Gain a wise heart

This is a sermon for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 90.

Thirty thousand and ninety-four days.  That’s the average life expectancy in Australia (it works out to a touch over 82 years).  Put like that, though – thirty thousand and ninety-four days – it sounds like a lot.  It sounds like maybe I have all the time in the world for all the things I want to accomplish, to experience, to relish.

That’s not how life is, though.  I don’t have to labour that point; you’ve all lost loved ones.  No matter when life ends, there’s always more that person could have been, done, or loved.  We often like to pretend to ourselves that our potential is infinitely open-ended, but death is the final, immovable human limitation.

It’s not really a cheerful thing to think about, though.  But the psalmist today did want us to pay attention to it, just for a moment, when he wrote “teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.”  Teach us to count our days; teach us to remember that they have a number, and after that, we die.

But not just for the sake of being morbid; the point of remembering, the psalmist says, is “that we may gain a wise heart.”  So how does remembering our mortality and limitations help us to become wise?

There are two key aspects to this.  The first is remembering who and what we are.

Here’s what I mean.  I said before that we like to pretend that our potential is infinitely open-ended, but that that is an illusion.  The problem is that because we like that illusion, we deny our own nature.  We forget that we are creatures made of dust, who have borrowed the breath of life for a short time, but who have no power to sustain ourselves.  And, because we forget that, and deny our own nature, we also deny God’s nature.  You see, if we refuse to acknowledge our utter dependence on God for every breath of our existence… then we distort the relationship between us and God.  By repressing the truth of our creatureliness, we also repress the truth that only God is God.  And we often fail to let God be God.

Isaiah said the same thing when he pronounced:

“You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
‘He did not make me’;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
‘He has no understanding’?”

In failing to let God be God, we grasp for control over things we can never really control; and we harm ourselves and one another in the process.  In failing to let God be God, we use all our ingenuity and creativity for destruction and oppression rather than for human flourishing.  In failing to let God be God, we fail to acknowledge the brokenness of human life, and turn away from the possibility of finding healing.

Here’s an example of what I mean: for messy church this afternoon, we’re going to explore the concept of slavery.  I realised that I couldn’t really explain the gospel passage I wanted to, with the kids, unless they first had some idea of what slavery is about, so I thought I’d better lay that foundation first.  And as part of my background reading on how to teach children about something which is actually fairly intense to get your head around, I came across this little online calculator designed to help people in first world countries estimate how many slaves are involved in the production of the things we consume.*

Now of course it’s an estimate.  But based on the demographic data I gave it, and the details about things I have – like how much technology, how many pieces of jewellery, and so forth – it suggested that perhaps 46 people were involved in slavery in my consumer chain.

46 people being compelled to supply their labour, for the commercial gain of others, who keep me in the lifestyle to which I rather enjoy having become accustomed.  Of course I knew modern slavery existed and is an atrocious evil, but when it becomes personal like that, it seems much more real.

But my point in using that example is that slavery is a good example of our refusing to let God be God.  Our grasping for control over and exploitation of one another, as human beings.  Our failure to honour God’s creation and allow others the dignity and full personhood they were created to have.  And so on.  I won’t labour the point, but it has reminded me of how much the price difference between fair trade chocolate and the other variety isn’t just about what I pay, but about the human price paid in its production.

So when we fail to let God be God, we try to take his place… and end up doing a very thorough job of messing it up.  So that’s one way that learning to count our days helps us to increase in wisdom.

The other side of it, too, is that counting our days reminds us that we need to make choices.  If I only have so many days to live, and I can’t do everything, what am I going to spend my time on?

In a way, that’s part of why I got ordained; the prospect of spending decades in big business making money for shareholders was enough to make me run screaming to the church.  (And that’s saying something!)

But seriously, it is a case of, “We can’t do everything.”  Learning to count our days means we need to choose.  And if we think about our choices, and remember that God is God, and have some sort of measure for our priorities that puts us in line with God’s priorities… then we’re living wisely; in that Biblical sense of wisdom which is all about knowing what God wants and being willing to do it.

