Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Thought for day - Matthew, apostle and evangelist. 23/9/23


Once upon a time, while I was training for ministry, I had a conversation that I have never forgotten with a student, whose tradition was far more evangelical than my own. I found myself apologising that, coming from a liberal catholic background, I feared that my relationship with the Bible was nothing like a robust as his – but, bless him, he was having none of it.

You pray the office daily, don’t you

AND you have sung in church and chapel choirs all your life

Add to that your background in English Literature and 7ou have probably spent far longer immersed in Scripture than I have – it’s just that you live in that immersion, instead of sitting down to engage consciously in Bible study.

Rather to my own surprise, I had to admit that he was right. Whereas some English literature degree courses now include an introductory Bible familiarisation programme, to ensure that students aren’t completely oblivious to the influences that shaped much of the writing they will study, even the atheists among my contemporaries had at least a working knowledge of Scripture, though they would never have claimed a special status for those texts. We lived in a world where we had, as Paul reminds Timothy, “known the sacred writings that ARE ABLE to instruct you for salvation”…

Whether they do or not surely depends on how you use these texts.

If they are treated as just another body of historic writing, important in its day but not really relevant, - then that is how it will remain. It is only, as Paul points out, when we combine knowledge of Scripture with faith in Christ Jesus that the words awaken to their full life and power.

I wonder how you respond to the famous declaration “All scripture is inspired by God”

It is, when you pause to think about it, slightly ironic that many use this phrase, itself surely subject to the same process of exigesis as the rest of the Biblical text, as a proof positive of that text’s surpassing value. An internal system of self-validation may not, after all, seem to be entirely conclusive – yet there is no doubt that this book that reads us can change lives.

But, I would say, it’s not the power of the words alone, however great their impact. This IS a body of words, collected over many centuries, an account of the great love story of God and God’s people – and it does not exist in isolation, to be valued for itself alone. Rather, the significance comes as we ask my favourite “So what! “ question once more.

All Scripture is inspired by God SO THAT everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Scripture helps us to understand how to be the people whom God calls us to be and, on this feast of Matthew the apostle, we give thanks that God chooses to tell his story through many different voices, and many different lives - Jews and Gentiles, Kings and scholars, tax collectors and sinners. Even, by God’s grace, through you and me.

1st sermon for Southwark - The Cathedral Eucharist at 9.00 & 11.00 on Trinity 15, Proper 19A, 17/9/23

If you’re a regular at Sunday worship anywhere in the world, you’ll be conscious of the fact that some Sundays are easier for the preacher than others. There are days when the appointed readings say everything that you could possibly want to hear, when readings, music and sermon alike lift hearts and minds to heaven – and then there are days like this, which feel a bit different. Left to ourselves, We probably wouldn’t have chosen a passage that speaks of a hard-hearted slaves being tortured into a better state of mind (as the ideal way to welcome Max and Freddie into God’s Church). Indeed, if we had written the parable, we might have chosen to rewrite this tale of shocking ingratitude in favour of an overflowing generosity that paved the way for a wild celebration and the assurance that “They all lived happily debt free ever after”

Surely, with Max and Freddie coming to Baptism, it would have been much better to stick to an uncomplicated celebration of God’s love unclouded by any sense of human inadequacy. But that’s why we have the Lectionary. To force us to engage with some of the challenges of faith, as much as with its joys, and so, – here we are, - with no escape possible. Forgiveness, judgement, and yet more forgiveness…the theme runs through all our readings, like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock – and perhaps after all that is not unhelpful as we celebrate baptism, and recall our own today. Indeed, in an age where sin and its remedy, forgiveness, are disturbingly unpalatable concepts, this may after all be exactly what we need to hear – whether we want it or not.

So, let’s dive in together and see if we can wrestle some good news even here and now.

It wasn’t til I began preparing for this sermon that I, rather belatedly, explored the actual value of the coins we hear about, the size of the debt forgiven and the payment demanded.

