The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r150.htm
s150g03 Lockleys Advent 3 14/12/03
"We have Abraham as our ancestor É" Luke 3.9
We always associate John the Baptist as the stern protagonist ready to tell others, in no uncertain terms, where they were wrong and what they had to do to measure up. We hear the words "You brood of vipers!" directed, it seems, towards one and all in the crowds that flocked to him.
Yet we do need to be careful, for when individuals come and ask him for directions he is remarkably lenient. The crowds are bidden to share their possessions, the tax collectors are told to collect no more than they were due. Soldiers are simply asked to be content with their wages. None of them were told to go to worship more often. As an aside, the mere appearance of a member of the clergy and people think that they are going to be told to come to Church or that they will go to hell if they don't! :-)
The brood of vipers are those who claim exemption from being useful to others by reason of their exalted status in the eyes of God. And, of course, this is a remarkably similar message to the parable of the Good Samaritan, and those who thought that they were able to pass by the injured man because of their status before God.
Now there are, of course, quite a number of reasons why we might not be able to be charitable. We might have a fair idea that the charity we offer may well be used to buy cigarettes, alcohol or other less than useful things. For me, if I started giving money at the Rectory door, I am sure that soon enough I would have people queuing up down Douglas St all wanting a handout. I cannot afford to smoke myself, so why should I pay for others to do so? I know of clergy whose marriages have failed because of the constant stream of callers at the front door. It is interesting that in my experience the people who most need help will often not ask, and those who need to "get off their butts" and help themselves - are loudest in their demands.
In a past parish I had a lovely lady, a widow who lived by herself - a person with no children. I suspect that she wasn't short of "a bob or two", and she was one of those persons who did take her obligation of charity seriously. Inevitably she was robbed a couple of times. I say this to explain that I know that there are obvious reasons to be careful about our charity. God does not expect us to put ourselves at risk.
Some of you will know that my father was a retail watchmaker and jeweller in the city. Some poor deluded people thought we were rich :-) As one does when one is young, one helps in the family business. We were told if someone comes in "toting a gun" - show them to the safe and help them empty it. Nothing is worth getting shot. Similarly, nothing is so important to "get our own way" so that others begin to hate us.
The message therefore is not that we must be charitable in each and every circumstance that presents itself to us, but that we are not to deny legitimate assistance where we are able, because of our supposed "status" before God.
The chaff that will be burned in unquenchable fire are those whose religious predilections put them above helping others.
Again, God is not in heaven, wringing his hands in glee, just waiting to condemn as many as possible to eternal damnation. God is someone who sends three people along the road to help someone, anyone, fallen among thieves.
And about this time, I had someone tackle Catherine after choir practice for money for petrol. I got on my motorcycle and paid the service station $10 for petrol she put in her car. I noted that even the Good Samaritan didn't give money to the person fallen among thieves. He took the man to someone who could look after the other person and offered to reimburse him any extra. So again, as I had cause to say last week, we do well to make sure our sacrifices are our own, and not actually someone else''s or there will be hell to pay. We cannot palm someone in need off to someone else, when we can assist. We don't have to do it all, as this Samaritan had the wherewithal to help, but we are bidden to do what we can, if we can.
The people God will consider useless, as chaff only worth burning in the unquenchable fire are those who claim "Abraham is our father" and therefore they can neglect the legitimate concerns of others. Everyone has a right to live, to have a roof over their head, to have sufficient to eat and drink. We might not be able, by ourselves, to meet the needs of everyone, but we are called to support the government in its efforts to bring this about in society.
Everyone has a right to be respected, it costs us nothing, not one single penny. It doesn't matter who people are, what their race, colour, religion, economic status, or with whom they relate intimately - each and every person deserves our respect, for everyone who lives has the wherewithal to respect others.
But, what about pedophiles? some may well ask! To which I would respond with the question, do pedophiles really respect those they claim to love? I suspect not. It works both ways.
The trouble I have is that as I've gone through the Church, people have been expected to look down on others. We look down on others who don't share our version of Anglicanism, let alone Christianity. We look down on others who vote for different political parties than we do. We look down on others who haven't got jobs or look scruffy or enjoy modern "music". I think that the last music group that was condemned by some sections of the Church as satanic was "Kiss". More recently "Harry Potter" has been condemned as promoting witchcraft!
I cannot get too excited about the obnoxious activities of a few pedophiles when people have been subject to verbal abuse from pulpits, week after week, in the name of Jesus.
One of my favourite authors is "Molly Wolf" a Canadian Anglican. She made the statement in a recent "Sabbath Blessing" entitled "Choir Practice" (Sun Nov 23, 2003) "It's never been easy. Some think that the _via media_ is a sort of weak-kneed waffling, "making nice", refusing to take a stand, a turning away from clarity and standards and high ideals. I disagree: I think that living in love with someone who you are absolutely certain is WRONG is the hardest work in the world, and that it pleases God no end. It makes us struggle to understand the other's point of view and see how it might have some very real merit. It makes us keep our own proud self-righteousness well-pruned, an essential part of being a Christian. "Thou shalt love thy neighbour more than thine own beliefs, however impeccable" fits the Great Commandment far more closely than the opposite."
Everyone has the wherewithal to respect other people, so we have the ability to do this. The question is, do we have the inclination? I will not be part of a church which doesn't give people the inclination to respect others, whoever they are. But even as I say this I know that those who really need to heed this message won't - and those who don't need to heed this message any more than they already do, will, and to their own detriment!
One of my colleagues, a long time ago, said that when he went to hospital and they asked him his religion he said "Christian" rather than "Anglican". Having worked in a general hospital I know how frustrating this is for chaplains, who want to visit those who will welcome their visit, and not visit those who won't. But this alerted me to my own thinking that I'm even worse. I don't really want to label myself as "Christian", because so often this is associated with uncharitableness rather than the opposite. It is not that I wish to deny Christ in my life, quite the opposite. It means that Christ doesn't want his name ever used as an excuse to be disrespectful of others, as Abraham, I'm sure, didn't want his name to be used as an excuse to neglect the legitimate needs of, or to disrespect, others
Many of you (in my real congregation) will know that Timothy (my son) teaches English to new settlers to Australia. Recently there were two new Afghanis join the class. Tim made the comment that the major difference between Christians and Muslims was that we worship Jesus. We are noted for claiming a special relationship to God "through Jesus Christ our Lord". And this made me question: "Are we doing essentially no different than the "brood of vipers" who claimed a special relationship to God through Abraham." If we are, then we need to stop.
Often people who use the internet have little sayings instead of "signature files" at the bottom of e-mails. Molly Wolf often has the saying: "Never try to teach a pig to sing. It's a waste of your time, and it irritates the pig." - I have no idea where this comes from! But lest anyone get to thinking that I'm saying anything unorthodox, I was grateful to be informed by an e-mail recently the saying of St. Catherine of Sienna: "The only thing we can offer to God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God's love." While I would want to say that everyone is worthy to receive our love because God has considered all worthy to receive the divine love, the essence really is that we are to get out and do it and not make excuses that we have more religious things to which to attend. Things like how right and justified we as Christians are and how wrong, heretical and deluded others are.
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