The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r145.htm
s145e03 Lockleys Sunday 33 16/11/2003
"our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience" Heb 10.22
How often have you ever thought of your conscience as evil? Perhaps I'm odder than most because I have never thought of my conscience as evil :-) The pangs of conscience that I have - I have always taken as the presence of God, quietly telling me not to do something. There are the sorts of caricatures one sees in comic strips - the little angels and devils circling above heads, the devil egging the person on and the angel trying to stop the person. We assume, all the time, that the angel is the voice of conscience guiding us to not do the wrong thing.
Would that life was so easy :-)
The reality is in my life that I do have an evil conscience, that side of me which is "hard on myself". It is that voice which imagines hurts done to others and that magnifies my culpability, and even as I type these words I know the evil conscience coming to the fore.
And I have a choice to submit to this evil conscience and to allow it to dominate my life, or I can tell it where to get off, and to ignore it's constant goading.
And it is evil - for it distracts us from being fully the human being God wants for each and every one of us, and it distracts us from real relationships with other people. So God does not want us eternally on our knees, God wants us lifted to our feet, claiming our primal heritage as human rather than animal - to think, to feel and to act.
And it should come as no surprise really to realise that that which is evil is able to masquerade as good things and that we need some discernment. Evil can lurk in the pages of scripture, as Jesus found the devil quite able to quote scripture to try to instil doubt in himself, while in the wilderness.
The sacraments too can be misused to put people down: "We do not presume to come to this thy table .. we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs ..." "Lord I am not worthy ... but say the word only and I shall be healed ..."
And the spirit can similarly be misused to alienate others and put others down who haven't had precisely the same experience as others.
It is good news that this is not what God is on about. God is on about us being in relationship with other people - about us not being dominated by anyone else and we not dominating others.
Again, it is important to recognise that this is more important on the corporate level than it is on the personal level. Jesus came to proclaim the good news that interfaith rivalry in the name of the Almighty is simply not on. Jesus is surely on about the name of the Almighty being misused - rather than my or your personal misdemeanours and failings. For it is *religious systems* which entrench and perpetuate divisions, and the sins of the fathers will have their effects for generations to come.
This is, of course, not to assert that we can do anything with our "floppy bits", for we do hurt ourselves and others by our personal actions. Yet rarely do these cause wars and while we might claim God is on our side, we know that it usually takes "two to tango".
Recently our Primate returned from the meeting called by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was reported as saying that we may, in time, have gay Bishops in the Anglican Church in Australia - but "the Church has always been against promiscuity" - and I don't think that I would be doing our Primate a disservice saying he hoped that this was never likely to change. But I thought, as he said it, how lucky we ought to think we are ourselves if we have been able to lead a faithful life. Many young people who are unemployed or through no especial fault of their own, go from job to job, cannot make the sorts of long term commitments that we have tried to do. Yet someone who is insecure in their employment (and consequently their feelings of self worth are diminished) will naturally look for a relationship with another and I am not going to criticise someone for doing so.
And it is not just young people. The old situation where one was employed in the same company for the whole of one's life is a rarity now-a-days, and who has done a study of the co-relation between relationship breakdown and employment insecurity? In times past women rarely worked and if they did it was considered secondary in importance. Now-a-days women (rightly) consider their contribution as important as men's - but again how much does this added competitiveness in both parents affect relationships?
Let me be clear I am not advocating promiscuity, nor am I saying that we need to return to the good old days when women worked at home. It is just that the Church sometimes seems to blithely assume that life hasn't changed when it most definitely has and personal dynamics are entirely different.
I am saying that we need to tell ourselves "there but for the grace of God go I" a fair amount of the time. I am also saying that concentrating on personal sins - usually of others - helps us avoid looking at the deficiencies of our faith which is so often used to exclude others in the name of God. We are those who consider ourselves religious, there is really no excuse for us not getting our message correct, except that it might lessen the "exalted status" of Christians in our own eyes.
But I am also saying, more positively, that I don't want to return to the good old days, where women and children "knew their place". It might be easier, but it will be at the expense of someone else's self esteem. And the difficulty with promiscuity is not what we do with our "floppy bits", but that again, it can lead to someone else's self esteem being shattered.
So I am not really very interested in people's personal misdemeanours, for it seems to me that this has the potential to distract us from the gospel message of the prodigal God for all. If there are some things that people would like to get off their chests, then I'm happy to listen. If that helps people in their relationship with others I will be even better pleased.
Eternally placating an evil conscience might feel good for a while, but it will soon enough return, and real life will not be ours.
The author to the letter to the Hebrews bids us consider how to provoke one another to love - now there's an interesting phrase if ever there was one :-) and encouraging one another.
I am concerned that the gospel message is trivialised. I often recall the person coming to Jesus and asking him to get his brother to share the inheritance with him. I'm quite certain that miracles do occur, but I wouldn't worship a God whose main preoccupation was that individuals believe a pattern in some plaster in a Church at Yankalilla was caused by the Blessed Virgin Mary and was a representation of her special presence.
We know from even the most cursory look at history how religious differences - the sins of the fathers - have "punished" subsequent generations - you don't need me to argue this. How the devil - or whatever that which is opposed to God - gets his or her own way as we trivialise God with concern about how or when we are intimate, one with another! The people who had Jesus crucified, for all their devotion to their god, hated the God who Jesus so accurately portrayed in his ministry and ultimately on the Cross.
I want for a moment to return to the caricature of the little devil and the little angel circling overhead, the one egging the person on and the angel trying to dissuade the person. It seems that "angels" are oft trying to dissuade us from doing things, and we can think that life might be ours if we are successful in avoiding doing the wrong thing. But again, I suspect this is another side of that evil conscience, for God bids us do things, like love the outsider. It is then that life will be ours.
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