Sunday 10th September 2017

Sermon Title: St Paul’s Canterbury Sermon
Date: 10/09/2017
Preacher: Rev’d Roger Prowd
Church Calendar Date: 14th Sunday After Pentecost
Lectionary Reading: Psalm 149, Romans 13: 1-10, Matthew 18:10-20

Probably the best insult I ever heard at a football match was years ago at Princes Park. It was a match between Melbourne and Carlton and a Melbourne player Shane Zantuck had done something to terribly upset a woman a couple of rows in front of me. It was in the days before football players so readily moved between one club and another as tradeable items – cattle as they are now called. But Zantuck was one of the early players to earn his living in this way though and at this stage of his career he had already played for Richmond and St Melbourne and now was at Melbourne.

 

Whatever he did infuriated this woman and with her overcoat belted and quivering with rage she got to her feet and spluttered “Zantuck, you, you (and searched for the words to crush him ) you REJECT!’’

 

It was very funny and I suppose that in this theatre we call football we don’t always have to mean what we say (although I think she did!)

 

But she had put her finger on something – the destructive power of being made to feel a reject, worthless, of no account, a non-person. There are all sorts of ways in which this can happen to a person. Often it starts at school through bullying but it can take many forms from being the last to be picked for a sporting team, to being ignored at parties for being quiet, to being stigmatized for wearing (say) a Muslim headscarf, or feeling stupid because you’re shown up in the bottom quartile of your classes school report and not just once but right through school – year after year. Made to feel worthless.

 

Sometimes a person can become rejected because of their behavior – they have upset someone, done them wrong, sinned against them, violated them, even broken the rules of accepted society. Rejection can even happen to powerful people, the ones who are not usually vulnerable. We are often shocked when this happens. There is a poignant prayer sometimes made “We pray for the people in today’s newspapers”.

 

This morning’s Gospel reading is all about rejects. Jesus calls them the “little ones”, the people on the fringes, the marginalized, the ones to be held of no account. Jesus says about them “take care that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven”.  In Rabbinic theology of the day only the very highest of the angels saw the face of God. These “little ones”, irrespective of how they came to be little ones, are especially precious to God.

 

Jesus says that if a shepherd has one sheep that goes astray then he will leave the 99 and go in search of it to bring it back to the fold. There is something especially precious about the people who find themselves no longer part of the flock, but on the margins – even those who by their own actions cause themselves to be cast out.

 

Matthew’s gospel then goes on to talk about people who find themselves cast out because they have made others angry by sinning against them and from the Church of Matthew’s time we are offered a model of how conflict is to be dealt with based upon the pattern seen in Jesus. The aim is not primarily to vindicate the wronged person but to bring both of them, the sinner and the sinned against, back into relationship – to be reconciled with each other. The essential thing is the restoration of relationship. So the focus is to avoid humiliating the wrongdoer – the first step is to go and see them privately. If this doesn’t work see them with a couple of witnesses. These are mediators, but who knows, it may be that the so-called wrongdoer is in the right! We don’t like to entertain this thought as a rule when we think of the injustices we suffer.

 

Finally in the society of that day if it still can’t be settled then the wrongdoer we are told, is to

be treated as a Gentile – a pagan who is not one of God’s holy people, or a tax collector – a member of God’s people who has turned traitor.

 

How were gentiles and tax collectors treated in those days?

Well I suppose they could be treated as non-people and traitors, people to be avoided at the very least, in the same way that people today often treat those they see as enemies, but consider that Jesus, the one who speaks these words “treat them as tax collectors” is the one of whom it is said “Now the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to him. And the people murmured against Jesus, saying “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

We can think of how Jesus said to those who criticized the company he kept “If you are well you have no need of a doctor. I’ve come to seek and save the lost.”

 

Let us recall that, as Matthew records, at his birth among the first to show up at Bethlehem were the Magi – Gentiles from the East. And one of the first healings, recorded in the gospel of Matthew, was the healing of a Gentile army officer…

 

And that one day, Jesus called a man named Matthew to be his disciple – and do you remember what Matthew did for a living when Jesus called him? … He was not a Gentile, but he was a tax collector.

 

It is precisely the pagans and the sinners – the rejected, that Jesus came to show God’s love.

 

We are being called to something quite radical here and perhaps way out of our comfort zone – we are being called to see those who wrong us, with a deeper generosity and awareness of our own shortcomings. Not to diminish them with insults and make them non-people or seek revenge, but to look to ourselves even as we try to understand them, and bring them back into relationship with us.

 

For all these people on the margins, whether they be sinners or sinned against through persecution, rejection, bullying, made non- people just for being who they are, we are called to treat them as we would have ourselves treated.

 

This theme has particular relevance for where we find our country today as we approach the same sex marriage survey. Especially regarding people marginalised not through sin, but for being who they are.

 

When I returned from England in the late 1970’s as a convert to Christianity I found myself wondering about how as a Christian I should view homosexuality. One day during a lazy moment at the MCG watching the cricket with my friend Philip Huggins I asked him what as a Christian I should believe. I’d been friends with Philip at university and he’d later had a conversion himself and was now a priest and I asked him what he thought. I’ll never forget his answer – he said “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, but he did say a lot about love”. Something to think about.

 

If we think about today’s readings we find in the psalm God’s servants being exhorted to “have a two-edged sword in their hand to wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the heathen, binding their kings with chains, putting their nobles in irons, carrying out the judgement decreed against them – this is glory for all God’s loyal servants.” More something we might expect to find coming out of ISIS.

 

Similarly in the reading from Romans we find Paul telling them that “every person must submit to the authorities in power, for all authority comes from God – they are to obey for governments are God’s agents.” In the light of history we no longer take this view, nor should we.

 

Both readings give support to the view that the Bible is to be seen as the story of the unfolding understanding of the revelation of God and that this understanding is to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

 

With regard to Paul I think he gets a very bad press. He was a true mystic and spiritual revolutionary, but he was also a man of his times. These times did not see sexuality as an orientation, a given, but something that was a matter of choice, hence any deviation from conventional sexuality was an act of rebellion, a sin against God’s decree and to be severely punished.

 

However now we know that 2000 years of medical, psychological and anthropological knowledge has established that our sexual identities are given not chosen. Sadly parts of the church still believe this not to be the case. To deny people expression of their sexuality and the possibility of intimacy that accompanies it, to make people feel wretched and ashamed of their sexuality is cruel and inhuman. As the postal survey ramps up it is awful to see how many of the LGBTI orientation are seeking psychiatric help, how many children are being bullied at school. How fearful people are of their jobs and how judged many feel by conventional society. Some people will be damaged for life by this.

 

Jesus lived his life in conflict with the conventional religious orthodoxy of his day and was known for his loving acceptance of the outsider and for eating and drinking with those seen as sinners.  He came to bring people life and enjoyment of life as God had made them. In today’s gospel Jesus also says about the Church “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”. How wonderful it would be if the Church, like its Master, was attacked, not for the usual depressing cavalcade of its faults, but for setting people free.

 

 

(A Rabbi once asked his students a question about how you can know when night has ended and day has come……..

One said “It’s when you can tell a palm tree from a fig tree”

“No” said the rabbi

Another said “It’s when you can tell a sheep from a goat”

“No” said the rabbi

Another said “It’s when you can tell a rabbit from a dog”

“No” said the Rabbi

The students were puzzled and had no more answers.

And the Rabbi said “It is daylight when you can look into the face of another human being and recognize that he/she is you brother/sister.”

“Until then”, he said “it is night”)