Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Chore of Church

Readings Ex 12:1-14, Ps 149, Rom 13:8-14, Mt 18:15-20

There is a Simpson’s which begins with the family going to church. When they arrive home, as soon as the front door opened, Homer, (the dad), and the two older children, Lisa and Bart, raced inside stripping their clothes off as they went.

The mother, Marge, reacted saying, “Hey, calm down. You're wrinkling your church clothes.”

To which Homer responded, “Who cares? This is the best part of the week.”

Lisa added, “It's the longest possible time before more church!”

Marge replied, “Church shouldn't be a chore; it should help you in your daily life.”

To which Homer declared, “It should but it doesn't.”

This little interaction raises for you and I the question of what we are doing here in church and what our attitude about being here actually is.

I would want to suggest that the final interaction about whether or not church helps us in our daily life is a pretty common question concerning church for many people. It is kind of the ‘what’s in it for me” question.

Now I would not want to suggest that we don’t get anything out of church and in fact it is my hope and prayer that you don’t walk out the door after Sunday saying to yourself, “thank goodness that’s over, now I can get back to the real world.” But I would want to say that if the primary question we are asking is “what’s in it for me” then we have either lost sight of the object of our worship or have never really realised what the object is.

Our gathering together doesn’t primarily revolve around getting something more out of God but is a response to God’s goodness and grace in Jesus Christ. To shift the focus to what we are getting out of it is to shift the focus away from worshipping and giving thanks to God and onto ourselves. In other words like Marge and Homer indicate many of us want Church to help us in our daily lives or at least think that’s what it should be about.

Now I would emphasise that it can help us in our daily lives, but this help arises not out of treating Church like a self help group but through our encounters with the living Lord.

Of course the problem for the Simpson’s, particularly Homer, and Bart and Lisa, and for us is how to make sense of the Christian story and even more so how to make sense of what we have been given as the primary text to guide our faith – the Bible.

For example, today’s Psalm, 149, is not exactly that well balanced. In fact one commentator suggests that Psalm 149 is somewhat schizophrenic. It begins with these wonderful images of praising God, praising God with the tambourine and lyre and with dancing but then it moves into the somewhat bizarre imagery, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands.”

Did you catch that? Two-edged swords in their hands! The explicit overtones of violence and judgement and vengeance are disturbing to say the least. How do we reconcile our visions of a God of love with this kind of imagery?

This confusion in trying to make sense of our faith is further exacerbated when we consider our reading from Exodus this morning in which God establishes the festival of the Passover. Now it is not the festival itself that is troubling to us but the events that surround it. What does the Passover remember?

It remembers that God spared the Israelites from the infanticide God commits on the Egyptians. God kills the first born child of every house and the first born among all the animals of the Egyptians. God, the God of love to whom you and I ascribe our belief, kills the first born children and animals of an entire nation so that there was “a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.”

Is it any wonder that Homer struggles to make sense of the archaic and confusing stories found in the Bible? Is it any wonder that we are often left asking how do we understand this God? And moreover how do we understand this Bible through which we have been given to know God?

How do we deal with the Bible when it speaks in the language of violence and bloodshed? I want to suggest to you this morning that there are a number of ways.

The first is to read the Bible as literally and historically true seeing God’s hand acting in all situations and even as condoning violence. Thinking about more recent history next Sunday we will commemorate the terrorist attacks of September 11. This week our own high court is handing down its verdict on refugees. This is a stark reminder of the poverty and oppression from which many people in this world flee as refugees, whilst others endure drought and political atrocities.

Some Christians interpret these events as acts of God and in the case of September 11 have lead people like Franklin Graham, son of Billy, to describe Islam as "an evil and wicked religion." The Biblical history of violence and judgement for many opens the door to such violence and judgement, and so some interpret the war in Iraq as a Holy War.

This becomes more disturbing when we hear that tragedies like the drought in Africa or Hurricane Irene are God punishing people. The problem is that the Biblical precedent for such acts of God has already been set. The Passover was the last in a line of plagues and afflictions God had sent to torment Pharaoh and the Egyptians – locusts, hail and lightning, frogs, water to blood and so on.

Now that is one approach to the Bible, to see it as literally true and to see it condoning, justifying or explaining the violence and destruction that can occur in our world and in our own lives.

This is not an approach to which I subscribe.

The other end of the spectrum is to do what I wanted to do with the Psalm which was to take out my scissors and cut out the bits that disturb me. In doing this people pick and choose which bits of the Bible they will listen to and which they won’t.

