Sermon for 19 August 2012: Wisdom for the Church

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 19 August 2012: Year B, Proper 15

SERMON
Texts: Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:48-58

Wisdom for the Church
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Every day in life, we make decisions. This is what sets us aside from the animals. Human beings are blessed- or cursed?- with the freedom to choose. Right at the beginning of the Bible, in the ancient tale of the Garden of Eden, God gives one command to the newly-created man and woman-  ‘You may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, except the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad. You must not eat the fruit of that tree; if you do, you will die the same day’ (Genesis 2.16). Adam and Eve, of course, cannot resist, and they fall prey to temptation, eat the forbidden fruit, and as a result, are banished from paradise. The reason that story is there is not because it is something which happened a long time ago, but because it is something which happens every day. God has given us the freedom choose, to make judgements, to decide between right and wrong, good and evil.

The Letter to the Ephesians today call us to exercise judgement carefully: ‘…be careful how you live. Don’t live like ignorant people, but like wise people’. And, ‘Don’t be fools… but try to find out what the Lord wants you to do’. In the story of Adam and Eve, we find humankind making decisions apart from God, trying to decide without trying to find out what God wants us to do.

We pay some people to make particularly difficult judgements for us. Last week, the High Court in England had to decide the case of Tony Nicklinson, left almost completely paralysed after a very unusual type of stroke. He is somebody who is obviously in terrible distress, who believes that he would be better off dead. But if he was asking that someone else- a doctor, presumably- should be allowed to end his life. He can’t kill himself- he wants someone else to do it for him. So he not was asking that he should be allowed to commit suicide. Nor is he being kept alive artificially, depending on some kind of life support which could be switched off to allow nature to take its course. Instead, he was asking that someone else should so actively do something to end his life- that someone else- probably a doctor- should be allowed to kill him. As Prof John Saunders, of the Royal College of Physicians told the BBC, ‘This is not about the right-to-die, this is about a right to enable a third party to actively terminate his life for him’. And that is a line which the law in this country will not cross. For the law is there to protect the weak and the vulnerable, and there is no guarantee that if we begin to allow people to be killed in such a manner that we would not succumb to the temptation of beginning to decide for many other people that their lives are not worth living. So, for example, the doctor’s trade union, the British Medical Association, said that they do ‘not believe that it would be in society’s best interests for doctors to be able to legally end a patient’s life. The BMA is opposed to the legalisation of assisted dying and we are not lobbying for any change in the law in the UK’.

Lord Justice Toulson described this as a ‘deeply moving’ case, but said, ‘It is not for the court to decide whether the law about assisted dying should be changed and, if so, what safeguards should be put in place. Under our system of government these are matters for Parliament to decide’. Yet our parliamentarians have, however, been strangely reluctant to get into this debate. Recently, however, Margo Macdonald MSP did try to get the Scottish Parliament to change the law in Scotland on these matters, and, commendably, the Scottish Parliament did examine and judge the issues (and having looked at in a lot of detail, they agreed with the doctors that the law ought not to be changed). We elect politicians, just as we appoint judges, to make judgements on our behalf. We elect them to make judgements about changing and making laws, to judge which policies will best for our public services, to make judgements about priorities for spending, and judgements about taxation and spending- even to make judgements about war and peace. Of course, may not always agree with their judgements, and we are perfectly entitled to let them know what our judgements on these matters are. But politics is all about trying to make judgements and decisions.

Judging to do what God wants us to do is at the very heart of the Christian way of living. But it is not easy. We struggle to avoid it, because we tell ourselves that to truly live as Christians would be far too difficult for us. We tend to see look at the Bible, and what it has to say about how we should live, as something we try to aspire to, rather than something we can actually do. And even in our common life together, in the Church, we too often settle for what we think is possible, rather than taking the risk that of going for what God wants. So- how do we become wise? How can we, as individuals, or as a Church, discover what God wants us to do- and then find the courage to do it?

Ultimately, our Future Focus process will be about finding out how God wants us to flourish as a congregation. We’re trying to discover what God wants us to do, and not just settling with what we are comfortable. Yet trying to know what God’s will is something fraught with difficulty. As you know, I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Pittsburgh this summer. They are finding- as our Church is finding- that it’s very difficult to agree on what God wants them to do.  For example, the voted by 48 to 52 per cent not to allow same-sex marriage in their Church. Of course, in a debate of this kind, both parties think they have God on their side. Both think that they are being truer to the Gospel. Both can find arguments from scripture, tradition, and current pastoral experience to support their point of view. It’s very hard for the Church as a whole do decide, so that sometimes, if we take unity very seriously, we just need to agree to disagree, and hope and pray that God’s truth will come out in the end.

Another so-called ‘hot button’ topic which came to that General Assembly was a proposal that the Church should no longer invest in American which are doing business with the Israeli military. Like many Churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA) does not invest in business which they judge work against the policies of the Church- for example, tobacco, alcohol, and the arms trade. Caterpillar, a famous American firm, makes its famous bulldozers for civilian use. But for a number of years, they’ve sold them to the Israeli army, who stick armour on them and use them to bulldoze the homes and farms of Palestinians who have lived on the land for generations, in order to make room for Jewish settlers. These actions against civilians are illegal under international law, a clear breach of human rights- and, of course, morally repugnant. These actions are also one of the major barriers to peace in the Middle East.

