The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s172g10 Sunday 5 7/2/2010
'the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God' Luke 5.1
The thing that impresses me here is that the crowds who flock to Jesus when he was somewhere other than the synagogue or Temple. People realised that they were free of the constraints that synagogue and Temple imposed upon them and flocked to Jesus. And it makes me wonder if our churches today are viewed as places of constraint rather than places to hear the word of God. For the word of God was clearly one of acceptance of all and this wasn't heard then and it isn't heard much now within the confines of organised religion 'christian' churches included!
The word of God had left the confines of synagogue and Temple and came to people living their ordinary life. Jesus blessed ordinary existence. Yet so much of 'christian' theology sanctifies only what happens on Sunday mornings by those dressed in long white dresses. Jesus didn't bless people who came to him, Jesus went to others and blessed them as they were. So if we are only blessing those who come to Church, we are doing nothing different than those who had Jesus killed!
The incarnation implies that the locus of blessing has been changed from sacred space to ordinary life. It is no longer mediated by a professional elite, it is a present reality for one and for all.
I have been thinking how we are all most comfortable in our own surroundings. I have (in the past) been a happy after-hours hermit living in my own house for the first time in my life. It is a place of refuge, where I am master of my own existence. And we look at church similarly. For many of us, it is our second home. And we look to bless those who visit us, either in our own homes or in our second home, our place of worship. It is where we are master or mistresses of our own lives. But the evangelical imperative is not to get others to come to where we are comfortable, where we are master or mistress, but to go and be with others where they are comfortable, where they are master or mistress, where they feel safe. It's all a bit daunting, as much for me as anyone else.
If the locus of blessing has changed from where we are comfortable to where others are comfortable - what are we to do with the institution? My own logic trail is that this begins with the fundamental reality of the acceptance of all. Naturally people respond to this, as they immediately appreciate that they are accepted unconditionally. The history of the church is testament to the reality that countless people in countless generations have realised that they are accepted unconditionally. People naturally want to give in response to this acceptance. They choose to give small amounts and large from the widow's mites to the extravagant benefactors. Sometimes the giving overshadows the fundamental reality of the acceptance of all. In endless echoes of Cain and Abel, people consider their contribution more important than someone else's. The fundamental reality, the acceptance of all, gets forgotten in this conflict. In how many parishes is there an undeclared war between the conservatives and the radicals, the musicians and the fund-raisers, the Mothers Union and the AWA, or whatever? I was bemused to be told by a minister of a combined congregation that he thought there would be disputes over theology or liturgy no the conflicts were over who used which tea-pot! Of course that wouldn't happen in Anglican congregations! I've seen Anglican hall kitchens with locked and labelled compartments for each of the church groups! Heaven forbid the Red Cross might use the MU's crockery!
The word of God attracts people. I was interested to hear a story on the radio about Leo Tolstoy. This year marks the centenary of the death of that greatest of Russian novelists. And the thing that struck me is that the program stated that this anniversary will be celebrated everywhere except Russia, where people were forced to read his books. The comment was made that nothing kills interest more than not being allowed to think. Of course I immediately thought how this applies as much to the Bible. We the Bible a disservice by insisting on its importance. If we let people read and ponder it themselves they would delight in the words rather than rue the experience. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/saturdayextra/stories/2010/2805129.htm
But similarly we do the church a disservice by insisting on its importance, and not permitting people to think. If we let people ponder on God in liturgy and sacrament they would delight in the experience rather than rue it. I recall an aged parishioner who told me he came to church out of duty and that is fine except when everyone else has to come to church for the same reason. Clearly he didn't find church all that inspiring, yet I would change the hymnbook 'over his dead body'. Well he died and we did change the hymnbook. People will not flock to hear about the performance of duties, yet they flocked to Jesus. The performance of duties is not what the word of God is about.
A long time ago I recall Mark Knopfler of the band Dire Straits being interviewed. He made the comment that music made him humble because it was so big. What an enlightening use of the word humble. He wasn't suggesting that music wanted to keep others in their place. Music wants us to jump in and enjoy. So too. God doesn't want us to cower in the corner, but to jump in and enjoy. There is a place for everyone. So I think what I've said about the bible and the church applies equally to God. We do God a disservice by so stressing the importance of God that we do not allow people to think for themselves.
At the moment I am thinking about the relationship between art and God. One of the common characteristics of those who are mentally ill is that they are often artistic. They find relief and healing expressing themselves in art. And it seems to me that art is a way of relating to others. Behind the isolation and stigma that so frequently accompanies mental illness is a desire to bridge this gap in safe ways. Art is that safe way of exploring oneself and communicating this to others. Health is all about relating to other people. God is behind health, so God is behind relationships.
I recall speaking to someone recently who suggested that Australia should restrict immigration to our shores. But I believe that God is behind this divine diversity. We read in the bible that God called Abram to leave his family and travel to a strange land. That call is irresistible like the desire to create and the call to love and procreate. I believe that in fact it is isolation and uni-culture that we have to fear not multiculturalism. For this is most assuredly what the kingdom will be like.
'The crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God' and indeed in doing so they entered that kingdom, for it is a kingdom of acceptance and inclusiveness for all. Each and everyone has a gift to offer, a part to play, with our thoughts and doubts, for a kingdom of acceptance and inclusiveness means nothing if everyone is the same, those who make a virtue of compliance and gullibility.
Church, Mosque, Temple, synagogue, even cathedral are always going to be too small for those who wish to hear the word of God, for that word of acceptance and inclusiveness encompasses everyone and no one building or faith will contain that number.
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