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.

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Belonging

This is a sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Romans 12:9-21.

You will have noticed that Daniel, while he’s here today and helping out on the organ, isn’t here every week; in fact he belongs to another church and contributes his gifts and talents to a great degree there.  This is, however, not something everyone has found it easy to get their heads around.  The Sunday after Daniel and I got back from our honeymoon, we each went to our different churches.  And as I was leaving after the service, the vicar of my church bailed me up at the door and said, “I know we might lose you, but now that you’re married, you need to worship under your husband’s headship.”

They did indeed lose me; to a parish which was more interested in nurturing me as a human person in my own right, and less interested in my submission.

But I tell that story today because, following on from last week’s reflection on the church community as one body, our reading from Romans today spells out some of the detail of what that looks like.  Loving one another with mutual affection, outdoing one another in showing honour, contributing to the needs of the saints, extending hospitality to strangers, and so on.  And the story of my church’s inability to respect the way I did things (or the fact that there might be good reasons for it) is a neat way of illustrating how we – as the church – so often struggle with this.

Paul calls us to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers; but so often we subconsciously build a culture of barriers rather than belonging.

So today I want to think a bit about belonging, and how we create a culture of belonging.

Some of the literature on belonging in churches suggests that it might usefully be considered in five aspects: personal friendship, community life, Christian nurture, pastoral care, and Christian service.  So let’s begin to consider each of these dimensions.

One of the things which I see time and again in all sorts of parishes is that people think their community is very friendly, and it is… once you’re “one of them.”  People who’ve been going there for years or decades and know others there very well forget what it’s like to be new, to be nervous, unsure and isolated; and it can be hard for new people to make friends, even though the long-standing members are very busy being friendly with one another!  I’m not saying that’s a particular problem in this parish, but I’d be surprised if it never happened, because to some extent it’s human nature.  Helping people to belong by making friends means that we need to build a parish culture in which every one of us thinks we have a responsibility to relate to those new people.

Now – as an introvert myself – please don’t hear that as a call for all of us to be extroverted, in-your-face and pushy!  But it’s about cultivating the awareness of when there’s an unfamiliar face sitting by herself, or standing alone with his cup of tea, and being willing to strike up conversation; to ask that person’s name, to introduce them to someone else.  It’s not rocket science, but it can make a world of difference to helping people feel that they can belong.

Then there’s our community life, outside our worship services.  We have some good things in place here; the monthly barbecue is an easy way for people to belong.  The games afternoon and book club also.  But there’s always more scope to be creative and do different things, which will draw in different people.

And it’s essential to actually invite people to those events; extending hospitality starts with an invitation.  It’s important that these things be in the pew sheet, advertised in the hall, and communicated as well as we can, of course; but nothing will help people belong like somebody saying, “I’m going, why don’t you come with me?”

Being nurtured in your own faith journey is also a key part of belonging; feeling that I am actually growing through being here.  This is where opportunities for prayer, for teaching and study, quiet days and so forth all take their place.  Our services are the primary location for that, but most of us can benefit from more than something a bit less than an hour a week given to it; and that’s why I’m so glad to be starting some Bible study groups.  Other people have asked me about meditation groups and quiet days and they’re definitely on my radar for Advent or next year (I can’t do everything at once!)

From the various options being planned, I really encourage you to find something that can work for you; but more than that, I encourage you to think about who you might invite to come with you; and what we might do that might interest people who aren’t here yet.  How could we offer people opportunities to nurture their spirituality which they might not easily get anywhere else?

Another key part of belonging is knowing that you’ll be cared for when you need it.  I might have criticised my first parish for their attitudes about my marriage, but when I had a casual job and glandular fever meant I couldn’t work for months, grocery vouchers paid for from their offertory plate meant I could eat.  I never begrudged my money being put into that plate, even when I didn’t have much, because I knew that people in our congregation who needed help with electricity bills or school uniforms or whatever else, got what they needed from the care of the congregation.

It’s my impression that our congregations are less likely to need that kind of financial support routinely, but the support should be there when the need is.  And there are other needs; for support in times of illness or frailty (and practical things like transport for some of our members, because we miss them when they can’t drive!); for genuine human relationships and friendships.

