The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s134g09 Sunday 22 30/8/2009
'the tradition of the elders' Mark 7.6
When it comes to conflicts within the church it is not unusual that the presenting problem is not actually the essence of the dispute. So when some parishioners complained about my long hair, it was just the easiest thing to complain about. The real issue, God's unconditional acceptance of all people, was not raised. So too, the disciples not observing the tradition of the elders in terms of not washing the hands before eating was not the real issue. Jesus dismisses it as unimportant. We do not read the words of the rebuttal that Jesus used, but he showed that they contrived their own regulations to avoid doing what the law actually required.
It is clear that the 'tradition of the elders' is not universally life affirming. Indeed the tradition of the elders' primary purpose was to marginalise and alienate other people determining who was acceptable and who wasn't. So our denominationalism and our faith tradition, founded on the principle of the inclusion of some to the exclusion of others, is fundamentally not universally life affirming. So if we use the name 'anglican' or 'christian' or whatever to exclude others, then we are using the tradition of the elders to marginalise and alienate others, determining who is acceptable and who isn't.
There are lots of things in this world that are not universally life affirming and they can usually be categorised where one person wants to use another person. I often reflect that the people other than King David whose sins are particularly highlighted in the Old Testament were the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas. Their sin was to consider the sacrifices that the people brought to the temple as their own, and they made this quite clear as they picked over the meat to find the best bits for themselves. We are told that the Lord killed them.
So if we pick and choose what people might bring to the Lord, labelling one 'Anglican' or 'Christian' while others are unacceptable, as if the gifts were for **us** rather than God, are we acting any differently to Hophni and Phineas? And if the 'church' is thereby in a parlous state, should anyone be surprised? I could well imagine the utter astonishment caused when Jesus noticed and commended the two small coins the widow put into the Temple treasury. Here Jesus commended someone giving to God, even when the person wasn't actually following him or contributing to **his** cause.
I was interested to hear Don Russell speak on Radio National (in the program 'Big Ideas') about the emergence of China and India as the drivers of the world economy at the present time. He sees both of these countries as having thrown off the restrictive old traditions of the past Communism and the licence Raj and this has resulted in this economic growth. (Don Russell in 1985 was the Senior Private Secretary / Principal Adviser to the Australian Treasurer, Paul Keating, then six years later, Principal Adviser to Prime Minister Keating. From 1993 to 1995 he was Ambassador to the United States in Washington, and then spent another two years as Principal Adviser to Prime Minister Keating. Other major roles include consultant to the World Bank in 1996. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bigideas/stories/2009/2656257.htm Unfortunately this is not yet in transcript form that I can quote directly.) His thesis is that real economic prosperity comes when individuals are not afraid of governments and have to fight against them to do things where governments exist 'for the people' to quote Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. He suggests that this is the real strength of western democratic society that will win out eventually over all forms of repressive fundamentalism.
When the church, as well as society, has the vision of being universally life affirming, then we have a reason to exist. And it is important to remember that usually little happens in society that does not have the sanction of the church. It is religious groups who oppose measures that give people power over conception, religious groups who oppose the use of stem cell technology, it is religious groups who marginalise women and alienate gay persons. In Australia today mainline churches are demanding that they be exempt from anti-discrimination legislation! How universally life affirming is this? Those who don't measure up can starve for all the church cares 'cos they'll be going to hell anyway! Where is the good news in this? Where is the God of unconditional love? I have little doubt that the US (and Australia) went to the aid of South Vietnam with the encouragement of the Catholic Church to stop the spread of communism into the French catholic south.
In my own life, I can begin to look back and see how it is only in recent years I have been brought to a place where I have the wherewithal to throw off the accoutrements of the traditions that I have been brought up in, and in which I would have succeeded as long as I didn't 'blot my copy-book'. As I went to church this morning I heard read that passage from Ephesians about the 'spiritual forces of evil in the **heavenly** places' and wondered if I'd really heard and appreciated the real import of those words before? (Ephesians 6.12)
Again, recently I heard a program about the poverty in the East End of London, and how poverty was viewed as stemming from weakness. Some good 'christian' people believed that to give charity to the poor was to diminish the need for the poor to do something for themselves. What a convenient excuse to avoid being charitable!
So for me the increasing 'secularism' of society is a wonderful and life giving thing. As people throw off the 'tradition of the elders' and support universal life affirmation, society will be a better and indeed far more exciting place. For much of the 'church' the real enemy is secularism, for every advance in secularism implies a reduction in the authority of the organization.
For me, I see God at work in the hospitals where I work. We are extremely fortunate that we have a universal health care system in Australia. While it is expensive for all modern technology is expensive and often those without private insurance have to wait for elective surgery, emergency treatment is available to all essentially without cost. We are, of course, not a Stalinist state! :-) Everyone is treated equally. Within the constraints of the pressure of competing needs all are respected and helped. We should welcome this secularism and recognise that it is God's work.
And finally it should be noted that this is not a passing reference in the gospel to such matters. The great parable of the Prodigal Father tells us that the erring younger son is welcomed home to the chagrin of the upright elder son. The story of the payment of the workers in the vineyard tells us that latecomers are treated equally with those who have worked all day.
Of course many good Christians (as well as a good many others who claim adherence to other faiths and a good many who hold no particular faith) have worked for the betterment of the whole of society by treating all people equally. These are those who have the real Spirit of God and should cause all in the church to question what it is for which we actually exist.
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"