Commandments in context

This is a sermon for the sifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is John 14:15-21.

Culturally, I think we have a bit of a problem with the idea of commandments.  We tend to see the level of demand implied by being “commanded” to do something as too high, unreasonable, and certainly not loving; so we tend to prefer to treat commandments from God as something more like “guidelines” or “suggestions” for living.

The problem here, I think, is not that we reject the idea of the oppressive use of power – we’re right to be suspicious of that – but in our misunderstanding of how commandments from God are supposed to function.

See, the thing is that commandments are only one aspect of a much more complex relationship between us and God; a relationship that the Scriptures talk about as a covenant.  That’s a word which describes a relationship which is binding; where both parties are held together in relationship by their mutual commitment to one another.

The idea of our relationship with God being defined by a covenant is not, of course, an original Christian idea.  It’s something that developed in Jewish understanding first; where covenant is the core idea that underpins the distinctiveness of Jewish religion; the Jews are the children of God by adoption and free decision on both sides.  Through that free decision, ancient Jews saw themselves as bound in relationship with God who makes an exclusive and absolute claim on their loyalty in worship and social life, but in response, God gives himself to them in an exclusive and absolute way, as the one who will have concern for their welfare, and see to it that their society is structured with justice as a guiding principle.  And, as a result of these commitments on both sides, community is formed; the community of people who are bound together with God and with one another by their participation in this covenant.

So a covenant between God and God’s people has different aspects; there is the call from God, inviting us into relationship with Him; there is God’s presence to us, and our mutual belonging to one another (us to God, and God to us); there is an element of public witness; and there is the way the mutual love between us and God plays out in our keeping the commandments.

And this is where this ties into our gospel reading today, where Jesus began by saying to his disciples that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What he is really saying here is not some kind of guilt trip intended to provoke good behaviour, but an appeal to his disciples to live out to the full the reality of the binding relationship between them and Jesus (and, through Jesus, God).  Here “love” expressed in service and obedience is an expression of loyalty; our choices are shaped by our commitment to God, rather than to any other.

In this section of John’s gospel, the account of the last supper, even though Jesus doesn’t use the word “covenant,” (he does in the other gospels), it seems that he is framing his relationship with his disciples as being a mirror or an echo of the Jewish relationship with God.  That’s why we can talk about our own participation in a “new covenant,” one which Jesus created, and the terms of which are spelled out in passages like this.

And this is why the promises in this chapter, are so significant; they are the flip side to our loyalty to Jesus in keeping the commandments; they are Jesus’ (and God’s) loyalty to us expressed in enduring relationship.  So we read here Jesus’ promises that he will enable the disciples to do greater works than his, that he will send the Holy Spirit, that Jesus will return and that the Father and Jesus will make their dwelling among the disciples; that the Holy Spirit will teach them and remind them of everything Jesus taught them, and that they will receive the gift of peace.

These are big promises.  They are – or ought to be – promises which give us a huge amount of comfort and strength to draw on in our pilgrimage together.

These things that I’ve been talking about this morning; God’s choosing us (and our choosing God), intimate abiding relationship between us, God’s presence dwelling in us, keeping God’s commandments, and so forth; these sum up for us John’s idea of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  John shows us that discipleship is a covenant relationship; and it’s a relationship between us and God which mirrors the relationship between Jesus and the Father, in its mutuality, responsiveness, and intimacy.  Ultimately, the disciples are being called here to participate in the dynamic of the relationship at the heart of the Trinity; and this is supposed to give to the new covenant community – the church – our unique identity and distinctiveness from the rest of the world.

The unity the disciples are supposed to share comes from the presence of God dwelling in each of them.  This is, by the way, why the line in the Creed that says “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church,” comes in the section which begins “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”  It’s the Holy Spirit, given to each one of us, which makes us part of the Church, and it’s the Holy Spirit, dwelling in each person from baptism, which makes the Church something other than a random bunch of piously-minded people who decided to cooperate.  The Church is bigger than any institution or denomination, and is the network of all people everywhere who have the Spirit living in them.

It seems very likely that John felt the need to include all of this in his gospel as he wrote to a community unsure of their identity, in a world where their belief in Jesus meant they had to reevaluate all their previous religious commitments (whether Jewish or Pagan).  His gospel gave his community a solid footing for forming their own sense of distinctive identity, one which was robust and inspiring enough to strengthen and encourage them as they worked out how to live and worship as Christians in a hostile world.

