s200e98 Somerton Park 15/11/98 Sunday 33
"mere busybodies" 2 Thessalonians 3.11
In this lead up to the season of Advent, the readings focus on Jesus' words about the end of time, and next Sunday we focus on Christ the King. These words are important, not for what they predict might happen in the future, but that we might be reassured in our present circumstances. Someone might wonder how I can be so sure that it is to reassure us in our present circumstances and not about the future. That is in fact a quite easy question to answer. If the words were about a mythical event in the indeterminate future, then the words actually would have had no relevance to earlier generations of Christians. I have no doubt whatsoever that God cannot have wanted countless multitudes reading words which were never going to be applicable to them personally anyway and spend their lives trying to second guess * if they were!
Of course as we come to the end of this millennium, there will no doubt be plenty of people wanting to suggest that now might be a good time for God to call a halt to things. I have always been somewhat bemused at how some people can say these things and convince followers to part with their money. I wonder what the followers think these leaders are going to do with all this money in eternity anyway?
Each of these three readings focus on comforting us, not trying to get us to spend lives second guessing * if they will particularly apply to us.
The oven in Malachi is for the removal of the arrogant and the evil doers - not fairly ordinary forgiven sinners like you and I. Each and every week we say in the new service: "God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy, welcoming sinners and inviting them to the Lord's table". While I am not "waiting with bated breath" for God to incinerate particular persons I personally consider "arrogant" or "evil doers" - the prospect of an existence without such angst is, if nothing else, a comforting fantasy. For there always seems to be wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, portents, signs, persecutions, betrayal and hatred. Heaven will be bliss without them!
St Paul's words to the Thessalonians are that in these days we should all "work quietly' and earning our "own living" - minding our own business. Again I wonder why those who seem to have a particular insight into the timing of an immanent catastrophe don't seem to appreciate that what we do or don't do, what we believe or not believe, will make the slightest bit of difference to the likelihood of such a thing happening. It will not happen quicker if more people believe, and indeed it will not be delayed if more people believe. I wonder if some of these persons who so look forward to such things actually know which they would prefer ...
For there are times when I look forward to retirement (if not eternal bliss) and times when I can see a step or two ahead of my feet. St Paul himself ponders if it is better for him to go to be with the Lord or to stay to be of assistance to the Churches ... (Phil 1:21-24)
His words to the Thessalonians are given to work quietly, and it is actually remarkable how many people, "Christians" or not, actually are already doing precisely this. If we go about saying to others who are quietly minding their own business, that they should go on working quietly minding their own business, what is the point? Who is doing what St Paul says?
My thoughts go to the old game of the Chinese secret - one of our younger members suggested we play this at the "Beef on the Spit" dinner recently. I thought the whispered message could be: "The world's going to end tomorrow - pass it on .." and seeing how this became garbled by the end of the line. It is a good game. However the noise in the hall and some of our number are a little hard of hearing, so the secret might not have lasted very long.
How much of our existence as Churches is taken up trying to get others interested, involved, converted, altering their lifestyle, and contributing ...? How many times over my ministry have I heard sentiments like - what would the world be like if everyone was a Christian, everyone came to Church, everyone tithed? If we spend our existence trying to bring these things about, have we failed to hear St Paul's words to mind our own business. We will indeed make a very large "rod for our own backs" if we attempt to take on the world.
One of the constant laments I hear is how the "modern generation" don't want to be involved - that "commitment" and "roster" are dirty words. We lament that so many people these days seem to desire their privacy above all things and to be left to get on with their own lives. Do we hear St Paul's words that we should let them? Is it not enough that they don't rob or hurt others? Do we want to bring their secret sins home to them? Would we want others to bring our secret sins home to us? It was the cartoon character "Andy Capp" who summed up the vicar's job - "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted" :-)
How much of our energies are spent in trying to become a warm and friendly community for visitors, when so often people are content to remain private?
Privacy is one of the marks of the Internet. In my experience individuals are reluctant to divulge information too readily and this is a healthy thing. There are perhaps a half a dozen correspondents with whom I have a "close" relationship via the `net, and I get much positive feedback from these conversations. I was grateful to see this desire for privacy as it lead me to think recently how this parallels parish life. Some people want to be more involved, others want an hour a week then back to work and family. If we expect more of people, we need to realise we are taking them away from things which are (rightly) very important to them. Is our perception of a "successful" parish one where lots of people are intimately involved in the day to day life of the parish, or where people can come and go as God leads them?
In my "surfing" some time ago I found a parish in England which has an Internet site. I much admire their realisation of the need to protect the privacy of people. Their stated policy is that only clergy use their full names. Adults are addressed only by their first names, and children are not named publicly at all. Some Anglicans still find the "greeting of peace" very confronting and such feelings need to be respected - not derided or dismissed as unimportant.
My attention was recently drawn to one of the very popular "spiritual" books of the 70's by John Powell: "Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?" I remember being deeply dissatisfied after reading this book. I felt (perhaps quite unjustly) that I had been put down for not being open to everyone, that I hadn't eradicated my instinct for self preservation completely. It was a similar sort of put down I felt when others thought I should be able to "speak in tongues".
Indeed Jesus in the reading for the gospel bids us not to do things, such is his confidence. We are not even to worry what we might say if we are called to testify ... That which is needed will be given to us. In the end it belongs more to God's good providence than your - or my - abilities or eloquence. And this is an exceedingly comforting word to me - I have spent a lifetime searching to find the essence of faith and to express it to others. But it doesn't depend on me or my learning, eloquence, or my (actually very limited) expertise in using the Internet.
Indeed after quite a number of years in the ordained ministry, I have often had the occasion to think that the most successful things that happen around me are the ones I have least to do with. And I wonder: "Is God trying to tell me something?"
One notable occasion immediately springs to mind, when our Archbishop, some years back, kindly thought to ring me one Saturday night to congratulate me on the fact that our Auxiliary had gone on one of the "Inter-faith Tours" that the St Paul's centre arranged. Some of you will remember being on that tour - sadly I didn't accompany you - as it turned out. I suppose the Archbishop rang about a month later and it took me a long time for me to even realise what he was speaking about. (I often forget what has happened in the past because I have turned my attention to things ahead.) As I say - after being perplexed for some time into this conversation as to what he was even talking about, I then had to admit, with even more chagrin, that the tour was organised without any prompting from me at all! Not my most successful telephone conversation with an Archbishop! :-( Oh well, you can't win them all.
The Negro spiritual: "He's got the whole world in his hands" was born out of suffering none of us could ever begin to imagine. It points to our responsibility as members of the human race to treat others with respect, trusting that God will do so too. How much suffering might be alleviated if all minded their own business - working quietly "to earn their own living" - rather than trying to enslave others to our own way of thinking? Be reassured that I am not asking more from you, either by way of an expectation to convert your friends, be more committed, give more money, or being open to other people. Be reassured, there is nothing more God wants from us. God respects us as we are already and that is good news.
* I use the term "second guessing" (rightly or wrongly) to describe the thinking that since my numbers didn't come up in the lottery last week they are more likely to come up this week - or - last year's Physics exam did have a question on a particular topic so they'll probably include it this year too to catch out those who don't study that topic as hard, because they think it'll be missed out this year ...
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