Pentecost 4, Sunday 9 July 2000
Ezekiel 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10; Mark 6:1-13
I read yesterday that there is a little church in an isolated valley in Switzerland which is a popular hospice - in the literal sense - for walkers and travellers generally. Over the arched doorway, in French, is this poignant sentence of welcome:
Could anyone, in any condition, feel more welcomed than that? Such a text is not visible here at St Peter’s, but I hope and pray that we will seek to live up to the spirit of that invitation. Indeed it was that spirit of openness which was beautifully conveyed in the brochure prepared by the PCC for applicants which was the primary attraction for me as I wandered and wondered through the back pages of the Church Times some nine months ago.
It is a lofty aspiration. It is a challenge to us all. But I am convinced that it is the vocation of Christ’s church. As the author of the book in which that little Swiss church is mentioned writes:
“Each of us journeys through such valleys in search of our souls, on the path of slow and reluctant surrender to God’s purposes. Each of us is in exodus, afraid of the commission given us, wandering in our own deserts, arriving at dangerous crossroads, tempted by idols. Each of us experiences, at least at critical times, the reassuring sight of cloud and of fire, the faithful presence of God. What is asked of us is that we in turn reject no one.”
Ironically, I fear that one of the idols which is most tempting at least for some Christians, is inherent in the way the church has developed its teaching over the centuries; and that is the temptation towards arrogance, towards smugness. The grace of God, the gift of Christ - they are unique, they are the richest of blessings imaginable; and those of us who have recognized this can, at the best of times, rejoice in what God has done, is doing, and promises to do for humanity and for the whole of his creation. But these gifts are not our possession. We do not possess God, we do not control God, we are certainly not in a position to judge who or what is of God and what is not. And yet we run perilously close, from time to time, to giving the impression to the world that we decide, on God’s behalf, who is in and who is out.
Some years ago, when I was a curate in Alnwick - a bit of my life which the Bishop forgot about in his biographical sketch at the Induction - we were confronted by the establishment of a new Christian group which called itself the New Life Christian Fellowship. It quickly became established, and well-known for its lively worship and clear teaching. It had originally found support in the town partly in reaction to the then highly controversial ministry of the Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, and as a result the Anglican congregation lost a small number of regulars. It was a genuine worry to us because it seemed that they were interested primarily in poaching members of other churches, and were not at all interested in any sort of communication with us to try to resolve our differences. Well not so long after their arrival in Alnwick, I happened to meet a couple, middle-aged, who I had known a little through contact at a funeral. Both had a history of mental illness, and the woman had suffered a number of extended stays in a mental hospital. However at this particular period they were quite stable, and had become involved with this new fellowship. They were happy and were finding considerable strength and encouragement from the life there. However, it was not long before the wife had a relapse. The next I heard of them, both had been admitted to the mental hospital in a very bad way indeed. It turned out that they had been told by the pastors that God would heal them; and when the relapse occurred it was, apparently, because they were not faithful enough.
That is an extreme example of the damage we so easily do. I do not believe anyone here would condone that approach to faith, nor such an extraordinarily insensitive and judgmental statement. But pause for a moment and think about how you react to different people and different situations. We don’t have to say it or believe it. If we even momentarily think it, or look at someone with condescending eyes, the message will be received, and our welcome compromised. It is a real challenge; and we have to be realistic and recognise that we will fail the challenge over and over again. But if we are aware of our weakness, it might just help us to avoid that smugness.
If this tendency to arrogance undermines our witness as individuals and as local communities, it is also a fearful problem for the church as a national and international institution. We are in an unenviable position. For so many people, especially in the media, the only raison d’ętre for the church is as a teacher and mediator of Christian ethics, a role which all the churches do their best, within their own self-understanding, to fulfil. But it is easy to be seduced. Most only want to hear the teaching which confirms their own prejudices and condemns those who are different.
For the Church to speak confidently, intelligently and compassionately on the huge variety of moral problems which face the world today must be a good thing, but if we simply get into the way of being a sort of divine justification for the status quo, or for some of the reactionary prejudice which we regularly hear these days, then we might as well stop reading the Gospels, ignore the Sermon on the Mount, and cease praying to the God of justice and compassion.
An article by Clifford Longley in last week’s Tablet, that excellent Roman Catholic magazine which should be in every church, has restarted the debate on Catholic teaching on contraception. The original article expressed shame at the continued resistance of the Catholic hierarchy to any change in the teaching in the face of the devastation of the population of Southern Africa from AIDS. It happened that this week’s copy arrived yesterday at the same time as our newspaper which had as its headline “Welcome to the Land of the Dying”, profiling the dreadful situation in Malawi, where some 16% of the population are living with HIV/AIDS. I myself was in South Africa and Namibia earlier in the year. The statistics there are even more savage: 20% of the South African population are infected. Close on 40% of those now aged 15 are likely to be dying by the time they reach 30. This is more than tragedy. It is more than disaster. It is, literally, devastation. It would take a whole address on its own to spell out the implications of these figures for the future of South Africa, but I am sure you can begin to imagine them.
I cannot, therefore, for the life of me work out what planet people are living on when they write to the Tablet, in response to Clifford Longley’s article, saying things like ‘The Church could not possibly sanction the use of condoms… there is a 100% effective solution… its name is abstinence.’ And ‘the AIDS Pandemic will not be resolved or significantly decreased by the use of condoms, but only by a whole change of mentality.’
I have studied the Papal encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’, and have a great deal of respect for the teaching contained in it. The profound respect for human life, and the need to understand our responsibilities in this whole area of procreation, is absolutely right. Those comments on the situation in Southern Africa may well be wise and correct, in theory. But we are not dealing in theories, and we do not have the luxury of time to enter into moral debates while we are surrounded by death on this scale. The persistence of this teaching, which is seriously affecting the ability not only of Catholic organisations, but also other Christian groups to bring effective care and support to people suffering beyond our imagination is bringing the church into disrepute.
Our own church is just as bad. Our attitude to women, especially in ministry, and to homosexuals, perhaps less dramatic and devastating in global terms, is nonetheless deeply painful to those who feel marginalised and judged by it. I know how difficult, how uncomfortable it is when our long-held views are challenged, but we need to have engraved in our hearts, as we continue on this pilgrimage together, those words written above that Swiss country church:
We have no idea what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was, whether it was a physical ailment, or a particular group of people who kept on challenging his teaching, or whatever. But we can be sure that there could be no more committed, courageous or passionate disciple of Christ than Paul. But constantly he is reminded, through this thorn in the flesh, of his humanity, his fallibility, his capacity for arrogance.
That too is what the story of Ezekiel is all about, although you don’t get much hint of it in that strange little excerpt we heard this morning. God’s people, a rebellious people, are taken into exile. They are devastated by their apparent abandonment by God. They never believed, in their arrogance, that such a fate could befall them, and that the Temple, the dwelling-place of God, into which they had invested all their efforts and their money, ignoring the needs of the poor, ignoring the cry for justice and freedom from oppression, which had been so much a part of their own history, could be destroyed. Their faith was shattered. But our God, their God, is ever-faithful, compassionate and loving, even in the face of our disobedience, our arrogance, our rebellion, and Ezekiel is the messenger - yes of judgement, but also of that faithfulness. God does not reside for ever in the temple. The dwelling-place of God is amongst his people; and he never deserts them. And our dry bones live through his grace.