Following the Loving Example
We are printing a sermon entitled “Following the Loving Example” by a former member of our Parish, ROSALIE SUGRUE, preached at the Raumati Church in the Kapiti Uniting Parish in June 2007. Rosalie has been a member of that Parish for almost nine years, and as a lay preacher has led over 80 services in 8 years.
This sermon is a good one in its own right, strongly rooted and grounded in the New Testament text, and offering applications to the life of the Church community in which the sermon was preached. That would be typical of Rosalie as we remember her - energetic, up-front and with a strong sense of the justice of Jesus.
We also print the sermon because we understand Rosalie is embroiled in a dispute with the leadership of her Parish, arising from her support of a marginalized parishioner. In October 2007 she was banned from preaching in the Parish, and as at this time has not been given the reasons for the ban, nor afforded opportunity to explain her point of view. We are not in a position to make a judgment on the rights and wrongs of the on-going dispute, but the respect amongst us for her integrity and acceptability as a lay preacher is such that we would want to see her given the right to be heard. We hope that reading Rosalie’s sermon will help others to assess her contribution, and that the dispute will soon be satisfactorily resolved.
Readings: Gen 39:6b-20; Lk 8:26-39; James 1:19-20, 25-26
We commit to following the loving example of Jesus. We, the parishioners of Kapiti Uniting Parish, are proud of our mission statement. It is a strong statement. It succinctly summarises what we are about. We commit to following the loving example of Jesus. We read it, say it, and pray it. What do we mean by it?
Faith statements mean different things to different people. What does this one mean for you? I invite your silent reflection….
We are good people. We do a lot of good things in this parish. We hold good services with good music. We cater for a range of ages and a range of theological expression. We keep good buildings. Our parish organises fun and stimulating events. We host good speakers. We support social issues. We raise money. We visit, bake, care and donate, and our goodness extends to work in the community.
So, what was the loving example Jesus set? Not much of the above. For me, what springs to mind is his concern for the marginalized. I appreciate that Jesus was a rebel, not afraid to make himself unpopular in the cause of justice. Scary but empowering! And that is why I am preaching this sermon.
The religious culture Jesus inherited was strong on extending hospitality to strangers, but also strong in rejecting anyone considered imperfect. Being born a woman was in itself an imperfection, however charity was necessary and law decreed it be extended to widows and orphans. Imperfections included sin, for sin was the cause of misfortune. Physical disability was a profanity…We read in Leviticus chapter 21 that no one who has a blemish shall draw near to the altar of the Lord, including: one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19or who has an injured foot or an injured hand, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles… no such person shall profane the Lord’s sanctuaries.
We, of course, understand these rules to be mere primitive superstition. A few millennia ago superstition was rife. We all know the fate assigned to adulterous wives but did you know a way of testing for adultery was to force a woman to drink a bitter mixture that was likely to induced bleeding and cause her womb to drop. If she felt pain she was guilty. [Nm 5-16:22]. Difficult children who shamed their parents could be stoned [Deut 21:18-21]. No namby-pamby anti smacking laws for ancient Israel!
Into this primitive culture came Jesus. Jesus the political radical and sensitive religious touched the untouchable, dined with social outcasts, had genuine regard for women, and cared about children. He saw beyond imperfections, to the person - the thinking, feeling, real, person, created in the image of God.
We live in the 21st century, we aren’t superstitious or ignorant. We are educated and caring. We don’t judge people on appearance. As followers of the loving example we are loved by God and we look for the person created in the image of God. As James puts it, we, the beloved, need be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. We not only have the benefit of Jesus’ example, and NT Scripture, we have the advantage of being the product of thousands of years of civilization, with the accumulated knowledge of philosophy, science, and justice imprinted on our souls.
We are educated and want to live by democratic principles. Once the Church was in the control of powerful bishops and priests. They made the rules and parishioners were at their mercy. Corrupt power is not for us. The church of today knows power should be shared. We invite opinion. Those who follow the loving example of Jesus listen carefully. Those who follow the loving example of Jesus want every person to feel valued. Church is not a lean, mean business beholden to share-holders. Church is a community of people who care, ideally, a family where everyone is listened to. The church that follows the loving example of Jesus cares about all of its people. How can we best ensure this happens?
Is it by restricting representation? Is it by giving less people a voice on Parish Council? Is it by allowing a select few to have control over who is on our committees?
Let’s turn our thoughts to life in ancient Egypt. We have come such a long way from the ethics of Mr and Mrs Potiphar. Surely what happened to Joseph couldn’t happen in our society? Joseph wasn’t given a chance. No one even thought to ask for his side of the story. His accuser was peeved and powerful, or maybe charming and silly, perhaps a little frightened. Whatever she was, she didn’t see Joseph as a person. In modern civilized society the marginalized have voice. In our law all are presumed innocent until proven guilty, even atheists agree on this. Our PM insists that NZ must be a just and caring society. (844 wds)
Let’s look at a loving example of Jesus. The lectionary reading is headed in my Bible Jesus Heals the Gergesene Demoniac. I use a modern translation. Demoniac is not a term we use today but it well conveys the attitude of the Gergesene people of the time. To set the scene: the itinerant preacher and disciples have just crossed the lake from Galilee. It is a stormy day. Jesus has amazed his terrified friends by calming a raging storm. As he steps ashore he is met by a man. Storms tend to heighten drama. All the best horror movies make use of them. The man is stark naked with a wild look in his eye. What would you do?
