Boasting

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Romans 5:1-11.  Note: this is my final day in this role, as assistant curate across two parishes, so this was my farewell sermon, so to speak.

A man from Texas was boasting to an Australian that everything was bigger in Texas than anywhere else.  Then a kangaroo hopped by, and the Texan stared silently for a few seconds then said, “Well I… I guess your mice are bigger.”

But seriously, nobody likes to hear other people boasting.  It seems to be a subtle – or not-so-subtle – game of “I’m better than you,” and there’s really nothing gracious about that.  So it’s odd, perhaps, to English-speaking ears to hear Paul refer to boasting so often, and not always in negative ways.  In today’s reading, he talks about boasting in our hope of sharing the glory of God… and of boasting in our sufferings.

And that’s a bit counter-intuitive to us, the idea of boasting in our sufferings, so I wanted to look at it a bit more closely.  It turns out that the word we’ve translated here as “boasting” isn’t quite as negative in the original languages; rather than having nuances of pride and arrogance, it can mean something more like, making an identity statement.  This is who I am.  We see that sort of thing in some of the Psalms; “My soul makes its boast in the Lord,” and so on.

So just like we might make identity statements in other ways, through how we dress and present ourselves, or what interests we pursue, or even what we read, Paul is talking about aspects of the Christian life as things about which we can – and should – make identity statements.  This is who we are; this is where we stand, in God’s grace.

This is an aside, but I know over the last little while we’ve had some talk on parish council and around the parish in general about marketing, and whether marketing is something we can do better, or even should strive to do better.  But if we think about marketing as “making identity statements,” (this is who we are, this is where we stand), and as making invitations (come and stand with us!) then I’d have to say that it’s something that would be fairly fundamental to a Christian way of life, as Paul presents it here.

But that’s a side comment to what I wanted to say this morning.

Paul talks about boasting in our sufferings; or perhaps that might be better rendered as, making identity statements related to our sufferings.  This doesn’t mean that our sufferings define us; not at all.  But it means that how we position ourselves in relation to our sufferings might very well define us.

Let me give you an example.  When I was in my first year at college, some stuff happened which led to me having something of a crisis, and eventually being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.  I had several years where I was, emotionally speaking, a wreck.  Passages like this one, which speak of God’s love being poured into our hearts – or even the part of our worship which asks us to lift up our hearts – became intolerably painful to me, because it seemed to me that my heart, the core of who I was, was shattered beyond any hope of usefulness or repair.  What good was God pouring his love into my heart, if my heart was so badly smashed that it couldn’t hold anything?

But the thing is that, slowly, painfully, and painstakingly, God put those shards of who I was back together.  Piece by piece, through the love and care of good and patient people, through experiences which gave me glimpses of new possibilities, and through the gradual working through of the guilt, shame, and anger of what had happened, I began to be a person who was no longer just a pile of shards but something of a whole again.

I’ll never be the same.  I’m acutely aware of where the cracks are, where the sore spots are, and my own limitations, in a way that I never was before.  But I can once again be loving, joyful, creative and hopeful; and work effectively together with others to do something worthwhile.

I tell you that, so that when I say that after that, yes I agree with Paul that suffering produces, ultimately, hope, you’ll understand that I’m not talking from a complete lack of experience of suffering.  Having been through something like that, I now know that whatever happens, God is at work in it; bringing light from darkness, and order from chaos.  That when you’re in the middle of a bad experience, that’s not the end of the story.  And that even our most profound suffering, in the end, does not define who we are.

Those are identity statements.  My suffering does not define who I am.  Who I am is defined by the God who is at work in the depths of my being, even when I’m not aware of it.  The end of my story is not what I’m experiencing now, but something held in trust for me by the God who created everything that is, and will make everything perfect in its time.

That’s the kind of boasting Paul is talking about; and it’s important for us to be able to do that.  To be able to put into words the hope that will not disappoint us; to have that as a clear and shared anchor for times of difficulty.

And this is important for you now, I think.  You’ve been through some rough times as a parish.  There are hurts and wounds here which are real, where God still has some work to do.  There is, I know, some anxiety here about the future of the parish.  Will the new beginnings that you’ve begun to see over the last couple of years continue to grow into something good, or will what looked like it might be promising turn out to have been a false start?

