Sunday 30 September 2018 Sermon
Numbers chapter 11 verse 29; ‘But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’
You might find this amusing but at times I find organised religion very trying and deeply frustrating! I know that your immediate response might be ‘well why on earth are you still part of it? I would like to explore this question in the light of today’s readings and the experience of Church as lived today and what we are called to be as Christians in the world.
Not long ago I shared a meeting with other church members. The topic of the meeting was young adults ministry and how it can be enlivened in our united Dioceses. My contribution to the meeting was on the subject of transformative spirituality and on how deepening our own spiritual heart can be both transformative and lifegiving. I relayed how, subsequent to my completion of an in-depth theoretical and practical course on Christian Spirituality, my own life had been transformed and how I came to a deeper understanding of God and the place of Christianity in the economy of salvation.
The response to my contribution was for me staggering! One member of the meeting, a senior and much respected member of the united dioceses ridiculed the idea of transformation from a spiritual perspective while at the same time advancing the notion that personal transformation is a myth.
My heart sank as I witnessed the poverty of spiritual development that this person experienced throughout a long life in the church. The spirituality out of which this person is living today hasn’t moved since the time of his coming of age. His idea of church has not developed but remained stagnated in a belief that church and religion is a members club to which we belong and which props up a culture and belief system that sometimes goes against the very principles of Christian life and community as espoused in sacred scripture.
Today’s readings contrast completely from that closed mentality of what church is. The reading from the book of numbers is one of the most important in the exodus story. The reading outlines a community blueprint for living, peculiar to a nomadic people as they trek through the desert on the way to the promised land. There is no place for a permanent sanctuary because of the constant movement. The sacred space is the tent of meeting when Moses encounters God in dialogue. It comes to pass that Moses needs to share his ministry with others because the task is so great. Seventy are appointed and in what can only be the first ordination rite some of Moses spirit is shared with the seventy. Their task is to continually break God’s word among the people.
But there is a twist in this story two of the seventy are not present when the spirit is shared yet they go among the community Prophesying. This annoys some especially Moses second in command Joshua. Moses response to this annoyance is revolutionary as he asserts that God’s spirit knows no bounds and can be experienced by anyone of good will.
Thus Eldad and Medad are included even though they were not present for the ordination rite. This concept of the free movement of the Spirit is a thread woven throughout todays readings and forms the core message of the entire word.
This gift of the spirit is lavishly poured out over the earth. No religious barrier can hold check its diffusion. Only sin is an obstacle in its way. Whoever faithfully keeps God’s law receives it in abundance. Can we say that those who keep God’s law are not confined to the Christian community but can be anyone who is faithful to their own expression and understanding of God?
The psalmist proclaims this theme beautifully as it asserts ‘The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul.’ And continues to espouse in such a beautifully poetic manner how God’s infinite love is poured out on all who are in a right place to receive it.
The preceding chapters to today’s reading in the Epistle of James have described the ideal of a congregation that lives cooperatively, harmoniously, in concord with heaven’s peaceable grace — and that repudiates wrangling, privilege, and domination.
Although the Letter of James breaks off somewhat abruptly at the end of today’s reading, these verses reinforce the practical working-out of the general principles that James has been expounding earlier in the letter. Through the letter as a whole, James urges his readers not simply to assent to metaphysical claims about Jesus and God, but to receive the gospel of transforming grace, and in receiving that gospel to permit their lives to be transformed into the image of that grace. Thus James echoes Jesus’ own call to perfect obedience, to consistent truthfulness, to whole-hearted faithfulness, and to community without favouritism.
Most congregations have not been as comprehensively transformed as James would wish for them — but rather than writing off this letter as unrealistic or impractical, we would do well to begin experimenting with the kinds of community practices James proposes. As James would say, such experiments make an occasion for faith to show its effects in our works, and for our works to bring faith to completion.
Today’s Gospel is made up of two strongly contrasting parts. In the first one, Jesus shows great tolerance toward all those who, even though not belonging to the group of his disciples, bring relief to the lot of others. In the second part he shows cutting severity to those who cause scandal, and he compels his disciples to eradicate in themselves everything that can lead them to sin.
‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ The disciple john is here being protective of Jesus authority and of the authority of those Jesus has chosen by giving them the power of healing the sick and delivering those who are possessed by evil spirits. Jesus rejects this narrowmindedness when he says ‘do not stop him: for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.’
And so to my frustration with organised religion: It is clear from our reading of scripture that God’s abundant grace flows freely through all creation. It is boundless and dynamic. It is not confined to one religious expression over another but is received freely by those of integrity who lead lives of Unity, Truth, Beauty, goodness and love – the tenants of the spiritual life. This cannot be confined by one tradition or even one faith expression. We need to acknowledge that an authentic Moslem, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist has the same access to God’s grace as much as any Christian.
We live in a world that is becoming increasingly right wing and conservative. As a reaction to over sixty million immigrants crossing the world at this very moment countries are closing their borders, nationalism is getting extreme and exclusion is becoming the order of the day.
What is horrifying is that Christianity is reflecting this move in its living expression among the churches across the globe. Conservatism is getting stronger where boundary lines are being clearly drawn. Vatican II is fast becoming defunct as more and more traditions are withdrawing from inter church dialogue and inter faith dialogue. As church people we are defining ourselves by what we are not and who we reject rather than who we are called to be. Gafcon in our own church is a shining example of extreme Christian Fundamentalism which stifles any growth in theological development or understanding.
As a result the church is becoming an exclusive members only club that sees itself as an end in itself. Religion becomes an enterprise which is not open ended nor dynamic. How can a church be missionary if it is failing to live dynamically the word of God as revealed in scripture?
I remember as a young student approaching diaconate being fearful of the immense task ahead of me in ministry and my not feeling good enough for the challenge that lay ahead. This was not shared by my class mates who were more interested in the style of albs they were having made and the quality of stole they designed. Bling was the order of the day rather than the immense privilege that lay ahead of living the Christian life in community.
I don’t mean to judge my dear friend at that meeting for young adults. He knows no different and is not prepared to open up to the central dynamic message of the gospel. If we are to take home anything from today’s readings and liturgy surely it must be that God’s message is for everyone and flows freely to all. When we are open to that message it becomes transformative propelling us out into the community to live lives of Integrity and truth. A church that is closed to that dynamic nature of God’s grace is a church that hinders God in his or her revelation to the world.
So why am I still part of organised religion? I guess I am a hopeless optimist! I believe God wins out in the end.
Once more I would like to end with a prayer I often use at evensong and which for me encapsulates everything I have said. The prayer is by Frank Colouhoun, an author of many occasional prayers for the church. It goes:
Lord God, may we never forget that the Church exists in the world not for its own sake but for your glory and the service of humankind.
Save us as church people from getting wrapped up in our own affairs and the mundane things that absorb so much of our time and money and energy.
Help us to get our priorities right: to seek first your kingdom and the hallowing of your name;
To obey our Lord’s command to preach the gospel everywhere and to everyone;
To minister for his sake to the poor, the afflicted and the oppressed;
And to practice the royal law by loving our neighbour as ourselves.
Give us a new vision of what the Church should be, and of your purpose for it, here and in every place, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.