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First Sunday in Lent

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1–11, Romans 10:4–13 & Luke 4:1–15

The institution of Church, and by that I mean all mainstream Christian denominations across the world, was dealt another severe blow recently with the conviction of Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell, on sexual abuse charges against two young boys. And I have to admit, it’s probably the first time since I’ve been ordained, that I have really felt very self-conscious about wearing a clerical collar in public, and where I haven chosen, on a couple of specific occasions, not to wear one, just so I didn’t have to worry whether people might have been looking at me and judging me simply because I was a priest.

I don’t want to speculate on whether Cardinal Pell was guilty or not, the fact of the matter is that he was found guilty by a jury of his peers. But what I do want to comment on, is the bias that we as human beings bring to whatever situation we are involved in, which I believe has been clearly on display in the public forum since the news of Cardinal Pell’s conviction broke.

The day after the verdict was delivered, I read an article by Fr. Frank Brennan, a widely  respected Roman Catholic priest and advocate for social justice, who is admired and respected in both religious and secular circles. Fr. Brennan made the observation that with all of the negative publicity that has surrounded Cardinal Pell in recent years, since it became known that the Roman Catholic Church in Australia had tried to cover up the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests, it was questionable as to whether it would be possible to find a jury that would not be biased against Cardinal Pell. I personally thought that this was a reasonable comment to make.

However Fr. Brennan has now found himself being widely criticised, particularly by opponents of the Church, for what they say is his attempt to defend Cardinal Pell. Once again, I personally don’t think that this was Fr Brennan’s intention, but nevertheless he has been attacked in both social media, and the mainstream media for it. And it was this situation which made me realise just how much our own bias can affect the way we look at particular issues.

I see the same thing here in our own local community, with the reaction of local residents to the news of our proposal to redevelop the site with the construction of a childcare centre on the land currently occupied by the Memorial Hall and the tennis courts.

When I came to St Andrew’s in January 2017, I was aware of the ‘bad blood’ which had existed between certain residents and the church for many years in relation to the perceived car parking problems in the street associated with Gymbaroo and the Kindergarten. In actual fact, in the months immediately before me arriving, the Moonee Valley City Council had only just made another ruling which required both Gymbaroo and the Kindergarten to make changes to their session times so as to minimise the potential for parking congestion.

In spite of this, one resident in particular, was still very passionate in their opposition, especially to Gymbaroo operating out of the Parish Hall, and they communicated their feelings to me, also telling me how they felt that previous Parish Councils had “ridden roughshod” over the local residents. Their anger and resentment towards the church, which was palpable, also manifested itself in other ways, with this person making a complaint to me regarding a particular aspect of worship in the church, which they claimed was disturbing them.

So it came as no surprise to me, when we invited local residents to attend an information session about our plans to redevelop the land on which the Memorial Hall and the tennis courts are located, that there was opposition to it. I don’t think it would have made any difference what the specific development was that we proposed; I believe there would still have been opposition to it. 

The thing I was most disappointed about though, is that there was very little (if any) attempt on the part of the majority of the residents who were present, to try and understand the perspective of St Andrew’s. It was as if the church had no rights, even though the church has been present in the street for far longer than any of the residents who were there that night. But that’s when I realised that people were bringing their personal bias against the church, which has been formed over a number of years in relation to a different set of circumstances, to this current situation.

It wasn’t easy for me on the night not to become defensive, and to start trading barbs with people, particularly when some of the comments being made were quite ignorant and were directly attacking the church and its people.

The passage of Scripture for our first Lenten Study last Thursday, was the same passage from Luke’s Gospel that we read this morning, about Jesus being in the wilderness for forty days, and being tempted by the devil. One of the questions in the study guide for our group discussion was, “Can you think about a time when you have been tempted to so something you knew was wrong? What was happening in your heart at the time?” 

My own contribution was to mention how I was feeling during the information night, and how I was tempted to say (and do!) some things that I knew were wrong. And I suppose what was happening in my heart at the time, was that I was feeling like I was under personal attack, and I wanted to defend myself and lash out at those I felt were attacking me. 

Fortunately though, by God’s grace, I was able to restrain myself and remain calm and in control of the situation. Having said that though, in the days since then, I’ve found myself getting quite angry at times when I reflect on the night, and on some of the things that have happened since then. So much so that one morning, following my morning prayer devotion, I decided to reflect theologically on how I was feeling. 

One of the bibles I use has a section that tells you certain passages of scripture to read when you are feeling a certain way, and in my case I was directed to Ephesians 5:1–20. As soon as I read the opening two verses I knew what I had to do, and I suddenly felt very calm and relaxed, and all the thoughts that were crowding my mind about this situation just disappeared. Let me read those verses to you, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 5:1–2 NRSV)

I believe God was talking to me through those verses. He was telling me to imitate Him; not to imitate the people who are upsetting me. In other words, don’t behave in the same way that they are behaving, but rise above their level. Live in love; not in anger and resentment. If I hold on to anger and resentment towards these people, it is only going to eat me up and waste valuable energy that I could be putting in to more positive activities.

So as we enter this Season of Lent, let me ask you this: is there perhaps something that you’re holding on to; perhaps a grudge against someone for some ill that you perceive they’ve done to you, or perhaps anger and resentment towards someone for hurt they’ve caused you? Are you perhaps tempted to say or do something because of that, even though you know that it’s wrong and might only make things worse?

Lent is a time for us to reflect on our lives and on our relationship with God. It is a time for us to reflect on the things that might tempt us to do what we know is wrong, just as Jesus was tempted by the devil to do what he knew was wrong. We can heed the words that Jesus spoke to the devil, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And we can heed the words from the Letter to the Ephesians, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love.”

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