I’m told that in some monasteries, there’s a custom of always having a fresh dug, open grave; so that as the brothers walk past they’ll be reminded of the prospect of their own death.  I’m not sure that we need to go that far.  But it is good, sometimes to pause and be reminded of the aspects of life that we’d rather forget; because that helps us to keep ourselves, and our lives, in perspective; and it helps us to focus on making wise choices about how we steward our days.

If we’re paying attention to these reminders; in the psalms, and in our lives; that will help us to truly gain a wise heart.

*http://slaveryfootprint.org/survey/#where_do_you_live

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The mixed bag of parenting

This is a sermon for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18.  During this service, we also incorporated a “thanksgiving for a child.”

In a few minutes, we’re going to do something really special, as two new parents share with us a time of giving thanks for the birth of their son.  And it struck me that one of the prayers in the book for an occasion like this, asks God to give parents wisdom, love and patience as they work together to raise their child.

And it struck me because I think we assume that parents’ love for their children is a given.  It’s an instinctive, even a bodily thing; all that oxytocin and the hormones of bonding that are so much a part of the biology of having children, all the survival instincts which have kept us alive as a species, all of that.  It’d be quite unnatural to not love our children, wouldn’t it?  So why would we need to pray that God would give us that love, if it’s already built into who we are?

And yet it’s not just in the prayer book; in the reading we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, he also starts by acknowledging their love for one another, and then goes on to urge them to love “more and more.”  It seems both Paul and the compilers of the prayer book think that human love – even in the most intense and intimate relationships – isn’t a given.

From a Christian point of view, we are created in the image of a God who is love.  We are created to love; created for relationships which are mutual, joyful, and hopeful.  Created to extend those relationships in networks of social relationships, including parenting.  All of this is part of what God made us to be, and what God called good.

But we also know that families, even the very best of them, have their problems.  Call it dysfunction, call it neurosis, call it sin, even; but none of us get to adulthood completely unscathed from the moments when our families failed to be what they should have.  While I definitely don’t hold to any notions of original sin as a kind of stain on someone’s soul, or anything like that, it perhaps does make sense to realise that each of us is born into a web of relationships which is already less than it should be, and we are shaped by that network of relationships as we grow.  Its shortcomings affect our own ability to reach our potential, and, in turn, the relationships we form as adults.

And so each of us approaches parenting with a very mixed bag, as it were.  Our deep love for our children, and also our desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past, perhaps to do better, in some ways, as parents than our own parents did.  Hopes for our children that they will grow and thrive and embrace their world with curiosity and strength of personality, and fears about all the things that can get in the way of that.  It’s a mixed bag that can leave us feeling overwhelmed and more than a bit vulnerable, too.

And in the middle of all of that, someone like St. Paul – who apparently never even had any children – telling us to love “more and more.”  So helpful of him.

But this is, I think, the point Paul is trying to make.  Even as we carry around our mixed bag of emotions and hopes and fears, we’re not alone with it.  We surrounded by layers of support; our own families, with all of their combined wisdom and experience.  By our wider community, including the church community, where there are always people to offer practical support and reflect with you on what you’re going through.  And ultimately, by God; the same God who created this baby boy to be the incredible unique person he is and will be, and who is so on your side in this parenting journey; wanting this to go as well as it possibly can, and always offering you what you need in any given moment.

I don’t want to sound like I’m sugar-coating the tough times.  My daughter is five, and we have had some days where I’ve fantasised about being single and living on my own.  In blissful silence and with enough sleep.  So I’m really not wanting to pretend that somehow, with God, it all becomes rainbows and unicorns, because we all know that that’s not how it is.  But the God who created each of us in love, and to love, gave each of us the capacity to love more deeply than we currently know how, and is always willing to help us discover that deeper capacity.

So I think that’s why we pray that God will give us love, even though we know that love is there already.  It’s about deepening and strengthening our capacity to love, and about letting love be the engine room of the creativity and hope that will push through anything unhelpful that we’re carrying.

