Within the Love of God.

Rings

Sermon for a service of Thanksgiving for Marriage

 (1 Cor. 13, 1-13)

 A couple of weeks ago, just when I’d started thinking about what I might say in this address, a copy of Optima dropped through my letterbox; and on the cover, underneath a picture of white carnations and two wedding rings was the question ‘Is marriage relevant in this modern world?’

 

The article inside reviewed the change in attitudes to marriage in the late 20th and early 21st century, so that there is no longer a stigma in people living together and raising a family without being married. It gave a series of statistics, tracing the decline in the number of marriages per year, and within that, the rise in the proportion of civil marriages; and spoke about moves to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, since some people feel marriage has overtones of treating women like property to be handed from father to husband, and of a religion to which the partners don’t subscribe.

 

But not all the statistics about marriage were gloomy. Marriage is far from dying out. Divorce rates are falling in spite of (or perhaps because of?) the rise in the number of co-habiting couples, and married couple families still outnumber cohabiting ones.

 

The article quoted Harry Benson, the research director of The Marriage Foundation. He said marriage would continue to be relevant and essential as long as people want reliable love, something he believes most humans are looking for. “They want someone who will be there for the next day and the next and the day after that. You only have that if you have a conversation about your future and make a plan for it. Marriage sends a signal – it becomes an act of mutual intent”, he argues.

 

My husband and I are looking forward to celebrating our Golden Wedding Anniversary later this year. There is no denying that marriage has changed enormously in the last 50 years. When we got married, there was no discussion about what marriage was – it was just assumed that everybody knew. But changing social patterns mean that everything, including marriage, is now questioned.

 

But even back then, when everyone thought they knew what marriage was, marriages were not all the same. One of the things that we did together for many years was to lead sessions of the Marriage Preparation Course in the parish church we worshipped in at the time. This consisted of working with groups of couples who were getting married in the church over the next few months, using questionnaires and group discussions to explore their expectations of marriage. We noticed a lot of changes, particularly in the living arrangements of the couples over the 15 years or so that we were involved in this ministry. One of the questions we always asked, which threw up the reality of change, was ‘Will your marriage be like your parents’ marriage?’ to which the answer was almost always ‘No’ and often ‘No way!’

 

So, if marriage is constantly changing, and all marriages are different and unique, what is it we are giving thanks for today?

 

Soon after we came to Rickmansworth, through teaching locally and work with Churches Together, I was privileged to get to know Dr Jack Dominian, a consultant psychiatrist, and an expert in the psychology of marriage, who wrote a number of books on marriage from a Christian point of view.

Jack-Dominian-011

Perhaps surprisingly, he makes very similar points about marriage to Henry Benson from the secular Marriage Foundation. Dr Dominian describes marriage as the second act in a two-act play, showing how humans grow and develop into the mature and loving adults that God intends them to be. In the first act, ideally, parents provide the stable, loving support, which enables the child to grow. For those who get married, marriage provides the continuation of that environment in which the partners can continue to grow.

 

He talks about the partners sustaining each other, showing appreciation, making each other feel wanted, recognizing and valuing their spouse as the unique person they are.

 

He talks about marriage providing an environment where the hurts of childhood and adolescence and the wounds suffered in the world outside can be healed. He speaks about marriage as an environment where growth in wisdom, self-esteem, maturity and the ability to forgive can take place, encouraged and supported by the spouse who is the person who knows you best in the world.

 

This is not easy. It demands commitment, because although often joyous, is sometimes hard work.

 

All of this can only take place within an environment of absolute trust: a relationship which is permanent, reliable, and continuous.

 

In all of this, he say, marriage reminds us of the presence of God: the God who knows us at the depths of our being, recognizes, affirms and loves us without conditions; the God who offers us healing; the God who forgives us without limit. Human love is a reflection of divine love, and marriage and family as a community of love both reflect the covenant relationship between God and humanity, and direct our gaze to the mystery of the Trinity – a community of love between unique persons, living in absolute unity and harmony.

 

The words of St Paul we heard earlier were not written about marriage – Paul didn’t seem to think much of marriage in some of the things he wrote. They were describing the love of God, seen in the life and death of Jesus. But insofar as we reflect that love in our marriages, they remind us of what it takes to do so.

 

The marriage we come to give thanks for today is of course, first of all, our own marriage, in all its specialness and uniqueness, and the person with whom we share that unique relationship. And then also the marriages of our parents and children, and those close to us. But we also come to give thanks for marriage as a holy covenant, a sacrament through which God take something that is common to all human lives and through it reveals divine grace. In that sacrament, we who are married are the ministers, first of all to each other, but also with the enormous responsibility and privilege of revealing to the world through our marriages the grace of God and the glory of the coming Kingdom.

 

 

 

 

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Matthew – a nativity story for today

001-wise-men(Ephesians 3, 1-12; Matthew 2, 1-18)

If I were to begin this sermon by wishing you a Happy Christmas, I am sure that some of you would think me rather strange! The secular world has now moved on from Christmas: many people  have taken their decorations down this weekend, even before we  reached 12th Night; and people are now thinking about the New Year,  and going back to work or school after the long holiday.