The reality about this is that people often look to clergy to make that happen, but I simply can’t do it all by myself.  Especially not when I’m still very new and often don’t know people, or what’s happening in their lives, yet.  I rely on all of you to notice what’s happening with one another, to support one another as you can and to communicate needs so that care can be shared; and when all of that happens, we can be a community where everyone knows they truly belong.

There’s one other key aspect of belonging; and that’s having something to do.  All of us – as I said last week – have skills and gifts and talents to bring into the life of the church, and each of us truly belongs when we’re given permission and scope to use that for the good of all.  And in doing so, we develop a sense of belonging and ownership which really brings a community alive.

And this is not just about what happens in church on Sunday morning; in fact I’d say it’s less about that, and more about the things we do outside that time, engaging the wider community, building relationships and connections which expand our network of belonging beyond people who turn up for church services.  And working out how we do that together is definitely one of the important parts of working out how to live out our mission over the coming years.

There’s one thing I haven’t said yet, that’s very basic but possibly not obvious.

All of these things which build a culture of belonging – friendship, community life, nurturing faith, pastoral care, and being equipped to serve – they all take time.

Over the next few weeks letters to do with stewardship will go out to all of you and you’ll be encouraged to consider your giving and how you can support the life of this parish.

But honestly, far more important that how much money you give (although running a parish does take money) is the time you give.  And not necessarily in formal ways, but in informal ways too; the time to ask how someone’s going.  The time to pray for someone.  The time to invite someone to something.  The time to make a salad for the barbecue.  Small things that make a big difference.

It’s the gift of our time, given to one another generously and unbegrudgingly, which is the glue of belonging; which allows us to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers.  And in our busy lives, where we rush from one activity or commitment to the next, it’s the time it takes to really do community well which is often our greatest lack.

So after all the things I’ve talked about today, I’d challenge you to think about whether you can find half an hour, somewhere in your week, to do something which supports someone else in the parish in some way.  Imagine, if fifty of us did that, we would find 25 hours a week of belonging support; and what a difference that would make!

We all know the human longing to belong, to be accepted and cared for, to be involved and appreciated.  Being a community which provides that for one another is what it means to be the body of Christ, and for our love to be truly genuine.  Let’s make sure that we are.

Inflorescence

A mistress of novices went to see her abbess, to discuss her concerns about a novice who was struggling.

As they walked through the convent garden, talking, the abbess picked a flower bud and handed it to the other nun, asking her to open it.  The blossom fell apart in her hands.

“Why,” the abbess asked, “does the bud fall apart when you try to open it, but when God opens it, the flower is beautiful?”

After walking in silence for a time, the mistress of novices replied, “When God opens the flower, He opens it up from the inside.”

This short story carries profound insights about human beings and how we change and grow.  Attempts to make us conform – to shape us using external forces – seldom work at anything more than the most superficial level.  On the other hand, transformation – change from the inside – happens all the time, but is less easy to see or control.

This is, I think the lesson we the Church need to learn.  We cannot control people into being Christians or even good people.  Our power used directly in that way is worse than useless; it results in broken people.

On the other hand, we cannot transform people from the inside ourselves.  We can only invite, provide opportunities and resources, and support people as they go through their own processes of transformation.  (In terms of the parable of the flower, we can make sure the person is in good soil, has water and sunlight and air, is protected from predators and in a suitable climate… but we cannot make them grow, or indeed, flower).

This calls for careful discernment about our use of power.

Are we attempting to open the flower, or giving it what it needs to open itself (when it is ready)?

 

The body in symphony

This is a sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Romans 12:1-8.

I’d like to share with you part of my own story this morning.

I wasn’t raised going to church.  My parents were well and truly lapsed from any religious observance before I came along, and although they taught me to pray and read the Bible, that came with a fairly large dose of suspicion about church-as-institution.  So it was by no means a given that I would end up becoming part of a community of faith.  (I think sometimes my mother wonders what she did wrong…)

But what I found was that eventually I was restless for more; an undefined more; I couldn’t have told you what I wanted, but I felt that praying and reading the Bible on my own, while good, surely wasn’t all there was to living devoted to God.

And when I did start coming to church, let me tell you, it wasn’t at all easy!  We often underestimate how alienating our services can be to people who have never learned the language, the unspoken social expectations, or the shared assumptions which are taken for granted in church.  It was – and I say this as someone who’s done both – no less foreign than moving country.

