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

s196g13   Sunday 29  20/10/2013  (North New Brighton 27/10/2013)

'God, I thank you that I am not like other people'.  Luke 18.11

God, I thank you that I am a good and stalwart Anglican .. not like others who take the opportunity to sleep in ..
God, I thank you that I call you by the correct name .. not like others ..
God, I thank you that I believe that You created the world in six days .. not like others ..
God, I thank you that I am straight .. not like others ..
God, I thank you that You save only people like me .. and not others ..
G. K. Chesterton said: 'The .. church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age' (1)

I reflect that there was not a lot of communion happening between these two worshippers, and that the lack of communion was caused by an ingrained religious sense of privilege and entitlement claimed by one and certainly recognised by the other.   There was not unlike that other picture Luke gives us of 'a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us' across which none may pass.'  (2)   And that chasm characterising lack of communion is initiated and perpetuated by those with an ingrained sense of privilege and entitlement - the orthodox and the devout, ordained by God HIMself!   Religion, particularly patriarchal and hierarchical religion, causes division not communion.

Which causes me to think about the amount of communion happening in our services of worship.   The highlight of our services - the receiving of the elements of Holy Communion come only after a prolonged period of listening to the luminaries of our tradition (including the ordained preacher), time for personal reflection on our unworthiness and a recitation of orthodox belief.   We briefly demonstrate that we acknowledge the presence of other people by greeting them and praying for others, but our focus immediately reverts to the recitation of the words of the last supper and receiving the communion so we can scamper off back to our private lives and concerns, quicker than an plane empties after a long flight.   Communion has become a reward for orthodoxy.   Why is real communion in a religious setting so difficult?

We might not actually treat others with contempt, but we certainly don't listen to others unless they have a particular role in the service, and others don't listen to us.   And this causes me to reflect that we claim to practice a religion based on love on such a paucity of real relationship.   For the church, communion is about someone else having to listen to us and we not having to listen to them.    Preachers, sometimes in pointy hats, do this particularly well. 

Recently I had cause to visit the community garden at Canterbury University (3)  and to hear of the real communion that takes place among the staff and student participants who gather on Friday afternoon to plan, plant and tend the garden.   And I thought of my chaplaincy work where my significant conversations often happen in corridors, stairwells and lifts, places where people can converse with me without others seeing and wondering it they have a problem or are becoming religious and start treating others with contempt.

Ambiance is important for real communion to happen, and this sort of communion is something that isn't even on the church's radar for importance.   Parts of the church seem most concerned to proclaim the differences between ‘christians’ and others, justifying their lack of communion with others, rather than their common humanity with others and reasons for mutual dialog.   The important thing for the church seems to be that compliant parishioners continue to be seen and not heard.   And while this remains so I suspect that we cannot expect any reversal in the decline of the church.

Now there have, of course, been valiant attempts to change this.   We have appointed welcomers, began wearing name tags, required post-service attendance at morning tea, and 'passed the peace' with inordinate enthusiasm, but nothing has really worked.  We have promoted lay participation and the ministry of all the baptised, but this is seen as recruiting unpaid priests.

And nothing has worked because these attempts at communion have papered over the chasm between the religious and the secular, the religious who have speaking rights and the secular who don't - and pay for the privilege!   Is this not treating others with contempt?

Does the bread and the wine facilitate communion with our fellow worshippers?   Well no, if for no other reason that it happens right at the end, before we leave.

When we have guests at home, the joy is not in the eating but in the fellowship.   Recently we had the pleasure of the company of visitors from the USA before they left to motor around New Zealand.   Over simple meals, showing them a bit of our damaged city and explaining some of the cultural differences we really got to know them and they us.   We benefitted from the encounter as much as I trust they did.   Real communion took place for there was mutual respect, thankfulness for the other, and time allowed for personal disclosure and trust to develop.  

But my point is that this level of communion seems to be found in secular situations rather than sacred settings - in gardens and in homes - not in worship and religion.

If our religion is about love and love is surely defined by mutual respect, it is salutary to think how much the church is defined by one-sided communication, the antithesis of love.   If our church is defined by a counterfeit of love, why would the world not see through this pretence?  

Recently my attention was drawn to the words of Mary DeTurris Poust, a Catholic journalist who wanted to walk out of a service after the sermon.   And as a journalist she works with words, knows the power of words and looks for words of comfort and encouragement, and yet hears drivel.   She writes: 'I cannot put up with parishes .. that do not care what their people need' and care begins by listening.  (4)

And the paradigm of communion being rewarded only to those who have come (because they have to), listened to a haranguing, professed an alien faith, and shook hands with otherwise anonymous people - is used as an excuse for never sharing communion with those of other faiths and none.   How is anyone helped?   How does society benefit?

But not all is doom and gloom.   It seems Pope Francis is leading the way when he says: 'I believe … that our goal is not to proselytise but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope.   We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love.   Be poor among the poor.   We need to include the excluded and preach peace ..'  (5)

So perhaps God is like the unjust judge of Jesus' story, allowing the rich and powerful to hold sway for so long in the name of the divine, and it is up to us as humans to see the harm that this continues to cause and to do something about it.   In the end happiness for humanity in general is far more in our hands and in our hearts as we come before the Almighty recognising our common humanity with all people.

Perhaps we need to start our services by a greeting of peace and giving all present the bread and the wine, and let the conversation flow.

(2) Luke 16.26