And even though many of you gathered here today are well past the life stage of raising small children, (if you were ever in it), I don’t think it hurts the wider church community to think about these things.  To think about how we support our family members, and the people around us in church who are in the intense stage of early parenting.  One of the great strengths of the church is that we are truly multi-generational, with people here in their nineties as well as toddlers; and we have the capacity to be a support network quite unlike anything else most parents will have access to.  How we do that – not just one on one, but also how we deliberately plan and work together to do that – is something it would be good for us to think about.  Are we doing the best we possibly can for our youngest members?  And for their parents?  And if not, what would doing better look like?

Paul finishes the instructions that we heard this morning by telling his hearers to “encourage one another.”  I hope that for all of you, being able to be here today and share this time with us is an encouragement.  But I also hope we can take to heart the need to be intentional about encouraging one another through big life transitions – like becoming parents – because we all need that extended network at its best.

Living in the gap

This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Micah 3:5-12.

When I was accepted as a candidate for ordination, the diocese supplied me – amongst other reams of paperwork – with a document headed “Indicators of Readiness for Ordained Ministry.”  It ran to eight pages of dot points, including such gems as “I understand how people outside the church think,” and “I know how to send and receive emails.”  I’m not sure I found it entirely useful.  But there was one dot point in particular which I’ve often found myself reflecting on.

It said, “I have learned something of my own reactions to living in the gap between vision and reality.”

This is such an important aspect of our experience as Christians, and yet we seldom talk about it.  We live in the gap between vision and reality.  And that’s often not a very comfortable place to live, at all.

I mean, on the one hand, there’s the vision.  The ideal; the ideal for our society, of justice and peace and reconciliation.  The ideal for our church, of holy worship and loving service.  The ideal for our families, of safety and faithfulness and joy.

And then, on the other hand, there’s the gritty side of reality.  Of a society plagued by injustice and a propensity to hatred of the other.  Of a church which is corrupt and a theatre for the egos of the powerful.  Of families in which abuse and selfishness and despair are all too common.

Not every family, of course.  Not every moment in church, or every government decision, either.  But more than enough to make us painfully conscious of the gap between the vision, and the reality.

And the question then becomes, what is our reaction to living in that gap?

We can look at the Scriptures as offering us some models.  People who have gone before us, who have caught the vision that God offered them, but have been painfully conscious of their own lived reality, have reacted by producing documents which attempted to address that gap, and which the Church has come to recognise as Scripture.

And in particular, this morning, our reading from Micah speaks powerfully into that gap.  Micah lived in a time when his nation’s rulers were weak – politically and personally – and his society was corrupt and oppressive.  The gap between vision and reality was stark.  And Micah described it:

5 Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry ‘Peace’
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths…

and so on.

If we take Micah, then, as an example we can follow, here’s what I take from this passage:

  • Living in the gap between vision and reality doesn’t mean passively accepting that gap. It means pointing it out; constantly proclaiming the vision back into the reality, and stretching reality towards the vision.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means choosing leaders who recognise that gap and are committed to narrowing it; and holding them accountable to their responsibilities.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means paying attention to the experience of the most vulnerable and the most powerless, and making any injustice towards them a priority for change.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means taking up the roles of prophet and teacher, defining the work that needs to be done, and equipping our community to do that work.

A Church that isn’t filled with the Spirit of God, that isn’t bold enough to talk about justice and sin, that is unwilling to walk and weep with those who are broken, that loves its own power and status more than it loves the God it professes to worship; that’s a church that’s denying the gap, and in the end, denying the vision altogether.

Many people have told me, since I’ve been here, that this parish is a social justice focussed church.  But it’s startling to me, then, that as a church, we don’t do much about social justice.  I mean, individual people here do significant work, but we don’t take up the challenge or get involved together.  It’s almost as if, somehow, we’ve forgotten how.

We need to rediscover how.  We need to look around and ask ourselves what issues of justice are urgent and compelling around us.  We need to work out how we can be effectively involved in those issues; how we can bring our own vision of God’s justice back to shape our reality.

And we need to do it, not just because it’s who we are as a people gripped by a vision of God’s reign, but because if we want people to be attracted to us – if we want people to want to be part of our community – we need to give them a reason.  There is a whole generation of people coming into their prime now who don’t particularly care about institutions, but do care about making a difference; and who might well put up with the baggage of institutional church, if we give them a significant enough opportunity to be part of a community that makes a difference.  But why would they want to be here, if they see us as part of the problem, instead of part of the solution?

