Monday, 15 October 2018

A sermon preached last Sunday . . .

. . . at Marton and Trelystan:

Last week scientists warned the world’s nations that we need to act now to reduce our use of the world’s resources. If we don’t the predicted rise in the world’s average temperature will be more than we can sustain. The week before that, the BBC showed a highly disturbing film about plastic clogging rivers and estuaries; soon it will be followed by a “Blue Planet Live” programme one focus of which will be the way the plastic we throw away is polluting our seas. But can we live without plastic? We seem to have forgotten how to, while governments either don’t dare or don’t care to do enough. And some governments, those of the USA and Australia to name two, seem to be blatantly stopping their ears to what most scientists are saying. They’d rather believe their own chosen false prophets instead.

It’s tragic; we own so much, we have so much power, but the things we possess end up controlling us, and the planet suffers and our future is at risk. This is how Jesus put it: “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” His disciples would have been surprised and shocked to hear that. They would have believed - as most people did in those days - that to be rich was a sign of God’s blessing. A rich man who kept the law and attended synagogue and made the right sacrifices at the temple was just about as close to perfect in God’s sight as you could get.

So in astonishment the disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” Ten days ago the Church celebrated Francis of Assisi. Francis was brought up in a very comfortable and well-to-do home, and he was heir to his father’s very successful business. He had dreams of being a knight, a man of chivalry. But then his life changed; and he began to take seriously those words of Jesus about selling your possessions, giving to the poor, and following him. He seemed to hear God calling him in a special way. So he gave up his rich and privileged lifestyle, to serve sister poverty instead. He determined to spend his life on the open road as a little brother to anyone in need, in imitation of his Lord. And as his life drew to a close he received the stigmata, the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, a tangible symbol of his devotion to Christ.

Even Francis, though, knew his attempt at a good life to be a pale reflection of that of his Lord. Other people might praise him, but he knew himself to be a sinner and unworthy, despite it all. He’d made himself poor, but even the most humble possession could still get in the way of his service of his Lord. And if even a famous saint like Francis was really still a sinner, what chance for the rest of us?

The answer Jesus gave to his stunned disciples was this: “No chance at all.” No chance at all if you mean to trust to your own efforts, if you want to make it on your own. We can try to be good, we can aim to be like Jesus, but we can never match the example he sets us of love and humility and service.

But while Jesus said to his disciples, “For mortals it is impossible” he went on to say, “But all things are possible for God.” God makes the impossible possible. We call this grace, which is a short way of saying “the saving, healing and forgiving and totally undeserved love of God.” God meets us in our weakness, our uncertainty, our failure and our sin, and he welcomes us as though we were strong and pure and clean. God accepts the unworthy offerings we bring, and he counts them as worthy.

It’s like when I’m visiting a foreign country. Like most British people, I’m no good at foreign languages; but myself, I’ll always want to have a go. And what I find is that though my attempt at French or German or Spanish may be mangled and messy and hard to follow, the French or German or Spanish person to whom I’m speaking (or trying to speak) is often really pleased that I’ve at least made the effort. Often their English puts to shame my attempt to speak their language, but they’re still glad I’ve tried. People I've tried to speak to have respected the fact that I’ve made the effort; they’ve met me in my messiness and incompleteness. Though they’ll probably have had a bit of a laugh as well.

Now, you see, I think that’s how God relates to us. We don’t get everything right, but if we're trying to do our best he rejoices in that, and meets us in the attempt we make. We may sometimes go badly wrong and really let him down; but even then, if we wake up to what we’ve done or failed to do and if we’re sorry and turn back to him, he’s gracious and ready to forgive. We can make ourselves quite unlovable, yet still God loves us, like the father of the prodigal son in the story who spent every day watching from the rooftop. The cross in our church and the cross marked on us at our baptism is our sign of a love that is forever, a love which is for all.

But we make smaller gods for ourselves, and they take us over. Things like money, power, popularity, position and status that trap us and turn our hearts and tie us to the earth. Money isn’t itself wrong, and Jesus never said it was, even when he talked about the camel and the eye of the needle. Nor does the Bible say that money is the root of all evil; what St Paul wrote to Timothy was that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” That’s what happens when we get our focus wrong. Things we own can be dangerous; if we don’t watch out, they trap us and take us over. And the more things we own, the more chances we have to get trapped. The easier our lives, the less likely we are to think we have any need of God. Debbie said something similar in her harvest sermon the other day. Graham Norton was quoted recently as wondering why it is that people who are far too rich to ever need to think about where their next penny is coming from spend so much time and effort avoiding paying taxes when, as he put it, that should be their privilege and their duty.

Disciples of Jesus know that worldly things, like money and power and possessions, are both danger and opportunity. They’re a mortal danger if we let them take the place of God. But if we really are seeking God’s kingdom before anything else, our possessions become something to use in God’s name - to change lives, to help our neighbour. But only if we’re ready to see as our Lord sees; for those who seek the kingdom of God, all that we are and have and own is his.

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