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

s192g10   Sunday 25  19/9/10  St John’s Hororata

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

‘make friends for yourselves’  Luke 16.9

What a fascinating gospel this is!   And it is particularly appropriate for an occasion when I’m asked to preach about chaplaincy and following the earthquake.

Not at all unnaturally, each of us feel fairly shattered, fairly fragile, after the initial earthquake and all the aftershocks of the last fortnight.   When such awesome things happen, it can bring us together as a community.   When it is suggested that we take the opportunity to make friends for yourselves, it gives us divine permission to do what comes naturally; to seek support one from another, and to offer support one to another. 

And this is an unqualified support.   It doesn’t matter who the other person is, what they believe (or not), who they worship (or not), whatever their gender, with whom they choose to express their intimate affections (or not).   We are simply bidden to make friends with those around us, for we are all in the same boat.

So often, of course, the ‘church’ has traditionally been known for who it doesn’t befriend.   It has been characterised by ostentatiously distancing itself from others, others who don’t come up to the mark in terms of belief, lifestyle, devotion, gender, race, or sexuality.   Our service of ‘Holy Communion’ is actually more aptly titled ‘Unholy Excommunication’ for so many in the ordinary community outside the church ‘know’ that they really wouldn’t be welcomed here.   They ‘know’ only too well because of bad experiences in the past.   One of the chief characteristics of the ‘church’ is that it knows just how much other people have to do to be acceptable, how much they owe God - and how little it appreciates how much IT owes God.

For all we now might be ‘welcoming’, I have often pondered how does one undo the disastrous experiences of the past, where people have ventured into church only to be criticised?   In my experience of the Anglican Church in Australia, many want people only to come and admire the contributions made by the present and past parishioners, and never to alter anything, lest it eclipse what is.   The earthquake has surely shattered all this.

And it is here that I see the importance of our strange story.  For the dishonest steward discounts, not the debts owed to himself, but the debts owed to the master.  

So often in the ‘church’, as I have experienced it, people in the church have magnified the debts they perceive others owe God.   As I often relate, when I was in theological college last century, in Australia, the high-church Anglicans thought that the charismatics and the evangelicals would never be acceptable to God; the evangelicals thought that the high-church and charismatics would never be acceptable to God, and likewise the charismatics thought the the evangelicals and the high-church would never be acceptable to God.

And it is interesting to me that it is precisely our theological expertise that enables us to know just how much OTHERS owe God, when as managers we are commended when we discount, if not entirely remit, the debts we perceive others owe God.

As we process the experiences of this past fortnight, some people in the church have had a rude awakening that we are no different from anyone else.   We have all been bidden to descend from our theological, biblical and moral stratospheres and mix with ordinary people; to get our hands dirty and be useful to others and society in general.  And I suggest that this is precisely what ‘incarnation’ means.

I said a couple of weeks ago: ‘We are called to be born again – into society – not out of it.   We are to be incarnated into the world, fully as Jesus was – not into a holy huddle.  We are to repent, to rejoice that others are found, that others are included – not challenged, marginalised and alienated.   A theology, whether it be biblical or traditional that removes us from the masses of people with whom Jesus associated has gone seriously awry.   I suggest that Jesus was killed precisely because he was social not theological.’

We are bidden to make friends and one of the characteristics of friends is that they are equal.   True friendships exist between equal partners.

In chaplaincy, as in all social acceptance, we accept others for who they are - not expecting anything in return.   We don’t ‘do’ chaplaincy to put ‘bums on pews’, we do it simply to make friends, to say that everyone is equal in the sight of God.

In my time as a chaplain, I have often had cause to say that it is in a hospital where I find God most plainly at work, rather than in a church.   Many people regard having to go to hospital as a personal failure - that they can’t cope with whatever without help, or with God’s help.   Many ‘good christians’ pray that they might not have to go to hospital, when it is precisely in hospital where God acts.   And some ‘christians’ want to go to a doctor who is a professing ‘christian’ - as if God can’t and doesn’t work through Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and agnostics. 

May the church we have known and loved not be resuscitated in her old form, but resurrected and transformed as we make real friends with others and allow others to make their mark and their own contribution to our worship and our sacred spaces.

For true enlightenment comes as we accept others for who they are, and accept ourselves for who we are.   In those lovely words Jesus says: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.   Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.   For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  Matthew 11.28-30.  Jesus’ yoke is that we become friends with others.   We do not have to convert the world; that would be an impossible task for anyone.   Indeed the kingdom comes when we stop trying :-)   And it is good news, not just to us, but to others as well, that we don’t have to convert the world into little replicas of ourselves, which sounds like idolatry to me.

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