s190e01 Somerton Park Sunday 23 9/9/01

"If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account."

Philemon 18

One has to presume that St Paul is actually quite serious here, when he offers to repay the legitimate owners of Onesimus any of his debts. St Paul is quite prepared to ensure that the owners of Onesimus do not suffer loss from their slave, and St Paul is quite prepared to dig into his own pockets so that Onesimus can begin a new life, indebted to no one. And it begs the question, how do we look at other people? Not just do we forgive them, but do we expect them to repay their debt to us or to society in full out of their own resources?

I have been attending a course on victimology, but even before this, one of the things I have realised is that often criminals, when they have served their time, simply return to the place from whence they came, with the same lack of support, same lack of community, same lack of meaningful employment, and the same temptations to get what they need through less-than-legal means. It is therefore no wonder that there is a high proportion of re-offending - looked at in this way it is almost inevitable. Somewhere along the line someone has to dig into their own pockets to cancel the past debts others owe and provide some community and support so that individuals may find ways to break out of their previous environment and the inevitable stresses that environment caused.

It is all very well to have mandatory sentencing, where repeated petty larceny does attract stiff penalties, but the reality is that Australia first became populated by British petty criminals sent here, very much by those who had wealth and enough. People have an obligation to provide for themselves and their families, and if this means taking from those who have more than their fair share and who keep it to themselves, I don't think we can expect God to be too much fussed for the "victim" of the theft. And if the system means that some resort to taking drugs to get through life, again we cannot "point the finger" and criticise them.

There seems little point in complaining about the justice system or the prisons system. The words of St Paul tell us that we too might have to dig into our own pockets.

Recently we have been reminded of the aims of the Jubilee 2000 program to alleviate the burden on the heavily indebted countries of the world. Again, we need to think about this in terms of how we should dig into our own pockets. We simply cannot expect "others" to do something.

Jesus speaks about the cost of discipleship, in his words about the man building the tower and the king going out to wage war. There is indeed a cost associated with being a disciple of Jesus, yet I think that the reality is that we are not in a position where we have a choice of giving or not giving. I strongly suggest that the effects of our not giving might in the end be more costly, for ourselves as well as for others. So if we fail to be "charitable" towards a freed prisoner, we can hardly complain if our house is broken into next week. Well, I suppose that we can complain, but we can't expect God to strike the offender dead, simply because he or she re-offends.

If we continue to wage war against our neighbours, then, at some stage it is quite likely to become "my" child who is killed in the cross-fire and will my grief be assuaged in the slightest by me being able to justify my continuing animosity?

Jesus talks about us hating our families, and it can come across that God wants to be first on our agendas, to the exclusion of everyone else. After all, in the second of the ten commandments we are told by God that God is a jealous God. Are we to disbelieve the very word of the Lord? But the real question is: "Does God act like a scorned teenager - does God become angry and resentful when someone's attention is diverted away from the beatific vision? Well I suppose your God might, but my God certainly doesn't!

To interpret these words correctly, I think we need to realise the fact that God loves us unconditionally whereas the love we show as humans is inevitably conditional. God loves those who do not love God in return - this is what loving unconditionally means. So any sadness God may have in us turning away is entirely that we are turning from unconditional love. It is not that there is anything wrong with conditional love, for all love always comes with the possibility of pain and suffering. Indeed if it came without the possibility of pain and suffering, it would in fact not be love in the first place.

And, of course, much of the pain of separation, whether it be through circumstances beyond one or other's control, such as bereavement, or through a deliberate choice of one of the parties, centres on the loss the other party feels. Something of "ours" has been taken away. It is so easy to equate this loss of something precious to us - to a conception that the other person was "ours" - that the other person was our possession. That is the fine line we cannot cross. This is where we are called to hate rather than love.

So I interpret Jesus words about hating those around us, is if they have become our possessions. If we relate to those around us as possessions, then we are devaluing those people, no matter how closely they are related to us. If we are relating to people around us as possessions, then it actually devalues the love we profess we have for them. Love which possesses is in fact not love at all.

If we love people only for how they contribute to our lives and do as we ask - that is not love at all.

And it seems a particularly appropriate Sunday, the Sunday I am leaving for holidays prior to taking up my new appointment in October, to make the comment that you are not "my" parishioners, and you never have been. You have always been your own persons. Similarly, I am not "your" Rector, I have always been my own person, and this is as it should be.

Jesus talks about us being salt - and the point about being salt, is that it brings out the flavour in others. So salt doesn't change other people, it brings their gifts to the fore. We are not supposed to convert the world so that everyone is salt, then there would be no point in being salt either. One doesn't want to bring out the flavour of salt any more than it does itself.

So salt serves to show to others the value of that which it flavours. Ownership serves to show that another person's only use is in their compliance to the wishes of the owner.

Indeed, the grace of God is given that we love, not just those around us, in our friends and family, but all others as well. I know it is often easier to love people other than those of our families, those with whom we live ... But God's love is that we love beyond the borders, that we love those who will never be "ours".

So our task as the Anglican Parish of Somerton Park has never been just to engender a happy, thriving and loving community here - the quality of love amongst those we consider "ours". The true measure of our effectiveness will be in how we are seen to love others, those who will never be "ours" - Christians of other denominations, people of other faiths, people of no faith ...

So we need to be careful when we say "we are God's" because I suspect that precisely because God truly loves us, God does not want us as possessions. Put in crude terms, God is not the eternal autocratic scrooge, counting up the number of followers at the end of each day, and like Smug the dragon in Tolkein's book "The Hobbit" - flying into a rage when he finds a piece of his treasure missing!!!

Indeed the unconditional love of God means that God loves us when we neglect loving God to love another - and I find this an extremely liberating concept. The unconditional love of God, means precisely that we can completely forget every qualm about whether we are acceptable to God or not, and just get on with loving others.

And the story of Onesimus also tells us that the person we have to regard in the right way is in our own household - someone, he or she - who is enslaved to us. And we, who are the master in the situation, have to give that up, to love as an equal. This could immediately be applied to children when they grow up. I know a couple in our family who very quickly react if I treat them as personal servants, and rightly so :-) It can also be a marriage partner.

And I return to the statement that the costs of not doing this are very likely to be far, far greater than that which it will cost us if we do as God asks.

As I think about the master - slave relationship, I recall only recently driving into town. I suppose on the world scale, Adelaide is really quite small. Yet I thought, as I looked at the tall buildings - that to conceive, to build and to pay for such an edifice is quite beyond me. It is all very well to say that humans are all equal, but the reality is that we are not. There is going to be rich and poor. The rich need to have the capital behind them to build the tall buildings for others to benefit - either as construction workers in the building, or as workers in the industry which the building eventually houses.

Somehow we have, in the words of Malcolm Robinson, who recently addressed our clergy conference, to manage this inequality. We are called to look beyond the possessions that we or others have, and love, knowing that love will never mean that the other becomes ours.

 

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