We do live in the gap between vision and reality.  What we need to do is get beyond just reacting to that, and start responding to it.  We know that, in the end, our efforts won’t fail.  We know that the story of humanity ends with evil judged and humanity restored.  What we have is an opportunity to bring that just a little bit closer to our lived experience today.

Micah’s voice cries out over the centuries, recalling his vision of justice and peace and prosperity, and calling us to participate in it.  So how shall we respond?

To be blessed

This is a sermon for the feast of All Saints.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 5:1-12.

I must admit, I have a terrible mental image to go with our gospel reading today.  In my head, I can see Jesus – a sort of 1970s, anachronistically hippie version drawn from movies that were on TV when I was very little – addressing the crowd in a way that suggests he’s slightly spaced out and that what they see is a guru of transcendental spirituality.  Only become poor in spirit, meek, and merciful – this mental image seems to suggest – and you too can know karmic bliss.

I’m sure you know the kind of version of Jesus that I’m talking about.

The trouble is that that image has very little to do with what Jesus was on about when he said these words.  So despite their familiarity, we might have to work hard to get past our own assumptions, to let them speak to us on their own terms.

And today I want to try to do that by starting here: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus says this twice in this passage; blessed are the poor in spirit, and blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Those statements almost bookend his teaching, and so say something important about all of the people he is describing here as “blessed.”

Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  But what does that mean?

Here are some things that it doesn’t mean:

  • It doesn’t mean they get to go to heaven when they die. (I mean, they might, but that’s not the point being made here).
  • It doesn’t mean they experience heaven as a kind of internal spiritual state. (This is not about personal subjective and emotional experience).
  • And it doesn’t mean that they’re morally superior, or holier, than those around them. (Again, they might be, but that’s not the point).

What it means is that they have a radical understanding of the reign of God, and their own relationship to God as ruler over everything that exists.  They are conscious citizens of heaven, who acknowledge no authority, no power, no claim on them, more important or more enduring than that of God.

This vision of the reign of God rests on three key truths.

First, the truth that God is creator.  When you know that God has the imagination, the creativity and the wisdom to envision all that exists, and the power, the awesome force and intensity of desire to cause matter and energy to exist and interact by sheer will; and when you know that everything that exists, only continues to exist moment-by-moment, only continues to operate according to laws of nature, because God wills it; when you know that your life is sustained from one breath to another only because God allows it; when you really get that, then anything which might try to make a competing claim on you is seen for the pale imitation that it is.

Second, the truth that God is active in the world today.  Even though Jesus said this before the resurrection, when most people didn’t know who he was, his disciples were beginning to grasp this.  In a world of evil, of darkness, oppression, suffering, and so on, God is not absent, uninvolved or uncaring, but at work.  This is the point of the miracles and exorcisms of Jesus’ ministry; this is the point of the incarnation, with God coming to live as one of us.  When you know that God hasn’t abandoned us but is at work in your life and in the world around you, then you know that you can participate in what God is up to, and experience God’s rule directly in your own life.

Third, the truth that this current reality will end.  There will be a last day; there will be a judgement, there will be an end to evil and a renewal of all that is good.  There will be a time when the reign of God will not be obscured or marred by anything which would seek to contradict it.  When you really know that, you can walk forward into the future with confidence and hope and joy, knowing that what is coming is going to be so much better than what has been before.

These three truths – that God is creator, that God is active in creation now, and that there will be a time of new and perfect beginning – are the keys which let us understand God’s total and absolute reign, and give ourselves to it.

That’s why the poor in spirit are blessed; they know that despite their own limitations, they belong utterly to, and are able to participate in the work of, a God who holds together everything that is and will be.

That’s why those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed; in their righteousness they know and experience more of God than those who are persecuting them ever will.

And this is the kingdom of heaven which has gripped all the saints through the ages.  The martyrs died for it, the missionaries and pastors laboured for it, the apostles and bishops and theologians helped us put words to it, the prophets proclaimed it and the monastics prayed for it; but all of them knew, deep in their very being, that these key truths of the reign of God define our existence more deeply than anything else.

