The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s173g07 Sunday 6 11/2/07
'blessed are you .. when they exclude you' Luke 6.22
It has been my experience over many parishes to realize that often parishes, for all they purport to be open, friendly and welcoming places; this is only true up to a point. Any attempt to change anything will lead to ostracism and exclusion even if (or especially if) it happens to be the priest who wants to change something.
Of course the Church has always had a way of excluding others we dignified it by calling it excommunication. So some places will exclude people who have been divorced, they are gay or they are in a relationship with someone without the formal sanction of the Church. Some parishes look askance at married people where the woman has not taken her husband's surname.
The Church has always commended hearty faith, which is 'code' for everyone has to agree with the credal formulae. Only recently I was speaking with a retired Anglican priest who confessed to crossing his fingers at various places within the service. Or else it means that people are 100% committed to each and every activity of the parish regardless of family commitments.
I have my suspicions that the proliferation of new denominations is directly related to the mainline Churches unwillingness to accept changes. If people cannot 'make their mark' in a congregation, then they will find one where they can. Our stress on the importance of bricks and mortar has meant that others sought to build their own church and if it was not Anglican, well who cares? Again in my experience, people will give for any building extension, but finding the money to pay the ongoing costs of the priest or minister is always difficult. People have got the real message of what is important to us edifices - and if we do not give them an opportunity to be a builder, we cannot deny them the joy of doing it somewhere else. We have become victims of our own success in propagating what has always been important for us. I live in a lovely city where the heights of the spires on top of the main Anglican Church, the main Uniting Church and the main Catholic Church look to be within an inch of one another! They are all lovely buildings within a couple of blocks of each other.
I have begun re-reading 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' by Robert M Persig (before a motorcycle journey I am about to undertake). These words sprang out: 'He felt that institutions such as schools, churches, governments, and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for the control of individuals in the service of those functions. He came to see his early failure as a lucky break, an accidental escape from a trap that had been set for him, and he was very wary about institutional truths for the remainder of his time.' (p114)
But why should people be blessed when they are excluded from the Church? I have already hinted at one reason, in my quote from 'Zen ..', because it frees us to pursue truth as we see it. The retired priest with whom I was speaking has found his truth and manufactured ways to get around the institutional truth that he finds controlling that seeks simply to perpetuate its own functions. In doing so he has become the person he was meant to be from the beginning. He has become at one with himself. He has experienced personal resurrection.
But I can think of many reasons. For me the main one is that this is where we will find the risen Jesus outside amongst 'ordinary' people, and it is a great blessing to realize that this is where the risen Jesus is and this is where his sheep are also. It means I don't have to 'convert' any, let alone all!
Next Sunday many of us will celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration. When Jesus came down from the mountain of transfiguration with Peter, James and John, he was confronted by a crowd of people - to hear him and be healed. Their efforts to find a healing community within the ancient people of God was as successful as it often is today among the new people of God. The transfiguration tells us that neither Jesus nor his disciples' place was ever to remain on the mountain, but to be among ordinary people.
You may be quite certain that the God I worship is out amongst ordinary people. Any 'god' able to be closeted away in buildings, kept safe from others, sounds a lot like an idol to me.
For me it is a real 'resurrection' experience to find the risen Jesus 'out there'. Recently I was watching a repeat of a '4 Corners' program on a lady who left the 'Exclusive Brethren'. She had worked as a secretary in a non-Brethren firm. For her, in amongst the pain and the separation of it all, there was also undoubtedly resurrection as well. She would not go back.
Being excluded means that we can think for our selves and not be criticised, and what a blessed and human thing it is to think and reason for our selves rather than imitate, conform, and please others! It is to be affirmed for who we are and not continue to live a lie that we believe when actually we question!
But of course many, many Christians do actually think for themselves certainly the retired priest is not alone in devising ways to dismiss the institutional truths - I suspect that most lay people have as well. It's just that they can't be bothered 'rocking the boat'. Again 'Zen ..' says: 'The rest of the time I'm feigning twentieth century lunacy just like you are. So as not to draw attention to myself' (p33).
I have always enjoyed parochial ministry all 29 years of it. Now as a hospital chaplain it is a great blessing to not have to worry about buildings, meetings or finances, to not have to worry about whose sensibilities I cannot transgress, to forget about being Anglican and to visit people of any faith or of none. It seems to me that I am being a priest amongst the 99 far more hours each week than I ever did in a parish. It has been a resurrection for me.
One of the favourite parables of Jesus is the parable of the lost sheep in the trilogy of parables of things lost in Luke 15 where Jesus defines Christian repentance. It is the favourite parable of some church-goers because they perceive of themselves as one of the 99 and the one who is lost as someone who doesn't come to church. Someone else (i.e. the priest) has the task of going off and rescuing the one who is lost and bringing it back to their fold. But if we take seriously the fact that Jesus was killed for associating with others, then perhaps it is the others, the ones who don't come to church who are the 99 and it is the ones who do go to church who are the lost sheep, needing to be brought back to the rest of humanity. The very scandal of this suggests that it is true. When we are in a church that discriminates and excludes, we need to be brought back to a humanity that indiscriminately loves as Jesus did and does still. When we are in a church that discriminates and excludes then we can hardly expect God's blessing.
Two stories to finish. Last century :-) a particular priest was nominated to be a Bishop and another priest said to me that he was unsuitable because he played in a jazz band on Friday nights! The implication was that this meant that he wasn't religious enough to be a Bishop! In fact while he wasn't elected then he later did become a Bishop.
And as I am about to go on holidays, and one of the things I will be doing is riding my motorcycle from Adelaide to Orange, it is interesting how people in the hospital are interested when I say that I'm doing this. I don't think I come across as 'pious' but this gives them some real connection with me, something on which we can converse as equals. Perhaps it gives them something to think about than just their own ailments for a while and that is good. I tell them that after 1155kms on a 250cc machine, I'll come back with a numb bum! :-)
'Blessed are you .. when they exclude you' - because being in a place that is discriminating and exclusive is certainly not where I ever want to be anyway!
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