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February 22, 2004

Sunday sermon

Having had two Eucharist services at which to assist this morning, I am thankfully not scheduled to preach today. So I offer this sermon that I wrote and preached last year. It was sparked by the whinging in the Guardian Newspaper of one Polly Toynbee about the fact that the Beeb had, in a fit of common sense, dismissed (after an experimental slot or two) the demands of the atheist lobby, to be allowed to air their point of view on the daily "Thought for the Day" religious slot.

The "Thoughts" are usually delivered by someone from one of the major religions, so we have Muslim, Jew, Christian and other religious representatives each giving their three minute message. Most are well worth hearing and considering, not so the only atheist I caught. His rant was pointless, derogatory and condescending in the extreme. I suspect that if his argument is representative, then there is little hope for the future of humankind at all.

More recently, we have had the education department insisting that atheism be taught as part of the curriculum for Religious Education (RE), which has to be the ultimate oxymoron. Atheism is hardly a religion. But, neither is common sense in these politically correct times.

I hope that my poor sermon offering provides at least som food for thought, and may you have peace, joy and strength to face the week ahead.

Pax vobiscum.

+ May the words in my mouth and on my lips,
be the message of our Lord and saviour,

"Do not be surprised my brothers, if the world hates you."

I am not normally a reader of Guardian. This may not be too much of a surprise to some, if not all of you. However, while searching the Internet news agencies I came across two reports from that paper, which gave me cause to stop and read. The first was a report that someone called the Church Society was planning direct action against our Archbishop designate because they disagree with his appointment. The second was a column written by Polly Toynbee entitled "Religion isn't nice. It kills." As I said, I am not normally a reader of the Guardian, and now I have an even better reason not to be.

It isn't religion that kills, it is the basest of all human errors - self delusion and self justification. Reading Ms Toynbee and other commentators of the same mindset, one could be excused for thinking that the world does hate all those who dare to profess a belief in something higher than the human ego. The trigger for Ms Toynbee's article is the BBC's refusal to allow time on "Thought for the day" to Atheist and Humanist thinkers. Had she listened to the experimental slot that was allocated to an Oxford academic, she might not have been surprised. The gentleman in question spent his ninety seconds pouring derision on everyone who didn't share his view of a creation that happened all by itself and is now guided by human enlightenment. Thank you, but I prefer the supposed darkness and mysticism of my spiritual relationship with God to the alleged light of human understanding.

The problem for so many of this ilk is that they seem unable to separate the plethora of religious “religiosity” from the message of the gospel. They cannot see the wood for the trees. Indeed, it is a problem we all face in varying degrees. The Islamic suicide bomber believes he is going to a very carnal sounding heaven; but you won’t find that in the Koran – it is the invention of those who seek to use religion for their own ambition.

Consider for a moment why we are here and not perhaps at Holy Trinity or even at the Mosque in Cheltenham. It is probably because we choose to worship in a certain way – to celebrate if you like – our relationship with God. It is also quite possibly because we were raised in a certain culture or belief system. The problem comes in when someone or some organisation tries to force us to change what we approve of or prefer to something that they or it consider too be more valid. That is the root of religious conflict. In that sense, Ms Toynbee is right – religion is not nice; it kills - or, is used as an excuse to kill.

Yet that is not as it should be. St John refers to us and all who embrace the Gospel as "Children of God". Writing probably from Ephesus John has the benefit of having been close to Christ, yet, even in his own congregation, there are those who challenge his understanding and try to put their own interpretation forward as superior. If we truly follow Christ and are fully in union with him as we sit in our churches and worship Him, we should not be in conflict. If we are indeed the children of God then we are, as St John asserts, not so by adoption. He uses the Greek word which suggests that we are "begotten" as children and, as such, we cannot continue to sin. And it is a sin to be in conflict with other members of Christ’s body and probably even with members of other Faiths. That is not to say that we should be supine in the face of aggression or of attempts to drive our faith from our hearts. No, instead it is incumbent upon us to seek reconciliation and rapprochement with those who “hate” us.

The problem for those outside of Faith, any faith, is that they cannot accept that neither the Gospel nor any other Holy Book, promises heaven here on earth in material terms. It does promise wealth, acceptance and life in terms of the spirit, something none of us can have experience of until we pass from this life to the next. No human metaphors can describe it, another problem for those outside of faith.

John admits that he does not know what our future shape or state of being will be, except that it will be the same as Christ's because we shall see him as he is. Patently this implies that we could not do so if we were not in the same state. Those who deny faith simply cannot envisage a state of being that does not involve a physical body. Like St John, I feel that this is not important, but, to someone whose very sense of being is tied to position, rank, power or influence may well find that to be a stumbling block.

Have you noticed that whenever a person declares they do not believe in God, they almost immediately qualify it by saying that they do believe in something else? Those who deny God's existence now proclaim the Godhead of Humanity. All that is good in life, according to this argument comes from the innate goodness of humanity. I was glad to see that even Ms Toynbee acknowledges that Joe Stalin and Adolf Hitler were not religiously motivated - but she immediately qualifies that by adding that they acted with religious zealotry!

I do not think that the world hates us; I do think they are indifferent. For that I rather fear we must in part accept the blame. Yes, we have made a mess of something beautiful, but we need to remember that at its best Christianity has given rise to advances in art, literature, science and morality. The world we currently enjoy is not the creation of the Polly Toynbee's of this world, but of the great Christian religious thinkers of the 19th Century and before. It is the Augustines, Cuthberts, Gregorys and, yes, the Wilberforces, Peels, Gladstones and even Disrealis who, motivated by their desire to put into practice the message of the Gospel, have shaped our society. Without the Christian message we would, in all likelihood, still be sacrificing goats before statues, and crucifying our enemies on hilltops and public roadways.

St John charges us with the words of Christ to his disciples; "Love one another." We cannot love each other and still be at odds, and, if we love each other, we demonstrate our love for God. This is where I wish I were a Greek scholar, for reading St John's letter in our translation we lose many of the nuances expressed in the Greek.. The choice of language in the original leaves the reader in no doubt that, to John, the Devil was as real as Christ. It also leaves the reader with a greater sense of his wonder at the grace and greatness of a God who could take all who truly turn to him and try to walk in his grace, as his own begotten children.

As Children begotten of God we need to seek a deeper understanding of our Faith and to work to understand those who for whatever reason cannot come to terms with it. We need to seek to meet God in all that we do and all that we say one to another to avoid crossing from light into darkness. In the light there is ever hope for it dispels the darkness, but if we shut ourselves off from the light, there is no hope and no light to guide us.

Walk in the light and let the Lord be your strength and shield.

+ In the name of the Father
And of the Son
And of the Holy Ghost.

Posted by The Gray Monk at February 22, 2004 05:41 PM