Although our context is very different, we have the same need to be sure of our shared identity, so that it can give us strength and courage as we work through our very different – but no less challenging – issues.  These themes of covenant relationship, which Jesus presents so carefully to his disciples here, can be an important help to us in that; to be comforted by God’s continuous presence with us, and to respond with loyalty and love which sees us keep his commandments, not as a burden, but as an expression of our mutually loving and enriching relationship with God.

How will you live out your covenant with God, this week?

Priceless

This is a sermon for the eighth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 6:22-34.

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Are we feeling uncomfortable yet?  I don’t know about you, but there’s little more guaranteed to stir in me feelings of guilt and confusion, than the question of whether I’ve entirely got my priorities right about money.

There are a number of reasons why, of course.  In our society it’s not really polite to talk about money; who has it, who doesn’t, and what we do with it.  Instead we read one another’s clothes and  postcodes and cars as a subtle and complex code for economic status.

And we’ve had a long tradition of Christian suspicion of wealth.  Jesus told at least one person to give everything he had to the poor; and I suspect that many of us worry that if we really listened to what he was saying, he might say something similar to us.

And, more than that, we know that if we’re in this church on Sunday morning, fed, clothed and going about our business, by world standards that makes us filthy rich.  When people overseas die for lack of clean water or food that would cost very little by our standards….

Well, it’s no wonder that this is an uncomfortable subject, is it?

I don’t want to take us all on a guilt trip this morning.  But what can we do with this that’s a bit more constructive rather than anxiety-inducing?

It struck me, as I considered this question, that really we’re talking about an issue of boundaries.

Think of it this way; we know about physical boundaries; whether it’s a polite picket fence or a moat stocked with alligators, a boundary lets you know where things belong and who is responsible for what.  But move away from that sort of concrete geographical marker and we’re much less clear.  Try to add in God – just what is my responsibility in this life, and what is God’s responsibility, anyway? – and we can get ourselves into a world of pain very quickly.

And I think that’s what Jesus is trying to address here.  It’s our responsibility to use what we’ve been given wisely, to live the way God created us to be.  It’s God’s responsibility to make sure that we have what we need.  If we forget that last bit, we can tie ourselves up in knots as we try desperately to control things that, actually, are outside our control.  And we end up chasing money as if that were our purpose in life, instead of recognising that our job is to worship God and walk in his ways, and the money is there to help us do that.  It’s meant to be our servant, not our master.

I actually think it’s one of the weaknesses of our church tradition that we don’t talk about money very much.  Wanting to avoid manipulating or being inappropriate in asking for money for the church, we very seldom dare take on the question of what a Christian approach to structuring one’s finances might look like.  And then we’re surprised when people lack confidence in relating this area of life to our faith.

But I think we can talk about whether we’ve got this relationship the wrong way around; whether money is really an effective tool in our hands, or is driving us unhelpfully.

I’d suggest that, like most things, we can look for the symptoms: is there any anxiety about money, either making it or spending it?  Does money bind us unhelpfully?  I’m not talking there about being unable to upgrade to a mansion, but whether something to do with money gets in the way of living lives which are loving, joyful, and peaceful?  Is money – or the things we do to earn or manage money – an issue in our relationships?  Do we know when to stop working, and when to say no, to make room for other more important things?

There might be other things in play too.  One of the reasons I tend to get anxious about money, I realise, is that I was never really taught about managing money.  I’ve had to teach myself, as an adult, about things like superannuation and mortgages and investments and all the rest of it.  I still rely on my husband to do any internet banking!  And my own ignorance and lack of confidence can mean that worries about money bother me more than they would if I felt I knew what I was doing and had everything properly sorted.  So maybe, for some of us, part of the answer actually lies in being confident that we know how to use our money properly, rather than being at the mercy of systems we don’t understand.

Or it might be that anxiety about money is really masking another, deeper need.  Someone who is in poor health might end up with a distorted attachment to money, because they’re fearful of what might happen and their ability to have basic physical needs met, for example.

Those are questions worth taking seriously.  Maybe, as we head towards the beginning of Lent, taking an inventory of our anxieties, in general, might be a useful way to prepare to let God be at work in them.

