Posts Tagged ‘exclusion’

Exposed for all to see

August 29, 2015

Pentecost 14 – 2015

Mark 7:1-8, 14-23

Marian Free

 

Lord our God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, we ask you to cleanse us from all hypocrisy, to unite us to our fellow men and women by the bonds of peace and love, and to confirm us in holiness now and forever. Amen.

Last week we looked – in a rather light-hearted way – at a number of the reasons people give for not inviting others to church. As I reflected on some of those reasons, it occurred to me that not one of us mentioned that the church was perceived as hypocritical. In the latter half of the last century if not before, the accusation of hypocrisy was often leveled at the church and used to justify non-attendance. If the subject of church attendance was raised, we were as likely as not to be told: “I don’t go to church, the church is full of hypocrites”. Those who made the accusation felt that the lives of churchgoers did not match the values and morals that they proclaimed to uphold. To be fair, this statement was made in an age in which the church had set itself up as the moral guardian of society at large and not only did many people feel burdened by the sometimes harsh demands placed on them, but on more than one occasion the church or its members had spectacularly fallen from grace. Issues such as fraud, adultery and underage sex all made front-page headlines and demonstrated that even members of the church were unable to achieve the high standards that they set for others.

The reputation of the church was seriously eroded long before the more recent revelations of the prevalence of child sex abuse in the church and its agencies.

It has been a long time since I have heard the hypocrisy of the church used as a reason for someone not to come to worship or as a justification for abandoning the faith. The reason for this is simple. Over the last decade or so the human frailty of the church has been laid bare for all to see. In the light of catastrophic failures such as child sex abuse it has become impossible for the church to continue to claim the high moral ground and difficult for us to impose on others standards of behaviour that we ourselves cannot consistently achieve. Collectively, we have been forced to concede that we cannot always live out what we preach.

I don’t know about you, but I find this new situation strangely liberating. It means is that we no longer have to pretend. Instead of trying to present a perfect face to the world, we can now be honest about our brokenness and frailty. Instead of standing apart from (dare I say above) society as a whole, we can admit our common humanity. Instead of constantly striving to be what we are not, we can finally relax and let people see us as we really are – imperfect, struggling human beings, set apart only by virtue of our belief in the God revealed by Jesus Christ.

While the exterior of the church may be tarnished and our failures laid bare for all to see, we have been set free from the unnecessary burden of pretence. Now that there is no longer anything left to hide, now that it is impossible to pretend that we are something that we are not, we can concentrate on our true vocation – being in a relationship with the God who accepts us as we are, frees us from guilt and fear and challenges us to strive for wholeness and peace – for ourselves and for others.

Our gospel this morning warns us against giving priority to rules in the belief that somehow we can achieve a degree of godliness simply by our own efforts. It is a reminder that it is what we try to be, not what we pretend to be that really matters. Authentic living, the gospel suggests, means that we should not elevate our public image at the expense of an honest and authentic engagement with and identification with the world at large.

These are lessons that for today’s church have been hard-won but, thanks to the failures of the past, it is much clearer now that the church (the Christian faith) is less about codes of behaviour and more about love, less about being good and more about being with God, less about judgement and more about forgiveness, less about guilt and more about acceptance, less about anxiety and more about confidence, less about exclusion and more about inclusion and most importantly that it is less about putting on a face and more about being real.

We come to church, not because we believe that we are better than everyone else, but because we know that we are not. We come to church as we are – broken and lost – knowing that we are assured of a welcome from the God who forgives the sinner, seeks the lost, embraces the prodigal, lifts the fallen and who longs to heal, forgive and restore a humanity that has lost its way.

This is what we (the church) have to offer the world – not a false image of perfection, but an assurance that God who loved us enough to die for us, is waiting with outstretched arms until each of us finds our way home.

 

As Rowan Williams said in his enthronement sermon: “The one great purpose of the Church’s existence is to share that bread of life, to hold open in its words and actions a place where we can be with Jesus and to be channels for his free, unanxious, utterly demanding, grown-up love. The Church exists to pass on the promise of Jesus – You can live in the presence of God without fear; you can receive from God’s fullness and set others free from fear and guilt.”

 

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Shepherds and sheep

September 7, 2013

Pentecost 16

Luke 15:1-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who will not be bound by human convention or constrained by human wisdom, and whose love extends to all. Amen.   

When we were in Tanzania, we observed the local Masai herdsmen (often children) herding their sheep to pasture in what seemed to be a harsh and unforgiving land. Each person had somewhere between ten and twenty sheep and they were kept together with a switch. I don’t know, but I assume the loss of one sheep due to carelessness would have been a serious matter when the total number was so low.