 

But in the church’s year, we are still in the Christmas Season (which traditionally extends to Candlemas on 2nd February). And today, as we celebrate the Epiphany, what we are actually doing is hearing the Christmas story again; only this time we are hearing a different version from the one we tend to hear on December 25th. Then we mostly hear Luke’s  story, with a passage of poetry and theology from John; today we heard Matthew’s version.

 

Luke’s story has some elements of sadness in it – the long journey to Bethlehem for the pregnant Mary; no comfortable place for them to stay; the baby placed in a manger. But generally Luke’s nativity is a happy story with a poetic feel and rustic charm. The baby is laid in clean hay, is visited by merry shepherds with a chorus of angels directing them and praising God, and the family returns peacefully home. It is a story suitable for telling to all ages, and nowadays, particularly for children.

 

Matthew’s is a much darker story, and as a consequence we don’t usually get much of it told to us at Christmas. Almost all of his version ends up being ignored in our nativity plays, except for the Wise Men, who get tagged on to Luke’s story, turning up incongruously in the stable amongst the animals and hay to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

 

This merging of the two narratives is fine for children; but as grown-up Christians we really should be trying to keep the two birth stories separate, because only then will we be able to hear clearly what the two evangelists are trying to tell us about Jesus through their narratives.

 

It must be said that the church calendar doesn’t help us to hear two different stories. It keeps jumping from one to another. We get the annunciation to Mary (Luke) or to Joseph (Matthew) on the last Sunday of Advent, then Luke’s story of the manger and shepherds, or John’s philosophical meditation on the Word on Christmas Day. Then in the Anglican calendar (and for most people that happens only if December 28th falls on a Sunday) we get the Slaughter of the Innocents, which is part of Matthew’s dark tale of power politics. Then, on 1 January we get the Circumcision and Naming of Christ (Luke) and on the 6th or the Sunday nearest to it, the coming of the Magi (which is at the centre of Matthew’s story); but again, we only hear it on the rare occasions when Epiphany falls on a Sunday or the feast day is moved to the nearest Sunday. Otherwise, it too gets relegated to a midweek celebration. After moving forward to tell of the Baptism of Christ, the Christmas season ends with the presentation of Christ in the Temple or Candlemas, which rounds off Luke’s story (although in some lectionaries this is told on the Sunday after Christmas, instead of the flight into Egypt, which comes from Matthew).

 

No wonder we get the stories in a muddle, and prefer the nativity play version which irons out all the contradictions.

Both stories tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, to emphasise that he was descended from David and so is the expected Jewish King Messiah. Both tell us that Mary was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit before her marriage, so he is therefore God’s Son (though,  since his descent from David comes through Joseph, combining the two is somewhat problematical.) Both tell us that at some time after the birth the family settles in Nazareth, and Jesus grew up there. But apart from these facts the two stories are completely different.

 

How then can they both be true?

 

They can both be true because the birth stories are not history or biography; they are theology: and what they are telling us about is not how and where Jesus was born, but why and who Jesus really was, drawing on prophecy in the Old Testament and pointing forward to the events of his adult life, which they reflect.

There can be more than one ‘truth’ about who a person is – we are all different people in different circumstances of our lives – and both the pictures the two evangelists give us of Jesus were true for their communities, and are true for us.

Luke’s story is fashioned to emphasise that, from the very beginning, Jesus’ place was among the poor and the despised, those considered unclean by the religious leaders of his time. It is these poor and outcast people people, like Mary, like the shepherds, like Simeon and Anna, who recognise Jesus as God’s Messiah from infancy. Luke is not particularly interested in Jesus as a Jewish Messiah (he often gets the detail of Jewish ceremonial wrong) but he is interested in him as the Saviour of the World. So the characters in his Nativity story are Everyman and Woman. Mary is centre stage in his narrative, and the story is gentle, domestic and intimate.

 

Matthew’s nativity story is much darker. Women are virtually invisible in it and even Mary plays only a passive role. Joseph makes all the decisions. He is initially concerned only to protect his own reputation, and plans to put Mary away when he discovers she is pregnant by someone else, until the angel instructs him otherwise. Matthew’s angels don’t bring good tidings of great joy; they bring warnings of dirty deeds, and instructions about how to avoid disaster.

 

Matthew’s concern is with the Jewish credentials of Jesus. But his Jesus is a challenge to religious Jews (his genealogy contains four women whose sexual purity was dubious, and who were foreign yet who were key figures in the line of Jewish heroes from Abraham to Solomon).

In his version, the holy family is resident in Bethlehem before the birth and has a house to live in. The visitors to the newborn are not poor and ignorant, but rich and powerful enough to travel, bring costly gifts, and enter palaces unannounced in pursuit of their enquiries. They move among kings and religious experts. They are searching  for a King of the Jews, not for a Saviour of the World, but their coming emphasises that Jesus is that Saviour.

 

They follow practices that are slightly suspect in orthodox Jewish eyes, reading the stars and perhaps even indulging in magic, and they are foreign. Matthew, in his Nativity Story, wants to make clear from the outset that Gentiles recognise Jesus as the Messiah when the Jewish religious and political authorities didn’t. That was a constant concern of Pau, too, as we hear in many of his epistles. Was it part of God’s plan that Gentiles should be included in God’s plan of salvation? And what about the Jews, who were originally God’s chosen people?

