Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 14th February
It’s been a couple of weeks of funerals – so you might appreciate why I picked up on this in one of this week’s e-mails. It was about a new business opening up - and one of the owner’s friends wanted to send him flowers for the occasion. They duly arrived at the new business site and the owner read the card, “Rest in Peace.”
So the owner was angry and called the florist to complain.
And after he’d told the florist of the obvious mistake and how angry he was, the florist replied, “Sir, I’m really sorry for the mistake, but rather than getting angry you should imagine this: somewhere there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note saying, ‘Congratulations on your new location!’”
Anyway, today’s reading from Deuteronomy brings us the ‘remembrance of times past’ when Yahweh (Israel’s God) had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt – and it was the very struggle to get to where they were – into a more settled state in land that was promised - that gave them huge reason to be grateful. The writer Marcel Proust says that it’s in remembering we get a sense of ourselves – of our identity and belonging. So Moses is giving the people rituals for remembering – like the things we do at Pentecost – and harvest festivals, recalling God’s gift of the Holy Spirit – and his ongoing goodness and provision. I’m sure those in this church and community could talk in similar ways of God’s faithfulness amidst the struggles and hard times – and here we are today with a sense (I hope) that things are moving – and we’re ever thankful to those that tilled the ground over the years to make our worship and witness today possible.
The passage from Romans too, that comes in the middle of Paul’s long and convoluted explanation of how the old and new covenants fit together, is all about small things that stand for bigger ones. Paul is asking his readers to pay attention to the little things they can do – like noticing what’s in their hearts and on their lips: remembering what and who brought them to belief in the first place – and (here’s the thing) to make this memory come alive by talking to others positively about it; yes remembering what God has already done for them – but then not keep this to themselves, but making it available to others and so bringing them into the story. Because Deuteronomy and Romans both say that God’s generosity isn’t limited to those who remember. The point of remembering is to bring others in – which is why churches – why you and I - are here – “do this to remember me…”
So, like last week, let’s note where Luke the storyteller places his account of Jesus’ temptation – it’s right after his Father has affirmed his love for him at his baptism; and after the genealogy, the family tree, that firmly establishes Jesus centrally in our memory of God’s dealings with the world. This is a pivotal point in Luke’s gospel – a moment in which Jesus understands and accepts his calling by rejecting the false paths the devil offers to him.
So what does all this say to us as, once again, we begin Lent together?
Let’ s make sure that as well as seeing the importance and value of ‘remembering’ – which is what we do when we share Holy Communion together – that memory on its own can be debilitating. It can be a memory of what we once were, or might have become. It can fix us in times past. (Like the Swans losing all those matches on the trot, and letting in goals which leave them without snatching important points – and leaving the question still hanging ‘are they going stay up...?).
When I worked as a social worker in Philadelphia back in the 1980s – for two of the four years I lived there – I worked for a traditional and strictly psychoanalytic agency - and the predominant Freudian belief was that the child’s personality was somehow fixed/stuck as a result of very early parental experiences. It’s not exactly good news is it?! It says that change isn’t possible – but that’s not the Christian gospel.
I was saying on Wednesday that Lent isn’t meant to be a time for punishment and pain – and remonstrating with ourselves for messing up in the past – (which is what we’ve all done, if we’re being honest), but it is a time for changing our minds, changing our outlook and attitudes – maybe even the tone of voice we use towards each other. It’s a time for a change of heart – a point that’s vividly illustrated by the first reading we had on Ash Wednesday when the prophet Joel tells Israel, ‘Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn” (Joel 2:13
All the great feasts of the Church: Easter, Pentecost, Harvest, Christmas are celebrated not primarily to remind us of past events, but to help us celebrate Jesus amongst us – which is why we spend those festivals worshipping together as one church. Jesus is not born again every Christmas, nor does he rise every Easter Sunday, nor does the Holy Spirit appear like a dove or like fire at Pentecost. We celebrate these feasts to help us understand, appreciate and relish the mystery of our life with God with us right now.
So yes, there is a need and a time for penitence – but in that proper sense of offering God our willingness to be changed – not to make life harder, or to inflict pain on ourselves, but to free us from the intolerable burden that our imaginary fears can often impose upon us.
