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s127o03 Lockleys 13/7/2003 Sunday 15

"I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees" Amos 7.14

When one looks at what sort of person one would like as a minister in a congregation, many, many criterion could be advanced. There was once a humorous article about the ideal clergyman - it went something like:

"The person should be young and with a family, but should preach like a priest with fifty years experience... "The person should be especially good with the younger members of the congregation, but should never neglect the elderly... "The person should regularly visit homes in the parish, but should always be at home when we telephone... "The person should be someone of great devotion, but never talk to us about God..." and so it went on. Obviously no one could live up to all the expectations of everyone.

Sometimes we wonder why God doesn't have more Billy Grahams in the priesthood. The brilliant orators, those who can turn the hearts of those who do not come to Church, and get them to come, and more especially to contribute lots of money :-) We lament that the Church seems to have little influence in the affairs of our nation. Perhaps we think the Archbishop should be more involved in making statements about political matters - without neglecting the parishes and the Diocese of course :-) Or we think: "If only the Premier or the Prime Minister were 'Christian'" - when we really mean that he or she should do things we want.

Yet in the course of history God has chosen people not very like this at all. Amos the prophet makes it quite clear to his opposition that he was not a professional prophet, but a man of the land. It is often thought that St Paul was a brilliant orator, yet that long reading from the letter to the Ephesians is (in the original) all one sentence! Our translations happily make it into 6 sentences. But even then they are still longer than would be acceptable to an English teacher. I wish I knew more about St Paul when I went to Primary School! Even to this day Catherine complains about my long sentences :-) And when we listen to Jesus giving the twelve detailed and strict instructions as what to take on their mission (from last week's gospel reading) - the whole emphasis was to be as inconspicuous as possible. They were not to pretend wealth (don't take a spare tunic), nor were they to pretend poverty (wear sandals). They were to be just ordinary people.

One commentator puts it like this: "Frankly the impression we get from the New Testament hardly permits us to claim that these men were great or ingenious in the worldly sense. It is even difficult to count them "great religious personalities", if by this we mean bearers of inherent spiritual talents." (Romano Guardini 'The Lord' p67,8 Glenstal Bible Missal p913)

Why should this be? When we look at the message of the prophet Amos, and cutting away the doom and gloom, we come down to a simple statement. It is in chapter 5 verse 24. "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." It is a simple message, and as such it doesn't need a great orator to deliver it.

When we look at the message of St Paul, again cutting away the peripheral words, he says: "He chose us ... for adoption as his children ... to ... bring everything together under Christ ..." That is - God has made us his sons and daughters - and so we are brothers and sisters to everyone else. Again, it's not rocket science.

The message that Jesus sent the twelve to proclaim was simple too. "Repentance." "Turn to God." They would certainly find those who would not welcome them, but they need not be concerned. They were to just move on to those who would.

The same commentator as was quoted earlier continues: "We do the apostle no service by considering him a great religious personality. This attitude is usually the beginning of unbelief."

This is a startling statement, and yet true. We could blame the clergy, the Archbishop, the Church, the Premier, the Prime Minister, or whoever, for what we see as the failure of the Church or the nation. While we are busy doing this, we are neglecting the simple message of God's love for us and for all our brothers and sisters in Christ - that is everyone - because we follow Christ. Now we might neglect this for a while and suffer no harm, yet if we neglect it for any length of time, we will indeed suffer.

And concentrating on what others might do, we may well fail to perceive some things we might do ourselves.

So let us today concentrate on that loving kindness of our heavenly Father towards us. We, as ordinary people, are those for whom St Paul thanks God. We are the chosen. We are the adopted sons and daughters of God. We are those who are free. We are forgiven. We have heard the message of truth - the good news of our salvation - and we have believed. Everything of value that could possibly be ours, is ours. And we are not alone, but amongst brothers and sisters who share with us this state some of them come to worship.

So we don't need brilliant orators to bring us this simple message again and again, but we do need to hear it again and again. We need to hear it again and again, because the temptation is always to doubt; to see the sadness and the sickness in the world and to wonder ... and to blame ... The end of this is to blame God, which is to deny his grace in our lives, and this leads to unbelief.

But we know the love of God, if not particularly in the great oratory of the Rector, but especially in the sacrament of the Holy Communion, where Jesus gives himself to us. For me, this is the great joy of our tradition of the Church. We might feel we are not encouraged by the words of the sermon, but there is always that most sacred moment at the Altar for each of us, when we are included in every blessing God has to offer.

I was thinking a while back &endash; one could train a parrot to say over and over again &endash; "believe John 3.16!" God calls us - not compliant parrots - to be the children of the Kingdom, so we are called to do more than say over and over again to any who will listen to us: "believe John 3.16!" or some other expression of orthodoxy. It is you and I who have a unique contribution to make to those God puts around us, not as we recite orthodoxy, but as we love others as they are, for we are loved as we are.

As I have been reading some Minjung theology from Korea, they highlight the workings of God in the ochlos - the outcasts in Mark rather than the laos - the people in the other evangelists. And this has its Old Testament counterpart in the term the am-ha'aretz - the poor people of the land, those who were left when all the people of influence had been deported - 2 Kings 25.12 - those from whom the prophet Amos came and those on whose behalf he spoke.

One commentator - Robert McAfee Brown - believes Minjung theology invites us to explore our own indigenous theology - and this invitation I also extend, to myself as well as to others. But as I thought about this, I thought of the "bad - old" middle ages when the priest was up the front saying mass in Latin and the congregation was in the body of the Church probably not hearing, let alone understanding what the priest was saying. They were busy with their prayers and exercising their indigenous theology. When the sanctus bell rang, everyone in the congregation looked up at the consecrated elements as they were raised above the head of the priest - everyone crossed themselves - then went back to their own devotions. And the Church survived centuries like this!

For all I welcome lay participation in the eucharist, I wonder if we have not inadvertently imposed orthodoxy on lay people - denying the importance and validity of their own religious experiences? If anyone would like to read the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 Holy Communion service carefully, you will find that in fact the only thing that the congregation participated in was saying the Lord's Prayer. Few "ordinary" people could read - so this was learnt off by heart. The words of the book have become mightily important when in reality it is what is in your hearts and minds which is far more important.

The book of the prophet Amos predicts disaster will befall all the nations that surrounded the Promised Land, and then he predicts that disaster will similarly strike Judah and Israel. Such is the importance of common humanity and the insignificance of rulers and states in the eyes of God when the dignity and rights of common people are trampled upon.


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