It’s no coincidence that it’s just a bit further along in this sermon that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come.”  Not because God isn’t ruling now, but because as we understand the reign of God, we place ourselves within it, and our whole being becomes aligned with the will of God.  We become people who labour to see the world be what God would have it be; who find the words to tell those who don’t yet know, who don’t yet understand, how all of creation is held in the hands of a loving God.

The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who do God’s will.  Or perhaps, it’s more accurate to say that those who do God’s will, belong to the kingdom of heaven.  It’s really that simple.

We are called to do God’s will because we are part of creation; called into being for relationship with God.  We are called to do God’s will because in this world’s suffering, darkness and despair, God is at work, bringing healing, light and hope.  We are called to do God’s will because we know that God holds in trust a perfect future, and invites us to be part of that future by our own choice and commitment.

That’s what it means to belong to the kingdom of heaven.  That’s what it means to be a saint, in the truest sense of the word.  As we celebrate today all the rich variety of saints who have gone before us, let’s not miss the choice that always stands in front of us: to do God’s will.  To claim the kingdom of heaven for our own.  To place ourselves amongst that great cloud of witnesses to it.

To be truly blessed.

Impulse towards the Infinite

This is a sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 22:15-33.
We had a couple renewing their vows on their golden wedding anniversary this morning, so the sermon is written with that in mind.

“In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

What do you reckon?  Are you looking forward to your wings and halo?  And would that somehow compensate for being single?

At first blush, this reading might look as if it has quite a low view of marriage; as if it’s fine for something for us to do, you know, to pass the time in this life; but that when this life is over and we go to glory, it won’t really matter any more.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying, exactly, although that might take some unpacking.

The first thing to note is that this discussion really isn’t about marriage at all.  The issue here is about what happens after we die, and whether resurrection is really a possibility.  The Sadducees argue that it is not; and they make that argument because, if we see resurrection simply as picking up where we left off, a kind of continuation of this life, there are significant logical problems with that.  So, seeing the logical absurdity of having to choose between several spouses, or other problems of a resurrected life that is just “more of the same,” they reject the possibility.

Jesus’ response is to challenge their limited imagination.  Resurrection – he tells them – isn’t “more of the same,” it’s a radical transformation of our very nature.  Paul put more words around the same idea when he wrote about the resurrected body: “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

I guess what Paul talks about as a “spiritual body” is his way of describing what Jesus means when he says we’ll be like the angels in heaven.

But what does that mean?  To be honest, I don’t know the details; and I suspect it’s something we can’t really understand from this part of our existence.  But it follows that if our bodies undergo radical change, that so will our human relationships.  The cycle of life, with the particular demands of growing and aging, of pair-bonding and parenting, and all of that, will clearly not function in the same way.  I don’t think that means we will lose the potential for meaningful relationships, but trying to describe them in terms of what we know now clearly isn’t going to work.

But – and this is the thing I really want to focus on today – that doesn’t rob our family relationships, or specifically our marriages, of eternal significance.  Human relationships are the context in which we learn, change and grow; and marriages, as the most intimate and enduring (at least ideally) of those relationships give us a particularly intensified opportunity for that change and growth.  They can be a crucible for holiness.

Marriage is an all-embracing experience.  We bring to it all that we are, in giving ourselves to each other, and in turn it is the foundation on which all of our later life experiences are built.

And being married is not, and never has been, a fixed state of happy-ever-after (after 50 years how well I’m sure you know that!).  There are troubled times, times when you’re divided, or there are power struggles, or it seems like you don’t know the way forward.  It’s in facing up to those struggles and learning from them that our own personal growth comes (as well as increasing depth and intimacy in the marriage).

This growth comes about because in all the ups and downs of a marriage, we find ourselves at our best and worst, our most loving and joyful and generous, and our most fearful, vicious and selfish.  If we’re paying attention, the way we treat our spouse and our family holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and sins, and shows us where we still need grace.

I can remember, for example, when my daughter was a newborn, and we were having a rough night, and were up for what felt like the umpteenth time, and she was screaming and I was in tears and nothing was going right, and my poor husband looked at me in lost bewilderment and said, “I didn’t think it would be like this!”  And it took all my strength not to throw something at him – he was lucky I was holding the baby! – and yell, “Well, what did you think it would be like?!”