In my first sermon here, I said that it seemed to me that this parish was like an old tree, sturdy, strong, with deep roots; but a tree that had been in winter for some time, and needed to remember what it was like when spring comes.  And I think, together, we’ve begun to see some signs of spring as we’ve prayed and worshipped and worked together.

But the thing about spring is, it comes not because of anything the tree does, or even anything the gardener does, but because the turning of the world is an irresistible force which affects everything on it.  If the Spirit is at work in you, turning your world around, bringing spring, bringing new beginnings and new life and new hope, that doesn’t actually depend on the person up the front.  It doesn’t even depend on how hard you work (although that’s not an excuse to stop working hard!)  It will simply happen, and you will either be ready for it, or taken by surprise!

I say to you now what I said to you on that first Sunday; I don’t think God’s done with you yet.  Spring is coming.  New beginnings are being felt.  The potential is still here for a season of growth.  And if the proposed building project does go ahead, you might have more of it than you know what to do with!

But what will help you to be ready for that is the kind of boasting – or confident identity statement – that Paul talks about in his letter.  The ability to say things like:

Our current circumstances do not define who we are.  Christ does.

God is at work, in us individually, in us as a community, and in the local people around us, in ways we seek to discover, cooperate with, and celebrate.

The next chapter of our story is held in trust for us by God, and we look forward to moving into it with joy.

Aren’t those boasts worth holding on to?

And the thing is, it’s not the kind of ugly boasting that seeks to put anyone down, but the confident knowing who you are, and standing in that place at peace, and with confidence, because you know that it’s God who planted you here, and he doesn’t plant in vain.

The Lord be with you.

 

 

 

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Living and active

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is Mark 12:35-37.

There’s a hymn that I quite like, which starts:

We limit not the truth of God
to our poor reach of mind,
by notions of our day and sect,
crude, partial and confined:
no, let a new and better hope
within our hearts be stirred:
the Lord has yet more light and truth
to break forth from his word.

I’m reminded of that when we read today’s gospel passage.  Jesus is discussing a Psalm attributed to David, in which David celebrates God’s rule over all the earth and triumph over Israel’s enemies.  Clearly it meant something along those lines to David when he wrote it, and to the people of Israel who included it in their temple worship.

But here Jesus takes it and creatively re-interprets it to make a statement about his own identity as Messiah.

It doesn’t make what David originally meant by it less true, but it adds another layer or dimension of truth, another depth of insight, into how we might understand the text and what we might take from it for our own encouragement.

And that makes me think, as we celebrate this octave of Pentecost, about how the Holy Spirit works when we read Scripture.  Because inspiration isn’t just about what the Spirit said back then, to the original author with papyrus and ink; it’s also about what the Spirit says to us now, in our hearts, about how the God the Scriptures speak of is present and active to us now.

That’s why the author of Hebrews can speak about the word of God as living and active; the words on the page, by themselves, are not living and active at all.  But the Spirit can bring them alive to us, making them not just active but effective, stirring us to hope and love and joy.

May we be open to that at every opportunity!

Gifts

This is a sermon for the feast of Pentecost, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 12:1-13.

I wonder if you ever look around you, at the people at church, and think we’re a bit of an odd bunch?  Thrown together by quirks of history and circumstance, some of us even having come from halfway around the world or with all sorts of interesting backgrounds.  Do you wonder if, when we’re looked at collectively, we manage to be more than the sum of our parts?

Or, on a bad day, we might even be tempted to wonder, “Lord, why did you think it was a good idea to put me in church next to that person I can’t stand?”

But if we sometimes might feel like that, I’d answer that God sees us very differently.  God, who knew about all of us intimately before we were even born, knew that each of us would be here today.  He knew the part we would play in the life of this church.  And knowing all of those things, God gave to each of us exactly what we needed so that together, we would be able to carry out his mission in this time and place.

When I was in college, the Jesuits used to call that loving, gracious planning ahead of time “The Dream of the Trinity,” imagining a conversation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in which they discussed exactly what our needs were going to be, and how best to fill those needs.  So that it’s not random that we have, for example, Patsy’s wisdom, or Jenny’s skill in administration, or Jacquie’s ability to teach; rather each of those things is an expression of God’s loving care for this community, in providing what it needs through the people who are committed to it.

