Sermon: Ordinary 24, Year A

Sermon: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 18:5-20

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

“If he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector”

How should we treat the tax collector? How should we regard the alien in our land – the Samaritan in our midst?

Whenever Lou and I go up to London, to revisit that central part of London in which we trained as nurses we often pass Oxford Circus on our route. You often find someone in that area (in fact, it’s always the same bloke) with a megaphone and a placard. Amid the teeming throngs of people, you hear the occasional word though the megaphone: sin, judgement, hell and Jesus.

As we pass we notice that not one person passing is engaged with what is being said. Everyone has shut the words out. To be honest, it simply isn’t working, and frankly, it is giving out a completely perverted interpretation of what the good news about Jesus Christ is all about. All of this condemnation, all of this disapproval and hate directed at others is not what it is all about.

Remember that story where the woman is caught in the act of adultery: the Jewish leaders have essentially already condemned her to death and Jesus turns to her and says “I DO NOT CONDEMN YOU” (John 8:4-11); and that is what makes Jesus Christ so fascinating – he never stops insisting that God loves you exactly as you are, loves you from were you are. Isn’t that what draws you to his engaging presence – it is what fascinates me.

The man with the megaphone may think that his Gospel of condemnation is the truth and the good news: declaring with absolute certainty that homosexuality is the gravest of sins but that it’s okay to eat shellfish (prohibited in the same book of the Torah (Leviticus 18/19), but it doesn’t come over that way, it doesn’t appear that loving. Beware of anyone who declares the will of God with absolute certainty.

Jesus says that loving God and loving others is what defines us (Matthew 22:37). Everything hangs on those two. The defining mark of a Christian is love.

John writes in his first letter that if you say you love God and don’t love others around you then you are a liar (1 John 1:10). How you love others is how you love God. Paul says that even if you have enough faith to move mountains and don’t love, then you are just like an empty clanging vessel (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).

The man with the megaphone is trying to coerce people into his religion, not share his faith: bullying them into fearing some image of a vengeful and jealous, remote deity rather than becoming aware of the love of a close, intimate, loving God which is what Christ sought to bring to us. The YHWH of the old testament is, frankly, not a very nice character, but I suspect that is just poor Public Relations – a spin placed by writers of the Hebrews which reflected the sense of loss and alienation of the Jews in exile in Babylonia rather than the loving, embracing God which Christ reveals.

By trying to bully people into Church all we will do is alienate them, because it goes against people’s innate understanding of God – a God who loves without exception. God loves us without agenda, without reservation, and so we should love without agenda or reservation. If you love someone with an agenda, then it isn’t really love is it? Any movement which condemns, hates or marginalises is not, cannot possibly be of Christ.

It doesn’t mean of course that we cannot disagree, that we must put up with injustice or oppression or things which are clearly not of the love of God. It doesn’t mean that we cannot have a spine or stand up for what we know to be right; but we are called to do it with love and respect.

Jesus told us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). When you love your enemies, something powerful happens – something transformative, something of God, which cannot be denied or perverted.

And yes, God does indeed love everyone: he loves you, and he loves me. He loves axe murderers and child molesters and he even loves those who don’t think that he exists, or those people who think that God loves only them and hates everyone else. God is love (1 John 4:8).

The apostle James said that God shows no favouritism (James 2:1-10) – that he loves without condition or exception and because God so loves the world, so a Christian should too. Rejection and condemnation has no place within the Gospel.

These words may challenge you, and call you to a fresh take on things which you have never ever contemplated in your life before, and what I am saying is radical and dangerous (that is certainly what they said of Our Lord was it not?) or you may be sitting there thinking “at last”. But I need to ask: what are we doing to challenge the perspective of those hundreds of people in Oxford Circus who think that Christianity is that man with the megaphone, who think that fire and brimstone from homophobic African bishops or rich evangelical churches in the home counties is what makes Anglicanism; or who find websites like “godhatesfaggots.com” and think that it is what God really thinks (the site exists, I am ashamed to confirm – it is a terrible and frightening perversion of the faith).

The media love to report on splits in the Church of England, from the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, to report on its perceived decline and it infighting rather than its true purpose of proclaiming the name of Jesus as Lord and God in Elson and Hardway.

People think that rejection and condemnation is what makes Christianity and forget that Jesus said in the Gospel of John “I come that you may have life and life in all its fullness.” (John 10:10).

Our faith is not something to be jealously hidden away from all others who fail the soundness test, but is something worth sharing; not something which causes us to sit in judgement of others, but calls us to open our hearts to those who need it. There are so many negative stereotypes of our faith, and it is only us who can change them.

Are those who preach rejection of the young, the homosexual, the addicted, priests of a different gender or race, are they so far from those who blow themselves up in a religious frenzy on the underground? It is all fanaticism in the name of religion, not of faith. A famous American Evangelical leader by the name of Pat Robertson only this week called for the assassination of the left-wing president of Venezuela – that is not, cannot possibly be of Christ. Does that not make him just like Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qieda? I have a cartoon here from a US newspaper which makes exactly the same link…
My purpose for coming to Elson, I believe, is to help shape this community of faith into a praying, spiritual community of people who strive to reach out to God. Amazingly, I have been here almost a year, and I recognise that many changes have taken place, much of which I hope you will consider to be for the better and which build upon the spiritual direction that I sense the parish was already taking. Prayerfully we come together to share in God’s Holy Sacraments. Conscious of God, we reach out to him. Through these we are able to reach out to others.

As we journey together in faith, we need to consider how we can embrace that call to love that God makes to us: to provide an environment for the disadvantaged, for the young and homeless, the refugee, those of a different culture than us; for the isolated and alone and those of different lifestyles, sexualities even, than us. That is the challenge; that is what the Inclusive Church movement is all about: the inclusive love of God for all regardless of colour or lifestyle: that is what we should be working to build.

“If he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector”

You know now what that means. Love them.

Amen.