But while that’s worth bearing in mind, it’s not really my main point.  The thing is, that with all the difficulties of church, I found something worth staying for.  I found that this group of people was able to be more together than we could have been if we’d been isolated from one another.  Together with others, I was able to learn more than I could teach myself, on my own.  Together with others, I could discover resources which would enrich my own pilgrimage.  Together with others, I could discover my own gifts, and be part of endeavours which were too big for any one person.  It was this experience, of being part of a community which was somehow more than the sum of its parts, which made me persevere despite the difficulty; and it’s also that experience which is at the heart of what being a priest is about, for me.

I see my job – at least in part – as being about creating an environment where we can be that kind of community.  Where each person can contribute, each person can benefit, and together we can be more than the sum of our parts, in pursuit of the reign of God.

And St. Paul saw the church in a similar way.  He talks about how the Spirit pours out a rich variety of gifts on us, so that we might all benefit from what each person brings.  Each of us, in our unique and particular mix of what we bring, our gifts, and personalities and experiences, makes the church what it is; and we are all diminished when one of us is removed.  It’s really not too much to say that each of us is God’s gift to all the rest, as we function together as one body, all supported by the whole.

And that’s why I chose the reading from Romans that we had this morning for my induction service when I started here.  Because when Paul said, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness,” one of the things that that does is it immediately puts what I do in context.  I’m not the most important person in the church, or the one who makes all the decisions, or anything like that.  I’m one person who has a particular role, in a community of people who all have roles to play.  And it’s what all of us can be and do together that’s the important thing.

This vision of the church has implications for each one of us, and for how we work together.  It means that our identity as Christians isn’t an individual thing, it’s something that’s embedded in the Christian community; our identity is lodged in this network of relationships, and can’t be removed from it without damage.  We belong to one another in an incredibly profound way.

Lutheran theologian Marva Dawn, reflecting on this passage and her own experience as a teacher in the church, said this: “One of the most powerful reasons for our lack of gladness is that ours is a culture of solo efforts.  We live our Christian faith independently, not inextricably linked with other members of the body of believers.  Consequently, we do not experience the hilarity of being enfolded in a moment-by-moment awareness of the good news of our hope and life in Jesus Christ.  We don’t experience the support that true community engenders.  We aren’t set free to be truly ourselves in the stewardship of our Spirit-given grace-gifts.”*

What Marva Dawn describes as a “culture of solo efforts” is exactly what we have, and I have my own suspicions about how that contributes to workplace toxicity, to struggles with parenting, and to our society’s spiritual impoverishment.  But it is – as she points out – exactly the opposite of how the church is supposed to function.  In place of a culture of solo efforts, we ought to be building a culture of symphonic achievement.

So, as each person brings something unique and irreplaceable, each of us has a responsibility to work out what we do bring, and where it fits.  What are my gifts and talents?  What am I passionate about?  What does my personality make me well suited to?  And so forth.  And, going a step further, how does what I bring relate to the life and mission of this community as a whole?

Further than that, though, it means that we as a community have a responsibility to have a clear sense of purpose.  It means that we need to create goals around what we will do, and who we will be, to which each of us is committed.  It means our personal agendas can never be as important in the church as those shared goals.

Now this matter of shared goals is something which needs some work.  The parish has a mission action plan, but from what I can tell, while it’s a fine enough document as these things go, it hasn’t become the yardstick by which we measure what we put our time, energy and money into.  It hasn’t actually shaped our life together to any significant degree.  So we’re going to need to put some time and energy, over the next little while, into making sure that that plan is still a good summary of our aspirations, and then that how we work together actually goes towards achieving it.

It will require a certain amount of discipline from us; because while it can be exhilarating to recognise your gifts and really come alive with them, there’s also an accountability to one another if we’re going to work together rather than all follow our own enthusiasms in different directions.

But my experience suggests to me that in a society where people are now even more wary of institutional religion than I was raised to be, this might actually be one of the most significant things we have to offer those around us.  Many people in our society yearn to be part of something bigger than themselves; something which offers them a sense of purpose and a chance to do something worthwhile.  We can offer them that.  We can be a place where they can belong and make a difference.  But in order for that to be an appealing prospect, we need to really live it.  It needs to be clear to the people who walk through our doors for the first time, that as difficult as growing into a Christian might be, that it’s worth it for what you get to be part of.