And if you think me singling a few people out as examples mean the rest of you don’t have such a thing, that’s not true.  Here’s what today’s reading from Corinthians said:  All these gifts are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

To each one.  Not just to the clergy or to the people who are outgoing and willing to put themselves forward.  But to each person, the Spirit allots something which, when used in the life of the church, is essential for the good of all.

That has a number of implications.

First, it means that you’re God’s gift to the church.  We need you, each one of you, and what you bring, to be able to be the church that God wants us to be.  So while that doesn’t mean we can’t argue or disagree, we need to be very very wary of letting that turn into divisions in the church.  We’re all in this together, and no one is dispensable.

As Paul goes on to say: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

We’re all in this together, by the grace of God.

Second, if the gifts each of us have are the work of the Spirit in us, equipping us individually so that together, we might be able to be the community God created us to be, then it follows from that, that knowing and using our gifts is actually important.

One of the most unhelpful things that can happen in a church is when someone is trying to be a round peg in a square hole; doing something they’re not good at or passionate about, because they think they “should,” or someone else has twisted their arm.  It’s draining for that person, and often it leads to less than great outcomes in what they do.

This is, by the way, why I’ve never been on a flower roster in my life.  God did not gift me with the knack of gorgeous arrangements.  I remember, though, one church I was in where at one point the usual list of volunteers to do the flowers was a bit light on, and an appeal was put out for more helpers.  To everyone’s surprise, one of the teenaged boys put his hand up; and he started to put together creative and interesting arrangements which really spoke of the glories of God’s creation.  Now, I don’t know if that young man is still doing anything artistic or creative today, but I really hope he is, because he had a genuine gift for it, and the church honoured that gift – and him – by giving him scope to serve in that way.

But what I observe when I talk to people is that many don’t know what their gifts are.  I don’t know whether it’s that we’ve cultivated a culture of humility, to the point that people don’t feel able to say, “Actually, I think I might be good at this, and I’d like to give it a go,” or whether we’ve created a church where people rely too much on the clergy, or what it is, but people often seem hesitant about this.

But we shouldn’t be!  If the Spirit has given to each of us, it’s not boasting to say so; and it doesn’t make any of us any better than any other, because everyone has something to bring.

So how do we get to recognise our own gifts?  I think there are two things that can be very helpful.  One is to think and pray about the different sorts of gifts that Scripture talks about, and see whether they fit you.  Are you discerning?  Are you encouraging?  Are you hospitable?  And so forth.  If you’re interested in that kind of approach I can give you some resources to stir your thinking.

Another approach is to reflect on your own experience.  What have you done which has most energised you, not necessarily just in the church, but in your life in general?  What has given you the most joy?  How might those things find expression in the life of the church in some way?

Now a caveat.  I realise that I am talking to a group of people, some of whom are more rich in years.  Some of you, to be honest, are tired, and don’t want to be pushed to give more of yourself than you feel you can.

Please don’t hear me talking about spiritual gifts in this way, and feel that this is code for “You must do more.”  That’s not it at all.  If anything, it’s a plea to you to make sure that whatever of your precious time and energy you give to the church, you use it in a way which is most effective.

But more than that, there’s a deeper truth to hold on to.  God knew our needs, long before we got to this point, and carefully, thoughtfully and lovingly provided for them by providing us with each other.  God is not, at this moment, asking us to do anything more than we can do.  He knows our limitations, he knows where there is tiredness and illness, he knows where people need to let go of things.  His heart holds you in that in nothing but absolute love.

Whatever God is asking us to do, today, tomorrow, next week and next year, it is not more than we can do.  If we sometimes feel that the task is too great, perhaps we’ve misunderstood the task; or perhaps God has some surprises in store for us.  He’s surprised me more than once!

But what I think we need to hold onto this Pentecost, this celebration of the work of the Spirit in and through each of us, is that this motley bunch of people that we are, was lovingly planned by God before creation began.  Each of us is God’s gift to the others, and together, we are God’s gift to a world desperately in need of an oasis of love, joy and peace.  Together we are enough to fulfil that loving plan, even when we don’t entirely understand it; and if we can really grasp that, and live it out… well, later in his letter Paul describes how the people who witness that in the church will end up coming to worship, because they will recognise that “God is really among you.”

God is really among us; so let’s hold on to that and let it shape our life here, in faith and hope and love.