made a habit of disregarding Jesus’ words: ‘For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?   Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?   And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?’  (Matthew 5.46)

So perhaps this ‘new’ teaching is only the old but directed towards christianity and Anglicanism - to stop trying to get individuals to live charitable lives but to live by her own precepts in the corporate sense.   For again, no matter how well I personally ‘do unto (the few) others’ I may happen to meet, while the church corporate is neglecting this, others will look on God and the church with complete disbelief.

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