The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r171.htm
s171o04 Lockleys Epiphany 4 1/2/2004
"I am only a boy". Jeremiah 1.6
I sometimes wryly think that the mark of being an adult is that one spends a good deal of time cleaning up after others. When I was in my previous parish across the road from the really very excellent high school, inevitably there were students before and after school, waiting for a bus, eating, drinking and, if truth be known, smoking in the Church grounds. I now have to confess to you all that I was twice caught smoking when I was a student there :-) But we had a paid cleaner in my last parish, and just as well, because it was a never ending job for him each week cleaning up the mess. Yet I would have been extremely sad if the place was always deserted and there was never any litter to be tidied away.
Young people naturally are enthusiastic about living life to the full and sometimes this means that which occupied the interest in the past is simply left where it was put down. The reality is, in fact, I am precisely the same. I am a person who believes wholeheartedly in the truth of the saying &endash; a tidy desk or garage is the sign of a sick mind! :-) I regularly have to have blitzes the clean up my office after a long period of going from one thing to the next - without tidying up as I go.
But we see in the gospel reading for today a rather more sinister example of childish behaviour - the conception that God only cares for a specific group of people, of which we are, of course, included and others, most often those with whom we disagree, are excluded.
I was interested to be asked recently, by one of my internet friends, was I a high Church Anglican or what? And it was good to have been asked this question, for it makes one think along paths that do not immediately occur to us unaided. As I thought about how I might answer, I thought, well, while I don't mind the bells and smells of high Church ritual, I am quite happy with the liturgical practice here - which is without these things. So those who are high Church Anglicans would not really consider me fundamentally "one of them". And again, while I have spent my whole life working out my faith primarily focussing on the words of scripture, those "more biblically based" Anglicans would not agree with many of the conclusions to which I have come. Few of those who called themselves evangelicals would consider me "one of them". Similarly, while I have had a lot to do with the Charismatic side of our church in times past, not many of them would agree with how I perceive the working of the Holy Spirit. I would not be considered "one of them".
But I also am not "academic" - I haven't really ever sought to undertake any post graduate theological studies or research. Academia wouldn't consider me "one of them". As I was saying last week, it is startling how simple the truths that the prophets expressed were - so that we often take them for granted. One doesn't need a degree in theology to perceive their truth. I have been a priest for a longer time than I haven't, and I have come to realise the fundamental place a member of the clergy has within a congregation. I do not have any difficulty with "lay participation" in worship, but for me God is far more interested in blessing the good work we do in our secular spheres. People who push "lay participation" wouldn't consider me entirely "one of them". Again, while I recognise and somewhat envy the spiritual experiences some people who are into meditation and the like have, I think that most people have a fair idea of what God wants for them. The contemplatives would not consider me "one of them".
So as I thought about this, I began to see, again, how much of our categorisation is based on the perception that God works in some arenas and not in others.
And that this is essentially childish. It is essentially childish because there is an expectation that someone else will clean up any mess made. Inevitably the child doesn't care about the mess or the others who have to clean up after them. It doesn't matter if the mess is hurt caused to other people.
God says to Jeremiah that he is not to put himself down, so he is to be fully mature. St Paul tells us that he became an adult, that he has put away childish ways, and Jesus incurred the wrath of those with whom he had worshipped all his life, the people who could name the other members of his family, because he spoke of God's care for people other than themselves. They were enraged and wanted him dead.
As I thought about how I might answer the question, I don't personally think God is interested in how frequently I go to confession and receive God's forgiveness. I personally don't think that God is interested in how sincerely or frequently I sing "Jesus I adore you, lay my life before you, how I love you". And I don't think God is interested in how scripturally pure is my theology. So while I can see lots of good in other people, I want to say that this is more important than what they seem to think is important.
The love that St Paul talks about is not the love we have for God, or even the love we have for God, in response to the love God has for us. The love which St Paul commends, involves others &endash; for if it doesn't &endash; it is essentially narcissistic &endash; self love. And Narcissus, after whom self-love is named, looked into the mirror and fell in love with the reflection. St Paul realises at the end of time that he will look in a perfect mirror and see himself as he really is, and how God sees him now, as a flawed individual, yet at precisely the same moment - worthy of love.
While I was at a commissioning of a new pastor recently, they sang the song, the words of which went something like: "Thank you God, for sending Jesus to die, just for me" and I thought, now hang on, this is a bit much! Jesus died and rose again for all of humanity, not just Christians. And if we are to try to duck out of being entirely responsible for these sentiments - by saying, well of course, I want to thank God for saving me first - I want to say that our fundamental thanksgiving to God as Christians is always that God has saved other people - and our own salvation is immaterial. I draw your attention to the passage in Romans 9.3. "I ...wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of ... (others) ..."
Jeremiah was to set "over nations and over kingdoms" &endash; not just one nation or one kingdom &endash; for God, in true adult fashion, cares for all people. Actually for me, I praise the Lord that God helps and loves those I have hurt - particularly those I haven't been able to help.
Again and again, God lifts us to our feet. We are always to retain our primal dignity given to all humankind, to stand on our own two feet before our God and not to cower. God wants us all to grow into adults, mature and able to see past our own concerns to the concerns that others have. We are not to remain children, endlessly accepting the love God lavishes on us, blissfully oblivious to the needs of others.
My first Rector always gave one piece of advise for those who were sick - to remember to pray also for others. Health, wholeness and maturity come as we consider others - it is how these things manifest themselves. Disease, fickleness and immaturity are marks of someone who considers only themselves.
I have been listening to "News Radio" a lot recently, and hence one thing that has pressed itself on my consciousness over the last week or two, are reports on the prevalence of child soldiers around the world. The activities of the Lord's Army in Uganda, child soldiers in Liberia, and children press-ganged into service by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka are three which come to mind without thinking. When I went to the "Coalition to Stop Child Soldiers" on the internet, they listed 20 countries where this happens. It is interesting how some use others, forcing them to remain children and subservient and compliant, to do their bidding - to hurt others. Sectarianism, immaturity and fighting seem to go hand in hand. And I wonder when we in the Church put so much emphasis on obedience. Is this a subtle way of keeping the masses subservient to maintain religious differences important to * someone * and to the detriment of others. It is really only a matter of degree. And in some ways the Church wields deadlier weapons than any military force, for we can inflict eternal damnation ... or so we pretend.
Some Christians put a lot of emphasis on being "born again" - I wish I could remember who it was who said he just wished some Christians would grow up :-)
I was reflecting recently that those temptations in the wilderness were all about how Jesus could get everyone's attention and get them to do what he said. Jesus rather wanted to lift all people to their feet, for all to become mature and useful to others too.
And, of course, it was precisely this that had him crucified. Those who wanted to keep the masses subservient and sectarian killed Jesus because he mixed with people other than themselves.
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