Love is patient, apparently, and it seems marriage is designed to gradually teach me that!

But even this sort of personal growth, too, while good and healthy, is not an end in itself.  As marriage helps us grow and mature, it also helps become able to form generous and open-hearted relationships with others, beyond the marriage.  This is part of what having children is about, but even for people who never have children, growth in personal maturity turns us outward towards community, secure in ourselves and able to support others without anxiety or feeling threatened.  When two adults commit themselves to life and growth together, their relationship reaches far beyond them to transform and create other relationships; what I’ve seen described as “an energy to embrace newness.”

Ultimately, I’d describe that “energy to embrace newness” as hope.  If faith is “the assurance of things hoped for,” as the writer of the Hebrews put it, then having the energy to imagine that things might be different, to welcome and even collaborate in that newness, and to be assured that God is at work in that, bringing about what is good and true and just… is one possible end result of being attentive to what marriage can work in us.

Of course all of this takes work.  It takes commitment.  It takes time and making the relationship between the two of you actually a priority.  This is easier in some phases of life than others; and maybe easier after the children have moved out, than when they are little.  The golden years, rather than being about fading or declining (which some people might fear) can be a time of deepening and enrichment, if you’re clear that that’s what you want them to be.

Or, to put that the way Pope Paul VI put it, married love is an impulse towards the Infinite.

Now, I do want to add a disclaimer.  Not everyone is able to marry, not even all those who wish to; and in talking about the potential of marriage in this way, I don’t want to suggest that this crucible of holiness that we find in relationships, isn’t available to single people in different ways.  Intentional and intimate relationships of all kinds can afford us the same opportunities.  But marriage is, for most of us, our most committed, most enduring and most intimate relationship, so it’s worth stopping to reflect on it specifically on an occasion like this.

So if I’d dare to offer you any suggestions, on this special day, it would be to be open to the potential of your marriage; to help each of you continue to grow; to support each of you to be your best selves in the world; and to be a relationship which cultivates hope and openness to what God might be up to.  And may God continue to bless you richly.

Striving

This is a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  In our parish today it is “Stewardship Sunday,” the day that people return their giving pledges and there is a focus on the needs of the Church; and as such the sermon is focussed on that, with reference to Philippians 1.

I read a story this week about a wealthy young man who had donated one and a half million dollars to a local youth centre.  The youth centre was fantastic; giving young people without many opportunities, skills and tools and – most importantly – hope, that transformed their lives.

Now, the young man who gave this gift was also a very committed and active Christian. In church every Sunday, involved in various activities, and so forth.  But when he was asked whether he would consider giving a gift the size of the one a half million he had just given to a secular cause, to the church, his answer was “Lord, no, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

An extraordinarily generous gift to the youth centre changed lives.  The same gift given to his church – he was afraid – would be met with incompetence and a lack of vision.  So he didn’t give anything like that to his church.

And – to the extent that his assessment of his church was correct – I’d say he was right in his decision.  Money given to the church is supposed to be about fulfilling our mission – about changing lives by bringing people into encounter with God – and if we don’t have a vision for doing that, or if we’re not good at doing it, why on earth would anyone want to give us money?  Or how could I justify standing here and telling you that it’s good and God wants you to give?  Giving has to be matched with results.

Here’s the thing.  It’s not that God wants you to give, as if the church existed so that the vicar could have a comfortable house and we could turn the heaters on.  (Although the vicar is glad to have a comfortable house and that we can turn the heaters on).

It’s much more than that.  It’s that God wants us all to participate in the church as a community which makes a difference.  A church which changes lives.  A church which proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ, which teaches and nurtures people in living relationships with God, a church which responds to human needs with loving service.  And that takes our time and our skills, and yes, also our money.

We don’t give to keep the doors open.  We give so that, by keeping the doors open, we can change lives.

This is what Paul means when he writes to the Philippians and praises their “sharing in the gospel,” and implores them to strive side-by-side with him.  He doesn’t just mean that they had come to a point of personal conviction, or even that they came along to worship once a week, but that they had decided that they were going to dedicate their lives to achieving God’s purposes in the world.

