A Sermon on the Occasion of my laying up the pastoral staff as the 10th Bishop of Wangaratta
In 2002 I was riding my beloved Triumph Trophy to Bathurst to visit my dear friends then Dean Andrew and Rosemary Sempell and my god-daughter Kate at the Cathedral. Close to Katoomba I had a nasty accident which ultimately cost me my left hip. In 2004 I had a Birmingham Resurface, a metal cup in the thigh bone and a metal ball over the joint on top of the femur. What they call the young man’s hip replacement. So each time I went through airport security all the alarms would go crazy. I used to carry a letter from my orthopaedic surgeon attesting to my post-operative status when I flew. Mostly it’d do the trick. But on one particular occasion at Sydney airport I met Thomas. Well Thomas mightn’t have been his given name, but Thomas he was nevertheless.
‘That letter’s not much good is it?’ He said half-jokingly. ‘Show us your scar, Father!’
Show us your scar. Now I’ve got a lot of time for Thomas – wrongly named in the tradition doubting Thomas, I think. No coward this Thomas, no shrinking violet. When Jesus announces that he’s going to Bethany after the death of Lazarus, a journey beset with risk, it’s Thomas who boldly challenges the others, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Not the words of a wimp.
Not doubting Thomas. Thomas the realist is the better ascription. In the post-crucifixion maelstrom of emotions he comes to the others who tell him they’ve encountered the risen Christ. Thomas isn’t prepared to take their word for it – no matter how much he might have wanted to. He is rightly suspicious of projection brokered by the denial of reality – what my old mate Ludwig Feuerbach would call wish fulfilment. Just because we want it to be, it ain’t necessarily so. ‘If he wants me to believe then he needs to prove it,’ says Thomas. ‘Show us your scar, Jesus.’
It is thirty years almost to the day that I was made a deacon in St Saviours Cathedral Goulburn. In the intervening years I have served the church as parish priest, archdeacon, Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Cathedral Dean and Bishop. I have served in legal affairs and ecumenical relations. I have been active in matters of social justice from a Gospel perspective. And now as I come to the end of my time in stipendiary ministry, I think that I’ve earned to right to a bit of Thomas reality. So here goes.
The institutional church is in serious trouble. I’d say it was on the nose, but it’s much more serious than that. The decline in organised religion is almost universal. Fewer and fewer people attend church, the ones who do are getting older and secularism is rising rapidly. The 2016 census tells us that the fastest growing group in the religious survey questions are the no religion group – at 31%.
For an increasing number of our fellow Australians the church is just irrelevant. They don’t hate us. They just ignore us. And they ignore us because by and large we’ve got nothing to say into the public sphere about the issues that seem to matter to them.
There’s plenty of stuff our leaders could be talking about. And we know it because here in the Diocese of Wangaratta we’ve been doing it. And copping a fair bit of criticism along the way for doing it. Show us your scars Wangaratta!
But the big picture stuff just doesn’t translate into the public arena.
As an institution we could be challenging the priests of the contemporary ba’al. The neo-liberals who have taken a tool of economic management – the market economy – and made it god. So we no longer live in a society with a market economy. We have become a market society. The underlying credal statement of the market society is that consumption is good. The false assumption this is based on is that the economy can continue to grow for ever and ever Amen. So we consume the earth’s resources at an exponential rate seemingly without regard to the long term consequences of our greed.
And creation is screaming. The ice cap is melting. The sea levels are rising. The climate is changing. The earth is burning. What kind of a world are we leaving to our children and our children’s children?
In the market society everything is up for sale. Do I want to sell? Do you want to buy? How much? The market society doesn’t waste too much time asking about morality. Is it right to buy and sell sex? Is it right to buy political influence? Is it right that such social basics as aged care, health care,
education are more available to the rich than to the poor? Is it right that wealth is being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer, so that the diminishing pool of haves have more and more and the increasing pool of have nots have less and less?