And so this morning I commend to you Paul’s vision of the church as truly a body, of which we are all members, and the implications that has for who we are to be.

*This quote is taken from the book Truly the Community: Romans 12 and How to Be the Church, by Marva J. Dawn.

 

 

Sowing seeds

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the church where I am now the vicar.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

Jesus’ parables often talk about seeds; wheat seeds, mustard seeds, even weeds; and while that made his parables relatable to country folk who knew about growing things, I suspect the reason for it goes far beyond that.

Seeds are beginnings.  Hold a seed in your hand, and you’re not just holding what you can see; you’re holding the potential for everything it might grow into.  Nestled into that tiny package is all the information required for something much larger and more complex, along with a store of energy to give it all a kick-start.

So these parables of seeds that Jesus tells; they’re all to do with beginnings.

And while, at this point in the life of the parish, you and I might be tempted to focus on the beginnings which have most impact on us personally; new vicar, new relationships and so forth, I think this morning’s parable invites us to think about the new beginnings we might provide – or at least offer – to others.

Suppose we read it as if we – this parish – are the sower.  What would it mean for us to go out to sow?

One way of looking at it, is that it would mean creating opportunities for the word of God to reach its destination in the human heart, there taking root and flourishing as a new, or perhaps renewed, relationship with God.

And I think the parable gives us several things to think about, in that regard.

First is that if we’re talking about connecting human hearts and the word of God, really we’re talking about relationships.  The evangelist haranguing passers-by on the street corner is generally ineffective, not because people don’t hear the word; but because he doesn’t forge any meaningful connection with the people.   He’s yelling at them, but – in terms of this parable – the seed isn’t finding any soil.

Part of our job, then, as sower would be the forging of relationships outside the already existing parish community, and with the wider local community; because it’s in the context of real relationships that we’re going to be able to offer the opportunity of new relationship with God in a meaningful way.

It also strikes me that we don’t know ahead of time which people are going to respond well; just as the sower scatters his seed all over the place, and some lands among thorns, and some on the path, and so on; we need to be prepared to form relationships across the breadth of the people we encounter.  We know some of them will never go any further, but that’s okay; relationship isn’t a limited resource.

This is part of what I meant, in the email that went out with the pew sheet on Friday, when I said that we could even be playful and creative in exploring the potential God has created for us to unfold together.  Sometimes trying new things, or different things, leaves people concerned that if it doesn’t work, it will have been a waste; a waste of our time, energy, and resources.  But when we’re talking about exploring potential it’s the only way to do things; because we can’t know ahead of time which seed will give us nothing, and which will reproduce a hundred-fold.  So we give things a go, and then move on from the things that don’t work without regret.  We tested their potential in the only way we could.  And hopefully we learned something, and maybe even had some fun, along the way!

(It’s worth remembering that Jesus himself didn’t have a great success rate, if by success we mean everyone who heard him teach becoming part of his new community of believers.  Most people heard his teaching and walked away.  So we can hear this parable in part as Jesus saying to his disciples, “The numbers aren’t the point.  What matters is that some people respond, and the only way we can get to that point is giving as many people as possible the opportunity to respond.”)

Now, I only moved into this suburb two weeks ago.  I have, at this point, no particular agenda for what this looks like, in practical terms, for us.  I don’t know you, I don’t know the people around us, and I don’t know what points of connection are already available and just waiting for us to make the most of them.  But over the coming months, as we get to know one another, and as we begin to think about the future, the rest of this year, next year, and beyond, those are the sorts of questions I’ll have in mind; and I encourage you to be thinking about them and reflecting on them with me, as well!

But there are also, I think, some clues in this parable as to how we might do this in a way which ends up with better-than-random results.  Look at the three reasons Jesus gives for the seeds which don’t bear fruit; lack of understanding, trouble or persecution, and other priorities in the life of the person.

Each of those things are realities in life, and they’re realities which we can’t entirely remove.  But they are things which we can cushion a bit.

Here’s what I mean.  Take lack of understanding; that’s overcome by good teaching.  So as we think about how we provide relationships in which people can encounter the possibility of relationship with God, we also need to be thinking about how we can teach those people, so that they can develop some understanding; understanding of how to live as a Christian, how to pray, how to get the most out of the Scriptures, and so forth.  One thing I’ve picked up already is that there are many teachers in this parish; the skills and insights of that profession can be brought to bear, as we think about how to make sure that the people who encounter something of God with us, don’t do so with lack of understanding.

