The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s124g09 Sunday 12 21/6/2009
'Do you not care that we are perishing?' Mark 4.38
Many years ago, when the AIDS/HIV crisis erupted on the world scene, one of my colleagues commented that life itself was a sexually transmitted terminal illness. I don't know if this was his own statement or he had heard it from someone else. (The quotations page http://www.quotationspage.com doesn't have a reference to this.) Perhaps it was inspired by Augustine's doctrine of original sin. And again long ago I recall hearing a radio program where one of those infected early on talked about his life. For him the diagnosis was a liberating thing. He determined to make the most of what he thought were his few remaining months. When he lived for many years, he was able to look back and be grateful for the diagnosis.
Despite its intrinsic pessimism, the definition of life is useful, for each and every one of us is sexually transmitted. Perhaps that great taboo is slowly being opened up. Similarly each and every one of us has to deal with life, with its joys and sorrows.
And it would seem that there is much of which to be afraid. At the turn of the millennium (whenever that was) it was the Y2K bug that was going to render all PC's useless. This particular area has had an ongoing drought that has meant that farmers have been struggling for years. Then there is climate change, the global financial crisis and now human H1N1 influenza. It seems that the world lurches from one threat to the next.
And it is tempting to regard religion as something that might lift us out of this storm tossed boat to somewhere that is safe.
But all the evidence is that bad things happen to good people the whole of the book of Job is evidence to this. In the words of the American philosopher Forrest Gump: 'Shit happens' and it happens to everyone. I can personally testify it happens to Anglican clergy-persons! If one thinks one is being called to be a 'person of the cloth' with the thought that this might be an easy existence think again! Even Jesus was not able to escape suffering. We might agree with St Paul when he says: 'We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.' but the good may not be for the person themselves. Recently my attention was drawn to some Bahá'í scriptures:
'For the head raised up in the love of God will certainly fall by the sword, and the life that is kindled with longing will surely be sacrificed, and the heart which remembereth the Loved One will surely brim with blood. How well is it said:
Live free of love, for its very peace is anguish;
Its beginning is pain, its end is death.
Peace be upon him who followeth the Right Path!'
(from the Seventh Valley the Valley of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/SVFV/svfv-7.html)
If my thoughts about following Jesus and being incarnated into the world are correct, we are as likely to find ourselves turfed out of the boat as St Peter is encouraged by Jesus to venture out.
We are perishing; we are all perishing. Some of us are perishing more visibly than others, in the sense that we have a terminal condition. Others will find death comes suddenly and unexpectedly. It must be terrible for the families of those lost on the Air France flight recently. But if one thinks about it, is it any worse than a diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease? (I think that it is called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis in the US).
If our faith is an attempt at a flight from reality, then it is demonstratively worthless. The only faith that has any value is that which helps us face reality.
And one of the chief realities is that people are different and our faith must lead us to live with this diversity, rather than attempt to make everyone like us or dismiss others as irrelevant.
One of the things that help us face the reality before us is to have someone alongside. So community is not the great monster, but the great consoler. It should be said that there is as much likelihood for appropriate personal support to be found amongst a football team as there is in a church community. This is not said out of spite, but the reality is that God puts people around everyone for help and support. Just think if it all depended on the church community that really would be a never-ending task and for so few!
So yes, we are perishing, but we have no need to be afraid, because God puts people around us and around everyone. We need neither face life nor death alone, but of course many choose to do so.
One of the sad things I find is that many people 'of faith' come to hospital with an idea that God is going to cure them without the help of the doctors, nurses and specialists. I happen to believe that prayer is a wonderful way to stand alongside another person in need, but God provides the doctors, nurses and specialists to bring healing. If I was asked (which fortunately I'm not) I'm not sure that God would be impressed with us picking and choosing between those he puts around us to support us.
When I finish my visiting at about 5pm each night, I can go home and not worry about any of the patients I've seen. Because they are in hospital they are in the best of care. If anything happens there are people around them who will come to their aid with all the resources of the hospital to back them up. The ones I would have to worry about are those who have gone home, but then they are beyond my help.
So we too can have peace, but based solidly on the knowledge that the people that are around us are people God has put there for our support. Sadly there are, I am informed, people who abuse the frail aged even some of their own family members.
Earlier today I had one of those conversations with a lovely and sincere person who believed that others who hadn't had the same sort of conversion experience that he had had were not going to be saved. This can be the ultimate flight from reality. The most important thing for this person is his own salvation and the necessity therefore to witness to the imperative for others to travel the same path. How different this is to St Paul who said: 'I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.' (Romans 9.3) St Paul's **last** concern is his own salvation and he never demands of anyone else that they have a Damascus Road experience equivalent to his. That would rule out the rest of the apostles!
Consistently in the New Testament the parables of the kingdom picture a feast, a celebration where the most unlikely to people are already there. The issue is never who is invited and who is not, but who chooses to postpone or avoid attending because all these other 'riff-raff' are there as well. So we have no choice, either in this world or the next to avoid others. We can live by ourselves and perish by ourselves if we choose so to do, or we can live with others and perish with others if we choose. But when it is with others it is also with the Lord.
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