The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s170g07 Epiphany 3 21/1/2007
'to bring good news to the poor' Luke 4.18
Pierre Bayle .. is said to have implied that it was very difficult to distinguish the God of Calvin (the reformer not Hobbes :-) from the Devil. (Oeuvres Diverses, t.III, p.807) 'Does it not seem to many that what Christians believe is that God set up a code of draconian laws and then created some poor human beings to break those laws so that he could punish them eternally, while gloating over them as they suffered tortures far worse than any human sadist could inflict, while rejoicing in the flattery of other subservient human beings who slavishly kept the laws in order that they too might look down on their fellows suffering in hell with smug self-satisfaction like Roman decadents at the gladiatorial games?' (B M Ashley OP Theology of the Body Humanist and Christian p610)
I have commented before that the 'god' who commands Christians to get everyone to believe in the same terms as 'we' do, is also a demon.
I have observed that those with mood disorders and mental illness are 'driven'. They seem at the mercy of forces over which they have, it seems, no control. For people who are religious, again, they have few choices in life. 'This is the way walk in it'. (Isaiah 30.21) For those suffering from addictions, they too battle seemingly overwhelming forces.
I was recently talking to a doctor and he was saying that doctors and clergy have very similar working conditions we are on call 24/7 and we never retire. And I agreed, but added we are also both trying to lift people onto their own two feet. I have said often enough that this means more than how we get from A to B it is about restoring our primal dignity as human beings to stand on our own two feet and use our God given brains.
So for me the good news for the poor is precisely this the ability to be a fully human being, not 'put down' for seeming financial, material or spiritual poverty. All people are meant to think for themselves and they are not to be then condemned for thinking the wrong thing.
The good news means that we are no longer driven, no longer compelled, no longer forced, no longer threatened in any way. For me, the statement that 'God's predestination is his loving will to enable some persons freely to do good, and to permit others freely to do evil' makes God's gift of freedom illusory and a snare.
After many years in the Church, often following clergy who excommunicated women separated from their husbands, refused to baptise children of those not associated with the church, and being unable to bless a second marriage, I have come to the conclusion that for all my good will, I cannot make up for the people who have been alienated from God and the Church, by clergy and congregations. 'Once bitten, twice shy' is the old saying. Peoples' memories of slights are eternal, and we simply cannot claim that the church has changed. In parts of the Anglican Church, women are still marginalised, gay people alienated who will be next?
And it doesn't take much imagination to realise that the people who have been ostracised above didn't see much good news in the proclamation of the Church. It is a 'big ask' to say to women that they would be ex-communicated unless they returned to an abusive relationship. Many women now have little economic option but to have a job along with their partner if nothing else, in order to afford the fees some elite church schools charge! To have the sort of commitment that past generations had to parish life is, again, a big ask. Again, a refusal to bless a second marriage is hardly good news and it begs the question what can such a couple do to gain a blessing? They are essentially irredeemable.
It seems to me that God asks of us only reasonable things. It is that which is opposed to God that asks us to do miracles. It was the devil that asked Jesus to perform miracles in the desert and how often was Jesus asked to give people a sign?
And it seems to me to be a really big ask to expect all of humanity, freely given free will by the Almighty, to actually choose to do what God would want at each and every step along the way or be culpable thereby.
Recently I have been reflecting on the retirement of clergy. Often, and particularly in the country, clergy simply cannot retire. There are always services to do, gaps to fill, often clergy have no option. Yet perhaps this has contributed to the ageing church. Some clergy do not have a life apart from the church, and this is not far different from many elderly parishioners. No one seems ready to step aside and give the young ones a go. Having been in parish life for some number of years, I know how welcomed new ideas are in the average parish grounds for excommunication! If it is the hapless clergyperson they will be quietly, or noisily, moved on. The classic example happened to Jesus, by the very people with whom he worshipped all his life, people who could name the other members of his family. Look for the account in next weeks' gospel they tried to kill him!
Of course the church will change if we let the young ones have their way but the world has changed infinitely in the last ten years. The world has changed and young people's spiritual life is not being satisfied by attendance at church. Make no mistake about it, people' spiritual lives are being satisfied, but not by us. There is no point in hoping and / or praying for an ecclesiastical, eucharistic, biblical or charismatic revival.
It is us, we in the church, who have to change our perception of those outside to see in them people who are loved by God and have used the freedom they have been given in entirely appropriate ways - even when that means not worshipping with or like us.
I find that it is often religious people who are most firmly fixed in their perceptions of reality. It is us who know the truth and supposedly live by that truth, so we do not have to change. Religion gives us divine permission to stay the same, even the divine imperative to do so. It is just everyone else who has to change! Everyone else is mistaken, deluded, plain wrong!
I believe, for instance, that it is well nigh impossible to get an Anglican to change his or her opinion on the ordination of women as bishops, how on earth can we expect others, who we 'know' are not as blessed as us, to change their opinions? How many good 'christians' believe that it is appropriate to suggest that it is an easy thing for a gay or lesbian person to leave the person they love and love someone of the appropriate gender?
Recently I was having a lovely conversation with a delightful person from Spain, from the place where Christopher Colombus left to find America. I told the person about meeting an indigenous Alaskan when I was in New York, who was very dismissive of this discovery, saying that America was never lost!
If we look at the gospel of Luke, which we are doing this year, we will find Jesus' definition of 'repentance' in chapter 15, in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. The command to repentance is the command to the religious to accept that others are included beside themselves. 'Rejoice with me' someone else has been found Jesus reiterates but the religious take no notice! In some senses the sheep, the coin and the son are simply misplaced. They are, like America of long ago, not lost, not yet discovered.
So the paradigm has not changed. Jesus has good news for others that they are included they do not have to change. It is us in the Church who have to accept this and it is us to whom the call for repentance to rejoice with God that others are included - is directed.
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