Of course, sometimes we simply aren’t aware of our own weaknesses.  One exercise I’ve seen suggested is that of keeping a record, for a while, of everything you spend money on, and how much it costs.  Not with a view to beating yourself up about it, but just with a view to being conscious of the patterns of your own behaviour; patterns we often don’t recognise when they’ve become part of the fabric of everyday life.  I did that for a while as a student, and it was an insight into just how much chocolate I really ate!  A little here and a little there never seemed like much, until I was confronted with a grand total and had to admit that it wasn’t healthy.

My chocolate addiction remains unresolved.  But at least now I am aware of it, and I have a plan to do something about it.  Right after I manage to get enough sleep…

You take my point.  None of us is perfect and I certainly don’t want to come across here as presenting myself as any better than anyone else.  All of us can struggle with keeping things in their appropriate place in our lives.

But here’s the thing.  If we can keep money where it belongs in our lives – as a tool, rather than something that drives us – then it won’t get in the way of what really matters; our relationship with God and our relationships with our loved ones.  It helps us to be the best we can be, approaching life with confidence and joy, knowing that we’re doing our job in this partnership, and God is doing God’s job.  And that really is something priceless.

Not the end of the story

This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 5:38-48.

“Love your enemies.”  I remember the first time I ever preached on this, I was in my first year of college, and I commented in my sermon that I didn’t really feel I had any enemies.  One of the people in the congregation told me that if I got ordained that would be sure to change!

Cynicism about the church aside, this is a hard saying from Jesus.  But if we are going to take seriously the instruction to love our enemies, it would help to know what “love” means here.

The way we usually use the word “love,” it mostly describes our feelings; emotional bonds or longings or likes from the sublime to the ridiculous; affection, fondness, or enthusiasm.

If we hear Christ’s words with that sort of meaning in mind, it can seem quite inhuman.  Which of us is going to have those sorts of feelings for our enemies?  And if we recognise that we don’t, how could we possibly manufacture them?

But as used in the New Testament, in particular, love has more to do with action and responsibility, and less to do with our emotions or liking for someone.  To love is to do what you can to provide for the well-being of another whether you like that person or not.  In his famous passage describing love, Paul doesn’t say anything about our emotions, only that love is patient and kind, without jealousy or boasting, without arrogance or rudeness, doesn’t insist on having its own way, doesn’t rejoice at wrong but rather in the right, and endures everything.

An act of love might be motivated by delight in someone or gratitude for something they have done or any of those sorts of positive human feelings; or an act of love might be done despite exhaustion, depression, fear, aversion or anger; it may be done simply as an act of obedience to God; it may be done as a prayer and an expression of faith and hope that the truth about the people involved is bigger than the lack of positive emotion.

I think, actually, that aspect of faith and hope is really important.  It allows us to take our own current emotions – whatever they are – and say that they’re not the end of the story.  They’re not the final word and they don’t define either me or the person about whom I have those feelings, but both of us are caught up in a bigger reality, both of us beholden to a creator who animates us, both of us bound together in a common human struggle to fulfil that act of creation.

Thomas Merton put it like this: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.  That is not our business and, in fact, is nobody’s business.  What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself with render both ourselves and our neighbours worthy.”

I have a friend who is a Buddhist monk, who works as a prison chaplain.  He told me once that one of the things he does to teach the prisoners is to get them to think about where their food comes from.  When he first asks, he says, they say something like, “the kitchen.”  But as he presses them to think about it, they realise that they have a meal in front of them only because of a huge complex human organisation of farmers and manufacturers and drivers and retailers and cooks… the simple act of eating connects each prisoner to the rest of humanity in a deep and profound way.

This simple exercise of being aware of where our food comes from, he tells me, is often a first step to helping these deeply alienated men realise that we are all profoundly interconnected and interdependent.  None of us could live our lives without the help of countless others near and far, present and past… friend and enemy.  Everything we have, not just material things, but our words, our ideas, our skills, our faith, the music and stories which give us courage, wisdom and delight; everything we have has been given to us by others.  We are each part of a greater whole.

That understanding, my friend tells me, can be a first step to rehabilitation and the recovery of broken souls in prison.

But it is a wisdom not just for those in prison.  We are each – you and me, our families and friends, and, yes, even our enemies – part of a greater whole in which we participate.  We can no more remove ourselves from that, than pigs can fly.