Matthew’s story shows that   the Jewish political forces represented by the Herod family try to get rid of Jesus at his birth. Herod’s hostility leads to the massacre of the children of Bethlehem, which is unlikely to be a historical event. But through the actions attributed to Herod, Matthew is able to make the infant Jesus relive some of the major events of Jewish history: the massacre of babies in Egypt under the Pharaoh, exile in Egypt and return from exile to a country with mixed populations of Jews and Gentiles. So Matthew’s story looks backward into Jewish history as well as forward into the events of Jesus’ life.

 

Politics and power are in the background in Luke’s story; they are in the foreground in Matthew’s. His story allows Matthew to move the Holy Family to Egypt as refugees (as many of Matthew’s community may have been forced to become). He comes out of Egypt as Moses did, and grows up in Nazareth in Galilee, known as Galilee of the Gentiles. It is believed that Matthew’s community was a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles; so the magi represent the faith of the Gentiles, as Joseph represents the faith of the Jews among them.

 

Matthew’s Nativity story shows Jesus as a challenge to the rich and powerful in state and religion. It shows him as both Jewish Messiah and Saviour for the world. It was a nativity story for his first century community; but it is also a nativity story for us and for all ages.

 

It poses hard questions about sexual morality. It talks about the abuse of power, and its impact upon the poor and innocent, and that is something which is of contemporary concern. It talks about the plight of refugees, not just poor people, but those who are forced to leave houses and secure jobs and families because of political persecution. It talks about how we cope with relationships with the foreigners who come among us, a situation we now face with increasing frequency in our country. And it faces us with the message that people with customs and belief systems different from our own may possibly have a truer insight into the message of scripture and of our historic faith than we do. The infant Jesus is involved in and affected by all these concerns – as he was in his adult life. Matthew’s story encourages us to be concerned with these problems too, and perhaps to challenge the prevailing responses to them.

 

Matthew’s is a Nativity Story for the twenty-first century. Pray God we may see and hear it clearly.

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Waiting for God’s Promise.

Simeon and Anna(Luke 2, 22-40)

 

We human beings are not very good at waiting!

 

Many years ago,  I took a funeral; and as normally happens, one of the relatives of the man who had died came and told me stories about his life to use in the eulogy. One of the things I was told was that, when the man was a child, his parents used to hide his Christmas presents in their bedroom, some in the wardrobe and some under their bed. One year he got tired of waiting for Christmas Day to come, and decided to find out early what he had got for Christmas. So he went searching for his presents in his parents’ room. Unfortunately he took a lighted candle with him in order to see under the bed. I wasn’t told whether he found the presents or not! What I was told was that he got into an enormous amount of trouble for scorching the mattress and the bedding of his parents’ bed with the candle!

 

We certainly don’t have to wait for Christmas these days. The Christmas decorations go up in the shops earlier and earlier, and the advertisements on the TV for gifts and food start well before December. And whereas once upon a time, you had to wait until after Christmas for the sales, now many shops start their sales online while the decorations are still up!

We live in an age of instant gratification, where people no longer expect to wait for things they want. When I was young, if you wanted something expensive, you had to save up for it. You saved up for holidays, you saved up to get married, you saved up for the furniture on your house, and unless you were willing to risk hire purchase, you didn’t get them until you had the money. Nowadays, as the advertisement says, credit cards “take the waiting out of wanting”. I am not so sure that is such a good thing.

 

We are also not so good now at waiting for our lives to develop, waiting till we have the maturity and experience to take on certain responsibilities. The emphasis in job adverts now seems to be on energy, and innovation and youth, and people expect to get to the top of their chosen career ladder very quickly. But what is there left to achieve in the rest of life, if success and gratification come so early?

 

So I find the story of Simeon and Anna comforting.   Luke tells us that each of them had spent their whole lives waiting for the coming of God’s Saviour. We know that it was a long time in the case of Anna; we assume that Simeon was just as old. Each of them believed and trusted that God’s promise of salvation would be realised in their lifetimes. They didn’t worry about how long it would take. They just waited, patiently and expectantly, for the moment to come.

 

They provide a pattern for how we should live our lives, a pattern for our waiting.

 

They didn’t get discouraged when things didn’t happen quickly. We all know how easy it is to try to hurry things along when developments don’t go as we expect, and how often that leads to disaster.  We do it in our daily lives, and we do it also in our church lives. We launch new initiatives in evangelism and mission and sometimes we abandon them because they are not apparently succeeding. At other times we are tempted to use secular methods which seem to promise quicker success, instead of waiting for the results in God’s time.

 

Simeon and Anna weren’t tempted to try to do God’s work for him. Sometimes well meaning people think they can help God along a bit, by doing things their way, rather than God’s way. It may seem to succeed, but inevitably the results are not lasting. We need to cultivate the patience as well as the perseverance that Simeon and Anna showed if we are to serve God faithfully.

 

Simeon and Anna listened to God. They were open to the Spirit, which prompted them when to speak and when to stay silent, when to wait and when to be active. They didn’t wait passively. We assume they lived out a normal family lives, they read and thought and encouraged others. They exercised a ministry, while they waited for God’s Saviour to appear, rather than leaving it all to divine intervention.

 

Some waiting is good; but some is unhealthy. The sort of waiting that is always expecting the future to bring something better: a better job, a bigger house, a more perfect pattern, is not healthy. It means we are living in the future and so missing the delights of the present time.

