The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s129g09 Sunday 17 26/7/2009
'they reached the land toward which they were going'. John 6.21
I have sometimes reflected rather ruefully that Moses never got to enter the Promised Land towards which he had brought the escaping tribes of Israel. For all the difficulties - the cajoling of the tribes to actually come, then arguing with the most powerful person in the land, their oppressor Pharaoh, then putting up with the constant grumbling and apostasy of the wandering tribes for forty long years, he was not to actually personally enter the promised land, that land flowing with milk and honey.
Of course that land flowing with milk and honey also had its own challenges. It had to be conquered; the tribes had to make it their own. The crossing of the Jordan and the entry into the promised land under Moses' successor, Joshua, was a continuation of the struggles of the wilderness experience. God in his, or her, mercy took Moses to another, more restful, Promised Land.
I have also reflected that firstly Joshua had to deal with the strongholds of Israel, beginning with Jericho. This was the first of many necessary battles for them to make the land their own. Finally the last stronghold to be captured was Jerusalem itself, a mere 25 kilometres from Jericho captured by King David perhaps 225 years later. I reflect that the religious stronghold was the last to succumb. The civil edifice was the first to crumble, it was the religious edifice that proved to be the most resistant to change.
The disciples wanted to take Jesus into their stronghold, into the boat, but they arrived at the land to which they were going and it became unnecessary, if it actually ever was.
Jesus breaks down both civil and religious strongholds. Jesus has no need of the security of boats. The Promised Land has no need of strongholds defending anyone from other people.
So if our definition of 'church' is about a stronghold defending us from others, we haven't got the message of the people of Israel and their conquest of the Promised Land. If our definition of 'church' is about the security of the boat, we too will be terrified to find Jesus outside it, somewhere else, in the midst of the storm.
Have we arrived at the land to which we are going? Or are we still defending it from all comers, lest they change it?
The lovely picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd, tenderly carrying the lamb across his shoulders is beloved of many Christians. Yet the example of Moses and the reluctant Israelites might alert us to the fact that the 'lamb' has left the flock deliberately and is reluctant to rejoin the others. Jesus was killed by the religious authorities because he associated with others his mission was to get them (and us!) to associate with others also.
So our Promised Land is into community without borders, and no doubt many 'christians' would take off in precisely the opposite direction, just like Jonah, of old, did when confronted with this same prospect.
So I guess I shouldn't be surprised when 'christians' are reluctant to embrace this vision. If Moses had to cajole the people of God, fight rulers, stop apostasy and grumbling, I suppose I can expect little different from the 'church'.
When the disciples met Jesus they found that they were at their destination. So if Jesus is with us we too are at our destination. But it is not a destination with strongholds needed to keep others at bay, it is a destination where strongholds are no longer necessary, because there is no need to keep anyone else at bay. All are welcome on a completely equal basis.
I rejoiced to read in our Australian press a report that the former President of America, Jimmy Carter has severed his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after 6 decades, in the cause of the equality of women. May his actions cause some in 'my own' Anglican Church to reappraise their attitudes to women and other alienated groups of people. (http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/losing-my-religion-for-equality-20090714-dk0v.html?page=-1) I recall it was only after Archbishop Tutu had stood down as Archbishop that he felt able to come out in support of gay and lesbian persons. And it makes me wonder and sad that the 'church' constrains even good and courageous people like these to keep some views to themselves. Former Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church Richard Holloway is another one who has particularly found his voice since leaving his position over the anti-gay stance in Anglican Church. Recently he quoted someone: 'Don't tangle with the Pope and don't invade Russia'. (http://www.abc.net.au/rn/encounter/stories/2009/2587355.htm) The former President is indeed right when he says that this discriminatory thinking 'damages all of us'. And it is only after I have left parish ministry that I can really say what I have believed for a long time.
I find it startling to surmise that the 'church' actually inhibits belief, discourages self-esteem, and distances us from our true feelings and beliefs. The 'church' that proclaims that it is the cradle of faith, love and truth actually stops people believing, respecting themselves, and prefers untruths if it suits. Here we have a former President and two former Archbishops, all of whom manifestly love the church of their forbears realizing that what they actually believe is rather different from church teaching. I also take some heart that this puts my own personal journey into some perspective. I needn't get too fussed that it has taken me so long to find out what I personally believe.
The constant temptation for the ancient people of God was to worship the gods of the people round about, and this is not so much a religious worship but a political one. The constant temptation, as real now as it was then, is to worship the power of strongholds and fortresses, power over people, power to direct their lives, power to make others subservient, power even to determine what others will believe. Echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah here.
The Promised Land is right here and right now. We don't have to conquer anyone else for others are here to join us. We 'conquer' others by our example associating with others being incarnated into the society and community in which we have been placed. And it is precisely in doing this that we too find Jesus there, and that we too will have come to that place to which we were going.
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