Presbyterians are known for doing things very precisely, according to the book: ‘decently and in order’ as St Paul advised the Church to be (1 Corinthians 14.40, KJV). So, as long ago as 2004, the General Assembly asked a committee to look into companies which did business with the Israeli army, and ever since, the committee has been attempting to have a dialogue with companies such as Caterpillar (and did so often in conjunction with other Churches). In some cases, business changed their ways- but Caterpillar really gave the impression that they couldn’t care less. So after eight years of trying, the committee came back to the Assembly and said- ‘We’ve done every thing you asked us to do. We did it “by the book”- as you would expect of a Presbyterian church committee. And now we have to report that you would be breaching the Church’s own principles if we did not dis-invest from Caterpillar’.

The release of the committee’s report, a few weeks before the Assembly, led to a firestorm. The powerful American pro-Israeli government lobby came down on the Presbyterians like a ton of bricks. Local rabbis got briefings which said that the Presbyterians were going to dis-invest altogether from Israel (not true). Good relationships between synagogues and Churches became very strained, as a result. There were reports of General Assembly commissioners being offered ‘fact finding’ trips to Israel by the pro-Israeli government lobby. The convenor of the committee found himself being advised on personal security by the FBI. It looked like an attempt to ‘buy’ the Assembly’s decision. And sadly, it worked. Too many Americans live with a very biased view of Middle East politics, and it proved possible for the well-funded lobbyists and spin doctors to persuade a majority Assembly commissioners that the Church ought not to dis-invest from Caterpillar.

‘Don’t be fools then, but try to find out what the Lord wants you to do’. Not easy- especially if both sides of the argument sound good. Or if you have furious voices outside the Church lobbying for one side or another. Sometimes we are told that all this Protestant infighting is not good for the Church. Wouldn’t it be good if we had some higher authority which could make up the Church’s mind for it? Other Christian churches do it that way.

You may not have heard of the nuns on the bus. Currently, Catholic nuns are just about the most popular religious people in America. Even evangelical Christians have been cheering them on, and cynical secular people are praising them. What’s happened is that a group of Catholic sisters- people who spend most of their time practically helping the poor in a nation where the welfare state is far less generous than ours- have been touring a bus around America, campaigning for a fairer federal budget. They’re worried that the Republican-dominated Congress is trying to put through a budget which would cause immense harm to families, the poor, the sick and the unemployed in this time or recession, whilst offering tax cuts to toe super-wealthy. (The most prominent proponent of the budget has been Congressman Paul Ryan, now Mitt Romney’s running mate for Vice-president).

Now, other religious groups have been protesting about the budget as well. But what pushed the nuns into the public consciousness was that a few years ago, the Vatican had decided to investigate the Leadership Council of Women Religious, with which most American nuns are affiliated- some 57,00 Catholic sisters. In April, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (what used to be called the Inquisition!) produced a report accusing the nuns of doctrinal errors, being influenced by ‘radical feminism’, and getting involved too much in political matters. Americans, of course, have history with unelected Europeans trying to tell them what to do. So the Vatican’s condemnation- the nuns’ plucky, rebellious response to it- has turned the nuns into media superstars, as one news report makes clear:

Nuns here are being treated like rock stars after the vast majority received a scolding from Pope Benedict XVI.

As the crowd in front of the United Methodist building in Washington, D.C., saw the bus coming down the street, loudspeakers began to play “Eye of the Tiger,” the theme song from the movie “Rocky III.”
The crowd clapped to the beat, cheered and waved posters.
“Sisterhood Is Power,” read one sign.
Lettering on the side of the bus became legible as the vehicle pulled closer: “NUNS on the bus: Nuns drive for faith, family and fairness.”

Nuns look after the poor, teach the young, feed the hungry, visit prisoners- and, it turns out, have a social conscience which upsets the powers that be. I think that for many people, they represent better the Christ who says he is the bread of life than the Vatican bureaucrats. And the Vatican’s clumsy attempt to shut them up has made America’s nuns more popular than ever- one web site I saw promoted a ‘hug a nun day’! For clumsy attempts to shut down dialogue in the Church will never work. Trying to find the will of God will always be messy and we won’t always get it right, nor will we always agree with one another. But God has given us the freedom to judge and to make our own decisions. And its better that we work together, talk together, and think together, and do so openly.

But as well as working and talking and thinking together, there are two other things we must do if we are to be truly Christian in trying to make our judgements. We have to listen together- to Christ, to the Bible, to our consciences, and to one another. And we need to pray- and pray, not so much that God would do what we want, but that God would speak to us through our working and talking and thinking and listening and praying together. Paul suggests that we keep our faith to the forefront as we try to discern the way forward:
Speak to one another with the words of psalms, hymns, and sacred songs; sing hymns and psalms to the Lord with praise in your hearts. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, always give thanks for everything to God the Father.

For we are people who know that we rely on God for everything. We are people who know that we ought to be thankful for all that God is, and his given to us, and will give to us. So lets be careful, let’s not fail to use every opportunity God gives us to find what God wants of us: and lets’ pray that, as Paul says, we would be ‘filled with the Spirit’ so that God will guide our thoughts.

Ascription of Praise
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
may thanks always be given for everything
to God the Father. Amen.

Based on Ephesians 5.20 GNB

Biblical references from the Good News Bible

© 2012 Peter W Nimmo