Let’s start small. The denarius, I’m told, represents something like a day’s pay at the living wage: so the funds owed by one slave to another were substantial – but not, I would say, impossible to bear. You could imagine how such a debt might have been run up, and also, how given patience and a following wind, it might even be repaid if the debtor was free to work, and thus to earn.

Walking the parish, Dickens in hand, in the days before I was installed, I found myself remembering those consigned to the Marshelsea Debtors Prison, - whose arrival there pretty much guaranteed that they would never be able to work to earn their way out of their predicament. That penalty landed with special force on the poorest – as it does in the parable.

It seems, then particularly cruel that a slave should be consigned to prison by a fellow slave – creating a scenario in which both are losers, freedom forfeited and the slate doomed never to be cleared.

In contrast we have the transaction between Lord and slave...a transaction based on the harsh reality of a truly unpayable debt. You see, a talent was the largest unit of currency in the ancient world – and ten thousand the biggest number that could be computed. So, to speak of ten thousand talents is to say “A squillion billion everythings” an absolutely unimaginable sum… debt beyond comprehension, and most certainly far beyond any hope of repaying.

And yet – THAT is the debt that is forgiven.

One so huge that it defies description.

Infinite debt, calling forth infinite forgiveness.

“As the heavens are high above the earth, so great is God’s mercy towards those who fear him”

Ah hah. I’m beginning to scent that good news which we all need so badly – and I’m quite tempted to stop right now and leave the story to do its own work.

We have been made fabulously, incomprehensibly rich by God, who writes off the debt that we have incurred simply by being human.

The spotlight reveals God’s forgiveness as unbounded as God’s love, and it is time to rejoice indeed.

It’s THIS into which Max and Frederick/Freddie are being baptised.

This which should bring us up short day after day after day.

But -what are we going to do once we recognise this, because, you see, always the gospel invites us to ask the question “So what?”

As one commentary puts it “God’s mercy to us is meant as lesson as well as gift”. We are not to be simply passive recipients but active transmitters of that grace we receive.

We know that even fractured, selfish humans CAN forgive. The Joseph story we heard confirms this and, after all his trials and adventures, Joseph at least seems to have learned that we can never, MUST never put ourselves in the place of God, meting out judgement no matter how justified it may seem. “Though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” points up once again what can happen when we put ourselves in the judgement seat, with all our sadly limited compassion, our puny, inadequate forgiveness.

So – we receive. We are forgiven. We make a fresh start. So what?

Many of you will know that until recently I worked at Coventry Cathedral – and in the bombed ruins of the medieval cathedral of St Michael there is a statue by Josefina de Vasconelos. Originally intended to depict the reunion of two victims of war who had traversed the length and breadth of ravaged Europe to fall into one another’s arms, it has been re-titled “Reconciliation” . If you don’t know it, do have a look online later, or I have placed a small replica at the back of the cathedral this morning…

It depicts two figures leaning into one another in an embrace, so that the arch of their bodies forms a bridge between them, and it seems likely that either would fall without the support of the other. It seems to me that this, THIS is the model of mutuality God invites us into, where it is impossible to tell who is forgiving, who forgiven, for we hold one another up as we acknowledge all our human imperfections yet find ourselves bound together in our mutual dependence on God’s grace.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us can, if it helps, be turned on its head in a prayer that invites God to help us to use that infinite forgiveness to remind us how to live day by day.

Forgive not once, but repeatedly...Don’t keep a tally, imagining that it’s fine to turn away once a limit has been reached – be it 77 or 70 times 7. Just keep at it, remembering that in the final analysis it’s actually none of our business. “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” - and we have ample evidence of the infinite compassion with which God treats us, in all our frailty.

WE have all been freed from prison, the walls of the Marshalsea pulled down – so let us live that way, walking in joy the path of forgiveness as reconciled and reconciling people.

Thanks be to God.