Sunday 30 July 2006

Living Outside the Box

Sermon for Sunday 30th July 2006 (Trinity 7, Year B)

2 passages to begin – one from each of this Sunday's appointed readings:

“In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote: “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11)

“Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.” (John 6)

If you sat down all day and all night with the Bible in front of you I don’t think you would find two passages which show more effectively the huge gulf that can exist between rights and responsibilities. In the first passage David is exercising his rights – however repulsive his behaviour he is acting within his rights.
We think of rights as something which protect people from harm or injustice and yet the consequences of David asserting his rights are catastrophic for Uriah as David pursues his lustful desire for Bathsheba.

In the second passage Jesus is exercising his responsibility in feeding the 5 thousand. He doesn’t have to do it. He could have let the crowd go hungry but he doesn’t – He had a right to ignore their plight – after all they should have made provision for themselves – but he doesn’t, he rather embraces his responsibility towards them as fellow human beings made in the image of God.

In the world today we hear a lot about human rights – There is huge concern about the rights of innocent civilians caught up in the current war in Lebanon and Gaza.
We cannot fail to be moved by pictures of children with limbs blown off and faces shattered by bombs and rockets. No matter what our political outlook on this conflict it is abhorrent to see the young and innocent victims of war so horribly maimed. And as we know all too well the failure to protect human rights is nothing new……As long as men and women have breathed on this earth we have constantly failed to acknowledge the essential dignity and sacredness of the human person, no matter what their faith or ethnic background.

Even when we do acknowledge human rights we can be very selective when it comes to their observance – We live in a world filled with people and powers which like David are good at identifying their own rights but not so good about recognising the rights of others. We build our own little self contained worlds within which everyone on the inside is looked after and loved but we are inclined to forget or ignore the implications of our actions for the rest of the world.

Mark Edington a chaplain to Harvard University put it beautifully in a recently published sermon called “Right Angles and Straight Lines”. (See Links below)

In this he describes how we go about constructing our models of Church and Community like we would a house with a carpenter’s square. This simple tool makes sure that all our angles are right angles and that the walls and roof match and fit perfectly. Using this analogy he says that once we have got the perfect structure with all the right angles we are happy. But we lack something – Our house (or our Church or Community) may have walls and a roof that are in perfect proportion to one another but they may simulataneously be in conflict with the surrounding houses (churches and communities). With a carpenter’s square you cannot tell whether the rooms in the house you are building are also square with the world outside the house – God’s world.

Edington looks to the prophet Amos for the missing piece in the puzzle. In Amos Chapter 7 we read the following:
“This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;”
The plumbline is the necessary external point of reference that allows us to build our houses (our churches and our communities) in sympathy and harmony with one another. For the Christian that plumbline is Christ and he challenges the integrity of all of the little worlds that we create.
David was operating in a system that allowed him to exercise his rights at the expense of the brave and loyal Uriah the Hittite. As far as David was concerned he was acting with integrity and justice. He was living in a world of right angles and perfect proportion. When we compare what he did to the behaviour of Jesus in feeding the 5,000 we see just how out of synch, how perverted was David’s idea of right and wrong. His is the perfect example of how rights can become the fulfilment of selfish desire and nothing more than that.

The Church has always been wary of the language of rights – perhaps principally for the reason we have been just discussing. They can emphasise the perceived needs of the individual at the expense of the greater good. They can be a charter for the spoilt child mentality. What King David did was simply the behaviour of a spoilt child indulging himself regardless of others.
Rights too have come to be associated with litigation. Daily we read of cases taken by individuals who have no sense of responsibility for themselves never mind anyone else and expect others to reward them for their own carelessness.
Rights also seem to be expressed and exercised at the expense of responsibility and duty. For all these reasons the Church has been very wary of backing the human rights agenda and in some cases in human history has turned its back on and ignored some very genuine cases of human rights abuses. This behaviour cannot be justified by any reading of the Gospel. Jesus cares deeply about every single individual he meets. That is what marks him out – his extraordinary compassion for the individual – his love not just for the ‘idea’ of Creation but the ‘whole’ of Creation. He feels a deep sense of responsibility – stronger than that – A DUTY to all those who are created in God’s image. That is I think the key – when we recognise the other (whoever they are) as a Creation of the God of Love, then we have a responsibility or a duty to them as bearers of the Image of God. It is in that situation that rights can be derived and exercised in such a way that they will not violate the integrity of others.

Rights are not a secular issue – they are a deeply spiritual one which comes from the recognition of our common inheritance of the Kingdom of God. These are values that the Church must stand for because they offer a way forward that will not trample on the other. As Christians we have a huge privelage and a burden of responsibility in sharing these values with a world which is full of individuals and groups with carpenters squares but lacking the guidance of a plumbline. Without God the idea of responsibility and duty is lost – it becomes merely a choice and one without any ethical dimension. That is the consequence of living in a world made with a carpenter’s square but no plumbline. The most dangerous thing of all is that the Church can retreat into one of those perfectly square houses and pull down the shutters in search of right angles and safe boundaries. That is not our calling – we are called to be out there with Christ as our Guide and his Love as our way.

Saturday 8 July 2006

Advice for Travellers

Sermon for Sunday 9th July 2006
Gospel: Mark 6: 1-13
Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.
Some travellers advice from Jesus from today’s Gospel – If you were to give the same advice advice today people might look at you a little strangely!
Whatever about that advice one thing that would be a little less controversial is the observation that travel broadens the mind – Certainly it provides new experiences and information to add to the chaotic clutter that most of us have knocking around inside our skulls.
Last week on holidays I saw something really interesting that made me stop and think!
What was it?
A bin of all things!
I know you are probably saying he got too much sun while he was away and has gone slightly gaga!
But no it was a bin and a very interesting bin at that!

