THE PRIVILEGES AND OBLIGATIONS OF MEMBERSHIP
Sermon delivered on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity the 11th September 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: Exodus 32:7-14 1 Timothy 1:12-17 S. Luke 15:1-10
S. Luke 15: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?”
The words come from one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables, and one that never fails to give encouragement. It is to be assumed that the ninety-nine sheep left in the wilderness are in reasonable safety. The ninety-nine are safe, while the one is imperilled. The imperilled one has acted independently, while the others have, well, acted like sheep, and stuck together. Sheep are animals that need the benefits of membership, and the shepherd knows that an individualistic sheep will soon be hunted down and turned into dinner for dog or wolf or other wild creature.
It may be that in modern times there are large sheep farms in which the loss of a few sheep now and then will not make much difference to the overall profitability of the operation. If Jesus were teaching the managers of such operations, his imagery might not work, because they would be inclined to think that losing a sheep or two was something that was factored in, and there would be no time to deviate from normal operations to search for a few strays, because that would make the operation more costly. Although I have no knowledge of modern commercial sheep-farming, I do consider that our own western age in general is weak on its appreciation of the absolute human need for membership and loyalty, as compared with the mindset of the people that Jesus was talking to when he taught of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. He could take for granted, as we cannot take for granted, that his hearers would feel the loss of something that belongs to a set so keenly that OF COURSE they would identify with the person who stopped what he was doing and searched high and low until he found what was lost.
Physics teachers have long told us that Nature abhors a vacuum, and I believe that if we cannot build a society that is as aware of the importance of human membership, such as our responsibility towards our husbands or wives, our family or our country, as it is aware of the importance of individual rights, substitutes for genuine human community will inevitably be produced such as unguided sexual liaisons and gangs, which will be the humanly lost way of filling the vacuum that has been produced by the individual human rights culture. The vacuum is the fact that the Rights culture as it has become in our time has little or nothing to say on the responsibilities of belonging to spouse, to family, to an organisation or institution, or to a state. Some recognition was acknowledged of this in calling Cayman’s Bill of Rights a "Bill of Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities." I think Cayman should be very happy to be in the vanguard where this is concerned, because up to the time the draft was agreed, Cayman was unique among the overseas territories in referring to its Part I in that way, and almost if not absolutely unique throughout the world in so referring to its Bill of Rights. The word “responsibilities” ought to acknowledge that individuals have to do more than claim their own rights to make a community work. If the virtues of loyalty are not caught or taught in the context of the healthy belonging to human society, and we should note that marriage, the natural family and the state are all specifically authorised in divine revelation, then the alienated young human will seek to neutralise the lack of human membership that affects him so deeply by offering loyalty to some less healthy sort of grouping. If the international Human Rights culture teaches the individual how to defend himself against his society, more than teaching him how to be a loyal member of his society, that is a distortion that will be more and more costly if it cannot be corrected.
While itself accepting according to its own revelation the tenets of the God-given rights of man, the Church is a society that is mandated by that revelation not to fit into what I am calling the individualistic Human Rights culture, because the Church proclaims in all its formularies a balanced perspective on the privileges and obligations of human membership and the responsibilities and rights of individuals. The satisfying language used of baptism in the Catechism speaks of someone at Baptism being made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. Membership has its privileges, indeed, as the ad used to say, but covenantal membership also has its obligations, and the catechism teaches us how we may be loyal to that divine membership that has conferred upon us such high privilege. That is the very membership, moreover, that restores to the individual the sense of identity so essential to his or her well-being.
The Old Testament lesson describes an early instance of the people of God being in danger of losing their identity, their membership and their privileges. In the absence of Moses they had turned away from the God whose covenant offer to them they had accepted, and had bowed down to images they had made themselves, and had without regard to their community or covenant ethic gratified themselves carnally and selfishly. In the account we can see the underlying question as to whether the People of Israel were to retain their membership of God's people or not after their sin of idolatry. After Moses interceded for them, God undertook to look at them through the lens of Moses, so to speak, so that through him they could retain their membership. As New Covenant believers, we see in the intercession of Moses the intercession of Christ Himself, who suffered and died that human beings should not be lost and alone, but rather should be restored into His Kingdom. In His sufferings as well as in Moses’ pleadings we may gain some insight into the mind of God Himself, whose just anger and disappointment at our faithlessness is mitigated and in Christ overcome by His grace and mercy.
Fifteen years ago to the day I was at a Human Rights conference being held at the Marriott Hotel, and in what to me was an astonishing and significant coincidence on the first day of the conference, the terrorist “9/11" attack on New York took place. If I am right that the modern individualistic Human Rights culture, which I felt at the time was being so passionately espoused at the conference to be taught at all levels, will have the effect of eroding the sense of membership of all the groups that give the individual his identity, the result of this will be, indeed already is, a great weakness, which the angry enemies of what remains of the Christian world will understand very well and exploit. The method of suicide bombing shows that the minds of enemies like these are so angry that there is no destructiveness which they will willingly avoid. The result is not merely a humanitarian disaster, but the tragedy of an appalling inhumanity. Does the Church have a word from God to address the predicament in which we find ourselves? It absolutely does. First, both judgment and healing must begin in the House of God. At all levels we have allowed the strong covenantal structure of Christian thinking to have been usurped by the secular fashions of the day, one of which today is a litigious culture which purports to bring healing to mankind, but which fails to feed us in our need for identity and responsibility. We must be strong in Christ to uphold our most basic teaching about God and man, and resist the siren voices of any culture that distorts revelation and proclaims dangerous half-truths, be that culture from the east or from the west. Right after his Damascus road experience, St. Paul began to adopt the rightful privileges and take on the responsibilities of being a member of Christ, what he called so often in his letters being in Christ, including the responsibility of suffering for others’ sake. In all his subsequent membership of Christ, he suffered many things for the sake of the Gospel, he had to make a certain sacrifice and to pay a real price; his human rights were infringed, somewhat as the Lord's had been, but his patience won a great reward, and he most willingly and even gratefully accepted this badge of membership, a badge that we too in our time, must be prepared to wear confidently for Christ the Son of God’s sake.