 

The sort of waiting that expects God to intervene and change things is another unhealthy sort of waiting. God has made us stewards of the earth, and it is our responsibility to care for it, not wait for God to make a new heaven and earth. Christ sent us out to preach the gospel, and we should not be waiting for Christ’s second coming to change people’s hearts and minds; we should be working to bring God’s Kingdom on earth now, especially in relation to those who are despised and neglected by the secular world.

 

Simeon and Anna teach us to live in the present moment, in the expectation that it is in the here and now, in the ordinary and the everyday that we will find salvation and abundance of life. That way we will always be ready to be surprised by our encounters with the Holy Child, wherever and whenever they come, and by the wonderful realisation that we are we are suddenly in the presence of God.

 

However, most of us will get to a time in our lives when we are no longer able to be so active. Perhaps illness or increasing frailty limits our ability to undertake any activity at all, and we become dependent on others. Most of us dread this period in our lives. It is sometimes characterised, especially by the young, as “just waiting to die”. Perhaps some of their younger contemporaries regarded Simeon and Anna like that.

 

Many people in our busy age feel that “just waiting” is a waste of time. But it shouldn’t be, in the Christian view.

In 1983 the theologian, W H Vanstone wrote a book called “The Stature of Waiting”. In it he argued that the moment when Jesus revealed most fully the glory of God was not at his Baptism or at his Transfiguration, nor when he was preaching or performing miracles, but after he had been handed over for trial and crucifixion, and able to do nothing but wait for whatever might happen to him. So, he says, we too can reveal God when we are passive, when we are dependant, when we are ‘just waiting’. Most particularly, the divine glory was revealed when Jesus was nailed, utterly helpless and exposed, to the cross. That, Vanstone argued, showed the depth of the divine love. For, he says, “where love is, action is destined to pass into passion: working into waiting”.

 

So, may we all learn to be ‘good waiters’ as Simeon and Anna were -and may we be rewarded as they were by the deep peace of knowing that in Christ, God is come among us.

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The Messenger.

Address for a service of readings and hymns for Advent 3.

(Malachi 3,1-4; Luke 1, 5-17; Luke 1, 39-47a; John 1, 6-8, 15-16, 19-27; Isaiah 61, 1-4, 8-11)

Advent 3

 

This is the time of year for looking back. No doubt some of you, like me, have looked back through your calendar and diaries, to remind you of what happened this year, as you write to the friends and relatives you are in contact with only at Christmas. And from now until New Year, newspapers, magazines and the TV channels will be full of ‘Reviews of the Year’, looking back over events in politics, society, the arts and church.

 

It’s the time of year when we try to make sense of what has happened, and to forecast what it might mean for the future. How did we get to where we are now? Is there a pattern? Who else is involved? Are we going in the right direction?

 

And, if we are people of faith, can we see God’s hand in all of this?

 

This is exactly what the first followers of Jesus did as they met together and told his story to each other and to new disciples who joined them. This is what the writers of the Gospels did as they collected those stories together and committed them to paper.

 

They were trying to make sense of the life and death of Jesus, who they believed was the Christ, the Messiah, God’s chosen agent in bringing in the Kingdom of God on earth; yet who was not the Messiah many of their compatriots were expecting. He was not from among the political or social élite, he did not lead a popular uprising or a victorious military force. He was not from a priestly clan, and he criticised many of the religious leaders and their laws and practices. He came from  the northern border country, his following was relatively small and mainly from among the lower classes and the outcasts of society, and he died the death of a criminal at the hands of the occupying power.

How could this be part of God’s plan?

 

Looking back, the early followers of Jesus had other events they needed to make sense of, especially the ministry of John the Baptist. How could they explain the fact that there were two prophets, one working mainly in Galilee and the other mainly in Judea, preaching and calling people to repentance at almost the same time, and announcing that the Kingdom of God was near at hand.

 

Being Jewish, or at least Greek converts or proselytes to the Jewish religion, they naturally turned to the Jewish scriptures and to their history, myths and legends to make sense of what they had experienced.

 

They made sense of John the Baptist firstly by looking back into the great prophetic figures of the past, especially Samuel, Samson and Elijah, and comparing John to them. Elements of the stories of all these figures were combined to create a back-story for John. Samuel, or at least his mother Hannah, provided the story of John’s birth to a barren and elderly woman, announced in the Temple, where Samuel received his call to ministry. Samson provided his clothing, and food, and his ascetic lifestyle. Elijah, who it was popularly believed would return to herald the Messiah, and who challenged a wicked king, provided a character on which to base John’s message, and the challenge to King Herod that led to his death.

 

The early witers also looked into the later prophetic books, like Isaiah, whose prophecy about the return from exile in Babylon, speaking of the voice crying, “In the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord” became a prophecy about John, preaching in the wilderness of Judea; and Malachi, whose prophecy about the messenger of God suddenly appearing in the Temple was fulfilled in the story of the announcement of John’s birth to his father in the Temple and Jesus being presented in the Temple.

 

All these elements are found most clearly in Luke’s parallel stories of the births of John and Jesus. Early Christian beliefs about John are summed up in the Canticle which his father Zechariah speaks after his birth, which we know as the Benedictus, and which links John back into the history of the Jews and forward to the coming Messiah, Jesus;

 “Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us  that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1, 67-79)

 

Throughout all four of the Gospels, stories about  John, both in the miraculousness of his birth, in what is said about him, and in what he says about himself, make over and over again the point that he is less important than Jesus.

