Sermon Preached by Reverend Stuart Langshaw on Sunday, 12 January 2024.
A very sound piece of advice is “Think before you speak.” I reckon we have all had those conversations where we sincerely wished we had followed that advice before we had said something completely that was outrageous, hurtful, embarrassing or amazingly wrong. A French chap, Renee Descartes who was around in the 17th century as a mathematician and philosopher, came up with the famous expression, “Cogito, ergo sum.” “I think, therefore I am.” Once, I started to read some stuff about what this means, but I was immediately sorry that I had started. It’s so complicated and tortuous. But Descartes said, “If I can think, I must exist.”
Probably the most famous bronze sculpture in the world was executed by another French man – Auguste Rodin. It’s called The Thinker – and is of a larger-than-life-sized man, with his chin in his hand, obviously thinking.
So thinking is an important human activity – and one of the marks of the Church in our little series on ecclesiology is that “St Andrew’s is a thinking church.” That’s good, and it could also be bad!
We Anglicans can be a funny lot – but we’ve also got a lot of good things going for us. One of those good things is that we recognise that there are three important factors that help us come to a decision about what to do as Christians. Those three things are Scripture, Reason and Tradition. What does the Bible have to say about a matter? That’s Scripture. But on many modern problems, Scripture is completely silent … climate change, for example, … or referendum questions … or renewable energy. … or industrial relations. This is where we take what the Bible says, and try to apply it to our generation and to our circumstances … and that takes Reason … … … it takes thought, it takes patience, it takes discussion, it takes submitting our ideas from our reason to the ideas of other people from their reason.
If we were talking about climate change for example, we would see what the Bible (Scripture) has to say about Creation, about being stewards of creation, about caring for the earth, and then extracting the principles from those Scripture passages … and that extraction of principles is done by Reason, because we apply our thinking ability, our brain power, to Scripture as it applies to today. We reason together.
And if we said, “Well, how did Christians in the Industrial Revolution think about climate change, and polluting rivers with factory waste and polluting the air with industry’s smoke and fumes?” That’s Tradition. That’s looking back to see how Christians in times before us have interpreted Scripture – their historical view. There is a tradition or history of Christian teaching on a whole range of important subjects … the role of women both in the church and also generally in the community … and gender equality … and the observance of Sunday. Christian people over the years have thought about such topics. What was thought about them in Victorian times is vastly different to what is thought about them today. But we need to understand that historical perspective – that tradition – to appreciate today’s thoughts and teachings.
Every time you think to yourself – “This sermon is so terrific” – or if you’re still awake and with it, “This sermon is so boring,” you are thinking. And we are thinking all the time. And Christians don’t always think the same thoughts as each other all the time. Our recent referendum about the Indigenous Voice to Parliament showed that this is true. Some thinking, sincere Christians voted with a resounding “Yes” in the referendum based on their thinking Christianly about the issues involved. Other thinking, sincere Christians voted with a resounding “No” in the referendum based on their thinking Christianly about the issues involved.
To be a thinking church is not to be a church with a constant rush of good ideas. Rushes of good ideas are good and helpful. But a thinking church is one where the congregation members take the time to ponder issues and chew them over, discuss them, pray them through, have another go from another perspective. Thinking is long-term, it’s hard work, and it is enormously rewarding. It’s listening to what others have to say – listen with a view to hearing and understanding where they’re coming from, not with a view to responding and debating and promoting my point of view.
We’ve all had the experience where we have read a Bible passage for the 189th time, and during that 189th time ‘WHANG!!” goes the Bible passage, and we see something, learn something, understand something that we can’t believe we’ve never seen before! A whole jig-saw of the learnings and the experiences and the bits of information we’ve picked up over the years all suddenly come together and knock us 2 metre sideways with a mighty “WHANG.”
This where study groups and discussion groups are so valuable. Other people’s thinking mixes with our thinking, and that text or that concept suddenly has a strong spotlight shone upon it. It’s good that in our parish here at St Andrew’s we have study and discussion groups that help us to use our reason, and understand the Bible more deeply and clearly. The thinking is good, and the fellowship is good too.
Some of the thinking we do, simply enriches us individually and spiritually. It has no application outside our lives and understandings. But other thinking leads us to take up a cause and get involved in an organisation because our thinking has convinced us that the philosophy and the cause of such an organisation is four-square with our philosophy. We’re blessed here at St Andrew’s to have congregation members involved and active in outside organisations such as TocH and Lions and Soroptomists in the community, and they show a Christian presence within those groups.
But we have to admit that some of this reasoning – this thinking – can lead us into areas of belief that are difficult. There are some people who simply cannot accept the idea of miracles, and therefore they feel that they cannot pray for such a miracle as peace in Gaza. We cannot judge those people, because on the basis of honest, sincere thinking – reason – they have arrived at their point of view. Others are fully convinced of the possibility of miracles on the basis of THEIR honest, sincere thinking or reason, and they pray earnestly for the miracle of peace in Gaza. We cannot judge them either, because on the basis of their honest, sincere thinking they have arrived at their point of view.
The church as a whole – and each local parish within that overall church – will be a patchwork of thoughts, for we are all at different locations on the thinking spectrum. But one of the marks of a strong, mature local congregation is that it is strong enough in its life together, and broad enough in its fellowship, and mature enough in its understanding to allow that patchwork of thoughts to exist. I have a great problem with anyone wo says, “Because you do not think what I think, you therefore have to leave,” or, …”I therefore have to leave.” No church, no parish is monochrome – especially MY shade of monochrome.
We must embrace and value all the members of our fellowship, understanding that God deals with each of us in an individual way according to our individual needs and circumstances.
We’re Christ-centred; we are sacramental; we are inclusive; we are thinking.
We are St Andrew’s.