That’s what it means to be a Christian.  To strive side by side with one another in God’s mission of transforming the world.

It’s good to give money to that end.  My pledge to you, on receiving these financial pledges, is that that will be our priority in what we do.  That our planning is going to prioritise projects and activities which make a difference.  That if something doesn’t contribute to the mission of God, we’re not going to waste your time and energy and money on it.

More than that, I also pledge to you that we’re going to seek to be as effective as possible in doing so.  There are a number of areas where, frankly, we need to improve how we do things, so that what we invest of ourselves can have maximum impact.  This is why, by the way, in my email message from the vicar last week, I asked for a volunteer who might be willing to create and maintain a parish Facebook page.  In this day and age, if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist; and if even the like-minded people who live within easy walking distance of us don’t know that we exist, how can we build relationships with them which will further the mission of God?

That’s something of an aside but it illustrates an important principle; we need to be very intentional in how we do things, to maximise the difference we can make.  We have to put the days of just doing what we’ve always done behind us, and instead commit ourselves to doing the best we can in a constantly changing environment.  That may well involve drawing on expertise we don’t currently have, and developing skills we haven’t needed before.  And seeing that as an invigorating challenge rather than a heavy burden.

We are positioned to make a unique contribution to our local community.  There are other people who teach, nurture, care, and strive to establish justice.  Those secular endeavours are good and I’m not knocking them.  There are other churches who each offer the particular strengths of their own tradition.  Their efforts, too, are good, and I’m not knocking them either.  But as each of us have benefitted from a Christian tradition which is open, liberal and progressive in its outlook, as well as deeply rooted in Scripture and the prayers and insights of millennia of the saints, we too should offer that to our community as a treasury of resources.  Our society is crying out for real relationship with its creator, and we are poised to make the introductions… if we’ll only step out and do it.

In my letter which went out with the stewardship materials, I described stewardship as “the inspired and hopeful use of God’s gifts” to us.  I chose those words very deliberately.  I talked about our giving as inspired because it ought to be the result of our catching a glimpse of what is possible.  And I talked about it as hopeful because it ought to be done with the intention of making real and concrete what is, right now, only in the realm of possibility.

I also said that our giving was a response of love, not obligation.  I know that talking about giving and money in church can often be uncomfortable; that some people are under significant financial strain, and that money in general is a focus for enormous stress and worry.  Please don’t hear anything I’ve said this morning as aimed at contributing to that strain or stress, or as intended to manipulate you into giving more than you would freely choose.  I believe – and Scripture teaches and the church throughout the ages has insisted – that giving financially is a non-negotiable part of the Christian life.  But the level of that needs to be your free choice, chosen because you believe that what we’re going to do together with that money is actually worthwhile and something you want to be part of.

So thank you, all of you, for what you have pledged.  It matters, and what we’re going to do with it matters.  Thank you for taking up the challenge of striving side by side together to make a difference.  I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together over the coming year and beyond.

On healthy conflict

This is a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 18:10-20.

“Love one another.”  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  It sounds as if it should be pretty easy to work out what it means.  We don’t always feel very loving towards one another, but I think most of the time, we think we know what it would look like if we were loving.

But this morning, as we gather here as a parish family, I want to challenge some of our assumptions about what it means to love one another, just a little bit.

One of the things that tends to happen in small churches like this one, is that we base a lot of our decision making, not on being in line with a particular vision of who we are called to be in God, but on keeping everyone happy.  Because we are a small community, and we know one another well, and the cost of someone being unhappy is usually very high – impaired relationships, broken friendships, open conflict and so forth – we tend to value keeping people happy above almost everything else.  And we often tell ourselves that this is what it means to love one another.

But imagine if this was how Jesus and his group of disciples had functioned.  Jesus would have given up on the journey to the cross, and instead pursued political glory, to keep Peter happy.  I don’t know what they’d have spent money on, but some of the memorable stories of the gospel wouldn’t have happened, as the money would have been managed in such a way as to keep the pinch-purse Judas happy.  And no doubt endless time and energy would have gone into managing travel arrangements and meal planning and what not in such a way that nobody would get into a snit about anything; but I’m not sure how much would have got done in the way of miracles and teaching.

