s117o03 Lockleys Epiphany 5 9/2/2003

"My right has been disregarded by my God" Isa 40.27

The text at the end of this passage: "Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint", were, I think, the favourites of the members of the Mothers Union, who used this passage regularly in their prayers before council meetings. The Mothers Union in the Diocese is afflicted with the reality that young parents are so often not at home any more. The focus of people's lives is no longer the home and suburb where they live. Nowadays in Australia the focus of people's lives is their work environment and the child-care centre nearby. As a consequence the ability of young people to have a ministry in a local parish is severely reduced, and organisations like the Mothers Union which traditionally had a wonderful ministry of support for young mothers, have suffered accordingly, simply through lack of numbers. Of course contraception means that people can (sometimes) choose when they have children and how many they have.

And I must admit, I have sometimes felt when I have come into parishes, that the energy and enthusiasm able to be brought to bear on particular causes has been lessened as congregations dwindled. Newer members have wanted not simply to replicate the activities of the past but to do new things. So often in the past parishes have been kept busy, for then the opportunity for disagreements is lessened. There is a considerable amount of truth in the saying that: "The devil finds work for idle hands." Yet in some ways I wonder if freedom of thought has been subtly (or sometimes less than subtly :-) discouraged, and healthy debate avoided. Even if new people were to try to maintain what has gone before, inevitably something will be ever so slightly different and may earn some comment. I have no doubt that the popularity of the "newer" denominations has little to do with styles of worship and everything to do with being able to do new things, to make their mark, without forever having to look over one's shoulder fearing the reaction of the previous generation.

As time has marched on, the level of activity hasn't been able to be sustained through shear advancing age, and sometimes parishioners lament the inability to go on forever as it seemed might have been the case years ago. Older faithful people find they are still being called on to do what they have been doing for 40 years or more. When will it ever be that there are young ones ready and willing to take their places?

Yet many of us will also happily testify to our own experience where we have felt the strengthening of the Lord in our lives even as increasing infirmity seems to loom ever closer.

Recently a person in Melbourne Caroline Miley has written a book about the Anglican Church, suggesting we are suicidal! (http://www.media.anglican.com.au/miley.html for extracts) Inevitably (!?) we are criticised for being allergic to evangelism, addicted to "niceness", bound by concepts of middle class ideals of "family", bureaucratic, with clergy unsure of their "real" role. I have not read the book, and I would be hopeful that the author makes some useful suggestions about how some of these things can be addressed.

Yet I would make the point that the mission of Jesus is essentially suicidal. Jesus could have avoided the Cross. Orthodoxy tells us that Jesus could have in fact done so. We avoid using the word "suicidal" because we think that Jesus was unique in that he accepted death for other people. We unjustly think that those who commit suicide are only thinking of themselves. The reality is that many elderly people just don't want to be a burden on others - though even this can have a less than noble side if we want to retain - even to the bitter end - our independence.

We seem to equate the seeming immanent demise (?) of the Anglican Church with God ceasing to be relevant. Well the first words of our OT reading will assure us that this is not the case. "He who sits above the circle of the earth", to whom "its inhabitants are like grasshoppers".

Let us go back to fundamentals. Why was Jesus killed? Not because it was in some mystical preordained plan to enable generations of theologians to argue over how the atonement is achieved. Jesus was killed by the religious authorities because he associated with people other than them. So if Jesus is raised to life as we say is the result of the resurrection, Jesus will still be found out and about, accepting the offerings of people, us as well as others.

So it is as we proclaim this, that we are furthering the work of God. If we are not doing this then simply we don't deserve to continue to exist, and it will be fruitless waiting for God for help. So I actually welcome the immanent demise of a navel-gazing Church. I welcome the demise of a Church where "Father knows best" and everyone else "toes the line". I welcome the demise of a Church which is little different to an exclusive social club.

I am grateful to the Rev'd Robert Warren Cromey, the then Rector of Trinity Church San Francisco, who wrote a treatise some years ago entitled "The Fall of the House of Bishops": In it he wrote of a Dean, a popular author and leader of workshops on spirituality who had "never made a public written or verbal statement concerning the civil rights of" minorities. "He is a member of three private clubs that discriminate against gays, women, Asians, blacks and most any minority group you might care to mention. He does not speak out on issues of farm labour, immigration or even the deplorable conditions of (his state's) schools. He sent his children to private school, as of course, do many (Anglican) clergy." He continues, speaking about a bishop who "belongs to private golf clubs notorious for racial, sexual and ethnic discrimination. All for spirituality, he never mentions the immorality of discrimination in private clubs or the many crises confronting the people of (his diocese)." The full treatise can be found at: http://newark.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/cromey.html

In the reading, the Lord says: "Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength ... not one is missing". The "chosen" people complain that their "rights" have been disregarded, and one can no doubt assume that their rights are those that mark them as different from others and preferred over others. No, in the eyes of God, others are considered along with themselves, others are equally known by their personal name.

St Paul also takes up this theme - he has "no ground for boasting". Instead of St Paul trying to get others to become "Christians" - he makes himself in turn - "a Jew", someone "under the law", someone "outside the law", someone who is "weak". Indeed he tries to make himself "all things to all people". This is our job description as the church and as individuals.

It seems to me that we as the Church are very strong on who we are, but we are less strong on what we should be doing. At the very least there seems some debate about it.

Some time ago, one of my clergy colleagues said to me that one day they would really like to ask the question at the appropriate place in the service: "Who are we?" - to which the congregation will no doubt on cue take up the priest's statement "We are the body of Christ". Then the priest wanted to ask: "How do we know" - to which the congregation would again take up the cue: "His Spirit is with us". I don't know if he ever did do this! But it made me think ...

Are we the body of Christ? Or perhaps less argumentatively, "Are we the complete body of Christ?" I think that the answer here is an emphatic No! The body of Christ is a far more numerous body than the congregation at St Richard's - heavens we would be bored for all eternity if it were just us !!! :-) But perhaps not, perhaps we'll be like fish in tanks swimming in circles, blissfully unaware that we have swum the same path for our entire lives - blissfully unaware that we've had the same conversation with the same people again and again. I am not sure that I would recommend heaven if I thought it was likely to be an eternity of Alzheimers.

The proof that we are the Body of Christ, the body of ordinary people who would by any other standards never consider themselves worthy of inclusion, is that we are open to everyone else - with the emphasis on everyone. And it is here we know the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit of God is not the Spirit which is so special that ordinary people cannot share. The Holy Spirit of God is that Spirit which reaches out to others and says that all people are special. This is precisely why it is possible for each and every person to be a temple of the Holy Spirit.

We are the Church only insofar as the statement "My right has been disregarded by my God" is untrue for everyone, both inside and outside these walls.

 

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