Saturday, September 17, 2011

Harvest rethink - a sermon for Songs of Praise at All Saints, 2011

When I first read the hymns you'd chosen for today, I have to confess I was a tiny bit disappointed.
Not that your suggestions were lacking in any way-but simply because I had rather hoped we might get to sing another – that's been popular with children for most of the past 3 decades.
It celebrates a whole multitude of joyful things...autumn days, a sporting victory, the song the milkman sings...and each verse ends with the chorus
We mustn't forget to say a great big thank you.....”
And that's surely the message today.
We MUSTNT forget.

Unfortunately, we generally do.
We look at the world, at all that we have to enjoy, and we take it as our right.
We no longer see God in it..
Yes, it CAN be hard to see God in a tin of chopped tomatoes, a loaf of bread or a pizza.
But God is there.
If we open our eyes, wherever we look in creation, we see signs pointing the way to the creator.
Creation is so much more than a gigantic supermarket, a mine from which we extract what we want, using or discarding to suit ourselves as if nothing has any value.
Creation is, rather, part of the love song of our God who delights in creating…our God who looked at all that was made and declared that it was good.

But we do forget, don’t we.
We’ve come along way from the garden of Eden and we rarely look back over our shoulders.
It’s a situation foreseen by Moses in our 1st reading.
He, like me, was preaching at a Harvest Festival….at a time when the children of Israel were invited to give thanks for God’s generosity –the gift of land which produces food abundantly, a land “flowing with milk and honey”.
Moses urged the people to be thankful – and he recognised the danger that lurks embedded within any successful and affluent culture…the risk that success might encourage us to believe that we are sufficient unto ourselves.
By the grace of God, we are given many gifts – and it's absolutely right and proper to rejoice in seeing them well exercised.
Yesterday's fete, a wonderful celebration of the life of our community, was a brilliant example of gifts used co-operatively to benefit others...

but we need, as Christians at least, to go a bit further.

.The great medieval mystic, Meister Eckhardt, once said,
"If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough."
I’m not sure, though, if I quite agree.
Saying thank-you is important, certainly. It’s a great thing to recognise one’s blessings and say so from the heart.
But on another level I would say, SAYING thank you is only a small part of the full meaning of what thanksgiving is all about.

We need to DO our thank yous too as Paul reminds us in the letter we heard as our third reading.
We are the recipients of God’s ceaseless, overwhelming generosity – so we should give with that same generosity.
Think for a moment about how wildly profligate God is in creation.
Thousands of thousands of seeds, each with the potential to create a whole new life.
Myriad creatures so small they can only be glimpsed through a microscope.
God's life and love overflowing, no limit to his goodness which floods creation with unconditional love...
so it follows that our response should overflow, unconditionally…that the more we receive, the more we can open our hands to pass on the gift.

It seems to me that my own besetting sin is the fear that there might not be enough.
I want to give, I want to be generous…but at the back of my mind a little voice says
Have you made sure you’re saving enough for old age…
What if NONE of the children can find work when they graduate?
If the Church of England goes bankrupt tomorrow?
What then?”
Instead of trusting that with God there is always enough and to spare, I wonder and worry and lapse into protective meanness.
Let’s face it: we don't need everything we have to live abundantly. Indeed perhaps the more we have the more cluttered our spirits become.
That’s a general truth but perhaps we are also at a stage in history where we'll be forced to face certain realities- that our economies cannot and should not grow forever, and that we may have to be content with what we have, or maybe even less.

Tis a gift to be simple…” says the old Shaker song…but it’s a gift that we are strangely reluctant to grasp even if we remember the second line “Tis a gift to be free”
We seem determined to shore up our fragile selves with all sorts of material props…we focus not on thanksgiving but on thanksgetting…like a child who asks his friend on Boxing Day, not “what did you give?” but “what did you get for Christmas?”

But at harvest festival we have a chance for a rethink.
We come together to celebrate all that we have received, and we express that celebration by giving of our best, our first fruits, just as people have through many centuries.
Harvest festival sounds cosy, reassuring, a link with the golden days when churches were full and summers were hot.
But I’d like us to use our harvest festival as a challenge this year.
If you and I can remember that we are celebrating thanks-giving, and not thanks-getting, if we can live lives that reflect the boundless generosity of God, then we can honestly say with Meister Eckhardt that a simple prayer of "thank you" expressed in word and in deed, will be enough. In fact, it will be more than enough, abundant and overflowing with grace and love made manifest. And so let’s thank God, for life, thank God for food, family and friends, thank God for the opportunities of living in a rich land flowing with milk and honey, and thank God for being able to express our gratitude in acts of love, sharing and giving. Amen.

Trinity 13 A Homily for 8.00 at St Matthew's

It's a scandal!
It's an outrage!

So sing the worthies of Oklahoma in Rogers & Hammerstein's splendid musical – and I rather suspect we might all like to join in with their chorus as we reflect on the gospel for today.