How different from the Australian experience! When I was young I visited a sheep station that was 100 square miles in size. The boundaries were fenced as were the interior paddocks – no opportunity for sheep to wander off. Shepherding was required only when it was time to move the sheep from one pasture to another and then it was done from the back of a motorbike – no switch and no personal relationship between shepherd and sheep. I can no longer remember how many sheep the landowner stocked on the property, but I clearly remember a delivery of sheep. A double, two-layer sheep trailer disgorged its contents in front of us – probably in the vicinity of two hundred sheep. In the crush of the transport one had died. The farmer immediately took out his knife and skinned it in front of us. Before our holiday had ended, that sheep had contributed to at least one evening meal. When such large numbers of livestock are involved, there is no room for sentimentality. Pragmatism rules the day.

But back to our Tanzanian experience which is a much better illustration of today’s parable. Small herds are not only more precious, they are better able to be cared for in a more intimate way. There is no need for them to be herded on to freight trains or abandoned to their own devices far from the homestead. Small herds can be protected from wild animals which Australian fences do not deter and it is easy to recognise when one is missing. Every evening the animals are returned to the village where they are contained behind a fence in the centre of the huts so that they will be safe until morning. Every morning they are taken from the pen to once again find pasture.

From what we can gather, herding in Jesus’ day was similar to that of the East African experience. There were some notable differences. The Palestinian herdsmen didn’t necessarily return to a village in the evening (think of the shepherds to whom the angels relayed the news of Jesus’ birth). Instead, crude walls out of stones were made in the pastures to protect the livestock from predators. These sheepfolds seem to have been ad hoc structures – in any case, they were constructed without a gate. In the evening, the shepherd would herd the animals into the enclosure and then lie in front of the opening so as to be able to prevent wild enemies from entering. The shepherds may have built fires for warmth and added protection, but all that kept the animals safe from harm was their shepherd’s ability to aim a sling or to otherwise deter or frighten off an attacker.

Seen from the perspective of shepherding in Israel, Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep is far from a benign, feel good story. Jesus’ audience would have justifiably been shocked and outraged. What sort of shepherd abandons ninety-nine sheep to the wolves in order to go off and search for one that is missing? Wolves or hyenas could cause far greater loss to the shepherd among ninety-nine unprotected sheep, than to one isolated sheep. In other words, for the sake of the one, the shepherd is risking several, if not all, of the others.

You can almost hear the gasps of Jesus’ listeners – the Pharisees, the tax collectors and the sinners. They are not herdsmen, but they have some idea of animal husbandry – even the biggest cities of Palestine are not far from the countryside. Is this shepherd crazy they must be wondering? What is one sheep when you have ninety-nine safe and sound? It gets even worse.  Not only does the shepherd abandon those sheep which have kept close to him, but when the shepherd recovers the sheep which has strayed, he calls all his neighbours over to rejoice with him. Surely that is an over reaction. A party for a lost sheep?

Jesus has almost certainly caught the attention of his listeners. They are probably beginning to wonder what sort of meaning he can draw from the story. How can he use a story about a lost sheep to defend eating with tax collectors and sinners which, in the eyes of the Pharisees breaks the codes of purity and implies that he overlooks their obvious sinfulness. What they have not realised is that the story is a not so subtle attack on their own arrogance and self-satisfaction and a challenge for them to re-assess their understanding of God. Jesus piques their interest and then he goes in for the kill. This is what heaven is like he says. God (we are to suppose) seeks out not the upright, not the law-abiding, but those who have strayed. The people whom the Pharisees despise, exclude and denigrate are the very people whom heaven will seek out and rejoice to welcome home.

What a slap in the face that must have seemed to the Pharisees.  From what we can tell these righteousness and law-abiding people, believed that behaviour set them apart from those around them and assured them of a place in heaven before all others. Jesus’ story about the lost sheep is an affront to everything they had been led to believe and it was a direct attack on their attitude towards those who didn’t achieve their high standards of behaviour. They think that entrance into heaven is something that has to be earned by keeping the law, by prayer and by fasting, that God has particular standards that people have to reach before God will grant them salvation. At the same time they are so sure of that they are right that they have made themselves both judge and jury of the behaviour of others. Anyone who doesn’t conform to their standards is, they believe, automatically excluded from the heavenly realm.

Jesus puts the lie to that belief. Contrary to God’s abandoning and turning his back on sinners, God does what for the Pharisees is unthinkable – God seeks out those who are lost and takes more pleasure in the return of a sinner than in those whose very goodness leads them to forget how much they need God and who believe that their righteous behaviour sets them apart from and above everyone else.