For the Christian, it goes deeper than seeing what we each have in common as human beings.  We are called to see each human being – no matter how alienating, threatening or confronting – as presenting to us the image of God.  St. John Chrysostom – who didn’t coddle his congregation! – told them bluntly that “If you fail to recognise Christ in the beggar outside the church door, you will not find Christ in the chalice.”

We don’t like this, of course.  We want those who are in some way a problem for us to go away, get lost; we’ve bought into the idea that we can separate good and evil people, and all we need to do is remove the evil people from our midst, and we can have a (relative) paradise.

It’s an illusion that’s good for the ego, but it’s simply not true.  Solzhenitsyn – longtime inhabitant of the Gulag – wrote of his perception of the truth:

“If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

We are saved, Solzhenitsyn saw, and Jesus would agree, not by the killing or removal of our enemies, but by their conversion and ours.  This, too, requires a sense from us that whatever we feel about someone right now, it’s not the end of the story.  Both they and we will go on from this point, and, we trust, change and grow; and so might our relationship.

There are, I think, two ways to engage with this instruction to love our enemies.  We can try to make a mental list of who our enemies are, and then – if not do something concrete for them – at least make sure that we are not actively doing anything to harm them.  That is hard enough.

But more than that, we can ask ourselves, whom in our lives are we not loving?  And that will show us whom we are treating as enemies, even if we don’t want to admit it to ourselves.

But those are precisely those relationships which we need to bring to God, in faith and hope that our current reality is not the end of the story.  And we need to be open to whatever God might ask of us, in being part of the next chapter.

Love the stranger

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Deuteronomy 10:12-22.

One of the things that Christians have often wrestled with is how we deal with the fact that our Scriptures contain books of laws and commandments which were given by God to the Jewish people; and it’s not always obvious or straightforward to work out how those laws or commandments relate to our lives as Christians.

Some things we decided fairly quickly didn’t apply to us; food restrictions, keeping the Sabbath, the requirements for animal sacrifice, and so forth, we can see being abandoned even in the New Testament.  But if there’s one thing we’ve held onto as absolutely central to Christianity, it’s that human beings have a dual obligation, to love God and love one another.  Jesus himself affirmed this as the principle on which everything else hangs.

So when we come to a passage like today’s reading from Deuteronomy, we need to read carefully; is it dealing with matters of loving God, or loving everyone else?  Listen again to what Moses had to say: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.”

“You shall also love the stranger.”

We are commanded, we know, to love our neighbours as ourselves.  This reading fleshes that out a bit further; you shall also love the stranger.  It’s not that the stranger is not your neighbour, but that he is a particular category of neighbour; someone who is in some way an outsider to the community; someone who experiences a degree of isolation; someone who is socially vulnerable.

This is, by the way, part of why the movement for social justice is an unavoidable part of authentic Christian life.  Because it’s by working for social justice that we seek to create a society in which those neighbours who are in some way vulnerable have a fair go in life; in terms of access to financial security, opportunities to participate in their community to the full, and opportunities to fulfil their God-given potential.  And we’ve seen this historically in the Christian push to abolish slavery, to establish adequate welfare for those in need, and to provide education to even the poorest in society.

Social justice isn’t optional for us.  It’s part of our very DNA as Christians.  Love the stranger; make sure vulnerability doesn’t turn into suffering.

Let me unpack a specific example for you this morning; and that is the question of how we treat refugees in Australia.

To be clear, a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave his or her home because of war or persecution, and who seeks protection in another country.  By international convention, to which Australia is a party, such a person has a right to protection in another country.

Let me say that again; by international law, a refugee has a legal right to protection in Australia.

But what actually happens to many refugees here is sickening.  It’s not easy to get permission to visit detention centres and I never have; so I rely for my information on accounts written by other people.  The points that follow I’ve taken from a public submission to an Australian senate inquiry, and if you ask me afterwards I can provide you with a link to more information.*

  • Isolation and lack of communication are constant realities. I’ve already mentioned that it’s difficult to get permission to visit; mail deliveries might not happen for up to a month at a time; public phones don’t exist in the centres and even when a refugee might be allowed to leave to use one, it is too expensive for them to make calls; equipment for electronic communication is in disrepair, very slow and requires that the refugee know how to use it and be literate in English.
  • There is a lack of medical care. Illnesses are left untreated.  Pain medication is not given.  Injuries are left to heal, or not.  There are stories of people going blind for want of basic treatment of an eye infection.  One such mother had two young children to care for; children whose smiles she will never see again.  Not only is mental health treatment completely inadequate, but the conditions in which people are kept create and compound existing mental health issues.
  • Fresh water supply is not consistent, and in Nauru has been reported to only be available for two hours a day; in that time refugees must see to their drinking and washing needs. Conditions are often unsanitary.
  • Normal family life is disrupted and the ability of parents to care for their children is compromised.
  • There is lack of legal assistance, or of access to information exercise their legal rights. Interviews determining someone’s future are often held without any legal advisors present.

