readings on which the sermon
below is based can be found at: http://web.me.com/frsparky/iWeb/r197.htm
s197g10 Sunday 30 24/10/10
In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.
(Fr Jim Cotter http://www.cottercairns.co.uk/)
‘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
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
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
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
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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