They’d have been totally ineffective as a group of people serving the reign of God… but they might have been happier with each other.

The temptation for us – and for lots of churches like us, it’s certainly not unique to here – is to buy into that sort of approach, though.  To spend so much time and energy, to make so many decisions based on not upsetting this person or that one, that we end up becoming a little group completely inward focussed, paying attention to our relationships with one another, but totally ineffective at relating to the world beyond that little web of relationships.  Sweeping conflict under the carpet rather than dealing with it, and even getting to the point of seeing people outside that group almost as irrelevant or a threat to what’s really important to us here, which is how well we can get on together.

And here’s where I’m going to get challenging.  That’s not loving one another; not really.  That’s loving our comfort in one another’s company, for sure.  It’s loving that we have a place where we can feel assured that people aren’t going to challenge us too much, because we have an unspoken agreement that we don’t do that here.

But it’s not the kind of love Jesus taught his disciples, or the kind of love he encourages us to take up in this morning’s gospel reading.  No; the love we heard about this morning says that if somebody sins against you, you go and point out the fault.  You don’t sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen; you deal with it, because the relationship between the two of you is too important to be allowed to disintegrate under the weight of unaddressed issues.

In this part of Matthew’s gospel, there’s a whole section of Jesus teaching his disciples how to live together as the fledgling church.  By the time Matthew came to write this down, his community were already testing those teachings and learning how to survive in a hostile world.  The instruction that Jesus gives them, to prepare them for that survival, isn’t about being comfortable or mutually nice; it’s about uncompromising commitment to a big vision of what God is doing, and doing all that we can, both to play our part in that, and to encourage others to find and play their part in it.  And we know that as he presented this big vision to his disciples they struggled with it!  He had to call Peter Satan; he had to intervene in arguments about who was the greatest; he had to disillusion disciples who thought they were going to reign at his right hand, and remind them that his way led first to the cross, and only after that to any glory.

Why do I remind you of all of this now?  We find ourselves at a point of new beginnings.  Over the next little while, the incoming parish council will have decisions to make about our priorities in mission; what’s going to be most important for us to work at together over the foreseeable future.  Making decisions about priorities and plans can be a difficult process; it’s not unusual or even bad or wrong for there to be disagreements and conflict to be worked through, and because we’re human, we can easily be hurt in that.

And I am reminding you today that as you work through all of that, loving one another doesn’t just mean keeping everybody happy.  If you prioritise keeping everybody happy, what you will end up with is a series of insipid decisions, likely held hostage to the emotional state of whomever is most fragile on the day the conversation is had.

I am encouraging you each to participate in that process seeking to do what Jesus did; loving the members of your parish family by seeking the big vision of God for this place, and seeking to encourage one another to find your place within it.  Dream big, seek inspiration, be radical, if that’s what God stirs within you.  Don’t be afraid to put what’s on your heart on the table; if there’s disagreement and conflict, don’t shy away from it but work through it; and if you need help to reconcile after an argument, don’t be ashamed to seek that help.  Even the disciples, after the resurrection, needed a series of encounters with Jesus to work through the issues raised by their behaviour and attitudes.

This parish will need the best of all of you, if it is to be an effective expression of the reign of God.  What Jesus promises us, in this morning’s gospel, is that as we work at that process, he will be with us in it.  Where two or three are gathered in his name – even if they disagree or have hurt one another – he will be at work with us, and helping us to grow in love and grace towards one another.

It isn’t easy, this business of facing conflict head on instead of avoiding it.  It takes a good deal of courage, and sometimes a steely determination that I’m going to love that other person, whether they like it or not!  That being part of the church means refusing to give up on one another, even when we really would rather just withdraw, put our heads down, avoid problems or pretend they aren’t there.

But we worship a God who is bigger than our poor behaviour and our bad treatment of one another; who’s bigger than our disagreements about what to do next; who’s bigger than our fears and vulnerabilities.  And that God calls us to a bold vision of community, and promises that as we seek to build that kind of bold community, he will be with us in it; and in that way we will be – as Paul put it – the fullness of him who fills all in all.