If we were in danger of hoping that Christianity was in any way an acceptable ethical system in the eyes of the world, this parable dooms us to disppointment.
If you stand Kingdom values and secular ethics side by side there's pretty much no common ground.

We are told that our faith is counter-cultural...and here's the evidence.

You see, we live in a world that, at its best, would like things to be FAIR
It's an instinct rooted deep within most of us...Just listen to a class of primary school children who have noticed that one of their number seems to be specially privileged...or, on a better day, seems to be missing out.
It's not FAIR they cry...
And as we grow up, we cling to that same idea of notional equality – tempered, of course, with a suppressed desire to protect our own interests,- even at the expense of our neighbours, near or far.
We like to believe that equal effort deserves equal reward (unless the effort is our own – in which case, we're pretty sure that our work is worth just a little bit more) – that the harder we work the more we should get – that there is a natural order to things, which ensures that those at the front of the queue will get the best.

And now here is Jesus, upsetting all our cherished ideas of how things ought to be, casting aside our received wisdom, asserting that our vision of how things ought to be is simply too narrow, missing the point altogether.
Where's the justice in that?

Justice,- well thereby hangs a tale.
At one point during the alarming assault course that is the selection procedure for training for ordination in the C of E, I found myself well and truly cornered by an interviewer. We had been talking about my life so far, and she had wanted to probe and explore all sorts of uncomfortable topics, including my attitude to God after the death of my parents, and during the period of my life when I seemed to be constantly pregnant and constantly miscarrying.
Finally, the selector asked me “Has God been just to you?”
The more I protested that for me, justice simply wasn’t an issue, the more she drove the point home.
Of course, my first reaction to the question was to look at it from the wrong angle. I imagined that she wanted to hear me say that I somehow “forgave” God for what had happened along the way. Sure, he hadn’t been as kind as I might have expected,- but I recognised that this wasn’t actually something that disturbed me any longer…so I kept on avoiding the question for as long as I could. But that selector was relentless.
Had God been just to me?
Finally, the penny dropped.
No, I said, thankfully God had not been just to me at all.
He has been wildly, extravagantly generous – accepting my half hearted gifts of time and energy (gifts that are God's in the 1st place) – receiving my broken, willful self at his table – and giving me, in exchange for my grubby offering, HIS own life, HIS overwhelming love – and a place in HIS Kingdom for ever.

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
He asks
You are mine – each of you...and I choose to respond to all that you are not with anger but with goodness,
not with justice but with generosity

The justice of this world is completely floored by the boundless grace of God...

Yes, God can do what he likes with his own
and what he likes is to show them,- show us, wild, extravagant generosity and loving kindness. There is no justice in sight at all,- or our fate would be decided long since, and would not be something to celebrate.

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Some thoughts on forgiveness for Proper 19 A

How many times must I forgive my brother? Seven times?.......

To find ourselves confronted with the issue of forgiveness on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 might seem to be an almost impossible co-incidence...or perhaps are very pointed reminder of just how hard we find this thorny business, which is an absolute non negotiable part of our Christian life.

It's there every time we say the prayer we know best
In other words – we can expect to receive forgiveness in the same measure that we offer it's in our interests to think quite hard about what that might mean.

The theory, of course, is fine...We know we should forgive – that's what Christians do...
Forgive and forget” said Sister Theresa, my form teacher when I was 8...and some of us keep on trying to do just that, in an 8 year old kind of way that has more to do with sticking a plaster over a huge septic wound than it has to do with any real healing. Glib slogans are great until we're personally involved, but once we are, though we may try to pretend that we've not been say “It's fine...The past is over. I've moved on” and actually believe it, still the words of our mouths and the thoughts of our hearts have very little in common.

I once knew a woman, a devout Catholic, whose 4 year old son was killed by a drunk driver as he played outside their home in a quiet village street.
She knew, in her head, that she had to forgive...She felt that her faith demanded it of her but though she spoke the words of forgiveness, they were accompanied by a qualifying clause
I forgive him, but I never want to see him or hear his name as long as I life. I'm going to bury all my feelings along with my son and pray God that they can rest together”

That kind of forgiveness is surely only half the story – and yes, I do truly understand that we can celebrate forgiveness as a route to health and happiness – until it's our child that has been killed, our home destroyed, our country attacked.
Then we find out for ourselves just how costly forgiveness really is.

The story goes that a peasant in a far-away land once applied to join the communist party. Not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, as a part of the process, he needed to appear before the local party secretary to answer questions as to his worthiness.
“If you have two cats, you will give one of them away?”
“Yes I will.”
“And if you have two tractors, will you give one away?”
“And if you have two houses, you will give one away?”
“And if you have two cows, will you give one of those away?”
“No, I couldn’t do that.”
“Why on earth not?” he was questioned.
“Because” the peasant said, “I actually HAVE two cows.”

