“Look teacher, what large stones”, a lesson from Little Red Riding Hood?

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Sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk, 2 before Advent, Mark 13:1-8

“Look teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”

I’m afraid reading this immediately brought to mind another familiar story…

“What big eyes you have Grandmother”, “All the better to see you with my dear.”

“What big ears you have Grandmother”, “All the better to hear you with my dear.”

After a few days with Little Red Riding Hood going round my head, I began to think it does have similarities with this passage from Mark’s gospel. They are after all, both about being deceived, about needing to look beyond the obvious.

The disciple with Jesus sees the size and magnificence of the Temple, and confuses the grandeur of the building with the presence of God. He’s ready to accept his first impressions…not to look any deeper.

But Jesus, as always, is trying to explain that he brings a new kingdom…and it’s entirely different to the old. It’s not about status and power, or outward appearances.

And as always, the disciples struggle to follow. If they’re losing the familiar stability of the Temple they’d like a clear sign…a date even…so they recognise the new Kingdom.

We like it nice and simple don’t we? We like to be certain. We like right and wrong to be obvious and clear cut. We like someone with charisma and power to give us a simple message to follow. We like big stones!

The trouble is, life isn’t simple. Reducing everything to black and white, not bothering to look any further can so easily mean that what we lose is the truth.

Last weekend we remembered World War I. Four futile years of slaughter…fuelled in this country by the simplistic view that anything German was evil, so war was a noble cause. Conscientious objectors who saw past the rhetoric – who refused to go and kill young men just like them – were simply labeled cowards. It was easier to hate them too, than to engage with their ideas and look deeper.

Sadly we don’t seem to have learned much. In this world of social media and instant feedback we seem even less willing to look beyond first appearances. ‘What large stones and what large buildings.’

Around the world we see how easily people are mislead by simple messages delivered with confidence. The rise of nationalist leaders is no doubt a reaction against corruption and out of touch government. But their widespread support surely depends on people being unwilling to engage with complex problems and ideas.

This weekend, the Brexit coverage has reached fever pitch. You’re probably heartily sick of it. I certainly am. The referendum took place just days before my preordination retreat…it’s been the background to my entire curacy…

…but I do think part of the mess came from our desire for a simple right vs wrong decision, and our willingness to believe people who say what we want to hear…rather than listening carefully to all the arguments.

Jesus refused to join this game of first impressions. He wouldn’t give a sign or a date; instead he gave a warning. “Many will come in my name”, he said, but don’t be fooled. For me, part of being a Christian is considering carefully who or what we follow in our daily lives, and trying not to be led into worshipping something other than God.

I’ve stopped even trying to imagine how Brexit will end…but in the coming months we may be asked to vote again, and we will certainly need to help heal a divided and angry nation. I think following Christ means looking beyond the headlines, listening carefully, being ready to suggest and support compromise.

What if we do look deeper though? Without an obvious sign, how do we know whether what we hear comes from God…or whether we’re being led astray? The simple answer is – we don’t. But on that point I’d like to take you back to Little Red Riding Hood.

I’m sure you know the story…she’s gone off dutifully to visit Grandmother, unaware that a greedy wolf is out to eat her. He sneakily finds out where she’s going, gobbles up grandmother, dresses in her clothes and leaps into her bed.

In most versions he manages to fool Little Red Riding Hood long enough…”What big teeth you have grandmother”, “All the better to eat you with.”

But Red Riding Hood has noticed something’s wrong. She obviously visits Grandmother often enough to know that the clothes and bed may be hers – but the eyes, ears and teeth just don’t look right…

“Beware no one leads you astray”. Jesus doesn’t offer a sign or a date; he won’t give us a shortcut. Is that because the best way to avoid being led astray is by getting to know Jesus as well as we can?

Hopefully we do this by coming week by week to St Mary’s. We meet Jesus in the Eucharist and learn of his grace and overwhelming love. We meet Jesus in the gospel stories we hear. And it helps if we come expecting to be changed.

There are sermons…well we do our best… And you’re very kind…you say…”Your sermon was lovely”

But we both learn more when you say: “It made me think”, “can I borrow the book you mentioned?”, and come back with your opinions.

And Pilgrim courses – yes we are a bit obsessed – but that’s because of the way they ask how faith impacts on our everyday lives, our habits, our opinions, the way they help us look beyond the ‘large stones’.