What was interesting was what was on the side of the bin apart from the congealed dripping of various unfinished ice-creams and drinks –
It was an advert for one of the local church communities obviously reaching out to the tourist market. It was called the South Tenerife Christian Fellowship and they had rented out the space on the side of all the bins on the seafront at Los Cristianos to advertise their existence. The advert itself was very cleverly worded – Beside a cartoon picture of an out of breath and heavily perspiring runner was the caption
“Feeling run down?”…..”Then call in for a “Service” and Sunday at 11am and 6pm.”
At first glance you might think this inappropriate – who would want to identify Jesus with somewhere you put your rubbish – somewhere you get rid of the things that are no longer useful to you? And yet it is strangely appropriate as we are reminded by Tim Costello a leading campaigner for social justice and a Baptist pastor who said the following:
“Jesus wasn’t crucified between two candlesticks in a cathedral in a sacred place. He was crucified on the rubbish dump outside the city wall. He was crucified in a cosmopolitan, multicultural place where the inscription above him had to be written in Greek, in Hebrew, and in Latin. He was crucified in a place where soldiers gambled, where smut was talked, and where criminals shrieked in agony as they died.”
When we arrived back from Tenerife on Friday night I was talking to a friend who was saying that he had been reading in one of the Irish papers last week how the Island was getting a reputation for itself as a centre of debauchery! If it is true I am afraid I missed it and would have to go back and look for the evidence. We were obviously staying in the quieter part of the Island and going to all the wrong places! The only vaguely over the top behaviour we noticed was in the wake of some of the World Cup games, especially the English when their hoplessly over-inflated hopes were dashed. However it is certainly a cosmopolitan multicultural place and no doubt there are places where one can indulge in debauchery if so inclined.
It is also a place where much of the suffering of the African Continent is coming to Europe. The Islands are just off North Africa which gives them a very pleasing climate but also makes them a popular destination for refugees who come to Tenerife on a regular basis on makeshift and un-seaworthy boats to find a safer and better life. However many of the boats sink on route and those that do make it are often carrying the bodies of those who have died on route. All this happens a few hundred yards from the tourist beach at Los Cristianos where we were staying and is carefully hidden in as much as is possible by the authorities who obviously fear for its impact on tourism.
It is a place where entertainment and enjoyment are the center of things. It is not the kind of place I could imagine living in but certainly it was a very enjoyable place to unwind.
However, very often people do not just go on holidays to unwind – very often they go to get away from something or even somebody that they have been having problems with.
The sad truth is that you can rarely run away from your problems – they come with you in the luggage and they can be even more debilitating when you do not have the distractions of work and other things to occupy the mind.
And so the ministry that this Christian community was offering was both valuable and necessary. And in using the bins as a point of contact they were not only using a highly public space but they were perhaps also saying that even when you feel useless and redundant God has something for you…….?
I don’t know – maybe I read too much into it but that is what it said to me.
It also highlights a big difference in the mission and ministry of the Church in the world today. In today’s Gospel Jesus has all sorts of salient advice for his disciples as they continue his mission – there is a lot of concrete advice about travelling and lodgings while spreading the Good News. There are also some interesting observations about the difficulties of preaching in familiar territories.
All of this is in the context of a world where the Church comes to the people…..where itinerant preachers like St Paul and others like him are going into new places and new worlds spreading the Good News. What possible relevance can this Gospel have for today we might ask? There are few corners of the Earth that the Gospel has not reached – there are very few places where the Church does not have a tangeable presence! In all our great cities around the world there are huge Cathedrals testifying to the Gospel. In most towns villages there is at least one church and in many a multiplicity. So is this part of the Gospel redundant – Is it irrelevant – Can we/Should we disgard it as an anachronism?
To attempt to get at the answer I want to consider for a moment another image.
This time the location is not so exotic – It is a pub in Dingle (I refuse to call it An Daingean). The pub is called Dick Mack’s and is very popular among locals and tourists alike. The pub is sited opposite the Roman Catholic Church in Dingle and has a very interesting caption on its side gate where the deliveries are made.
The caption is this: “Where is Dick Mack’s? and the answer underneath reads: “Opposite the Church”That is only half the story for there is a second question and answer under the first and it is this:“Where is the Church?” and the answer reads: “Opposite Dick Mack’s”
This to me is almost a parable. The first question and answer represents the place of the church in society until perhaps only a couple of decades ago. Other places are defined in relation to the Church. It is the center of peoples lives.
The second is the situation as we find it today where the Church is defined in relation to a new and rapidly shifting centre or multiplicity of centres.
And so as the centre of society moves so inevitably does the Church and to do that it once again needs to acquire the tools of pilgrimage and mission. Things have actually gone full circle. Christianity started on the periphery and gradually moved to the centre and became the centre – now we once again find ourselves on the periphery and we need to put on our walking shoes again.
Jesus observed in today’s Gospel that “Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house”. It just may be that the Church has become too much at home and taken its place in society for granted – has stayed too long in the one place and finds itself compromised by its accommodations to the world. To use another cliché “Familiarity breeds contempt” – It seems to have lost its cutting edge – the challenge that is not just designed to criticise people but to bring out the very best that they can be! That is what God wants for each one of us…..that is what Jesus died for….that we might have life in abundance and if the Church is to communicate that wonderful message then it has to make sure that it is in the places that it needs to be.
And where are those places? – Those places are everywhere, from the darkest and most vile to brightest and most wonderful places. The Good News has the power to penetrate into all situations and we sometimes need a little more confidence in the message we carry. It means going to places that for us are the periphery of our world and places we do not want to go but places that are the centre for some other human beings who are also created in the image and likeness of God.