The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s128e06 Sunday 16 23/7/2006
"he .. has broken down .. the hostility between us" Eph 2.14
As I write these words I am at the National Australian Health and Welfare Chaplains' Conference at Griffith University in Brisbane, Queensland. It is somewhat warmer here than back in Orange, New South Wales.
At this conference, early on, we were reminded that the Uniting Church in Australia was debating (again) the issue of the gay and lesbian persons at the University of Queensland, not all that far away from where we are meeting.
The Plenary Session Speakers were from the Buddhist, Islamic, Aboriginal and Jewish traditions.
Of course this is an ecumenical conference with chaplains from all the mainline Christian denominations. One of the issues is that the government wants us to work ecumenically, but by and large the church hierarchies want to retain their own denominational chaplains. I had cause to reflect that it is the Churches who are dragging their heals over ecumenism and the government has lost patience with the Churches and it's decades of empty rhetoric.
During our discussions the matter of the election of an Archbishop to a particular See was raised, and the situation has come about where the diocese is split with opposing sides not willing to give way. To get a 2/3rds majority in such a Synod is an impossible task. Hostility is rampant.
And my time in parish situations has led me to conclude that the shear determination that things will go on forever in parish life means that nothing of real moment is contemplated. Listening to people of other faith traditions and lifestyles is essentially platitudinous. Nothing is more important than the retention of our own time, place and style of worship. We might listen to others as a form of entertainment, but our real attention is elsewhere. We might even give others money, really it is hush money, anything, so long as our congregational life continues undisturbed.
While the Church remains in this mindset, we will not see Jesus breaking down the hostility between people, because we wouldn't let him.
As chaplains, we journey beside people of all faiths and no faith. As we journey we find strengths and grace in the lives of these other people. This is Jesus breaking down hostility. And it happens because we depart the isolated enclaves of Church buildings and doctrines and relate to others as humans to humans. Chaplains see and experience this all the time.
I have no doubt whatsoever that the present Federal Government's reluctance to recognise and formalize same gender relationships is through fear of a backlash from the Churches! This is what everyone knows we stand for -- intolerance of others! Would that we were known for breaking down hostility, and being kind and compassionate towards others. What has happened to the command to love our enemies?
Rashida Joseph, the Moslem speaker, said that religions have to talk together or else there will never be peace in this world, and how true this is. This is not something that we can leave to others. If we are not for peace then this saying of Jesus surely applies: "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters." (Matthew 12.30)
The Rev'd Dr John Chalmers, from the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane, said that perhaps the diversity of religions is not some aberration but is in fact in the will and design of God. Here is a statement that grasps the essence of the vision of the writer to the letter to the Ephesians.
In his workshop on 'Companioning others on their Spiritual Journey', Patrick Oliver, assumes that everyone is on a spiritual journey -- and we have to hear and acknowledge this fact. We have to step out of the way to do so, lest we impose our journey on theirs.
In my own life, I am now, after 29 years of full time ministry and 3 years of full time theological study, now beginning to say what I believe, rather than say what I think the Church expects me to say. And it is remarkable how this is true for many people, many of whom don't go to Church, because there they are being fed platitudes. People don't want surreptitious hostility or blatant hostility either.
And for the author of the letter to the Ephesians, this peace, this breaking down of the hostility and divisions between people, is linked inextricably to the Cross of Jesus. So the Cross is not about some form of satisfaction paid to placate a wrathful God for those gullible enough to believe. The Cross breaks down barriers between people, or it would if we see it in its true light, and let it be.
And all this makes me ponder if we as the Church are not victims of our own success. We have been instrumental in educating people in the simple things like reading and thinking. We have been successful in training people in moral and ethical issues, and by doing these things we have encouraged people to think for themselves. Now they don't need to come to Church, they are too busy putting into practice what they have been taught -- building up a society based on pluralist inclusivity, and can't be bothered if the Church wants to exempt itself from this process.
The keynote speaker was Professor Elaine Wainwright from New Zealand, and she spoke on the Wisdom of God being found in the Market Place -- among ordinary people going about their ordinary day to day lives. This again points to the fact that even if we hadn't been as successful as I suggest, the Wisdom of God might well still be found out there.
The other abiding memory of the conference was the times in the evenings over a few glasses of wine, when the delegates took time out to unwind and let our hair down. I have been in many similar gatherings of clergy over the years, and usually they have been solemn, even depressing affairs. Our times were marked with laughter and chiacking. It was heart-warming. Despite the fact that most of us deal with death, mental illnesses, and all sorts of 'no-win' situations on a day to day basis, and do need to unwind -- this is vastly different from parish clergy who often have to battle their way through parish politics.
I wonder if the Church actually went down the track of breaking down barriers between people in the light of the Cross, people would actually see the Church contributing to the betterment of society rather than focussing on individual people's fears and insecurities, or their sex life. And if people saw the church working towards a more peaceful world, people might actually consider supporting us.
I returned from the Conference, back to 'normal' life to find that tensions in the Middle East have flared again. And I wonder if we do not trivialize the Cross of Christ by restricting it to the forgiveness of my personal sins, negligences and ignorances -- as if calming my insecurities is primarily what God cares about. I am sure that the Almighty would be far more pleased if people were not killing one another, and if the church got around to saying that the breaking down of the barriers between people is actually the essence of our faith in the Cross and not some forlorn hope or optional extra after we all become Christians, when there will not be any differences over which to argue! And it comes to me that the desire to covert everyone to Christianity is a convenient way to avoid the command to love others -- all the while pretending to ourselves, and others, that we are doing God's work.
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