Or take trouble or persecution.  We can never make trouble go away; it’s a feature of human life.  But we can provide a certain amount of resilience.  We can be a resource for practical and emotional support, and we can help people to develop their own network of resources, which will help people to navigate their troubles without falling away.

Or take the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth.”  Here I think the answer is that people need to be presented with a vision of the reign of God which is so compelling, so inspiring, that the cares of the world are exposed as having relatively little worth in comparison.  Here we need to be sure that what we offer people isn’t a watered-down gospel, one with no real power to change their lives; but that what we offer is the fullness of all that God lavishes on us.

So here are the four things that this parable suggests as matters to take into account, in our life together:

  • Authentic relationships with the community around us, in which we can offer the opportunity for relationship with God.
  • Sound teaching which makes sure that what is on offer can be understood and practiced.
  • Personal support which offers resilience in the face of trouble.
  • A compelling vision of the reign of God which inspires and motivates people to commit to the gospel as a way of life.

None of that will mean that every seed will sprout and bear much grain.  But if we want to be effective in sowing, and see as much harvest as is within our scope to bring about, those are the things this parable brings to our attention.

And if we do this, it will be worth it.  We will see a harvest of people who respond to God’s offer of relationship, discovering faith and hope and love as they do.

As I said earlier, seeds are about beginnings.  We don’t need to feel that we have all the answers right now.  It’s enough that we have the attitude of a sower; someone who wants to go out into the world and make a difference; to plant something worthwhile and see it grow to full maturity.  That’s enough of a beginning for God to work with.  And I suspect that for us, it will be enough for us to be thinking and praying about, to start with, too.

The Lord be with you.

Rebekah the Matriarch

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost.  This morning I was the guest preacher in the Church of Christ where my husband is a member.  The Scripture the sermon is based on is Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 (really the whole passage).  The picture referred to is attached at the end of this post, as well as a bonus stained-glass window of the Matriarch Rebekah (or Rivqa, as her name is better transliterated).  The stained-glass window is one of a series of windows of the matriarchs commissioned for Beth Shaom Synagogue, in the Netherlands. 

Good morning.  I should start by thanking the elders for the opportunity to preach here today; I don’t get to be here very often, and it’s a real privilege, when I do have the chance, to also contribute in some way.

And this morning I want to look a little bit at the reading we had from Genesis.  It’s a stunning piece of text; the great romance of the old testament, and the details of the descriptions of jewellery and camels and veils in the wilderness are supposed to make our hearts thump as we’re swept up in the delicious drama of it all.

(I say it’s the great romance of the old testament, because of all the patriarchs and heroes of ancient Israel, Isaac is the only one shown to have married only once, with no concubines or maidservants or flings on the side.  Apparently Rebekah, even when she didn’t produce children for the first twenty years of their marriage, was the only woman he ever wanted or needed.  And I’ll say some more about that later).

But the part of the story that we heard today is kicked off a little earlier when Abraham, who’s getting old and obviously concerned about the future of his family, and the legacy that God has promised him through Isaac, decides that Isaac needs a wife.  And, more to the point, not a wife from among the people of Canaan, where Abraham’s family are living as foreigners, and where the local population are participants in the local pagan fertility cult, but from among Abraham’s own relatives, who are living some distance away but who worship the same God.

So we get the whole story with the faithful servant being sent off to find a suitable wife from among Abraham’s nieces.  And the servant finds Rebekah, as we heard described this morning, and the rest is history.

But it’s also more than history.  In the unfolding story of Genesis, Rebekah is also presented as something of a feminine archetype.  What I mean by that is, she’s held up as an example or model of what the ideal woman – and in particular, what the ideal wife – is to be, in the community which considers itself the heirs to Abraham’s promise.

But it gets even more heady than that.  As the identity of the Hebrew people developed, they often – and you see this in the writings of the prophets, in particular – understood the whole community to be like a wife to God.  As in, the relationship between God and God’s people was as intimate, as loving, and as binding as marriage.  And so all the ideas about what an ideal wife looked like, then carried over in some ways to be ideas about what Israel should ideally be, in their relationship with God.

