The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries Pentecost 22 Christ Church St Laurence – 5 November 2017

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

The greatest among you must be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Soon after his Papal Inauguration, Pope Francis, formerly the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, made a couple of powerfully symbolic gestures. He insisted on returning to the hotel where he had been staying to personally pay the bill, and he also refused to be accommodated in the palatial papal apartments, opting instead for a much humbler abode. He also shunned a chauffeur-driven limousine, choosing instead to return to his place of residence on a mini-bus. As I have never been offered a chauffeur-driven limousine, I have not had the opportunity to imitate him.

The media and most ‘ordinary’ people applauded these unprecedented actions. However, it needs to be acknowledged that not everyone admired these first humble steps in the papal journey. There were some Roman Catholics, particularly those of a more traditional persuasion who were not at all impressed by this so-called down-grading of the magisterium of the church.
However, the media largely delighted in the Pope’s symbolic gestures—admiring his humility and describing him as man of the people. This was a pope who did not wish to distance himself from society.

Recent events involving the church in Australia—events not reported favourably in the media—have effectively distanced our own denomination, and other Christian denominations, from the wider society. From the perspective of some Christians, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the opinion of some—an opinion that I do not share—engaging freely with a sinful society, will only lead to corruption and a watering-down of Biblical truth and purity.

Over the last few weeks, the readings from Matthew’s Gospel have recorded tense encounters between Christ and the Pharisees, the scribes, and the Sadducees. However, in Matthew Chapter 23, as we move very much closer to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, something significant has happened. Christ is no longer talking to the scribes and the Pharisees; suddenly he is talking about them. Many of us were told by our parents that, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t saying anything at all.” Evidently Christ wasn’t taught this, because he openly criticises the leaders of his own religious tradition. He says to the crowds:

…‘they love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces…’

In our own time, we see some Christians very deliberately withdrawing from the wider society; choosing not to interact in any meaningful way with those who do not share their beliefs. And yet, here we see Christ engaging with the crowds, or with his society, but withdrawing from the religious professionals or the establishment. As the church of our time is in very real danger of becoming a righteous club or a holy huddle, it is rather significant to see that Christ shunned membership of such a group.

However, Christ’s message about the scribes and the Pharisees is just a little confusing. He tells the crowds and his disciples, ‘do whatever they teach you… but do not do as they do.’ Jesus is saying that many of the scribes and Pharisees do not practice what they preach. Despite this, he doesn’t encourage his followers to give up on their faith, or even to give up on their religious tradition.

Many in our wider society claim that the church as an institution has not always practiced what it has preached… I’m afraid to say that they are absolutely right. Like the scribes and Pharisees that Christ encounters throughout the Gospels, the church has often claimed a degree of righteousness and even superiority over the rest of society; but we cannot do this any longer even if we wanted to.

The clergy of this parish—ancient relics that we are—continue to walk the streets of Sydney wearing the clerical collar. There was a time when this unusual and uncomfortable garment suggested some degree of authority and generally demanded respect. To a great extent, neither of these attributes applies any longer. For many in our society, the clerical collar does not send a positive message, and in our secular and multi-faith society, many people clearly have absolutely no concept of what it means; unless they are avid viewers of Fr Brown or Midsomer Murders. As a priest, existing in our wider society can be challenging, but the same is true for all who openly profess the Christian faith. It’s highly likely that many of you here today have experienced ridicule if you have dared to tell friends and family that you attend church. Like the scribes and the Pharisees, we have a serious image problem, and it’s not difficult to see how we acquired it.


The greatest among you must be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

I often hear sentiments being expressed about the grand old days of the church; the days of much higher levels of church attendance; the days in which the church certainly commanded greater respect and influence in our society. The truth is that, for much of the last two thousand years, the church has been the most powerful and prestigious institution in the Western world. In many parts of the world this power and prestige completely surpassed that of the scribes and the Pharisees in first century Jewish society. But, just as Christ predicted, ‘those who exalted themselves have been humbled.’ Despite this, you and I haven’t given up on the institution. We are dependent on it; we are dependent on one another. As an institution, it needs to be said that the church is now in a state of relative weakness. Rather than despairing about it, surely this is our opportunity for us to reassess our understanding of servant-hood. It may have taken two thousand years, but I for one, still live in hope of becoming the church that Christ intended us to be.

As Christians in this secular and post-modern society, our challenge is not to restore the grandeur or even the majesty of the church, but rather to live out the faith in true humility and with integrity; offering our lives and this institution in the service of the world; rather than distancing ourselves from our communities; and certainly not judging and condemning those who are not members of this flawed institution.

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


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