There are times in our lives when we wander from the path, and when we do, God seeks us out and brings us home rejoicing. At other times we find ourselves safe and secure in the fold. At such times it is important that we remember the love sought us out and that we do not begrudge the fact that God extends that love to those who in the present are lost. Having been found, it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be smug or self-satisfied, that we do not think that we better or more worthy than others. We are all beneficiaries of God’s love and we are all dependent on God’s forgiveness. God’s loving forgiveness seeks us out, overlooks our faults, restores us to the fold and welcomes us with rejoicing into the realms of heaven.

Accepting Difference

June 22, 2013

Pentecost 5 – 2013

Luke 8:26-29

Marian Free 

In the name of God whose love embraces all God’s creation. Amen.

There is an extraordinary story of a boy (now a young man) who lives in Fiji. His name is Sujit and his story is difficult to piece together. It appears that he may have been born with slight cerebral palsy and epilepsy. His father was murdered and his mother committed suicide. When Sujit was given to the care of his grandfather at two years old he was locked in a chicken coop (possibly because he was thought to be demon-possessed). Not surprisingly, the child developed behaviours not unlike those of the chickens with whom he spent so much time. At age eight, having been found on a road, he was consigned to an aged care home, where his behaviour was so disturbing and difficult to manage that for the next twenty-two years he was tied to a bed. No attempt was made to change his behaviour or to offer any kind of nurture. He was left to his own devices and his chicken like behaviour was allowed to continue without any intervention.

Elizabeth Clayton, an Australian living in Fiji came across Surit when she visited the care facility to deliver some plastic dining tables. He was filthy and covered in sores. Elizabeth felt she had no choice but to get him out of there and to provide the care that was so badly lacking. Even then at around age 26, the young man still clucked like a chicken, clawed at his food and didn’t know how to walk, let alone speak. His fingers still turn inward like claws, he understands only a minimum of speech and is not toilet trained.

As awful as this story sounds it is not unique. Out of ignorance or despair, many parents and institutions resort to what appear to be harsh and unnecessary forms of control for children whose behaviour they do not understand or cannot manage. In China today for example, there is no support for parents of children who are autistic. When such children exhibit violent or self-harming behaviour, parents feel that they have no option but to restrain the child – for the child’s safety as well as their own. With little knowledge and no help, these parents can only do their best to keep their children safe. Even if they want to, without support, they are unable to help the child to develop and to live a relatively normal life.

Our failure to understand difference has meant that even until quite recent times those with mental illness or disability were shut up or isolated from the mainstream of society. In many cases those who suffered from mental illness were feared and misunderstood. Not many people knew how to interact with them or considered that they might possibly have something to contribute to society. As a society we are still unable or unwilling to provide the support to families or individuals who do not fit the so-called norm.

In the first century the situation was no better and probably worse. Medical knowledge was extremely basic and demon possession was seen as the cause of many medical conditions which are understood quite differently today. From the New Testament accounts we surmise that conditions attributed to evil spirits or demon possession would have include mental illness and epilepsy to mention. Depending on the nature of the condition, family and friends would have resorted to a variety of treatments and forms of care – exorcism was a popular treatment.

In today’s gospel, we meet a man who is bound by chains among the tombs. In this case there are no clues to help us to understand what his condition might be in today’s terms. We simply know that according to those who knew him, the condition was so severe that he was believed to be possessed by a multitude of demons (Legion). Whatever is troubling the man it gave him such strength that he could not be managed. His behaviour was so intolerable and frightening to those around him that not only was he bound, but he was confined in a place as far away as possible from everyone.

It is shocking to think that people who through no fault of their own are violent and distressed are not only excluded from our presence but bound both by their condition and by the ties that others impose on them. Thankfully research and public education has reduced our fear of those with mental illness and of those who are differently abled. Our education system no longer excludes those who require additional support and we are challenged by the brilliance of such people as Stephen Hawking to reconsider our stereotyping and prejudices. Psychology and Psychiatry have made great strides in understanding not only what goes on in the mind, but how to treat mental illness and to enable sufferers to hold down jobs and to contribute to society in a wide variety of ways. Technology has made it possible for mute to communicate, the deaf to hear and the paralysed to contribute to society.

Jesus is not afraid of the man with the demons, nor does he see any reason not to intervene (despite the reluctance of the demons). He restores the man to his right mind and to his rightful place in the community. More than that, Jesus gives the man a responsibility – he is to be the bearer of the gospel to those among whom he lives. The outsider becomes the insider, the rejected becomes the accepted and the one who was excluded becomes the one chosen and commissioned by Jesus to share the gospel.

In a world that is uncomfortable with difference and which seeks the comfort of conformity, Jesus teaches us that love, compassion and understanding can transform the lives of those who were previously misunderstood, mistreated and excluded. We are challenged by Jesus’ example to create a society that is welcoming, empowering and inclusive of all God’s creation – no matter their race, their gender, their faith, their sexuality or their ability.

 


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