What does a change of mind and heart mean – and how can we do this?…Well in a sense we can’t: all we can do is be attentive to God (to listen to Jesus, as we heard last week) and let him do the transforming: ask him more fully into our lives to take his rightful place in the centre of things - not on the edges, or when we feel so disposed; to let him be Lord of everything – every moment, every relationship, every experience, every conversation, every place we find ourselves.
Real change means an inner surrendering of my own will – my mind and heart to God, so that whatever I do, I do guided by his Spirit – with him, in him, for him and through him. God is constantly nudging us to change – well he is with me anyway! Our difficulty is in recognizing when he’s doing that – & taking enough time to notice. Deep within us is there is an innate longing for God (because it’s the way we’re hard-wired). No matter how irreligious, unspiritual or un-prayerful we may think we are – there’s a kind of longing that St. Augustine talked about as he looked back on his own colourful life and wrote, ‘You have created me for yourself and my heart is restless until it rests in you.’
(Anyway) in light of Bishop John’s encouragement “to reflect upon our calling to be faithful, loving and generous disciples of the Lord Jesus” wouldn’t it be great if you made it a commitment to be part of the Ministry Area Lent studies that start this coming Thursday – and that you borrow one of the books Douglas, Julie and I have put on the table as you come into church to guide you through these weeks of Lent – there’s a list to write which book and your name. One that’s there is called ‘Oh God Why? By Gerard Hughes, - the late Jesuit priest. Its subtitle is ‘a journey through Lent for bruised pilgrims’ – which is why it attracted my attention! Anyway he has this to say:
“In our consciousness, this drawing of God [to change us] may feel very ungodly; there may be feelings of boredom, dissatisfaction, disappointment, disgust, emptiness, darkness, isolation and estrangement from even those closest to us. God is in all things, and if we can allow these negative feelings to come into our prayer, then we can begin to see them as God’s invitation to change. In some Christian circles the impression is given that those who are close to God live in a constant state of bliss, full of the love of God and his creation, safely cocooned from any negative emotions. This is not the experience of the saints. (Preachers) who say those who turn to God no longer experience darkness, nor any negative feelings, can never have met God in their own prayer, cannot know themselves, but they can prevent others from finding him. That is why it is so important …to bring all our moods and feelings into prayer, so that we can recognize God’s nudgings in all our experience.
So is Lent all about being introspective and self-absorbed? Well it can easily be – we have enough material on self-advancement – and ‘how to be’ books. We breathe air in a culture that’s obsessed with the self – the ego. But let’s remember why Christians have celebrated Lent all these years. It’s because the Church (the people of God), is to be the sacrament of God in the world. Sacrament? Augustine defined this as "a visible sign of an invisible reality"; an effective witness to God’s presence with us. And the Church must reflect this transcendent quality of God, this characteristic unpredictability, this surprise element. People out there presume the Christian thing (especially in Lent) is all about guilt – all about making people feel bad - & powerless to do anything about it. That’s such nonsense – the gospel is good news (when I’m out and about I often came across signs outside forbidding looking chapel buildings that remind me in sombre King James Bibles words - that I would have to make an account of all the bad stuff I’ve done before an angry God – and then opposite invite me to make this place my home for worship – as if?!).
The early Christians knew for sure that they were a part of a pilgrim Church – always on the move – a Church on a journey out of slavery, or back from exile – yes through wilderness – but into the Promised Land. Gerard Hughes observes: “We all fear change, long for security, but a church which offers us unchanging stability has ceased to be Church and is no longer a sign of the transcendent God” but (and here’s the good news) God is also immanent, present in all things – even in the very messy, often shameful history of an obscure and troublesome Middle-East nation destined to be a light to all nations.
The challenge of Lent is mirrored in the changing weather as we await Spring (at last!!). Let’s get away from what Hughes calls the human tendency to “distort, discount and disguise the good news of the Christian gospel into something grim, drab and dreary which leaves us suspicious of life” - and let’s begin delighting in it – happy and courageous, not guilty and afraid. Forgiven and loved to bits. God is on the move – and he makes all things new! So let’s go deeper – further up & further in to the love and laughter – the dance of the Trinity ~ Amen