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

s197g10  Sunday 30  24/10/10

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

‘I thank you that I am not like other people.’  Luke 18.11

I find it interesting and significant that the Pharisee attempts to exalt himself in the eyes of God by comparing himself to other people.   And how often does the ‘church’ attempt to exalt herself comparing herself (naturally, not unfavourably) to other christians, to people of other faiths, and to people of no faith.   The Pharisee’s religion was entirely self-centred, it was all about his relationship with God, by his fasting and his giving in the collection plate to God.   He actually didn’t care about anyone else’s eternal salvation, only his own.   And I point out that this is entirely selfish.   It might have a nice religious ring to it, but it is based on selfishness.   Was he or was he not going to pass the test and get into heaven.   And many forms of ‘christianity’ are no less selfish.  

In Nicky Gumbel's book ‘Questions of Life’, the first is: ‘Is there more to life than this?’ which is, I suspect, most often interpreted as ‘is there a heaven and how am I going to get there?’    But it is not restricted to ‘Alpha’ and similar movements.   One of the great ‘christian’ doctrines is that of the atonement, where, by our faith we are at one with God.   But I point out that this is self exaltation in the extreme.   There is certainly atonement, but our gospel story today says that our atonement with God comes through our at-one-ment with other people.   It is the tax-collector who recognises that he is no better than other people, and it is precisely this fact that means he goes home justified.   Because he places himself at one with everyone else, he is at one with God.

Now again, it is easy to interpret this personally and we can be reduced to the amusing but self-defeating declarations like: ‘I’m going to heaven because I’m more humble than you!’   Jesus is talking, not about the Pharisee’s personal attitude to others, he is talking about the religion that this Pharisee has been taught.   He has devotedly appropriated all the teaching that he has been given which proclaims that if he does this, he will be pre-eminent, that he won’t be like other people, that he will get into heaven.

And my point is that the ‘christianity’ that I have been taught and which I have devotedly appropriated for most of my life is essentially no different!

I am glad that we don’t regularly recite the 10 commandments each Sunday, or even very regularly these days.   But when I read: ‘I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me’ I see children being punished, often punishing themselves, for devotedly appropriating the teaching that our religion purportedly will make me, and us, pre-eminent.

I was interested as I preached some weeks ago on the Feast of St Francis and my thoughts about the first and second accounts of creation, where in the first humanity is given dominion over the animal kingdom and the second where the animal kingdom is created to find a suitable companion for humanity.   It came to me why so often in wars and conflicts, the enemy has been portrayed as less than human, for then we, the goodies, are excused our actions because we have dominion over these less than human beings.  

The history of colonialism is marked by similar attitudes, women have often been thought of as inferior human beings, and many ‘christians’ believe that they are commanded by the Bible to alienate gay persons.   Again, the iniquity of parents comes into play, and how many generations suffer as a result.

Our Bible as well as our religion can be used to assert our pre-eminence over others, can both serve to exalt ourselves above others, and we will be humbled.

One of the interesting things I have found in the accounts that missionaries who travel to non-Christian lands to convert others, so often find themselves humbled by the faith of those they go to convert, humbled by the attitudes to a very deprived life that people of other faiths possess, humbled by the joy of life that some people who have nothing else exude.   And the true missionary welcomes this humbling, this realisation of his or her atonement with the other.   They realise that while the other may call on God by a different name, something of the same strong faith is there.

It occurs to me that there can be no at-one-ment with other people while people are separated.   It might be that people are separated by physical distance, by ocean, desert or other natural impediment.   These days with the ease of travel and even more easily with the internet, these sorts of impediments are disappearing.   At-one-ment is becoming more and more possible all the time.   I rejoice that my sons were both able to travel to the northern hemisphere before I ever had a chance to.

But there have been other impediments.   The various churches and faiths have very often prescribed when and with whom people might be intimate.   St Paul says: ‘Do not be mismatched with unbelievers.   For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness?   Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?   What agreement does Christ have with Beliar?   Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?   What agreement has the temple of God with idols?’ (2 Corinthians 6.14-16)  But in another place, in a text more clearly about marriage he has a different attitude.   He says: ‘The unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.’   (1 Corinthians 7.14)  The word ‘mis-matched’ is literally hetero - zugountes ‘unequally yoked’, so it really speaks of a relationship defined by power rather than one characterised by mutuality; and any relationship that is unequally yoked is not of God, whatever that being is named.

A lovely TV program was the British series ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ with the chief characters Hyacinth and Richard Bucket, (pronounced ‘bouquet’ by Hyachith, but no one else) which screened from 1990 to 1995.   And the comedy of Hyacinth forever trying to keep up appearances that they were members of the upper class was hilarious.   But sometimes I have thought that the Anglican Church is also on an eternal quest to keep up appearances that it is the church of the upper classes, that undesirables like Hyacinth’s own relatives: her sisters Daisy, Rose and her bone-idle husband Onslow, and senile father are not really welcomed.   Most everyone in the TV series run away as soon as they hear Hyacinth coming.   Hyacinth made everyone else’s lives difficult.  

In contrast, Jesus wants us to be ourselves, and wants us to welcome other people who are themselves.    It is far too difficult to try to be anything other than ourselves.

I spoke earlier of the true missionary welcoming the humbling when they see the faith of another.   In my ministry in hospitals, when I mixed with all sorts of people, I too welcomed seeing faith in all sorts of other people.  It made ministry easy.   It made relating to others easy.   And I thought about the angst of parish life where good and faithful parishioners live mainly to get others to think like they do, worship like they do, live life in the proper way, be intimately when and with whom they approve.   And the unhappiness that trying to change the world is huge, as if this is what God wants.

I rejoice that I now find I am no different to other people and I don’t need to be.  I rejoice that it is me and my friendship that is appreciated, not some mystical superiority I might in my delusion confer on another.   I rejoice that God wants my happiness in community, not just to use my powers of persuasion armed with bible, numbers, sacrament, spirituality or earthquakes to convert other people!

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