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

s148g12   Advent 1  2/12/2012  St Mary’s Halswell

'that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap ..'   Luke 21.34,35

'From all sedition, privy conspiracy, and rebellion;
from violence, battle, and murder;
and from dying suddenly and unprepared,
Good Lord, deliver us.'   - The Litany.   1979 U. S. Book of Common Prayer

‘Dying suddenly and unprepared’ I suspect meant (in ‘high-church language) that the person had confessed their sins and had episcopal absolution, received the holy communion and then extreme unction just prior to dying.   Well if this were the case then surely, God in his (or her) mercy would provide many more catholic (or Anglo-catholic) priests to enable this to happen far more frequently than is possible at the moment.  On the other hand (from a conservative evangelical perspective) it meant that the person had recently repented of their sins and had put their faith in Jesus.   Unfortunately these two suffer from being entirely subjective and can lead to the opposite of ‘blessed assurance’.

And this begs so many questions.   What happens to the Muslim child killed instantly, if accidentally, by an IED in Afghanistan?   What happens to the millions of people who are not actually ‘christians’ of 'my' particular persuasion, including people of other faiths, people whose life experiences have led them to question the existence of a divine, people who have been marginalised, alienated and condemned by the ‘church’ such as gay and lesbian people?   What will happen to a goodly number of people who will leave the ‘church’ because they simply don’t believe that women should be excluded from consideration for ordination to the episcopate?   What will happen to those victims of child molestation by church workers and who have no trust in anything to do with ‘church’?   If these are denied ‘eternal life’ (whatever that may be) what does this say about this ‘god’ except that he (as such ‘gods’ invariably seem to be) is extremely self centred, pedantic and judgemental.   And doesn’t this just excuse ‘christians’ being selfish, pedantic and judgmental too?   Where is this Lord, whose ‘steadfast love endures forever’?   Why did Jesus associate with others, if not to show a God who is selfless, open-minded, and accepting?   And why would one love a ‘god’ who is self centred, pedantic and judgemental except under duress, which is the complete antithesis of love?   The idea that Christians should love others seems to suggest that they have to make up for a less than loving ‘god’!   I have commented before that sometimes it seems 'god' has an enormous inferiority complex and needs our worship - ‘seven whole days, not one in seven' - to assuage it!

In my experience in the Anglican Church, we seem fixated on getting others to become like us, when our Lord commands us to accept others, others who are inevitably different, to do unto others, even those who are not straight Anglicans like us, as we would have them do unto us.

What is a good death?

I guess that the 'ideal' is coming to the end of one’s life recognising that one has lived a long and fulfilling life with a loving partner, children and grandchildren, a satisfying job, a position within the community, and therefore content to slip away quietly but not unexpectedly during the night so as not to distress loved ones, after a not too long and painful illness.   Well, I guess it does happen sometimes, almost as frequently as someone receives the sacraments of the church, in their correct order, and slips away quietly.   But where does this leave someone who is born into a family for whom unemployment is in its fourth generation?   Where does it leave those millions born into poverty, illness and premature death because of a church proscription on the use of contraception?   Does the certainty of our salvation as ‘christians’ mean that God is content that we don’t care if these others, and many millions more to come, are condemned?

Jesus tells us that the world is not perfect, and we are not promised a dream run, either as individuals or as a community of faith.   It is not just about us!   It seems that some parts of the world are continually on the verge of war.   The communications revolution means that we are aware of every catastrophe, often in vivid detail.  

I guess what I am trying to say is that the church has been want to give definitive answers, yet we have no remedy for death itself nor for that primal urge to fight off the inevitable.   Often the devout and the orthodox are more racked with uncertainty about their relationship with 'god' than the irreligious.

We need to be careful that our statements about death (particularly when it is not particularly immanent) do not by implication exclude others.   I am reminded of Molly Wolf’s recent observation: ‘False empathy is utterly useless, as the male hospital resident found when he said to a woman in labour “I know how you feel.”   (His testicles were later discovered under the fetal monitor.)‘   ‘Lovely‘  November 12, 2012   When we express a confidence that there is a heaven - do we imply it is only for those who share a similar confidence?   When we talk about being with loved ones again, how do we view the prospect of being reunited with family members with whom our relationship was less than cordial?

When I read the parables of the marriage feast of the King, I hear Jesus speaking about people who don’t want to be a part of it.   Why, for heaven’s sake, would people not want to be a part of eternal bliss, if that is really what is being offered?   And the (more than) curious thing is that it is the devout and the orthodox to whom these parables are directed, not the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners with whom Jesus associated.   Of course, for all the pretend excuses put up, the real reason the orthodox and the devout didn't want to be a part of the eternal life Jesus proclaimed is that they didn’t like the other guests already there. 

But of course, the marriage feast of the King is not necessarily, or even primarily, a future thing.   Creation itself is the marriage feast of the King and we choose to be a part of it, or not, here and now.

I was interested to read the reaction of Rod Thomas, chair of the conservative evangelical Reform group, responding to the success of his group to block the ordination of women as bishops in England, saying: 'It was as close as we thought it would be.   My overall conclusion is that it is very good news for the Church of England.   We have avoided what could have been a disastrous mistake for our unity and witness.  We can now sit down and talk through how the Bible helps us to move forward together.'   I note that his concept of the kingdom is not a feast but a bible study and the unity he envisages is a unity of people who believe the same things rather than a unity of people who love others who may not believe things about the Almighty in 'christian' terms.

So for me, 'being prepared' - something every good scout should be - means knowing what God wants, to be loving to those who are different, of not living lives of sedition, privy conspiracy, rebellion, violence, battle, murder - and - marginalization, alienation and condemnation of others, making this life as close to possible to what we believe God wants, not just for our own personal benefit, but for the benefit of society as a whole.

Perhaps 'the trap' that we might be caught in is the trap of spending our existence defending to the death our particular version of christianity, and wouldn’t that be unexpected!

To finish, I reflect that the decision of the General Synod in the Church of England about the ordination of women as bishops is ironic in the extreme, when our church was founded on the 39 Articles of Religion of 1571, the 21st of which states (in part): 'General Councils .. may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God.'   If a General Council can and has erred, perhaps we as individuals might be permitted to not always be right too!