Since Advent Sunday last year we’ve been sharing Mark’s gospel…it leaves us with this challenge, “Beware, keep awake, don’t be led astray, watch for the coming of the Kingdom”

I think we do this best by investing time and effort in our faith, by getting to know Jesus…and then, in his light, looking beyond the ‘large stones’ and carefully considering the issues that face us.

Saints because of their brokenness?

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Sermon for All Saints – choral evensong at St Mary’s Whitkirk

Three weeks ago – Oscar Romero was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church – he was recognised as a Saint. I decided to google just what that means. Apparently there are 4 steps to being canonized…one involves a committee analysing and investigating the person’s whole life, looking for ‘proof that the candidate lived a life of heroic virtue — that they earnestly and aggressively sought to improve their own spirituality consistently throughout their life.’

I’m not sure what ‘aggressively seeking to improve ones spirituality’ looks like…

Of course, once we decide it’s our business to pronounce who was a saint, we’re bound to need rules. It seems such a big thing, proclaiming someone a saint…that we have to show the world a person of ‘heroic virtue’…even if they would perhaps no longer be recognised by those who knew and loved them.

The trouble is, these saints no longer have much relevance for our lives. We might remember and give thanks for them…if it’s our theology we might ask them to pray for us…but we probably won’t wonder how we might copy them.

I’m not mocking the Roman Catholic Church – as humans we seem to need our heroes on a pedestal…to prove their ‘heroic virtue’, their perfection. But what we end up with are superheroes…and they’re not much use to us. They can’t tell us how to cope with the challenges life throws at us – they can’t tell us what to do when we fail. If we try to live up to perfect saints – we’re just more afraid of being wrong.

I’ve been reading a book by Richard Rohr – Roman Catholic Priest and Franciscan Friar – in which he points out that using his church’s definition of sanctity, of sainthood – there’s no one in the bible who would qualify.

He suggests not even Jesus…I don’t think I’ll tackle that one tonight…

But I do like his description of the bible as basically a story of people being wrong. And his suggestion that in the bible, a saint is ‘a broken, foolish person who makes all kinds of mistakes but still trusts God.’

Think of David – included in that list in the letter to the Hebrews…David – who commits adultery with Bathsheba, arranges the death of her husband, fights with his son. Think of Peter – apostle and pillar of the early church…Peter who so often puts his foot in it, speaks without thinking, denies Jesus in his hour of need.

Saints perhaps because of how they responded to their mistakes. How they faced the consequences and wrestled with what faith in God looked like in their broken lives.

St Peter has long been one of my favourites – precisely because of all his blunders. If God can use him, I’ve thought, may be there’s hope for me. But nowadays I think less of God using him despite his mistakes and brokenness – and more that perhaps God uses him because of these.

All those times when Peter rushed in with rash statements and didn’t worry about being wrong…was he just saying what others wanted to but didn’t dare? Sure, like me he needed to learn to think before speaking, but his willingness to be wrong, to be corrected, has left us with insights into our faith.

And his biggest failure…his denial of Jesus? One of my summer holiday reads was this novel (‘Phoebe’ by Paula Gooder) which imagines the lives of the very early Christians. It has a scene where a group of Christians in Rome meet Peter. He tells his story of denying his Lord, of being forgiven, of a daily struggle to work out what it means in his life.

“Being forgiven and accepting you are forgiven are two very different things. Jesus forgives. That’s his nature. Receiving that forgiveness, living it out day by day, and then forgiving others, that’s what’s hard. I still struggle with it.”

Not someone of heroic virtue, rather a broken, foolish man. But because through all the mess he still trusts in God, he has something to say to our daily struggles with faith and life.

This week we’ve been remembering Saints – as our prayer book puts it…’men and women in whose lives we see the grace of God powerfully at work.’ For me, their stories are most powerful…most inspiring…most useful…when God’s grace works through their failures and their brokenness…

Those stories remind us we too are called to be saints. Not to be perfect, but to hang on to our trust in God – even if only by our fingertips sometimes – through the successes and failures of our lives. It means wrestling with what that trust means in the situations we find ourselves in.

I visited a saint the other day. She told me the choices and decisions before her were the hardest thing she’d ever faced in her life…but that she’d prayed about them, and felt the way was clearer, and that doing the best she could would be enough.