 

Other prophecies from the Jewish scriptures, and in particular the prophet Isaiah, provided the explanation for the career of Jesus, both through the use of the ‘Servant Songs’ to explain his suffering and death, and through the use of passages such as Chapter 61, which we will hear at the end of this service, to show that his ministry of teaching, healing and comfort to the poor and dispossessed was indeed part of God’s plan.

 

I began by saying that this is a time of year for looking back; but it also a time of year for looking forward. It is the time when we anticipate a new year, perhaps an opportunity to make a new start, and make resolutions to do better.

 

The passages we heard in this service also look forward, to the coming of the Kingdom of God that John and Jesus both preached about, to the time when God’s values and God’s justice will prevail, and not only human society, but the whole of creation will be renewed.

 

So often, our New Year’s resolutions are to do with ourselves, our health, our prospects, our prosperity: giving up smoking, dieting, getting a new job or working harder.  The message of John the Baptist points us to a greater reality, and invites us to be part of a bigger picture –  the Kingdom of love and justice that Jesus inaugurated through his teaching, life and death.

 

As we mark the beginning of a new Christian year in Advent, and prepare ourselves for the offer of eternal life we received in the coming of Jesus, may we resolve to give ourselves selflessly to the fulfilment of the vision that is set out in what we have heard today, and so bring in that time of light and peace; and may we, with all humanity, both demonstrate and share in the divine glory revealed to us through Jesus, the Messiah.

Amen.

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Remember, remember!

47375779-single-burning-candle-on-a-black-background

 

(I Thess. 4, 13-18; Matt. 24, 1-13)

 

“Remember, remember the 5th of November….”, and the 1st, and the 2nd, and the 11th; and, if you went to one of the family of schools I attended, the 25th; and if you are Scottish, the 30th; and, if you are American, the fourth Thursday, whatever date that falls on! This time of year, in secular life and in church life, is all about remembering.

 

Angela Ashwin, in the introduction to this season of the Church’s year in her book ‘Woven into Prayer’ says:

“At this time of year, beginning with All Saints’ Day on 1 November, we remember that we are part of the communion of saints stretching across time and space. Our prayers, whether offered alone or together, are caught up with the great outpouring of praise and worship of the whole people of God. The commemorations of All Saints, The Departed (All Souls) and Remembrance Day are all part of this time. It has been rightly pointed out that this season is ‘a celebration both of the reality of God’s rule and of the final ingathering. The need for a strong Christian awareness of these truths, to counter the secular culture at this time of year, with Halloween and its ghosts and witches, has never been greater’.

The origins of Halloween, before it was taken over by commercialism, and the chance to sell costumes and sweets in vast quantities, seem to lie in anxieties about what happens to those whom we love and remember, but who are separated from us by death. Are they at peace? Does death change them from the people we knew into malevolent spirits, bent on wreaking harm on the living? Does it matter how they died? Does God still care for them?

 

Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica was written in response to similar concerns. The new Christians who worshipped there believed that Christ would soon return, and judge everyone, and that all the believers would be swept up with him into the glories of the Kingdom of God established on earth. But as time went on, and Christ had not yet returned, some of the church members died, and the new Christians began to get worried about their fate. Would they still be saved if they died before the return of Christ, or would they suffer some other fate?

 

Paul’s letter is meant to reassure them. He paints a picture, using metaphorical language taken from the Hebrew scriptures, of what the Second Coming will be like – trumpets, and angels, and Christ descending from the heavens, and taking the believers to be with God always – and reassures the people of the church that their friends will not be lost, but will share in that resurrection with them, whenever it comes.

 

That is why he urges them not to be as sad as those without any hope of resurrection. He is not telling them that they shouldn’t mourn those whom they have loved and lost; just they shouldn’t despair, but preserve, amid their sadness, the hope that there is still something glorious ahead, for both the living and the dead. He urges them to remember this, and to comfort one another by sharing the hope of things to come.

 

Similar doubts and questions concern many people nowadays, especially in a time of war, when many people are killed, often in dreadful circumstances, and sometimes there is not even a body to bury, and a place to go and remember them. Our task as Christians, Paul says, is to encourage people with the Gospel; that God’s mercy and love are infinite, and that living in the way Christ taught us and showed us, will bring us into union with him in this life, a union that cannot be destroyed, even by death.

 

The parable we heard from Matthew’s Gospel is also talking about the return of Christ. He is the bridegroom whose arrival we are waiting for, and the wedding feast is the celebration of the triumph of God’s purposes, and the inauguration of God’s kingdom over the whole earth. And we are the bridesmaids, waiting to light the way of Christ, the bridegroom, as he arrives.

 

The parable, like Paul’s epistle, teaches us about the way we should be living until that day comes. As we look at the world, where so many still think fighting, killing, maiming and destruction is a way, sometimes even the only way, to sort out differences between religions, ethnic groups and countries, it is easy to despair, and, like the bridesmaids, to fall asleep and stop trying to do anything to change things, or to provide a beacon of light amid the darkness.

