The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s180g13   Sunday 13  30/6/2013

'do you want us to command fire ..?'  Luke 9.54  

James and John were the proto-Christian terrorists, and certainly not the last!

I have been reflecting that the church seems unable to give definitive answers on some quite crucial matters, like the place of woman and LGBT people within the community.   Yes, I do know that each of us knows that the answer is simple, but the problem is that there are others, just as devout and convinced of their simple answer, quite the opposite to me!   And we can close our eyes to this, or perhaps we must accept that this is unalterable, and therefore meant to be.

I wonder at the presumption of the church which claims to speak the word of the Lord, when there is quite clearly a lot of different versions of the word of the Lord, often diametrically opposed!   If nothing else, this ought to encourage humility :-)   I recall a lay-person in a country parish recounting that when their new young minister arrived he proudly proclaimed that God had called him to that parish.   When he left a couple of years later, he proclaimed that God had called him elsewhere.   The lay-person commented he just wished God would make up his / her mind! :-)

Recently I was listening to a bishop speak and he commented: 'What do you do when you don't know what to do? - have a structural review!'

Our gospel reading for today speaks about the various ways different people express their support for Jesus or not, and I guess we can look at the same responses as reactions to the mission of the church today.

The Samaritan village refused to entertain Jesus because his face was set to go to Jerusalem.   They had the impression that Jesus was on about reasserting the separateness and privilege of the ancient people of God, over and against those the ancient people of God considered heretics and expendable - themselves.   And this should open our eyes to the fact that our mission can be mistaken for something else.   We too might be assumed to carry the banner for the continuing privilege and entitlement of the Church of England.   If this is the case, is this really our mission?   And if it is, are not those who reject our ministry actually right in doing so?

And to go back to my opening words.   If we as the church are not actually agreed on what the word of God is, how can we expect others to take us seriously?   We have had centuries of time to ponder, write, listen, and crucify - and yet we still don't have a definite answer.   Why should the world even listen?   They have enough to do to keep body and soul together and to live peaceably and productively.

And the disciples, flushed with new enthusiasm decide that others, who through no fault of their own, made assumptions about the message and reject it, did not deserve to live.   Is not the fault with the disciples who have not got the message right and failed to communicate it effectively?   And cannot the same charges be levelled at the church which threatens excommunication and eternal damnation for those who don't accept their particular version of sacred selfishness?   Is this doing unto others as we would have done unto ourselves?   If we consider others expendable why should others not consider the church expendable?

For let us be quite clear, secular humanists certainly believe that the church is expendable.   They are only doing unto the church as the church has, for centuries, done to them.

For it doesn't matter if the sacred selfishness has the name of the God of the ancient Israelites, the name of Jesus, or the name of the Church of England on it, or whatever, it remains selfishness.   And society is absolutely right to reject any form of selfishness in the name of any god, or none.   It does not matter if we can quote John 3.16 or 14.6, people can pick selfishness a mile off.

And so I do not think it surprising that we find that Jesus discourages people from following him.   Jesus is not selfish.   He does not consider his success by how many hangers-on follow him.   And I find it interesting that the first he dissuades wants to follow Jesus physically 'wherever you go'.   Jesus explains that this is not a recipe for comfortable living - which ought to give us pause to consider if we are christians in the hope that our prayers and devotion will be rewarded by a life of health, wealth and happiness.   But we can also note that we can follow Jesus amongst the people with whom we live and work.   Jesus doesn't call people to a life away from society, but calls us to follow him into society, wherever we find ourselves.   The second reinforces this, for he is told: 'go and proclaim the kingdom of God', not 'come with me and proclaim the kingdom of God'.   The third person dissuaded has to consider the priority of his or her relationship with his / her immediate family, or the need for society to be offered a religion that is not about sacred selfishness.   Certainly God calls us to love our brothers and sisters, but we hardly need God to tell us to do this!   What we need God's call, permission and empowerment to do is to love beyond these familial and religious boundaries.

I still remember an experienced priest saying that when he took on industrial chaplaincy early in his ministerial career, he thought he was going to take Jesus into the workplaces he visited.   He soon realised that Jesus was already there before him :-)

It is my experience of parish life is that congregations try their darnedest to be welcoming, as if this is what God calls us to do.   Well yes, but I suspect that the real call of God is to accept others when they don't darken our doors, when they are just as enamoured with their own form of worship as we are in ours - and that we are not tempted to use our relationship with Jesus or God to criticise, challenge, marginalise, alienate, condemn or incinerate others who think, believe and live differently to us.   And somehow it is not just us as individuals and us as congregations that have to be noted for doing this, but it needs to be our faith that needs to be known for this.   Perhaps our Creed should simply be: "We will not incinerate others' :-)   Or: 'Others are not expendable'!   And I have a good deal of sympathy for individuals and congregations who have felt that the church blames them for not being welcoming enough, or puts before them another variation of a mission action plan for them to do, when the root of the problem is with the church as a corporate entity, not making it's message plain enough.

Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem and he knew precisely what that entailed.   He was going to be judged expendable by the orthodox and the devout - those whose devotion to the faith was so conspicuous - so expendable that they would engineer his death.  The Cross is the ultimate symbol of selflessness which shows us that the church's message is about affirmation and inclusion of all people, their sacredness whatever their beliefs and lifestyle.   We need to be noted for being a safe place where people are encouraged to express their faith as well as their doubts, and I suspect that the sort of liturgical practice I am used to actually all but precludes this.   People are only able to take an active role in leading worship when they read passages of an approved scripture or from an approved prayer book.   This might have been sufficient in the dark ages but this sort of restriction is laughable in the literate, informed and thinking society of today.   By prescribing what people say in worship, we are actually only listening to 'our' orthodox faith repeated and perpetuated, we are not actually listening to others.   We are saying in no uncertain terms that it is not them who are important, but their regurgitating statements of faith.   If others are unwilling to do this then they are expendable.

The Jesus I worship lived and died to confront precisely this.