St Oscar Romero – was for 35 years a fairly conservative priest. I suspect the committee scrutinising his life found in those years nothing but exemplary upholding of the authority and rules of the church, perhaps even ‘aggressive improvement of his spirituality’. In 1977, as Archbishop of San Salvador – his faith came up against the reality of poverty and oppression…of the murder of priests and others who dared to speak out.

What he saw must have challenged his religion, his practices, his beliefs…but he held on to his faith in God and saw that if it meant anything, it meant standing up for the poor and oppressed. He’s remembered as a saint not for the times he didn’t make mistakes…but for when he trusted God to show him what it meant to share the gospel where he found himself.

So today let’s give thanks for all the broken, foolish people who made all kinds of mistakes but still trusted God. And let’s offer him our failures and brokenness, so his grace can work through our lives.

 

 

 

Only love can teach love…

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Love…the first and greatest commandment.

Sermon for 4th November at St Mary’s Whitkirk.

“The first commandment is this…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this…you shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.

Just over a week ago, the ashes of 21 year old Matt Shepard were interred in Washington National Cathedral. His parents had kept his remains at home for 20 years since he was brutally murdered for being gay. They feared any memorial would be defaced by people who still hate Matt just for being different.

On the following day 11 people were shot dead whilst praying at a synagogue in Pittsburg – by someone who hated them just for being Jewish.

A week ago the people of Brazil elected a president who has said he is in favour of torture; who uses the language of hate against women, homosexuals, and especially his socialist political rivals.

On Friday, 7 Coptic Christians were murdered in Egypt by Islamist extremists.

The police watchdog has reported a steady rise in hate crime in Britain in recent years; and warned that Britain leaving the EU may bring a further sharp increase.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…love your neighbour as yourself…there is no other commandment greater than these.” I can’t remember a time when this commandment has seemed so vital.

We discussed this passage in our Pilgrim group recently and were asked to consider what it really means to love God. In a way it sounds simple, obvious…but when we tried to put it into words, we struggled with that question.

So I’d like to share a few lines from a poem that was in the entrance of one of the schools I taught in. You may know it…

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.

If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
That poem reminds us that love is something we have to learn. It’s not something that comes from nothing. It’s hard to love other people until we learn to love and accept ourselves. If we fear we’re worth nothing, other people tend to seem like rivals, rather than someone to love. And we learn to love ourselves only by realising that we are loved.

In our Pilgrim group we thought perhaps loving God starts with accepting God’s love for us. As the poem says…if children live with acceptance, with love…they learn to love. It’s only knowing we’re loved unconditionally by God, letting God love us, that teaches us how to love God. As the first letter of John says ‘We love because He first loved us.’ And as we learn to love God, we learn to love what he loves. Accepting God’s love for us teaches us how to love our neighbour.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…love your neighbour as yourself…there is no other commandment greater than these.” There is no greater commandment because only love can teach love.

A world that lives with hostility learns to fight.

A world that lives with hate learns to hate.

A world that lives with love might learn to love.

It seems the loudest voices in our world are the ones sharing hate; especially hatred of anyone who’s different. There are always going to be differences of opinion, genuine worries about say, an influx of migrants, or a culture being lost. But once our leaders, or those with a public platform, move from dialogue to shouting at one another; once they see those who disagree, or are different as enemies…words of hatred become the norm, and are repeated.

And once words of hate are openly shared, normal, accepted…it’s a small step for some to committing acts of violence against those who disagree or are different.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…love your neighbour as yourself.”

Not love as a warm fuzzy glow…but the love that allowed itself to be nailed publicly to a cross to show God’s love to the world. This is the love we Christians are called to share…because our world needs to be taught how to love. It needs love loud enough to be heard above the hate.

Love that speaks up and challenges wherever hatred is shared: on social media, in conversation, in the pub – even as a joke.

Love that refuses to let anyone be labeled, stereotyped, hated, just because they’re different.

Love that, when it finds itself fearing this or that group of people takes the time to learn about them, to get to know them, to see them as children of God.

Love that listens and considers, rather than shouting and condemning.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…love your neighbour as yourself…there is no other commandment greater than these.”

We are commanded, every one of us, to accept that God loves us with a love nothing can destroy. In knowing this love we can learn to love God. In learning to love God we can learn to love all of God’s children however different they are to us. And in making this love seen and heard…we can help our world to learn love instead of hate.

Lord, your Son showed us what love looks like. Help us to find our security in that love which casts out fear…and so bring love into your world. Amen.