 

That is normal and human, and I’ve no doubt we’ve all felt like giving up and shutting out the world from time to time. But the problem is that despair doesn’t achieve anything. It doesn’t solve problems, or bring justice, or abundant life.

 

But, sometimes, there is something that reassures us that there is hope, that the bridegroom is close, and we need to do something to prepare the way for him. Some of us, in spite of our moments of despair, will have reserves of faith, built up in the times of waiting, and so we can make our contributions to those preparations. But some of us, like the foolish bridesmaids, won’t have any reserves left, and will be left behind, and risk seeing the opportunities pass, and being barred from entry  to the wedding feast.

Our readings today are about Christian remembering, Christian living and Christian hope.

Christian remembering looks back, with thankfulness and love to those who have lived in ways that please God in the past. We learn from previous generations, both from their wisdom and sacrifice, but also from their mistakes and failures.

 

But Christian remembering is also to do with the present, with remembering that, as so many of the parables teach us, God works in small, surprising and often unseen ways. God’s reign doesn’t just arrive with the flourish of trumpets at the end of time; sometimes it comes with a still small voice, that we will miss if we are not listening for it. We need to remember that God in Christ is always coming to us, and be alert to the signs of God’s presence in the darkness of our world, and make our own contribution to (as the children’s hymn goes) lighting up the fire and letting the flame burn, opening doors to let Jesus return’.

 

We need to build up reserves of faith, hope and love, so that whenever we see God at work we can join in, engaging our communities and getting involved with people in their struggles: peacemaking, tackling poverty, deprivation, discrimination, and climate change in the name of Christ.

As Brian McLaren reminds us, Christianity is not, an “evacuation faith’, concerned with ensuring that a select few of us escape when the end of the world comes. It is not just a hope of bliss in eternity, which does nothing about the state of the world now. It is about following Christ in the commitment to build the Kingdom in the here and now, to heal what is wrong with the world now, to live and be Good News for everyone now.

Christian remembering also looks forward, to that state of things that the visionaries of the faith have spoken of, to the perfected world and society that we hope for, and to God’s final ingathering of all souls. Remembering and holding on to that vision  is how we build up the resources to work in hope and co-operate with what God in Christ is already doing. That is the way we can remain alert, and be ready when the Bridegroom comes. That is the way we are inspired to live out that vision and that hope now, and become agents of grace, healing and salvation to hurting, hopeless people now, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Christ. Amen.

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Love, Love, Love!

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(Leviticus 19, 1-2 & 15-18; Matthew 22, 34-40)

 

 

If you wanted a simple statement of the Christian faith, two verses from today’s Gospel reading would provide it: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

 

And this creed would be an acceptable summary of the essentials of the faith for many of the other great world faiths too – after all, Jesus took them from the Torah, the Jewish Law, and said the whole understanding of the Law, and the sayings of the prophets, depended on these laws; and the Muslim faith sprang from the same roots.

 

But how do we put this, the Great Commandment, into practice?

 

Love God?

 

When we say we love God, what image do we have of the being we are loving? Is it an angry old man with a beard, who is constantly spying on us, and judging us unworthy; punishing us with disease and natural disasters when we fail; forever oppressing minorities and women, supporting war, armies and big business, happy with the destruction of the planet; guarded by minions who won’t allow us access unless we can answer a whole host of doctrinal questions correctly?

 

I think that’s the very opposite of what God is. God is spirit, neither male nor female. God is the Ground of our Being, revealing Godself in the loving relationship of the Trinity. God is Creator, Father and Mother; God is Friend, Redemeer, Saviour, Brother and Sister; God is Sustainer, Comforter, Guide and Sanctifier. God is Love.

 

The way we love God is not so very different from the way we show love to another human being, particularly one with whom we have an intimate relationship, like a parent or a spouse. We spend time with them, getting to know them; so we move towards God in prayer and meditation, saying ‘I am here’ and we enjoy doing so. Loving God should be a pleasure, not a duty. We read what people believe God has revealed to them, especially through the scriptures, and particularly through Jesus. We make ourselves open to the Holy Spirit.

 

Sometimes that means communicating, speaking and listening. No relationship of love can grow if communication ceases. But sometimes it may mean just being silent together. Those who love each other don’t always have to use words to communicate.

 

If we love God, we will share God’s interests and work to make God’s dreams come true. We will say and mean “Your Kingdom come, your will be done”. We share God’s concerns and care about those things and people and causes that God cares about, bringing them before God in intercession.

 

We will show our appreciation of God, expressing gratitude for the good things that we have been blessed with in our lives. But we will also have the confidence to share our anxieties and our doubts, our needs and our fears, and even sometimes our anger.

We should not have to pretend in front of someone we love.

 

We will respect God, and honour the divine in our lives, saying and meaning ‘Hallowed be thy name”.

And we will say sorry! Do you remember the line in the film Love Story: ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’? That’s nonsense in human relationships and it’s nonsense in our relationship with God. Love means always saying sorry when we need to, always seeking to rebuild the relationship when it’s been damaged, always being honest with one another.

 

If we practise loving God with every part of ourselves, heart, soul, mind, and strength, we will grow closer to God, until we are more and more filled with the fullness of God, and our love for God, our neighbours and ourselves will grow and deepen.

 

Love neighbour?

 

Then we will find it easier to love our neighbour. The rules we heard in our Old Testament reading from Leviticus are a guide to how we should show love for our neighbour, reflecting the Ten Commandments and the guidance of the prophets.

