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s142g97 Somerton Park Sunday 30 26/10/97

The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Mark 10:51.

A couple of weeks ago I was preaching at the Western Deanery Mothers' Union festival and after the service a woman approached me and rather earnestly informed me that she occasionally watched a religious program on television on Sundays - it was on the community channel from a local "charismatic" church. She had learned from them that in their opinion "the greatest sin was the sin of adultery, because it was a sin against oneself". It wasn't the most convenient time to have a long discussion at the Church door, so I had to agree to differ with her on this, though at one point she denied it was what she herself believed. It is good to have such comments as these, because it alerts clergy to what people are actually thinking.

There is a positive side of this statement. Yes, it is important not to sin against oneself. I try to say (I would hope often enough) how important we are in God's eyes. If the statement is made to encourage us to see ourselves as important then I would heartily agree.

However there are nuances and consequences to this statement which I suspect will be picked up more clearly by the world, with which I would heartily disagree.

Nuance 1. If we can avoid adultery then we will get into heaven - if we can't avoid adultery we will not get into heaven. This has remarkably little support in holy scripture. St James tells us: "whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it." (Jas 2:10) Jesus doesn't condemn the woman caught in adultery. We are all sinners.

Nuance 2. Christianity would prefer us to be celibate. It is true that St Paul says: "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am." (1 Cor 7:8). But he does go on to say: "But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." (1 Cor 7:9). The later statement leads one to wonder if St Paul thought these states are mutually exclusive! Jesus however blesses the wedding in Cana of Galilee and restores the sexuality to the woman who touches the hem of his cloak.

Consequence 1. Those who have succumbed to the temptation of adultery might as well continue to enjoy themselves in a life of dissipation and sin, because they have gone beyond the pale ... (I suspect that quite a number of people have come to this conclusion, and try, vainly, to do precisely that, and wonder why they are criticised for not coming to Church by those who do.)

Consequence 2. Christianity is really about denying ourselves the joys associated with "ordinary" life.

Christianity is life in all its fullness, and for some people that comes after a marriage breakdown and a new relationship. I have no hesitation in affirming that simple unbridled licentiousness is hardly any guarantee of happiness. Happiness comes within a trusting relationship. Christianity is about joy and passion and commitment and trust.

So, of what good purpose therefore is there in making a value judgment about how great on the scale of seriousness of sin is adultery? Ultimately it probably only serves to put other people down (those who've transgressed) and magnifying ourselves (who perhaps haven't been tempted as much).

I am reminded of the crowd in this morning's gospel reading who were offended that the blind beggar would dare call out to Jesus. "Many sternly ordered him to be quiet ..." But when Jesus stopped and called the man, the crowd quickly sensed which side Jesus wanted them on. They change their tune. "Take heart, get up, he is calling you" they say - despite the fact he is blind not deaf.

The most frequent sin or affliction I see Jesus trying to deal with is not sexual immorality but blindness. The blindness of the religious authorities - yes. But as well the blindness of the disciples and the blindness in the crowd.

Some blindness is culpable: "Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." (John 9:40,41).

Some blindness is as a result of the withholding of that which is necessary to perceive. So we are told: "he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'" (Mark 4:11,12). Such blindness cannot be culpable if God has ordained it.

Bartimaeus is well aware of his infirmity however, and he is not above asking for mercy from whoever crosses his path. He does this, perhaps long and loudly, whenever any dignitary passes by. The crowd are perhaps well used to rebuking Bartimaeus. They do so again. But Jesus responds to someone who confesses an infirmity in their lives.

How do we as the Church respond to others who confess an infirmity in their lives? I spoke last week of how I myself strive to avoid confessing any need for help. This can be a very vital self preservation mechanism - because I may feel that others may be profiting from my weakness. I can be encouraging others to look down on me, because I am not totally adequate from their perspective.

In a curious double twist, we can make a virtue of our seeming independence and call it "faith". Or we place ourselves in a relationship with Jesus - essentially to avoid being in relationship with others - all others. I mean, it is quite easy being in relationship with others who love the Lord Jesus in similar terms as I and we do ... It's just the multitude of others who are the problem ...

No, what I am really wondering is how we as a Church react to a person with AIDS, Hepatitis, an STD? Would we help them to Jesus or tell them to be quiet, like the crowd told Bartimaeus he was not worthy of Jesus' attention? All people are worthy of Jesus' attention. Jesus responds to the person who is aware of their need from others.

Jesus says to Bartimaeus "go" rather than "follow me". Jesus doesn't want lots of followers dependent on himself alone. He directs the man to his own kith and kin, his neighbours and his family. We are dependent on other people, not just on Jesus, in some sort of cozy, private interdependence, which from the outside bears an indistinguishable resemblance to independence ... Again, if Jesus wanted to become a great guru, the leader of a new and pure Church, he would have got the rich young ruler to hand his money over to his treasurer rather than the poor, and to get Bartimaeus to follow him, not to go. Relationships are destroyed when one person has power, pretended or real, over another.

Again and again, Jesus calls us into interrelationship with those God has put about us. We are not called to create a uniquely Christian paradise where no one will argue with us, because everyone thinks the same. When I say into interrelationship with those around us, I do not mean all huggy and feely with all and sundry. God has placed us into a community and hopes we can avoid killing one another (- particularly doing so in God's Name!)

My reading of the gospel stories leads me to conclude that far from Jesus being concerned about sexuality, Jesus is in fact not at all concerned about sin in general let alone sexuality in particular. It is the scribes, the pharisees, the disciples and the crowds who worry about sin. Jesus isn't interested in getting people to acknowledge their sinfulness or their needs, getting them to repent, or whatever. Jesus is on about helping people to see - to see the good in others, not push people around like the crowd wanted to push Bartimaeus around, to see the good in ourselves.

It is here that we find the good news. Jesus comes to accept us as we are. There is no need to jostle for positions. There are no first or second class seats in the kingdom of heaven. All our internal worries about whether we are sufficiently humble, sufficiently open to God, sufficiently repentant, sufficiently religious, sufficiently spiritual - all mean nothing. Jesus accepts us with all our inner turmoil - even our self sufficiency which we mistake for "faith" - my own as much as anyone else's.

Today we have our time for prayer and anointing at the altar rail following this sermon. I think it is important to affirm that God can and does heal those in the pews, those who don't come up for the ministry of prayer and anointing. God can and does heal in the doctor's surgeries and hospitals ... Just as the Spirit fell on Eldad and Medad even though they were back at the camp and not with Moses, so too blessings come quite independent of physical logistics.

Again, for those who do come forward, there is no need to say for whom you are praying or the particular matter about which prayer is sought. The prayer that we use is printed in the pew bulletin for the congregation to quietly read as it is being quietly said in the front, if you so choose ...

Let us pray ...


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