Of course if I cut out all of the bits of the Bible that confused or challenged me I would probably end up with just a few pages left over. Sometimes we do this subtly by treating these kinds of stories as children’s stories or myths, so that we teach them in Sunday School but rarely preach on them or deal with them as adults.

The problem with this is that we are inventing our own religion and not taking seriously the Bible as the book in which we hear God speaking to us. And, as much as I would like to do this myself sometimes, I do not think that this is a valid way of dealing with the bits that make us feel uncomfortable. We are either part of this religion or we are not.

Another approach is to take the text seriously but to read it through the lens of the wider whole and the story of God’s grace in salvation history, especially the cross. If we understand that the wider theme of the Bible is that God is a faithful God who brings salvation and mercy because God loves then this shapes our reading of any text. It means that the overriding truth is the kind of truth that Paul encouraged the Romans to consider. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

This means we are still left with stories that can be uncomfortable but if we apply these themes they can begin to bring greater meaning to the text and sense for our lives.

For example, in terms of the Passover story we remember the history that precedes God’s act of infanticide. God had chosen Abraham and Jacob and Joseph and his brothers and been faithful to them but the Egyptians had enslaved the Israelites. In fact they had been slaves for nearly 400 years when Moses turned up. You might also stop to remember the much romanticised story about Moses birth and his mum chucking him in a basket in the Nile River. Why? Because at that time Pharaoh had been killing off all the male children of the Israelites because they were becoming too numerous!

I am not trying to justify God’s actions, nor do I find all this violence a savoury topic, but it begins to build a bigger picture – God was saving the Israelite people from oppression and hardship. So the Passover celebrates the salvation and liberation which comes from God.

Whilst there is much that could be said about the Passover and what we might learn from it I will restrict myself to a two brief points.

First, the Passover is celebrated by families, not simply in the Temple, but by family groups. It is good for us to be reminded that our faith is something to be lived at home with our families.

Second, that in re-enacting the events families are reminded not only of their past but that God continues to liberate and save people.

In other words the Passover looks back to the historical events it remembers as well forwards to new acts of liberation and salvation being done by God. The Eucharist, or communion, encourages us to do the same to remember God’s salvation in Christ and look forward to the consummation of that salvation.

So in looking at the wider theme of salvation and liberation and grace we can begin to build a picture of God which is more positive and in tune with the notion of unconditional love expressed by Paul.

The same is true of the Matthew reading in which Jesus outlines a way of conflict management for communities of faith. Once again I could build an entire sermon around this but will simply point out a couple of things.

Jesus’ will is for communities to live in love with one another and to seek reconciliation when conflict arises. The process begins with going to the person who has caused you the problems. Reading between the lines this says, don’t gossip! If you have an issue with someone speak to them, not behind their back. If this doesn’t work get a couple of other people to help you try to sort it out. If this doesn’t work bring it before the whole community.

Now in all my experience of being a Christian and of being a minister I have rarely seen this kind of thing in action in a church group, or any kind of community for that matter. We don’t like airing the dirty laundry for others to see. I think we have a greater tendency to keep things to ourselves or maybe to speak behind a person’s back than approach them in a pastorally sensitive way to resolve the issue. But we should remember that the goal in these processes is reconciliation and rebuilding of relationships so that we might live our lives more fully. But what happens when reconciliation doesn’t work.

Jesus says treat those who won’t be reconciled like a tax collector or gentile. This, however, does not mean what we might think it means. What does Jesus do with tax collectors and gentiles? He finds room for them! He accepts them and he forgives them!

In Matthew 21, Jesus said to the chief priests, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”

To treat people as tax collectors and Gentiles is not to exclude but is to forgive and even to share at the same table with them as Jesus is often seen to do. The prevailing message is one of love and grace – owe no one anything, except to love one another, for this is how God has loved us – without conditions!

Maybe as we grow to understand this we will grow into a faith like the German Pastor Martin Niemoeller who said after living through Hitler’s reign, "It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies."

To conclude I wish to return to the Simpson’s. The image prior to the Simpson’s arriving home from Church was Reverend Lovejoy preaching whilst the congregation dozed. Paul encourages us, “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

Are you dozing? Is church more of social club than a spiritual encounter? Hear again Paul’s encouragement to be awake to the good news of God’s grace, to be awake to God’s ongoing work of love and mercy in our midst.

The alternative is to be self-centred, thinking that who we are and what we have is somehow due to our own efforts or because we simply deserve it. In which case we might pray, like Bart Simpson, “Dear Lord, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”

Take a moment to consider God’s word to you this day.

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