Sunday, February 26, 2023

Love, Lies and Lent - a Sermon for the first Sunday of Lent based on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

In the news this week we’ve heard that at least 47000 people have died as a result of the earthquake on the Syrian/Turkish border; that millions live in fear a year on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine; that a new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland is close to being struck in the midst of political tension; that Nigeria have gone to the polls to elect a new government still moving out of the shadow of military rule; that Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is the first to march at the Mardi Gras gay rights march. These and countless other stories have unfolded in the media glare and in dappled pools of sunlight heard only by the birds are all at their heart about life’s ultimate mystery - the nature of human relationships.

All human relationships are mysterious because they unfold a narrative of what binds and divides us which is centred on one emotion - love. That’s why those news stories move us. Grief erupts in tragedy because of love. We long for justice because of love. Love is the unifier. Love by it’s presence or absence transforms the human heart and will. It is humanity’s golden thread through our history - yet it remains an unfathomable truth.

What we hear as our first reading this morning is a telling of part of the story that binds and divides us. Genesis 2 and 3 are part of a story told by God to humanity which has three lines: I love you; I want to be with people like you; will you come and be with me? Told another way, these chapters are trying to explain the inexplicable - why are we here; why do we act and react the way we do with each other; why is there pain in childbirth etc?

It’s also worth flagging at this point a bit about the ‘Once Upon a Time’ sort of Hebrew used in the passage. Our lectionary compilers leave out the story of the creation of the woman made not as a helper (such a derogatory term) but an equal - bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. They also leave out the commentary about a man leaving his father and mother and clinging to his wife as one flesh (this text is not at all about marriage (biblical or otherwise and the word marriage is not used here at all.) Also the same word means ‘man’ and ‘husband’ and ‘woman’ and ‘wife.’ Being ‘one flesh’ is surely as much about husbands not mistreating their wives as themselves.

'... And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die...'

I love walking Pip our dog early in the morning. I love the silence, the fact that it is just her and me, I love the nature in which we walk and the route we take means we are surrounded by trees. What has struck me over the last few weeks is the number of very deep conversations I have ended up having with folks - the sudden death of a mother’s partner complicated by other issues; the cloud of dementia; the impact of bullying. All of these conversations have occurred between the trees.

Lent began on Wednesday as we stood at one tree - the palm - and marked ourselves with the kiss of God’s love and reminded ourselves of our mortality and need of Him. And here, we stand at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and look on over the weeks of our Lenten Pilgrimage. It would do us well to note that this story about fractured relationships finds it’s fulfilment in the realising of all our hopes and dreams at the foot of another tree - the cross - where all relationships are reformed. We could understand our craving relationship with each other and our wrestling with life’s temptations; and God reaching out to each of us in love - as all being outworked between these two trees.

In our school assemblies this week we talked about saying and doing wrong things and how we might lie to avoid the blame. This is all too a human trait - notice how the serpent subtly twists God’s words (Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?), and how the woman adds to the lie (God doesn’t prohibit touching the tree of knowledge.) Much spurious theology has been outworked from this story - but as equals, both woman and man are culpable for their actions. As we continue to journey between the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the cross - this remains true for each of us - we each remain culpable for our actions.

What is Jesus asking of us as we take these first steps in our Lenten pilgrimage? Our first reading reminds us that we are made for relationship equally with each other and our actions and words affect those relationships, and our Gospel reminds us that our actions (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, clothing the naked, visiting the sick or imprisoned) have eternal weight in that how we act and react affect our relationship with God.

The consequences of the actions at the tree of knowledge are being outworked in Ukraine as the actions of some lead to the death of others. I don’t mean that literally as would you Adam and Eve it - it’s only a story, but the corrupting of human relationships - the right of one to have power over another - is being outworked in Kyiv and the Donbas and ultimately has led to the need for gay right marches in the first place.

This Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, Walk with Jesus, learn from Him; seek to frame all of your relationships differently as he does because how we act and react with each other affect our relationship with God.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

The Grandfather Clock, the Power of Love and the Type of the Church and Society - A Candlemas Sermon


A grandfather clock - not ours.

We have a grandfather clock which stands in our dining room.  I have wondered at and wound that clock over many years.  It belonged to my grandfather and I knew that one day it would belong to me.

It was made in Glasgow in the early to mid 1800s. I often dwell on who has watched the minutes slip by on it’s face and heard the hours fall away to it’s chimes. At the moment it has stopped and remains unwound, hands caught at 9.15.