And of course Christians picked up that set of ideas too.  In the new testament, we read in various places about the Church as the “bride of Christ,” and about the wedding of the lamb and the Church as the fulfillment of what we’re supposed to be on about.

So what I’m saying is, when we read the story of a matriarch like Rebekah, who is held up as such an ideal example of wifeliness, we can read it for clues to how the ancient Hebrews understood themselves in their relationship with God; and, following in the same line of thought, how early Christian leaders like Paul thought about the Church in our relationship with God.  There’s a clear line of these ideas being picked up and developed and handed on and reflected on some more, right down to us.

So what I really want to do this morning is look at the story of Rebekah, and see what it might have to say to us about the identity of the Church, as the people who are, collectively, in a relationship as intimate, as loving, and as binding as marriage, with the God we worship.

And I think the first thing to notice is this reality that Rebekah isn’t one of the local pagan women, but that she is culturally different.  Sometimes – although it’s a little out of fashion now – we talk about the need for the church not to be “worldly,” not to be caught up in the obsessions and deceptions that those who don’t know God get caught up in.  We need to understand those worldly things – at least enough to help others reflect on them in the light of the gospel – but we need to not buy into them.  And that’s what Rebekah’s being already a worshipper of the one true God represents for us.

Next, we see that she’s hard working, and generous.  Abraham’s servant meets her when she’s gone to draw water, heavy labour, but necessary for the household.  And when he interrupts her work, not only does she give him a drink, as he’s requested, but she also offers unprompted to water his camels.  That’s a lot of water!  A thirsty camel can drink over 100 litres of water in one go; and earlier in the text is says that Abraham’s servant set out with ten camels, so for each of those camels Rebekah did the heavy work of raising, carrying and pouring water.  Think about what it would feel like to lug a literal tonne or so of water around, one water-jar at a time, and you’ll see that this was significant physical labour.

Costly generosity and hospitality; absolutely fundamental virtues in the world of the ancient wilderness nomads, where this was how people survived.  I’m hospitable to you today, and you’re hospitable to me tomorrow, and between us we both might make it to see our children grow up.

But again, translate that to the Church, and we can see where this applies to us.  To be generous, to be hospitable.  To provide an oasis in our communities for people who are exhausted, starving, wounded or lost.  To foster relationships of mutual support and encouragement.  To be willing to put ourselves out, with back breaking labour if need be, to make that possible.  And when we realise that what’s at stake is not just survival in the wilderness, but people’s eternal fate, how much more should we be willing to put ourselves out?

The bit about Rebekah being “fair to look upon” is interesting.  Beauty is often a kind of story-tellers’ shorthand for this being a good person, because after all, the heroine is always beautiful, isn’t she?  We might want to question that assumption, in general, because people who are, for whatever reason, not seen as beautiful aren’t actually any less capable or valuable because of that!  But for the purposes of Rebekah’s story as it’s being told here, take it as read that she’s beautiful because she’s the heroine, and that that general idea of being good, desirable, and so forth, applies to her… and therefore, in the extended comparison we’re making, also to the Church.  Our beauty lies in reflecting God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s holiness; and so the more closely our character and attitudes reflect God’s, the more “beautiful” we will become in the sense that it matters here.

Also, Rebekah is, at the point where Abraham’s servant meets her, a virgin.  The virginity is important because it shows that her commitment is serious.  She hasn’t left someone else to be with Isaac, and she hasn’t been frivolous in her relationships to this point.  When she gives herself to her husband, there’s some gravity to her decision.  And it’s also worth noting that – remarkably for the time, and despite negotiations amongst her male relatives – it is her decision.  She’s asked whether she will go to be Isaac’s wife, and she says she will.

And again, we can see how this relates to us as the Church.  God has initiated the offer of relationship, but we each choose – consent, even – to take God up on that offer.  We come each to the waters of baptism of our own free will.  We make that commitment to turn to Christ, ideally with some seriousness and gravity to the decision.  And we can’t be compelled to do it, or sold into doing it, or otherwise forced; our relationship with God, to be what it should be, needs to be entered into freely, responsibly, and joyfully, just as Rebekah did with Isaac.

And the Church as a whole – as a body, even – needs to live out that commitment in the same spirit that we each individually make it.  Seeking to know God’s will so that we can say, in response, “We will,” and then live that out, as a matter of serious commitment, with integrity.

