Sermons

Sun, Dec 17, 2017

That is our calling

Series:Sermons

This week...

the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse delivered its final report...

which was scathing of the churches--

the Catholic church in particular--

and made hundreds of recommendations. 

And, almost immediately, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne--

Denis Hart--

dismissed a number of the key recommendations:

reiterating the 'inviolability' of the confessional...

and reaffirming mandatory priestly celibacy.

As the journalist, David Marr, noted: 

"Repentance is one thing. Change is another".

The quickness of that response was, of course, sadly tone-deaf.

But, worse than that...

in reality, it demonstrates the fact that the church hierarchy still doesn't get it--

something about which Archbishop Hart left us in no doubt...

when he claimed that the Royal Commission "hasn't damaged the credibility of the church".

Seriously?

 

Of course, if we add to that the strident efforts of the Catholic hierarchy--

along with the usual suspects of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney...

and the Australian Christian Lobby--

to foster the "no" vote in the recent marriage equality postal survey...

and the reputation of the Christian church...

as a whole...

probably couldn't get much lower in this country.

And make no mistake--

whatever we may believe personally...

we are all tarred with the same brush.

Reporting on the results of the postal vote, the journalist Julia Baird noted, 

"We have never entirely understood the full diversity of Christianity in this country; we tend to see it as narrow and controlling".

And I want to throw my hands up and scream a huge , "YES!"...

because someone...

someone...

gets it.

But, frankly, how many people saw or even bothered to read her article?

 

It's a problem, isn't it?

The perception of Christians in the wider community is that we are all intolerant...

bigoted...

misogynistic...

homophobic...

anti-intellectual reactionaries...

and kill-joys...

living in our own little bubble...

out of touch with the real world.

And what comes across, so often, is that the Christian faith-

above anything else--

is concerned with dictating public morality...

and self-righteously passing judgment on those who don't share its beliefs and values.

That, unfortunately, is the perception.

And, for a variety of reasons, it's hard to get across an alternative view.

In many respects, the media is only interested in scandal...

and sensationalism...

and the articulation of extreme positions just feeds into that.

The articulation of a God of judgment and punishment-

a God to be feared--

will grab far more headlines than the articulation of a loving...

compassionate...

inclusive God.

So, of course, the media are always going to be more interested in the rabid ranting of Lyle Shelton and the Australian Christian Lobby... 

or the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies...

or a Denis Hart... 

or a George Pell.

But that's only part of the story.

In many ways, I don't think that the rest of us--

those of us who try to consider a breadth of opinions and ideas...

and try to offer some nuance...

those of us who are not stuck in some primitive, pre-scientific, idealised past--

I don't think that we have been very good at communicating an alternative.

At times, we have been far too passive...

too afraid to speak up...

too afraid, perhaps, to cause offence...

too afraid to be misunderstood or identified with the loonies.

And, because we're reticent to come across as rigid or dogmatic...

because we don't presume to have all of the answers...

at times, I don't think that we have always been clear about the alternative that we do offer;

or we have struggled to know how to articulate it clearly.

 

In a strange way, perhaps, something of that sort of struggle--

that sort of dynamic--

was going on in the first century or so...

with respect to the person of John the Baptist.

At this point, I'm not referring to the actual or historical John the Baptist.

I'm referring to the varying portraits of John the Baptist that we find in the Gospels.

And, believe me, those portraits are quite varied.

In the earliest Gospel--

the Gospel of Mark--

John is clearly a prophet.

He's eccentric.

And while the author doesn't purport to give us his actual words...

he claims that John's preaching was about repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

The portrait in the Gospel of Matthew is somewhat similar:

John is a prophet, a preacher of repentance...

but, the author offers us a summary of John's preaching:

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near".

There is, for this author, a greater immediacy...

a greater sense of urgency.

John comes across as even more intense and focussed and fervent.

Then, of course, we have the extended portrait in Luke's Gospel.

For this author, John the Baptist is a fiery preacher...

castigating the crowds as a "brood of vipers"...

demanding that they share their clothes and food with the poor...

and not engage in any form of extortion or oppression.

For this author, John the Baptist is not just a fiery preacher and prophet...

he's an activist...

displaying all of the self-righteous moralising... 

that can so easily go hand-in-hand with righteous indignation.

But, then we come to the portrait of John the Baptist in the Gospel of John--

which we heard read this morning.

Here we see a vastly different portrait.

No camel skins, wild honey, and locusts here.

No calls for repentance.

No rabid ranting or insults.

No self-righteous pontificating.

No moralistic haranguing.

The portrait of John the Baptist in John's Gospel is of an almost shy and retiring figure.

He's not a prophet, nor is he even a preacher.

All that the author says is that John "came as a witness to testify to the light".

According to the author, John didn't come to call for repentance...

or to harangue people about their morality...

he simply came to bear witness to the presence of God in their midst.

He came to point people to where they might encounter the living, loving God.

He simply came as a witness to point people to Jesus--

in whom and through whom...

they might encounter the life-giving love and compassion of God.

John was simply a witness...

a sign...

or even a sign-post.

But what the author suggests in this reading is that John's witness--

John's message--

could be ambiguous or misunderstood.

It was also prone to being ignored.

That's precisely what the expression--

"the voice of one crying in the wilderness"--

means in modern Greek.

It's like the English expression, "to shout against the wind"--

to engage in a futile pursuit, pointlessly wasting energy.

 

And yet, therein perhaps, lies our calling as well.

Of all the portraits of John the Baptist... 

perhaps this is the one that speaks most to us today.

As followers of Jesus Christ...

we're not called to harangue people about morality...

or to impose our values on the wider community.

We're called to be witnesses.

We're called to be signs.

We're called to point people to where they might encounter the life-giving love of God.

We're called to point people to the peace and love and welcoming embrace of God--

symbolised and made manifest in the person of Jesus.

And, like John's John the Baptist, we may be misunderstood.

We may not be heard.

It may be frustrating, exasperating, or even seem futile.

But, in the end, that is our calling.

 
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