The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s136g12  Sunday 24   16/9/2012

'what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?'  Mark 8.36

This is the classic text for self-renunciation and it is usual, natural, expected to be taken personally.   The church has taught that this is a cardinal virtue of christians, but somehow it has failed to see that it is also a cardinal virtue of christianity.

Let us be quite clear that those who had Jesus killed loved God with all their hearts and minds and souls and strengths: they were the experts at this.   They also knew as well as you and I the need to love their neighbour as themselves, and they were probably as successful at keeping this second of the commandments as frequently as you and I too.   They were the devout and the orthodox.   They knew the words: 'do not exalt yourself' (Deut 8.14) and 'the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.'  (Prov 1.7)   I have no doubt that those who had Jesus killed were no less accomplished at self-renunciation than you or I.  
Just as we exist for the benefit of the community in which we are placed, so the church exists for the benefit of the society in which it is placed.   And if the second is not true, then the efforts you and I make to make the first true, will ever be a drop in the ocean causing our own little ripples, but all too quickly they will be swamped by the waves of history.

So what would the world look like if everyone was a straight, baptised, confirmed, communicant, tithing Anglican ..    Where would the life be?   When we cut ourselves off from our neighbours, who is the loser?   When the church cuts herself off from society, who is the loser?   For there can be no doubt that there will always be more of those who are different from us, than there will be those of like minds, like belief, like praxis to ourselves.   And what a good thing this is!

Recently I was privileged to hear Dr Harold Koenig (1) speak and he gave a lot of encouraging statistics about the positive health outcomes of religion.   And I took from his talks the enormous positive outcomes of being in communion with others - accepting the expertise and ministrations of doctors, nurses and technicians that we are so blessed to have around us.   So the positive health outcomes to which he testifies are a measure of the health of a person's personal religion.   If a faith serves to encourage the practitioner and those around him or her, then we get a positive health outcome.   However if a faith serves to discourage the practitioner and those around him or her, then we get a negative health outcome.     I remember hearing Dorothy Rowe speak a long time ago and my recollection of her talk was the profound and long lasting effects of negative religion. (2)

In times past I was chaplain half time in a general hospital and half time in a psychiatric hospital.   The general hospital did lots of hip and knee replacements, enabling people to resume being fully human, standing before the Almighty and others, rather than cringing.   The psychiatric hospital tried to help people thing and reason clearly, again to be fully human, rather than being dominated by the disordered voices in their minds.   And my time there spoke to me powerfully of God lifting people to their feet, restoring the primal dignity of humanity, to stand rather than crawl and to reason and decide for ourselves.   We are meant to be free, to love rather than just comply.

If our 'love' is actually about making others comply with our preconceptions of life, then I suspect that this is an oxymoron.   If our love is about enabling others to love themselves and love others in turn, then this is actually love, and we and others gain life.

The reason for being able to listen to Dr Harold Koenig was the biennial conference of the New Zealand Health Chaplains' Association last week   I have observed before the level of depression and antagonism when attending conferences amongst those mainly in parish ministry, in contrast to the level of energy and fellowship in conferences of chaplains.   Chaplains spend their ministry in critical situations, giving without expectation to all and sundry whereas parish clergy are ever obliged to seek conversions and commitments of others.    Chaplains give without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation.   Parish ministry is surrounded by boundaries, discriminating as to whom may be heard and who may not, and with an expectation of returning next week, whether people are affirmed or condemned.   The former is life-giving, the second soul-destroying.

One of the beauties of our secular age is that people no longer feel compelled to put up with soul destroying abuse in the name of 'god'.   People realise that this 'god' is really a demon in disguise.   If we gain the world but end up serving a demon, we have already forfeited our life.

There will always be more people who think differently to us, believe in different terms to us, call God by a different name, and be intimate with people who are also different to us.   A 'god' who expected us as individuals or us as an organisation to attempt to 'rectify' this deserves our derision, not our worship.   God bids us love these others, and love is always  both mutually beneficial and good for society as a whole.