Sermon for the Last Sunday of Trinity
26th Oct 2014
THE LAST SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY YEAR A
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets Matthew 22.40.
I am a child of the 1960s, and I am old enough to remember what Beatle mania was like. And the song we children loved to sing, I think because it was so repetitive and catchy, was ‘All You Need is Love’. We have today to consider the well-known statement of Jesus on love. It becomes immediately obvious that he does not speak abstractly or vaguely. Instead he takes two separate statements and makes them one. The first statement concerns the being of God and the second our own being in relation to God. “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and you must love your neighbour as yourself”.” On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets…” This message of love, which Christ both teaches and embodies, is the crucial turning point for human civilisation. It is a leap forward for a truer understanding of the meaning of our existence. This is because it bases its understanding not from human sense but on the nature and being of God our Maker.
The Gospel writer John was to declare God to be One who not merely shows his love in the created order and in Jesus Christ. He IS love!
John’s appeal is philosophical - God is love, and in God there is nothing that is not love. He cannot be other than love. Christians understand in this way that such love is regenerative. It has in turn been given recognisable form in Jesus Christ, the One who incarnates love. He makes it flesh and blood and gives himself in love to common humanity. He can do this because He and the Father are One.
This love of God is not to be expressed in the abstractedness of a Beatle’s song; with the strains of the sitar or the advices of the Maharishi! No, it is expressed as an action which proceeds out of the human heart and towards our neighbour. But it is given and exercised freely. It is passed on from the Father to the Son to us and then to others…It is a sharing of God’s trusting charism. The radical nature of Jesus’ message is that Faith in God can make no sense without its interrelatedness to what we call ordinary or common humanity. Christianity is not a mystical eastern religion providing a spiritual way for those who are the initiated ones. It is not individualistic. Christianity rests its being and integrity in the Jesus who teaches and practices human service as being inseparable to religious observance. God and neighbour exist within the one unbreakable bond of God’s love for us, his creatures. And in communion with him, this is what we come to know ‘by heart’. The Cross tells us…
But how are we to respond to what have been called these ‘impossible commandments?’ Of the commandment to love? After all we have no ready recognition of human love in which human frailty is not also powerfully at work. And that is how it must be. It is recognised in St Paul’s famous hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 in which he professes the very limitedness of our capacity to love. And his statement comes to us as a crie de coeur : “For now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known… But there remains for us only three things: faith and hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”.
Some lines from a poem by WH Auden ring in my ears “You shall love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart”. And then a prayer from a former Dean of Westminster,
How can I love my neighbour as myself
When I need him as my enemy –
When I see in him the self I fear to own and cannot love?
How can there be peace on earth
While our hostilities are our most
Cherished possessions –
Defining our identity, confirming our (apparent) innocence?
I feel that uneasiness which tells me that there is plenty of godless inhumanity about and it takes many and varied forms, some recognisable and others invidious. I am as a human being not ‘let off the hook’. I know in some part of my nature that these things should not pass by uncritically…The Christian consciousness needs plenty of faith and hope and love if it is to remain an awakened and incarnated one.
But equally there come to us the words borne out of St Augustine of Hippo in a declaration of confidence in the informing and influencing power of Christian Faith, and this gives us the hope we seek – The initiative remains God’s, as Augustine knew: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless ‘til they find their rest in you’. If in faith, you put yourself and your life at God’s disposal your soul will be truly free. There have been many examples in the Church of those witnesses who have committed their lives in this way, and these are the ones who make Christ’s love visible and incarnated. We too can in our own way incarnate the love of Christ. Ours is a congregation which is to be ‘looking out for one another’, and the Eucharistic meal and the Peace are the means by which the love of God and neighbour are interwoven. In this Eucharist we are to become what we have received in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and Blood.
It may be that we can only do this in small ways, but even these can be significant. I know in King’s Cross of a Christian woman who is an inveterate letter writer, and a giver of beautiful cards, which express everything she hopes for in her God but are written and directed toward those she meets. And they are hand written in real ink! Then there was that Dean of Westminster, Eric Abbot, a great spiritual director, whose handwritten letters and postcards to those in his care were legendary. But these are the ones who worked and made evident something we already know: It is the miracle of the nearness of God and of his love to us. These witnesses and their like make that nearness a present reality. They have always known, perhaps through painful struggle, that none of us can believe or hold to a Christian Faith in isolation. Love of God and neighbour emerge out of the trusting love of God for his people and it is in that love and compassion that the world can be re-made in his likeness. This is The Church’s potential. There are many people who volunteer and give of their time and energy for no financial or easy gain. They give out of the store of the generosity which lies within them and without calculation. There are many who through a visit, a simple conversation, a word in time and a small gesture have made a world of difference to the lives of the people they care, and ultimately to the life of the world.