And what do the punters out there see as we face the threat of this false religion. Our spokespersons retreat into the laager. We spend an ever-increasing amount of our institutional time microscopically examining our ecclesiastical belly button. I’m tempted to say fiddling while Rome burns, but given the threats being suffered by our sisters and brothers in New South Wales that might be less than sensitive.
We have squandered our moral capital. The searing spotlight shone on our sins and failures by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has seriously maybe even fatally damaged the respect in which we are held in the community. And the present fiasco about whether we can affirm the love of two people merely because they do not correspond to the heterosexual norm causes many of our fellow citizens to shake their heads in despair.
As far as the world is concerned, they see our leaders chucking biblical verses taken out of context at each other. We set up straw people only to knock them down. We refuse to take part in prayerful, respectful, scholarly and intelligent debate. And if we can’t browbeat our opponents into submission we call them apostate and tell them to get out. All the while we take our bat and ball and start some new game elsewhere with people like us – the righteous against them – the ungodly.
If you think you pick up some personal agenda in this, you’re not wrong. But it transcends the purely personal. The gospel calls us to look outwards. Jesus came and said to (the disciples), ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ The Gospel calls us to look outward. But our institutional gaze increasingly is focussed in. We shout louder and louder at each other, but no one else is listening. Is it blasphemous to suggest that maybe, just maybe, God isn’t listening either.
Which brings me by degrees back to Thomas. Because in the end for Thomas seeing was not believing. The text is clear at this point. Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’
No mention that Thomas took up the invitation to handle the wounds. The invitation was enough in and of itself. And Thomas’ response is significant. My Lord would have been sufficient for him to acknowledge that Jesus had risen. But he goes beyond that – to a full confession of Christian belief. ‘My Lord and my God!’ For Thomas his hard-headed realism had led him by degrees to the confession of faith. Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ In this way Thomas becomes the link between those who had travelled with the historical Jesus and we who can only come to know by faith.
I have had the enormous privilege of serving this diocese as your bishop for the last eleven years. We are not immune from the forces I have described earlier. We are ageing, shrinking. Some stand-alone parishes have had to learn to do without full time stipendiary ministry and become cooperative. But I have known in my time here an openness to change, a willingness to look at the bigger picture and a determination to engage with the communities in which we are placed. I have seen the love of Christ translated into pastoral care. I have heard the voice of social justice proclaimed fearlessly and faithfully. I have seen inclusion at work. And I thank God that we continue to strive to be church with all of the challenges that entails, and eschew the siren call to become sect and shut out all the difficult people and issues which invite maybe even beg for our attention.
And whilst there are challenges, it’s not all bleak. We say we don’t have enough young people. And that’s true on a Sunday by Sunday basis. But the fact is that we see some 2,500 children every day in our schools – a couple of thousand young families we can influence by word and example. I’ve just finished a course in mediation, looking to the next stage of my journey. One of the things we learned was in any dispute it’s helpful for the parties to expand the pie – to look beyond the immediate and to be creative in crafting solutions. If we fixate inwardly, if our measure of success is bums on pews on a Sunday morning, we can miss opportunity after opportunity to make the light of the gospel shine in the dark places of peoples’ lives.
Just because some folk have given the church away doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve given God away. The modern catch phrase spiritual not religious captures the frustration many feel with the institutional church. But I reckon Augustine was on to something when he said, ‘You have made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.’ Here is the task going forward. Can we be salt and light in the world? Can we live for others and not for ourselves? Can we take seriously the words ascribed to one of my significant influences, Archbishop William Temple. ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members?’
It’s time for me to go. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. I leave a diocese in good shape. The schools are strong. We are freed from the risks of aged care. There’s money in the bank. I have been privileged to work with a wonderful collection of folk. My successor has a firm base on which to build.
May I claim as my last words to you some words of the blessed apostle Paul. I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And I urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Beloved, pray for me and for Margaret as we will ever pray for you.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
The Rt. Revd. John Parkes AM
10th Bishop of Wangaratta