And people are left in this situation, in limbo, for years on end, with no idea of whether or when they might be able to leave.

That’s just a start.  That’s the beginning of painting a picture for you of what we are doing to these people; people who, let us not forget, have a legal right to our protection.

It’s hardly loving the stranger, is it?

I would go so far as to say this; I have sometimes heard people voice concerns that Australia is losing its character as a Christian nation.  That as religious education has been removed from schools, as same-sex marriage is on the horizon, and so forth, we are becoming a nation detached from our religious heritage.

To those people I would say this: as long as we keep a single refugee locked up in what amounts to a concentration camp, we have no right to any credible claim to being a Christian nation.  Maybe we ought to worry less about whether children in the local primary school are hearing the story of Adam and Eve, and worry more about whether children who have already been traumatised and displaced have any hope for a better tomorrow under Australia’s sun.

I know I stated that strongly, and that some of you might find that confronting.  But sometimes we need to hear things which we find confronting.

We can do better than this.  Our God commands us to actually love the strangers who seek our protection.  And I put it to you this morning that we have a Christian obligation to seek justice and mercy for them.

https://refugeeaction.org/information/inside-the-detention-centres/submission-to-2006-migration_amendment-inquiry/

Uneasy reflection

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is Genesis 3:1-8

Well, there it is.  Today’s reading from Genesis is one of those parts of Scripture which has come to grip imaginations in powerful ways ever since it was written.  When we want to know who we really are, it holds up an uneasy reflection which prompts more thoughtful questions than easy answers; or at least, I think it should.

What I noticed as I read it for today was that one of the reasons Eve was tempted, was that she saw that “the tree was to be desired to make one wise.”  And I thought that was interesting, because it suggests that somehow Eve, in that primitive, pre-fallen state, had a sense of herself as being unwise.

And I wonder why that was?  Presumably, in the perfect life of the garden, there wasn’t any task for her to do for which she felt she lacked the knowledge or skill.  I also presume that in that perfect garden, there was nothing with which she felt discontented, or that she wanted to improve.

I’m reminded a bit of the idea of a human hierarchy of needs; that human beings have needs, ranging from the most basic (physiological needs for food, rest, safety and so forth), to the more complex (needs for belonging, love and esteem), through to the need for what the psychologists call “self-actualisation;” the ability to realise one’s full potential, in creativity, in enlightenment, in knowledge, and so forth.

In the garden Eve didn’t have any unmet needs, except perhaps this one; did a perfect world leave her any scope for self-actualisation?  Or is that need, that drive to realise our potential, something we only have now, after the fall, when we are aware of how far we are from how we were created to be?  I’m not sure.

But what it suggests to me, as I ponder what that might mean for us today, is that the drive to realise our potential is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, it can lead us to seek God’s will for our lives, pushing ourselves to fulfil what God created us for and calls us to; and that is a good thing!

On the other hand it might make something which isn’t actually right for me, look like a good idea; or it might make me restless and unreliable during the part of growing which is more hard work than instant reward.  Not every opportunity is going to be the right thing at the right time.

And so that’s the question I’m left with, as I look at my own decisions to make: if I do this or that, whom does it really serve?  Is it part of the bigger picture of what God’s doing in the world, or is it just appealing to my own desire to be bigger than I am right now?  Lest, desiring to become wise, I become a fool.

But we ought to be wise in Christ.

The Lord be with you.

Dreams of forgiveness

This is a sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 17:1-10.

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

That’s what came to mind for me, when I read Jesus’ words about forgiveness: “if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’”

Well, that’s all well and good, Jesus, I wanted to say.  And maybe it’s fine if we’re talking about petty things – whatever the first-century equivalent of leaving the toilet seat up was – but surely there’s a point at which we have to look after ourselves, too?  Is Jesus talking about putting up with ongoing bullying, or the like?  Should I put my dreams – my own sense of self, even – out there to be trampled on, and issue an open invitation to be treated like a doormat?