The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple which we keep today, is not about the life of Christ stuck at a particular time or point.  The Orthodox know today as The Meeting or The Encounter for it centres on the meeting of Mary and Joseph with Simeon and Anna, but in the drama of what unfolds in those conversations and liturgical rites are in a way ongoing, and in them the miracle of Christmas, the Incarnation, God amongst us is continually affirmed in a meeting of Heaven with Earth and Earth with Heaven.

Simeon took the child in his arms and praised God… for my eyes have seen have seen your salvation…What makes us human - Jeremy Vine… poets, politicians, actors, journalists. Fot Julia Donaldson it is our understanding of time - the past, present and the future; for the journalist George Alagia it is care and compasssion; for Stephen Fry it is language; for the cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, music. At the Feast of the Presntation, God’s answer to the question as to what makes us human, is love. 

As Christ is presented in the Temple, our humanity is offered to God with Him.  That’s all of our humanity, not just the Sunday best bits, because God takes all of what it means to human seriously. As we formally conclude our Christmas celebrations today we remember that in the Incarnation, God regards the impoverished, mundane, everyday material of humanity with such a generous love that he He is born amongst us, as one of us, as we are. In other words, God loves us, not as who we will be, or who we will become in His sight, but as we are now.  He loves those whom we find it hard to love, those who we are probably too afraid or ashamed to admit we don’t - the homeless, the drug or drink addled, gay, straight or bi. God loves regardless which way you vote, whether you are up to your eyeballs in debt, whether you are tattooed or pierced… And before you start wondering if this is becoming a sort of universalist ‘it’s all about love love love’ sort of a sermon - yes it is - God loves us all universally and unconditionally. The Meeting at the heart of todays Gospel is indeed Good News as the Christ child is revealed in the midst of the aged, young parents - not in worship, but in conversation - and their lives are changed.

What we remember today, is the hinge that binds crib and the Cross together - a link between what we celebrated at Christmas, with all that is to come at Palm Sunday, Good Friday and on to Easter Sunday. Our focus moves away from the crib to the font - the place where our much-loved humanity is affirmed with the kiss of love that is Christ’s cross, and we are commissioned to live our lives for Him.

Candlemas reminds us of the love of God for each of us, but of a love that transforms us, that heals us, that makes us to be more and more than we are or thought we ever could be. That love redeems us out of old habits, renews our drives and motives and offers us the ridiculous, seemingly unobtainable hope that we can become the people that both we and God long for us to be.  For as Christ is presented to God in the Temple, He offers back to us a hope of the Divine life of God for us and with us and in us, yes even us.

Candlemas is a vision of what not only the church, but our wider society could be. Instead of us living and loving within our age appropriate, gender-defined, politically constrained silos - God brings Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child together as a model of intergenerational Godly living, loving and worship as a type for the church, but as a blueprint of what our whole society could and should be - where no-one is excluded, all are welcome and included and all are surrounded by the love of God. 

At the end of the service of Holy Baptism, a candle is given and a charge to each baptised person is made to ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.’  Traditionally at this service, candles for the year for use in people’s homes and in worship were blessed so that the light of Christ could shine.  We will have a resonance of that ourselves at the end of our worship this evening.

That Baptismal charge though is not about our light shining, our agenda being heard, our ideologies or preferences being pushed to the fore, but God’s. Whilst He loves unconditionally and eternally, He calls us to love Him and others that way too - with a love that surprises and transforms.

As we pack away the tree lights and the crib and turn to the font and on to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection I am reminded of Howard Thurman’s remarkable poem:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

The light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of your people Israel is the Light and Life of the Resurrection which shone through the night of Gethsemene; pierced the darkness at 3 in the afternoon; and shone brightly from the empty tomb. The hands on our grandfather clock may be stuck at 9.15, for now, but at the font we are called to shine with that same light of love, dispelling the darkness in every meeting, in every encounter…

Tonight we reaffirm again our willingness to take the Light of Life into the impoverished, mundane, everyday material of life, dispelling darkness with transforming light and love.

Tonight, our world still seems to be filled with the darkness of hatred and fear towards those made in God’s image and loved by Him; the humanity that we share, that God took on Himself needs His light and hope more than ever.

Tonight we are reminded that it is through us that the work of Christmas begins and that the light of God’s love must shine..