 

But this gives us only the basics, something like ‘primary school level loving your neighbour.’

 

To those for whom the rules in the Torah were first written, neighbours were restricted to fellow Israelites. Neighbours were ‘people like us’ and ‘people we like’. Jesus gave us a different definition. He taught that our neighbours were also people who were very different from us, those whom we’d been taught to dislike and fear, even our enemies. Neighbours are anyone and everyone: not just our own kind, but all of humankind.

 

As Paul taught us in Galatians), in Christ there are no differences which justify us treating each other differently. Differences are no longer a threat, but a gift, enabling us to work as a body or a team, with each person contributing their own skills and talents to the unity of the whole.

 

This means that, whereas once upon a time, it might have been necessary for us to cling to our own kind, and fight those who were different to survive, we now recognise that we need to find a way to live with those who are different from us in our crowded cities, crowded countries and crowded planet. Otherwise, we will not survive.

And the way to live together is to love our neighbours. The Scriptures don’t just leave that as an ideal; they translate it into practical action. The Ten Commandments and the law codes of the Torah give us a base from which to start. Jesus drew the Great Commandment from them: from the Shema in Deuteronomy, which commands love of God; and from the passage we heard in Leviticus, which teaches love of neighbour. But the teaching of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the Gospels and the Epistles take it further: serve one another, wash each other’s feet, carry one another’s burdens, be at peace with one another, do not judge one another, encourage and edify one another, offer hospitality to one another, do not grumble against one another, be humble towards one another, and so on and so on.

 

But rules can only take us so far in showing love towards our neighbour. The example of Jesus guides us to look beyond the rules, towards a deeper sympathy and empathy for those we are called to love in God’s name. That is the beginning of wisdom, and a love for God and neighbour that is no longer limited by rules and law codes, but which truly reflects the love of God for all humankind.

 

Love self?

 Then, there is a third part to the Great Commandment to love, which is often neglected. That is, we are commanded to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

 

I am sure that makes many of us feel very uncomfortable. We have been trained that we cannot be good Christians unless we deny ourselves, reject our own pleasure, and that self-love is a sin. But there is a good sort of self-love, holy, healthy and Spirit-led, as well as a bad and unhealthy sort, a good enjoyment of God-given pleasure as well as an addictive and destructive enjoyment of it. And we won’t truly be able to love our neighbours, or God, unless we first learn to love ourselves.

 

God gave human beings senses to enjoy the world which was created by God, and meant to be enjoyed. But if we concentrate only on our own pleasure, and particularly if it takes over everything and begins to rule our lives, we are no longer experiencing it in a healthy way. Often people try to escape from themselves, and from their own misery and dissatisfaction with themselves, into excessive enjoyment of food, or drink, or possessions or sex, and that becomes destructive of themselves and of those around them.

 

Healthy self-love involves honesty about ourselves, our good points and bad, not self-deception. It involves self-control, not self-indulgence, self-giving, self-development and self-examination. It involves self-acceptance, and the rejection of bitterness, jealousy, and the projection of the bad parts of ourselves onto our neighbours through racism, sexism and religious prejudice.

 

The self-love taught by the Spirit means loving ourselves, warts and all, the way God loves us, so we can join ourselves to God in the one self-giving love that upholds us and all creation.

 

Loving God with all our being, and loving our neighbours as we love ourselves is, Jesus said, the key to understanding all the Law and the prophets. It is the lens through which we must read and interpret the Scriptures and the tradition, and through which use our reason and interpret our experience. Loving God comes first, and as we nurture that love through prayer and worship and wrestling with our faith, we will be enabled to love ourselves as God loves us, and love our neighbours as God loves them – with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

Love God, love neighbour, love self.

As the Beatles sang:

Love, love, love.

 

This sermon was inspired by chapters 42, 43 and 44 of  ‘We make the Road by Walking’ by Brian D. McLaren. and you will find many echoes of those chapters in it. In the children’s address which preceded this sermon we looked again at the Ten Commandments; and after the sermon, we said the Lord’s Prayer together slowly, thinking particularly about love for God, our neighbour, and ourselves.

 

 

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Invitation to the Wedding.

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(Philippians 4,1-9; Matthew 22,1-14)

 

There are few things more likely to cause a family row than organising a wedding. It should be a time when everyone is happy, but it’s amazing how hot under the collar people can get about where the wedding is held, whether you have button holes or orders of service, how much to spend on the reception, and, above all, who to invite. I am sure many of us can remember long discussions over wedding guest lists, especially the thorny question these days of whether children are to be allowed at the reception; and maybe, the irritation when the old friend of our parents, who they insisted had to be invited, doesn’t turn up, leaving a place that we could have easily filled with one of our own friends.

 

So perhaps we have a certain sympathy with the king in today’s parable – though not with his reaction.

 

As we hear from the details, a wedding feast in New Testament times was a major affair, involving the slaughter of animals fattened for the occasion, providing meat which wouldn’t keep in the hot climate. The celebrations and feasting probably went on for several days.