But I don’t think he’s saying that.  We need to balance this requirement for forgiveness with the verse before, which says that, “if another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender;” so this is emphatically not about putting up with bad treatment, or collapsing all boundaries.

But what I think it is getting at is what happens when the bad behaviour has stopped (even if it’s very much a stop-start pattern).  And that is, that you let it go.

I’m very bad at this, I have to admit.  When someone has done something that seems very much like the wrong thing, I hate to see them get away with it.

For example; there was someone who bullied me rather nastily in a particular situation.  And even when that situation was over – because I left, not because the bullying was ever acknowledged or rectified – I was holding on to so much anger over the whole thing.  I didn’t want to see this person.  Didn’t want to hear them praised or given respect.  I wanted to jump up and down and yell, “Can’t everyone see what this person is?  Why are you letting them get away with it?”

In fact, the anger caused me so much of a problem – because I couldn’t avoid situations where it arose – that I ended up taking it to my spiritual director.  “What do I do with all this emotion?  Intellectually I know that this is over and I need to put it behind me, but emotionally I’m in another place, and I just don’t know how to move from there.”

He gave me this suggestion.  “Sit down and write a letter to this person.  Write about everything they did, how it made you feel, get it all out and hold nothing back.  And then” – this is probably the more unusual part of his advice – “find a spot in the garden and bury the letter; find some plant that you really like and plant it in that spot.  And as you put the plant in the ground, thank God for new life and new growth that can come out of even very hard situations, and every time you look at that plant as it grows and flowers you’ll be reminded that you, also, grow and flower out of hard things.”

Anyway, so I did as my spiritual director suggested, and I must admit I did find it helpful.  (I also had a good laugh when the plant actually died; but at least I could laugh by then).

And he was right, of course, that we can grow and flower out of hard things.  I can see that if, for example, I now have the courage to deal with conflict instead of avoiding it, it came in part out of that experience of seeing what happened when conflict was ignored.

But maybe that’s one thing that’s important in learning to forgive.  Realising that God is at work in me, as well as in the other person, and we both need time and grace to grow and change.  And being grateful for that time and grace and the growth that we can see.

But I think there might be something more than that, too.  Because forgiveness – real forgiveness – comes from more than just my desire to be comfortable, and to have neatly dealt with any awkward emotional baggage.  I think it comes out of an outlook which is optimistic about people.

Let me put it this way; to forgive someone the wrong they’ve done, to truly let it go, most of us need to believe that that person has changed.  And, even more deeply than that, we need to believe that people can change.

That might sound obvious, but how many times have you heard people say things like, “a leopard can’t change his spots”?  It’s tempting to believe that people are who they are, and they’re never going to change.  And I say, it’s tempting, because that then gives us an excuse to hold on to our angers and our unforgiveness.

But.  But I think it is one of the defining characteristics of Christianity that we believe that people can change.  That we say that God believes people can change, and believes it so strongly that Jesus went through death and hell itself to give us the opportunity to prove him right.

So I think that deep down, forgiveness is more than letting go of the need to be vindicated.  It’s more than dealing with my own wounded emotions.  It is, in its own way, an act which makes known the good news of Jesus Christ; because if I believe you can change, if I believe you can be right with me and with God, I believe that what Christ did for us all, and what Christ is doing in you and me right now, actually means something.  It makes a difference.

So maybe, when we think of our dreams, the ones that get trampled on, and the ones we want to protect, one of the dreams we need to hold onto most strongly is the dream of hope for the other person; the dream that he or she can grow and change and not just be forgiven, but have a new beginning and restored relationships.

So as we think about woundedness, reconciliation, and forgiveness, maybe that’s the dream on which we need to tread most softly of all.

Temptation and desire

This is a sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

Paul wrote to Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”… well, there’s plenty I could say about that, isn’t there?

Don’t worry.  This part of the letter is intended primarily as instructions for those who are leaders of the church.  Paul’s concern here is people who are acting as teachers and leaders in the church, and receiving material support for doing so, not out of right motives but because they want the money.  In the part of the letter just before the bit we heard this morning, Paul talked about the bad outcomes from this kind of leadership; envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, wrangling among those who are depraved, imagining that godliness is a means for gain.

Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?  If the only interest I had in you, as a community, was how much money I could get from you, our relationship would be one of exploitation rather than one of love.  I hope that at least some of the time I manage to make it one of love.

But what interested me about the reading, actually, was the way that Paul talks about temptation; and that’s something that we all have to deal with in the Christian life.  He says that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation…”

It makes succumbing to temptation sound so easy and natural, doesn’t it?  It’s falling.  Just like anything falls when it’s dropped, because of gravity, the idea of “falling” into temptation makes it sound like, well, you know, there was all this money and it just pulled me into its orbit and I was a bit helpless to resist it, because, you know, it was there.

And if you think about temptation like that, then really we’re just at the mercy of whatever big temptations might suck us in, because they have that irresistible pull on us, and we don’t have the ability to move away.

But I don’t think it’s really like that – and I don’t think Paul did, either; I’ll say more about that in a second – so maybe it’s worth digging a little deeper than this language of temptation as “falling” and see if we can come up with any ideas that might actually empower us against our temptations.

You see, I don’t think temptation starts with the pile of money or the sexy person or the chocolate or whatever it is that tempts us.

Listen again to what Paul said:  “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation” – we’ve noted that –  “and” he says, “are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.”

Senseless and harmful desires.

Isn’t that where temptation really starts?  With desire?  Isn’t it my desire to feel that I have some control over my circumstances, or to have nice things, or even to be able to be generous, that makes the temptation of money so easy to fall into?  That is, it’s not the money itself that’s the problem, but what the money means to me; what difference I think it will make to my life.

When I do marriage preparation with couples, one of the things we spend quite a bit of time on is their attitudes to money, and how they want to manage finances.  Not because there are right and wrong answers, but because not having a shared approach to money is one of the biggest causes of conflict in marriage.  And without fail, what comes out in those discussions is that money means different things to the two people.  For example, for one person money will mean freedom, and he or she will resent too much constraint on spending and enjoyment.  But for the other person, money will mean security, and he or she will be anxious about too much spending.  Well, you can see where that’s heading, can’t you?  Cue endless arguments.  But it’s not really the money (or lack of it) that’s driving the arguments; it’s the desires that the money can fulfil, and how those desires are at odds.

And I suspect a lot of temptations are like that.  We have all of these desires – often we’re not really even conscious of them – driving us, and then when something comes along that we think can fulfil those desires, we’re pulled along by it as if we’re falling.  But it’s really our desire that set us up for that in the first place.

Now let me be clear.  I’m not saying that all desire is bad, and that the Christian life is all about suppressing desire.  We’re made to have desires – we are made in the image of a God who has desires – and I think for most of us, the attempt to ignore or suppress our desires mostly leaves us in a very unhealthy place.  More than that, I think desire is a good thing; I think our longings, desires and loves can even be holy things that point us towards God.

After all, if desire is all bad, we couldn’t really have the Song of Songs as part of the Bible, could we?  That book is all about holy desire, and the fact that we have Scriptures like that suggests that we should take our desires seriously as clues to knowing God more deeply, and living for God more faithfully.

So we have desires, they’re a normal and healthy part of us, they can be an important part of our spirituality…. but.  But they can also be “senseless and harmful,” in Paul’s words, and that’s when they set us up for a fall.  So when the tempting thing comes along, we do fall headlong into it.

So where does that leave us?  I’d suggest that it points out to us that our desires deserve to be taken seriously.  Reflecting on our own experiences of encouragement and fulfilment, as well as frustration and disappointment, can give us clues to what’s going on beneath the surface for us, what deeper needs and desires are driving our choices.  And when we recognise those, we can put in place strategies and plans to act out of those desires in ways which are healthy and appropriate, which, instead of seeing us fall headlong into temptation, see us able to sail by unaffected, since we don’t have unrecognised desires driving us off course.

We pray, each time we say the Lord’s prayer, that He would “save us from the time of trial” – or in the old words, “lead us not into temptation.”  And of course it’s good to pray that, but it’s also good to do what we can to responsibly save ourselves from unnecessary trials, by making sure that we are as little susceptible to them as possible.  Our reading from Timothy this morning has given us some pointers on how we might do that, and in doing so, “take hold of the life that really is life.”