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s185g10   Sunday 18  1/8/2010

‘relax, eat, drink, be merry’  Luke 12.19

One of the characteristics of Jesus’ ministry is that he was known as a party person.   So the gospel of Matthew remembers Jesus saying: ‘To what will I compare this generation?   It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”   For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”’  (Matt 11.16-19)   Jesus was noted for eating, drinking and being merry; so something else is going on here.  

Jesus warns about ‘all kinds of greed’ so we can assume that there is more than one kind.   Obviously there is greed for money, and we know of people who are power-hungry.   But there is also spiritual greed, the sort that takes to the person every sort of spiritual superiority.

Sadly, of course, this is not just a personal thing.   Congregations, dioceses, denominations and faiths: ‘christian’ and calathumpian, do this on a corporate level.   Perhaps they are oblivious to the way they put down others, subtly or not so subtly, but I sometimes wonder ..   They believe that their superiority is God-given, through their race, colour, culture, gender, orthodoxy, manner of life or whatever.   Their superiority means that they do not have to be concerned with others.   Their eating, drinking and being merry is always by themselves or with those like minded individuals and family.   It never includes strangers.

Just as last week we had the person in bed with his children, not wanting to disturb his children by getting up to help his importunate friend at the door, so the rich man in today’s gospel wants to be comfortable rather at the expense of others.   His, or her, world revolves around his, or her, own comfortableness.   Like the rich man with his brothers, they refused to see poor Lazarus at their gate.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating, eating drinking and being merry, but he did these things entirely with himself, and with those he loved and those he wanted to keep in with.   He needed to eat, drink and be merry with the Lazarus at his gate; and we, in our prosperity need to eat, drink and be merry with others who surround us.

Strangely enough, I have been reflecting on concupiscence in recent sermons, and here we see it again.

Eternal life comes as we consider others.   The man concerned about his parent’s inheritance fails to see that Jesus is on about something quite different.   It is not about justice, equity, law or custom.   It is about broadening our outlook to consider others in equal terms to ourselves.   Jesus rejects any suggestion that he is a judge or arbiter over anyone.   So we CANNOT use Jesus to judge others.   To quote Jesus’ words ‘no one comes to the Father but by me’ to suggest that he is a judge and arbiter over ‘unbelievers’ is to miss the mark entirely.   To use Jesus to judge anyone else, those who do not believe like me, worship like me, or live like me, is to make him an arbiter over others.   And doing so we will find ourselves being judged by ourselves.  

I once heard a comment about a person who went to a church school many years ago.   He described it in terms of ‘institutionalised bullying overlaid with a veneer of tradition which was supposed to make it all right’.   Not unsurprisingly, he hated that school, but that was where he was sent because going to ‘that’ school was his passport into society.  And this bullying was sanctioned by the ‘church’.   How glad I am that I went to a government school!

I have begun collecting some quotes from Bishop John Shelby Spong from the Internet and one here seems appropriate: ‘A major function of fundamentalist religion is to bolster deeply insecure and fearful people.   This is done by justifying a way of life with all of its defining prejudices.   It thereby provides an appropriate and legitimate outlet for one's anger.’  [Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism, (San Fransisco: Harper Collins, 1991), p. 5.]   My point is that it is not just proponents of fundamentalist religion for whom this is true.   Bullying seems to be the flip-side of all religion, ‘Anglican’, ‘christian’ and calathumpian as well.  

To pretend that ‘concupiscence’ only refers to persons and with whom they are intimate seems to me to be a prime way of exercising ‘concupiscence’ (bullying) in the name of opposing ‘concupiscence’ (intimacy).   This is NOT a matter of taking the Bible literally or not.   This causes me to reflect that the preacher who insists on others reading the Bible the proper way - ‘his way’ - to condemn others like Buddhists and gay and lesbian persons also wants to bully others - ultimately to condemn others to eternal damnation if they read the Bible in any other way.   I have to confess I find my reading of Jesus’ ministry and the letters written in the New Testament  to be entirely opposite to how this preacher reads them.

Indeed concupiscence in the New Testament seems to me to be the equivalent of idolatry in the Old - worshipping the creation (‘me and like-minded individuals’) rather than the creator who is ever concerned about all and not just ‘me and my cronies’.   And suddenly the bible becomes rather more real and relevant.

Recently I have been enjoying a parish study group around the production ‘Saving Jesus’ and we are presently thinking about the atonement.  And it caused me to think how the fact that my personal sins being forgiven by the blood of the lamb can be an exercise in concupiscence as well.   How on earth are other people helped by my sins being forgiven?   We can, and I suspect have done, get into arguments like ‘my sins are more forgiven than yours are!’ and echoes of some interpretations of the letter to the Hebrews immediately spring to mind.  Or ‘my sins are forgiven but yours aren’t!’   ‘God only forgives those who worship in my way, believe the same things I do, live life the way I do, be intimate with those I approve of ..’   How on earth does this sort of thinking help humanity in general? - it can and has been used as much a cause of division as anything else.  And if Jesus’ death and resurrection was and is only about helping me and those who think like me, worship like me, believe like me and live like me, it seems to be essentially selfish, quite the opposite of what Jesus was killed for.

Jesus exposed and exposes our selfishness, the concupiscence that is inherent in all of us, but particularly the selfishness justified in the name of the God who is generous to all, as I noted last week, even to ‘the ungrateful and the wicked’.  (Luke 6.36)   For it is those who are selfish in the name of God who harm far more people than the brother who allegedly refused to share his parent’s inheritance with his brother.

Over the past years, the church has sought to become a place where people can eat, drink and be merry, rather than miserable sinners, berating ourselves endlessly, and a good thing too.   People are not going to perceive any good news whatsoever if this is what we project to the world.   How glad I am that the old ‘Wee donut’ has been omitted from the modern liturgies: ‘We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies, We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table ..   I can type this without even looking at the book, so ingrained is this into my psyche!

The real question remains for us, not that we are joyful, but who we allow to enter into our joy?   Is it Anglicans only, or ‘christians’ only, or people of faith only - or do we extend our communion to the poor and destitute, perhaps, but the ungrateful and the wicked?

So finally, is our service of Holy Communion restricted to baptised, confirmed and communicant members of the Anglican Church inherently an exercise in concupiscence as well?   I rather think it is, while it remains this exclusive.

So we are called to ‘eat, drink and be merry’ as long as we invite everyone else along!

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