The readings on which this sermon is based are found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r136.htm
s136e03 Lockleys Sunday 24 14/9/03
"justified .. when he offered his son?" James 2.21
I was interested to read, a while back, an essay by Lyn Riddett (Eureka Street July August 2003 p 53) while visiting Bangladesh, her hosts trying to <guestify> her, feeding her and engaging in conversation, inevitably about religion, to a person who they thought was a Christian, but who was actually an unbeliever. They were living in a district where "the annual slaughter of beasts that commemorates Ibrahim and Ishmael ... Abraham and Isaac" ... (which) "had been one of the stories that had caused me so much difficulty as a child. It made no sense to me at all that the same God would require the father to kill his only child" and which led to her unbelief.
Many, many years ago, I recall a conversation with a person who quite regularly came to Church but never received the Holy Communion. She heard the words of institution - that the sacrament was to take away sins, and while she thought that there were things she had done in her life which were wrong, she knew she had little option at the time. And I have to say I have some considerable sympathy for this. No one gets through life without doing the wrong thing, and sometimes the church can seem obsessed with making people penitent and dependent, when God wants us all to be strong. Even what we assume are comforting words can have the opposite effect on people.
And these spoke to me about how we often assume that we can apply a scriptural, sacramental or ecclesiastical bandage over someone else's hurt or unbelief and it will all be made well and all doubt resolved. And when we put it like that, of course the answer is obvious. We are commanded to love, not apply bandages. We are bidden to give of ourselves. We are bidden to do more than, as St James told us last week, say to someone in need "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill."
And suddenly each of us begins to feel inadequate to the task - well I certainly do. We think that perhaps the other person might need more than I am able to give. The government is better able to do these sorts of things, or in good old Anglican tradition we could set up a sub committee :-)
As I was reading the latest issue of "Grid" (Issue 2 2003) - counting up the number of times the word "challenge" appeared (8 times in 8 pages) I came across the words of Kirralee Lewis: "It didn't take me long to realise that their (African) culture, community and experiences had so much more to offer and teach me than I could ever give and share with them." And how I rejoice in these words, and how frequently we find this happens again and again in life. The people we might initially think are least promising in terms of mutual compatibility become our best friends.
I rarely go out on a Saturday night, but a while back I went to a "gig" by "Women with Latitude" - my podiatrist is a member. As I sat in the Weiner Room in Hindley Street, again, not one of my usual places to frequent, a person and I started talking. He was a philosopher and bike enthusiast. Eventually we traded URL's for our home pages! I enjoyed the conversation as much as the performance. I suspect he hasn't had the occasion to speak with a member of the clergy often :-)
Abraham's whole religious framework depended on this one child. In the normal course of events a person of his age and stage of life could not expect a second son. So the call of Abraham to offer his son, had nothing to do with his son Isaac, but was in effect a call to give up this entire framework - that God calls us to sacrifice. God's religious framework is based on God's willingness to bless, to provide all that is necessary to jump the non-existent distance between humanity and the divine.
In the recent past there have been lots of assertions that people are altering the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. There is a faith which is precious to me as either one of the two young men who call me "Dad". There is no doubt that your faith is as precious to you as mine is to me. But in the end, if our faith is to the detriment of other people, even the sacrifice of our offspring will not be enough to get our own way. If our faith is about getting our own way, then for all it might outwardly be expressed as faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit as defined in the Creed of St Athanasius, it will be no different or useful than if one believes in UFO's. We still won't get our own way at the expense of someone else - for that is not how God operates.
And the call to give up religious frameworks applies equally to all people. If our religious framework is to the detriment of another person, be it Catholic or Protestant in Northern Ireland, Jew or Palestinian in the Middle East, or Moslem or Christian in Australia, no amount of child sacrifice will move God to accede - for heavens above - surely throughout history enough children have been sacrificed already to prove that this is not the case?
I got to this stage in the preparation of my sermon and it was the morning of the 20th of August, the morning when news of the two explosions, one near the UN embassy in Baghdad and the second in Jerusalem, came. In Jerusalem the suicide bomber detonated explosives in a bus load of children, worshippers returning from the Western Wall. If God does not want anyone to sacrifice their own son, then I have no doubt God will be less than impressed with someone sacrificing someone else's son or daughter. Of course there are reasons, but will God, by whatever name the divine is called, be impressed?
Most of us would agree that there is no justification for such actions.
But rather than leaving it "out there" - it is important to look at our own life and lives. Does our worship of God mean that God encourages us and justifies us when we overlook the needs of those different from us? Does our theology - that we are right and others are wrong - mean that we are justified in disregarding their rights or even working to frustrate their legitimate efforts to improve their lot in life?
Some of us would agree that there is no justification for such actions.
There is enough evidence in sacred scripture to suggest that God might justify atrocities committed by the people of God against others simply because they are the chosen ones. One has only to look in the stories of the conquest of the Promised Land to find evidence of God's seeming stedfast encouragement to do this - even to the extent that people are punished for being less than complete in their sacking of the others.
I am not here talking about the unintended hurts I guess we all have perpetrated on others from time to time - and for which we have not ceased to berate ourselves.
At some stage we are all given a choice. You and I can believe God justifies some aggression but where is the boundary? The Bible gives us no clue to a boundary - and I suspect it is all or nothing. We can either say God will justify any aggression towards others who are different, or God will justify no aggression towards others.
Finally we can come to the question, were the religious authorities justified in killing Jesus - because he violated their law? We can have no doubt that they assumed they were justified, just as they believed they had a right to look down on the tax collectors and sinners. We must see this prior aggression for what it is, and how Jesus acceptance of others led to the logical outpouring of that aggression in the crucifixion.
For me Jesus was killed because he said that there was no justification for aggression towards others different from us, but this is a matter of choice. We are invited to believe this. We are not compelled to believe, though why anyone would believe otherwise is beyond me :-) But I know how late this truth has come to me in my own life, so I can't complain about others.
Is God justified in condemning others who, knowing of the prodigal God continue to seek to enslave others and effectively crucify Jesus anew.
Here the word in Matthew 22.4-7 seem to suggest God is. Jesus tells of those who made light of the invitation to the wedding, saying: "they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city." These words are spoken against those who killed the prophets and finally Jesus himself for associating with others. In the end these bring punishment upon themselves. They exclude themselves because others are not excluded as they wished.
Many years ago, in another place, someone made the comment that I was putting forward a "gospel according to Christopher". I hope I am not misrepresenting God. But I suspect that even St Paul had to put up with that charge, for he said once: " ... if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God ..." (1 Cor 15.14) I compel no one to believe me, though I hope through my explorations of scripture others besides me will also find the evidence for the prodigal God compelling.
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