The narrator further informs this man does not live in a house. He lives among tombs. What could be spookier? We are told that the Gergesenes keep their madman under guard, bound by chains and shackles but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demons into the wild. I suspect most of us would be back in the boat before he uttered a word. With manic insight the madman recognises Jesus for what he is - a man of God, a man of power. The demonic falls down before Jesus afraid, expecting torment. Torment is all this man has to expect.
What does Jesus do? He looks beyond appearance. He addresses the madman as a person. He asks his name. The man replies Legion. Was this name assigned by the Gergesenes as a living parody of the hated occupying Romans? The madman sees it as a description of his condition. A cohort of demons who force him to do things he does not want to do.
I have been a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. I have seen the mind make people do what they do not want to do. Mad and naked is not mere story for me. I have a little training in modern psychiatry but having encountered madness up close and personal, I sure understand why some insane feel they are possessed. Not being able to control one’s body can be difficult but not being able to control one’s mind can be impossible. Empathy is readily bestowed to the former condition but not so easily to the latter.
Jewish culture abhorred pigs. It was fitting for the narrator to have a disturbed herd of swine rush down a steep bank and drown in the lake. I imagine it made the swineherds pretty mad. They rush off into town to share the horrific news, but more upsetting to the people than the loss of their bacon was to see their madman clothed and in his right mind sitting at the feet of Jesus. We are told, they were afraid, so afraid they demanded Jesus and his friends leave immediately. What were they afraid of?
Do we, deep down in our darkest selves, want to see people in less control of their lives than we are? Does it make us feel superior? Smug? Safe? Do all of us crave power over others?
In Dunedin I once heard an excellent sermon on this passage. Dr Ian Cairns suggested, we all keep personal madmen. He asked. Of whom are you afraid? We here at Raumati are an inclusive church, we have declared ourselves as welcoming to all. But we don’t advertise the fact. Why, because we are afraid? Afraid of ourselves, and of who may come? Recall the old hymn, Whosoever will may come? We don’t sing that one any more. We are happier to display NO SKATEBOARDING signs. Instead of a directional arrow, we greet visitors with NO ENTRY. We invite toddlers and parents to use our hall but don’t provide a decent baby-change facility. We welcome cripples but don’t provide mobility car-parks. Many of our people have varying physical limitations. Do we feel into possible predicaments? Do we supply grab-bars in the toilets? Our main entrance is up a hill. We have a handrail, building standards require this. Our handrail begins OK but halfway diverts to a user-unfriendly recessed section hampered by shrubs, then stops. Reason? Too difficult for the hearse to open its doors. Do we not care enough to find a creative solution? A completing portion made of rope could be unhooked for funerals. We are a Christian Church but where are our Christian symbols? From outside we look like an office block or community centre. The cross from inside our hall has vanished along with its sacred name. Also vanished are the bibles, once available for the use of the congregation and its young. Did you find church enriched/endurable by looking at illustrated bibles when you were young? Are we ashamed to be Christian?
We claim to be Christian yet remove our Christian icons. We claim to follow the loving example of Jesus yet excluded people - some by disregard and some by intention. Is it because we crave power? Is it because we don’t care about those who have needs we don’t share? Is it because we jump to conclusions about people who are different? What are we afraid of?
Let’s apply some rational thought. Church is a safe place. We, by our mass sensible presence, make it safe. No matter what a person is, or has done, an individual is highly unlikely to commit a crime in the context of a church service. I was taught as a child, church is a school for sinners not a museum for saints. Jesus appeared to give everyone a chance. Do we?
Some of us fear homosexual or transgendered people. Who is your madman? Is it the unemployed? The alcoholic? The ex-prisoner? The known offender? The illiterate? The smelly? The noisy? What about someone who looks odd? Has limited intelligence? How would you feel if people from Crossroads made a point of attending our services? Look around – what do you see? Does anyone here stand out as different? We are respectable people, educated and well dressed. Our personalities differ, some are a little wealthier than others, but basically we share the same middle class lifestyle and values.
To be Buddhist means be rise above attachments and desires. To be Muslim means to submit to the will of God. Do we need reminding of what it means to be Christian? Hear the words of Jesus…
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself. [Lk 10:27]
He also said…
Do not judge, that you may not be judged [Mtt 7:1-5]
In everything do to others a you would have them do to you [Mtt 7:12]
I desire mercy not sacrifice [Mtt 9:13]
And words of Paul…
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith. [Rom 1:16]
Let all be done for building up [1Cor 14:26]
Let mutual love continue [Heb 13:1]
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious, or boastful or arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. [1Cor 13]
Final Hymn: Speaking up for those who cannot speak (Colin Gibson)