I went to a number of Jewish weddings when my husband was working, since several of his partners were Jewish. They didn’t go on for several days, but they were lavish affairs. I can remember one where we had a brief buffet after the wedding ceremony, then later in the afternoon sat down to a meal, which had eight or nine courses, and we left after the dancing and before the supper, which was served at about 10 pm. But even if I couldn’t cope with the amount of food on offer, they were very enjoyable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to refuse an invitation to attend one.

 

What then, do we make of the parable we’ve just heard?

 

In scripture, a great banquet always stands for the End Times, the consummation of history when God will intervene and the good will be rewarded (invited to the feast) and the wicked will be punished (by exclusion from the party). We find pictures of such feast in Isaiah, told to reassure the Jews who are being persecuted that they will be at the party; and by St John the Divine in his picture of the new Jerusalem in Revelation chapter 21.

 

This parable appears in two of the gospels in slightly different forms. When Luke tells the parable of the Great Banquet he gives no reason for the feast. The great man sends out his servants with invitations, and the people they invite refuse, making various excuses: “I’ve got some new property to look at”, “I’ve got a new pair of oxen to train”, “I’ve just got married”. The great man is annoyed, but he doesn’t punish them: he simply sends out his servants into the town to invite others in, the poor the crippled, the blind and the lame. And when the places still aren’t full, he sends his servants out again, further afield into the countryside, to find still more strangers to enjoy his feast.

 

When Jesus told the story, it was probably intended as a warning to the leaders of the Jewish nation that, unless they returned to obedience to God, and listened to his servants, the prophets and Jesus himself, they would lose God’s favour, which would be transferred to those they despised, the outcasts in society. The original story told by Jesus probably ended with the invitation to other guests to come and enjoy the banquet of salvation.

 

Matthew added more details, again drawing on the traditions of scripture, and has even included another parable, about the wedding garment, to make the point more strongly, and to turn it into a warning for his own community.

 

First of all, he turns the feast into a wedding banquet. The Old Testament writers often used marriage to stand for the covenant between God and his people the Jews. So Matthew is telling us about a King (God) who prepares a feast for his son (Jesus) and sends his servants (the prophets) to invite his subjects (Israel) to attend. They don’t take his invitation seriously, as they should, and some of them even abuse and kill his servants (as Matthew tells us some of the prophets were treated). So, Matthew’s story tells us, God will turn his back on the Jews, and allow them to be killed and their city destroyed, as happened to Jerusalem when the Romans punished the nation for their revolt in AD 70. For Matthew, this part of the story was an allegory of the history of salvation, showing how God’s favour was lost by the Jewish nation and transferred to the Jews and Gentiles who followed Jesus.

 

But Matthew was well aware that conversion and baptism was not the end of the story. His Christian community, just like ours, contained both good and bad; people who lived the Christian life to the full, who were ‘clothed with Christ’ as Paul describes it in his letter to the Galatians ( 3.27). They were the people who had put on their wedding garments.

 

But there were others who had accepted the invitation to join the community in full expectation that this would give them a guaranteed place at the salvation banquet; and yet these people were not living a Christlike life. Those, Matthew’s version warns, will be thrown out of the community of the saved, and at the final judgement there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth rather than joy and feasting for them.

 

The early Christian community had a very concrete experience of putting on their wedding garment when they were baptised. For the adult converts, the baptism ceremony involved going down naked into the baptismal pool, and coming out to be clothed in a new white robe as the symbol of their new life in Christ.

 

For many of us, the experience of baptism was many, many years ago, perhaps in our infancy, before we can really remember. We may have ‘put on our wedding garments’ again, figuratively, when we were confirmed; and we put them on again each time we renew our commitment in the renewal of baptism vows. But how many of us are really wearing the garments of faith all the time?

 

We may feel ourselves superior to those who reject God’s invitation, and never darken the doors of church; who excuse themselves because they’ve got a house to maintain, or a new car to try out, or because their family takes up too much of their time. But, as this  parable warns us churchgoing alone will not guarantee us a seat at the wedding feast of the Lamb, unless we clothe ourselves in Christ.

 

St Paul, writing to the Philippians tells us how: stand firm in your life in the Lord, work to spread the Gospel; be joyful in your work for Christ; be at peace with your brothers and sisters in the Lord, and be gentle with everyone.

 

I want us to think a little more about just one of those things, the last one: be gentle with one another. It is easy to be gentle with those we know and love, our families and our friends. But, because of the media, we now make judgements about people we may never have met; and sometimes those judgements are not gentle, but harsh and condemnatory. One way in which this attitude is fed is through the newspapers we read and the news channels we view on TV or online.

 

These tend to see everything in black or white; they tend to portray people as either wholly good or wholly bad, instead of the mixture of good and bad we all know ourselves and others to be. Once the media have decided someone is bad, they seem not to accept any possibility of change, no chance of redemption. So we get people labelled as ‘monsters’, and often a witch-hunt stirred up by the media, which makes their lives impossible. When you read your newspapers, can I ask you to remember Paul’s words ‘be gentle with one another’ and if the paper you read, or the source you hear the news from is one that seems to go after people in this way, consider changing to another that doesn’t.

 

Paul tells us we must trust in God, give thanks for all the good things we enjoy, and pray constantly for ourselves and others. If you pray for people, you cannot hate them, or believe they are a monster. Above all, Paul  says to us, fill your minds with what is good and true and pure and honourable. If we do that, we may anticipate our invitation to God’s banquet with confidence.

 

 

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