(As an aside, this matter of Rebekah’s consent is relevant for us in another way.  Based on this question put to Rebekah, in Jewish law it is required that a bride freely consent to her marriage.  We have continued this in Christian practice; a marriage is not valid without the free consent of both parties.  And the women of the church might have plenty of reason to be grateful for the custom – built on rabbinic interpretation of this passage – which says we can’t simply be traded as property between our menfolk!)

Anyway.  Let me skip forward a bit in the story, past the passage that we read today, and point out that later on it says that Rebekah was barren, and that it’s only after God intervenes in answer to prayer that she is able to conceive.  Her fertility – her ability to participate in God’s will for the world – only comes about because God enables it.

Our fruitfulness for God is usually less literal and more spiritual than the actual bearing of children, but it’s an important reminder to us that all that we’re able to do, only comes to us because of God’s gracious acts in creating and providing for us (again, what in slightly more old-fashioned terms Christians used to talk about as “divine providence”).  And this ought to be encouraging, because it means it doesn’t depend on us.  The kingdom of God doesn’t depend on our frail strength, our limited intelligence, our wavering steadfastness.  God used a barren woman to be the mother of nations.  What might he bring about in and through us, despite our faults and disadvantages?  We can be open and hopeful and look for the unexpected, because we know that that’s how God works in the world.

Then, it gets even better.  She’s pregnant with twins, and they’re struggling together in the womb.  Wondering what this might mean, she goes to ask God.  And the text says “God said to her…”  She didn’t need an intermediary, her husband, a priest, or whatever.  She went to God and God spoke to her, explaining that the two children in her womb will become two nations, and – more importantly – that God has chosen the one who will be born second.  Again, contrary to all custom of the time, God’s blessing and the dominant role will be given to the younger son.  And later on, after the boys have grown, Rebekah acts to make sure that this is how things turn out.

She sought God, listened to what God had to say, accepted it despite it being shocking, and acted in accordance with it.  This has led to her being seen as the first prophetess, and the first woman since Eve that Scripture says was spoken to directly by God, without an angel or other go-between.

We’re supposed to do that, as a church, too, aren’t we?  Seek God, listen to what God says, accept it – whether it conforms to our expectations or not – and then act in accordance with it.  We are, in fact, supposed to be a prophetic community, receiving God’s despatches to a broken world, living out what we hear so that it becomes real and concrete for those around us.

I could go on, but I think by now you’re getting the point.  This portrait of Rebekah that the author of Genesis offers us is one that the Church ought to be able to look at, seeing a family resemblance to who we are.  But before I finish, I want to show you something which might give you another image for some of the same ideas.

What you’re looking at now is, believe it or not, a wedding ring.  Not one that someone would wear every day, obviously, but a symbolic heirloom, handed down between generations of the same family.  For centuries, Jewish families have made wedding rings like this.  And the whole point is that the ring is given to the bride, and the building – which is a symbol both for the family home, and for the temple in Jerusalem – is built on the foundation of the ring; it stands on the solidness of the marriage.

In much the same way, the future that God is building in our midst stands on the foundation of our relationship with God.  Just as God worked through Rebekah, the ideal Israelite wife, to bring about God’s purposes and the future God had promised, so God works through us, the Church, the bride of Christ, to bring about God’s purposes and the future God has promised.  And – you might remember that earlier I mentioned that Isaac is the one patriarch who never had another woman in his life – in return, God promises God’s presence and love and joy to us, to a unique degree.  The flip side of the Church being for God, is that God is for the Church.

God calls us to be, like Rebekah, a community which is oriented to God rather than the world around us.  God calls us to be hard working, hospitable and generous.  God calls us to reflect God’s beauty to the world, and calls us to be single-minded in our freely chosen commitment to God.  God calls us to be open to God being at work among us, providing a future and hope, letting God bring about fruitfulness in and through our lives.  God calls us to be prophetic; seeking God’s words, listening to them, and living them out.

It’s a high calling.  It’s comforting to me, at least, to know that real men and women have walked in it before us, and have been blessed as they have done so.  But Rebekah the matriarch has long since surrendered her care and gone to her rest.  It’s up to us, now, to be a living portrait – or even, dare I say, an icon – of God’s grace to our world.

And I hope, as you seek to do that, this morning’s exploration of the life of this remarkable woman has given you a helpful resource to draw upon.

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.