In other words, it's much easier to practise an intellectual discipline than to get on with living it, day after day.
And to forgive does not, in any sense, mean to condone.
Terrible acts are perpetrated – and we need to acknowledge and name them....But having done so we have a choice...
We can cling to our wounds and allow the one who wronged us to continue the damage whenever we revisit our hurts.
We can seek vengeance – and so entrap ourselves in an endless spiral of violence and retribution
We can continue to blame those who have wounded us as we protest that without repentance there can be no true forgiveness
Or we can begin the arduous process of allowing forgiveness to move slowly from head to heart, from intellectual exercise to real transformation.
That may take 490 attempts...or 4,900...or even more....

But it's a choice to be made as often as it needs to be...for, like love, it is not a feeling but a decision – and one that needs to be made again and long as it takes.

And it's a decision God keeps making.....though it costs God dear as well.

If for us forgiveness is a journey, for God it is a constant state - the counterpoint to the love that holds us in being. 
And the forgiveness we give and receive is only possible because God bears the cost himself.
All that we need to forgive, all that we need to be forgiven, can be safely left with him.
" Look Father, look on his anointed face
And only look on us as found in him;
Look not on our misusings of your grace
Our prayer so languid and our faith so dim
For lo, between our sins and their reward
We set the Passion of thy Son our Lord."

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Debt of Love - homily for Proper 18:Yr A

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves one another has fulfilled the law

Love and obligation might seem, at first glance, to be uneasy bedfellows.
Love, we think, is all about positive feelings – warm, spontaneous, instinctive, untrammelled, - whereas debt, - well that has quite different associations.....
On that basis, the concept of a debt of love is hard for us to engage with.
We might understand the need to love when we ourselves are loved, in an kind of fair exchange, an enhanced version of the principle that “one good turn deserves another” , but it seems to me that Paul has something quite different in mind.
To owe a debt to someone is to recognise what is their due, so we are forced to consider whether or not all people are “due” love...and it would be hard indeed to argue that they weren't.
Jesus is very clear about this – we are told straight out to love our enemies...and, by implication, everyone else as well.

In other words, it seems that Love is a universal debt, which we have no option but to pay.

Sometimes, of course, this is very easy..
When confronted with family and friends, our duty to love matches our loving feelings and the debt is paid gladly and freely.
But, as I tell wedding couples time and again, love is a choice and not a feeling.
It's a choice to consciously seek the other's good with all your heart and mind and strength....
It is not the same as always being “nice” to them....for love can be challenging and uncomfortable for lover and beloved alike.
Those on the receiving end of “tough love” may not recognise the genuine love that is present – but it's there all the same....
Love is not a passive process...Rather it is active and risky, relentlessly seeking the good,
the better, the best for others, and trying to achieve that, come what may.

Paul describes love as the fulfilling of the law.
If we truly love, then we will do all that God asks of us, recognising that love is the embodiment of the life that God wants for all creation.
Our love for each other flows from a deep well of faith, through which we make real God's desire for our lives.
Our loving others is not a recompense for the way God loves us (we're not paying off a debt of love to HIM!) , but it IS our loving response to that love.

God's love is truly unconditional – no matter how patchy or inadequate our response!
There is nothing in the world that we can do to make God love us more or less...and nothing can separate us from that love...
But to truly recognise this is to find ourselves called to love in return.
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”......
God's love for me stirs up my love for God and that stirs up my love for all people....
a virtuous circle that can, quite simply, transform the world.

If that all sounds rather comfortable – believe me it shouldn't.
This is nothing to do with loitering among like minded people, lost in mutual admiration.
It's all to do with grasping the nettle of loving the unlovely and that they too might become lovely...and it's urgent.
This passage is, literally, a wake up call!
The night is far gone and the day is we must be ready.

The life we live in Christ is not of this world...
We are called to be radically different, to live the way of light even though it is still dark outside.
It won't be easy but as children of the day we are to get on with the task of radical love here and now, to live into eternity in the every day.

So - we believe that salvation is within reach – nearer now than ever before...
We CAN make poverty history, end war, cure HIV/AIDS...Not “one of these days” but in our time, through our efforts...

We believe, too, in living honourably...not choosing to invest all our energies in the next feel-good treat, nor in fussing, fighting and jealousy but investing, instead, in those things of lasting value...
And we can manage this radical transformation, live out this way of love, only because we clothe ourselves in Christ...covering the naked inadequacy of our human wills, our clamouring egos, with that overwhelming love that can sweep us off our feet and take us to places that we never imagined...
Because, of course, that is what being a CHRISTIAN means.
We are to be little Christs, our lives modelled on his, our failures transformed by his victory, our weakness perfected by his strength.

And, clothed in Christ, we can learn his way of love...and recognise that we owe our debt of love to each and every human being...whether we like them or not.