Today Jesus proclaims the inseparability and the nearness of God in the one reality of love. For Jesus the Faith is always relational. It is expressed as our longing for God and God’s longing that we become what we were made to be.
For God is Love.
The Church’s prayer is that God’s love for us comes to be, in the words of The Beatles song, “All you Need”…
Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
12th Oct 2014
Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“The Lord is my Shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing” Psalm 23.1
If you search the Bible for a passage which stands sure and strong as a complete evocation of faith and trust then it must surely be Psalm 23, which is set to words and music as the hymn, ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’. It describes the individual’s relationship with God as one evidenced by fullness, rest, refreshment, guidance, fearlessness, consolation, comfort, generosity, thankfulness and hope. It is a psalm favoured for use at funerals as a summary of the gifts of faith, and it is a psalm full of hope. The Christian believer does not believe in a vacuum, but in the light of our experience of the living God, whose presence and whose love is sustaining and gives hope. It is both ‘refreshment for the soul’ and the experience of ‘goodness and mercy’ from its very source, God Himself.
There is much evidence brought by those who do not believe in God that all this is a kind of flight of fancy, or wishful thinking. Those who hold to faith are in the words of Professor Richard Dawkins, ‘deluded’. Christian Faith for many is not able to withstand the test that time imposes upon it, especially in the present day. The old Christian certainties have given way, in the face of a world grown more diverse, more communicative and more complex than ever. If Christianity is to ‘walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil’ it is to be a Christianity which does not find itself in antagonised reaction to the new forces which shape our contemporary world and indeed multicultural contemporary London. The Christian witness urges us on to refreshed and revitalised understandings of what is to be human, what it is to be British, what it is to be a Londoner, what it is to be a Christian today. And we will need, more than ever, to heed the words of Psalm 23, which calls for an impassioned faith. It rejoices in God who is the giver and the sustainer of all life, and of the promise of fullness of life and of freedom which is his desire for us all on this earth, whoever and wherever we may be. We discover in that God is not partial, He does not reveal his presence and purposes solely within the institutional Church.
Some weeks ago a seventeen year old schoolgirl was called out of her chemistry class in Birmingham to be told that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala Yousafzai, described in the press as a ‘child education activist’ is being schooled in Britain, having survived being shot in the head in her Pakistani home town by the Taliban whilst travelling on the school bus. Now well, though with marked signs of her wounds, she has spoken out against the way girls in Pakistan are denied educational advantages, and of how in comparatively advanced societies like her own, children are commonly reduced to slave status from an early age by their families and supported by the political system. I cannot help but feel that this young girl is a great presence and a great voice on the world scene, because her experiences and outspokenness speak to us all of the presence of God which breaks through the clarion voices and vested interests which would treat their fellow human beings, in this case children, as mere commodities. As Christians, we must hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches, a spirit which does not confine itself to the Church’s existence, but which may express itself as the voice of God in a troubled world, and whose governing voice may be heard in the life of a seventeen year old schoolgirl from Birmingham. If the promise of Psalm 23 is not to be one founded in religious romanticism it must be a call to a Christianity which contains the three ‘C’s which we are aiming for in the Diocese of London ‘Caring, Compassionate and Confident’. It must be a Christianity which does not speak from a narrow and culturally confined space. Much of the New Testament emerges out of the clash of cultures and political ideologies and religions and Christianity must realise this.
I was privileged last week to overhear a Christian priest welcoming a Hindu convert to Christianity. How could it be possible to understand all the world’s religions in relation to Christianity? The priest described a large tree with many branches, the religions of the world. He went on to say that for Christians, Christ is the root and sap of that tree, the necessary human/divine love out of which the whole structure may grow and develop. It is above all else humanitarian and peace making. The existence if ISIS and other extremist/terrorist groups are a reminder its opposite, of negative, life denying, person denying, murderous intent.
The seventeen year old schoolgirl, Malala, called out of her Birmingham Chemistry lesson is the reminder which we are given in today’s Gospel of the invitation to the heavenly banquet, where murderous intent and selfish disobedience has given way to a willingness firstly to recognise Him and secondly, to live in Him and to co-operate with his purposes. In this way we advance a reconciliation of all humankind with the one God, who in Jesus Christ is the Lord, our shepherd, “we lack nothing”.