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

s200g13  Sunday 33  17/11/2013

‘not to prepare your defence in advance’  Luke 21.14

This is my own besetting sin!   I am a prepared person.    I am naturally an introvert and public speaking is the last thing I could ever have imagined myself doing, yet here it is, 36 years after being ordained, and I am front and centre in a large hospital as well as in worship many Sundays.   I still do not find it easy and I need to prepare myself.   Indeed of course it is this trait that has enabled me to prepare sermons a week in advance and to post them on the internet, perhaps helping others with their preparation.   Yet now, I find that when I actually do preach, I modify my words anyway.   Even for me, the prepared words are not so set in concrete that others are not heard and spoken.   In fact one of the real reasons I continue to prepare sermons, even when I don’t actually preach to a ‘real’ congregation is that expressing my faith allows me to move on and to experience more insight.   I don’t get stuck in a rut.

I have been reflecting that my life oscillates between boredom and panic.   Boredom waiting for the church to slowly edge towards a more humane institution and panic at the pace of change in society which I suspect God is driving.   Actually parts of the church are embracing humanity, but conservatives are vociferous in their protests.   It is wonderful to see the Catholic Church opening itself to the views of laity.  (1)

In Christchurch we have witnessed beautiful churches where ‘not one stone (is) left upon another’ and we ‘hear of wars and insurrections’ further afield, in Syria and other places.   Just a few days ago there was a full eclipse of the sun across Africa (2), and we hear the insistent calling of some religious people to follow their way, the way of the Bible, interpreted in the GAFCON way.

And I reflect that even after nearly 2000 years where christianity has been a dominant force, the world seems no better for it.   If we simply regurgitate the faith ‘that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (3) then the empirical evidence is that this hasn’t achieved much at all.   When people want to insist on the infallibility of scripture and the superiority of faith over scientific enquiry, where is the evidence that the dark ages were more humane or godly?   I was interested to meet someone recently who wanted to impress upon me his appreciation of the services in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and the King James Version of the Bible.   And it made me think of the selective morality of that age where the poor in England were transported to the other side of the world by good and upright Church of England Magistrates for petty theft to provide some crumbs for themselves and their families; transported to steal an ‘uninhabited’ country from more poor people for the Crown :-)

Is not the world a better place for decent sanitation, widespread literacy, and attempts at democracy?   Have we not benefitted from secular humanism and the proliferation of different ideas mostly despite the church’s protestations of heresy, sentences of excommunication and censorship?

What possible evidence is there that the conservative christianity of the sort that GAFCON espouses has benefitted society?   These very sincere Anglicans oppose the concept that women don’t need to be subservient to men and proclaim that the affections of LGBTI people are ‘unnatural’.   There is a good deal of evidence that conservative christianity has opposed that which has ultimately benefitted society.   These are the spiritual ‘parents and brothers .. relatives and friends’ who demand obedience to a received spiritual tradition rather than openness to others and to all.   It is these who will perpetuate war of 'kingdom against kingdom’.

What has benefitted society is love, mutuality, egalitarianism and openness to the contributions others make.   These are the foundations of democracy, though so frequently thwarted by the rich and the self-appointed elite.   Surely these are ‘words and .. wisdom that none .. will be able to withstand or contradict’.   

Where is the scriptural evidence that we are called to make everyone ‘christians’ or Anglicans of my particular flavour?   Surely we are called to follow Christ who embraced those who were distinguished by their lack of devotion and orthodoxy?   Where is the evidence that it is actually possible to make everyone ‘christians’ or Anglicans of my particular flavour?   This seems far more of a fantasy than a hope for a world of affirmation and inclusion!   And why on earth would I bother trying to make everyone ‘christians’ or Anglicans of my particular flavour - for what a thoroughly boring world would result if I were indeed successful!   I wonder how many ‘christian’ preachers quote ‘no one comes to the Father but by me’ seemingly oblivious to the multitude of others who do precisely the same and the completely different doctrines these others teach?   Who is living in a fantasy world?

Recently my attention has been drawn to the first encounter Moses had with God in the desert, when he turned aside to examine the bush that was burning but was not consumed.   Moses’ curiosity - the precursor of all scientific enquiry - was rewarded with his first encounter with God.   And the spirit of curiosity that burned within him did not consume him, but ennobled him.   And I contrast this spirit of enquiry, being open to the new and the resultant encounter with God, with the conservative Christian who knows it all with no need to be open to anything unrelated to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It reminds me of that story: 'A pastor was giving the children's message during church.  For this part of the service, he would gather all the children around him and give a brief lesson before dismissing them for children's church.  On this particular Sunday, he was using squirrels for an object lesson on industry and preparation.   He started out by saying, "I'm going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is."   The children nodded eagerly.   "This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)..."   No hands went up.   "And it is grey (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)..."   The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised.   "And it jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it's excited (pause)…"   Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand.   The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him.   "Well," said the boy, "I *know* the answer must be Jesus ... but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”  (4)

We are ‘not to prepare (our) defence in advance’ because our first task is to listen to the question, otherwise we might be giving the answer ‘Jesus’ when a squirrel is correct.   Those who would extol extempore preaching over a prepared text are as likely to find they are delivering / hearing the same old sermon over and over again - which is hardly responsive to new situations.

In a previous life I studied electrical engineering, and I still value the one thing I remember learning, that finding the answer was the easy task, the difficult task was to work out what the real question is.   For the conservative christian the questions of life are all predetermined and hence the answers are equally as predetermined.  

So perhaps it is not my continuing preparation that is being put into question here, but the attitude that the questions and answers are all predetermined and others just have to accept them completely or they will just go to hell.   For I suspect that Jesus was not just speaking of physical temples being torn down, but metaphorical ones as well.   In the end change is the only constant in life and liturgical and doctrinal temples will suffer the same fate as stone ones.

(3) Jude 3