Teach us good Lord, to serve thee as thou deserves…
(make sure you are sitting comfortably – this is a long one but I didn’t have time to make it shorter- sorry folks).
These times that we live in are nothing if not interesting. Especially as we have tv, twitter, facebook, instagram etc bombarding us with news even as it is happening.
I wonder what history will make of us… what they will say about us in years to come. About Britain, about England, about Urmston, about St Clements Church.
Looking at the TV footage and the newspapers and the various facebook pages for Urmston and its environs will make interesting reading, and that’s before anyone gets into the archives to discover what kind of people we were and how we put our Christian values into action.
I am sure that they will find some common themes.
Firstly, the world is afraid – nations are afraid….afraid of other countries… afraid of nature…afraid of their own people… afraid of their governments… in some places afraid of God, and across the board afraid of change. I got that last one from my granddaughter who tells me it is the first thing that they learn in year 6 at school – that people don’t like change.
We can see nations putting up barriers, dividing and ruling to keep what they like in, and what they don’t like out,
We can see our towns and our cities becoming divided, and in division, dangerous.
We see an increased interest in segregation, despite its terrible history – let people who are like each other stick together and look after each other… we aren’t interested in outsiders…
We see leaders being applauded on account of sound bites and personality, despite their records of cruel policies and divisive laws.
We see factions, cliques and groups talking together behind closed doors, intent to discredit, disable and harm without being found out.
I used to think it was obvious as to how we could live together in harmony… but life has taught me that what seems self evident – really isn’t.. because people seem to have an innate desire to punish and bring down people who are different from them, and an inability to be willing to put themselves out to build up trust..
What my grandmother used to call an ‘I’m alright Jack’ approach to morality.
Why is this?
Psychologists, sociologists and theologists have expounded all sorts of theories, as to why, but despite millions of dollars and pounds of investment into mediation, community relations, conflict resolution etc we still cant seem to find the generosity of spirit to enable other people not like us, to grow and flourish as we do. I heard an interesting story this week about Scandinavian jails… despite their great success in cutting reoffending they would never get the go ahead in Britian because as a nation we have a spare the rod and spoil the child attitude to crime and punishment.
And its interesting isn’t it – we are much more drawn to conflict than unity – think of eEast enders, Corrie, and even the archers – the number of listeners or viewers goes up when every thing starts to go wrong, and even the papers start treating fiction like fact – (no got that wrong they do that all the time…) and as for gossip, its rare to find good gossip, that builds up and energises…for the usual purpose of gossip is to tear down and demean, …and get your own back …all the while telling people not to be so sensitive. And of course it works… Thoughtless and unkind words have destroyed not just reputations but relationships, killing joy and even people. And as we know, churches are not exempt.
People often talk about the Hebrew bible in terms of conflict… they talk about the war, and the cruelty that we find in its pages. But its rarely noted for its good parts.. and there are many. Remember the Hebrew bible is Good news… about a covenantal relationship between God and human beings.
The book of Deuteronomy is concerned with addressing the conduct of the Hebrews…The tribe who believe that God has set them apart for a special role in a difficult and challenging world. Chapters 1-30 consist of three sermons delivered by Moses on the plains of Moab, just before they are about to enter into the promised land. The first is concerned with the 40 years wandering in the wilderness and ends with an exhortation to keep the laws that they have been given … the second, reminds them to follow Yahweh and obey the laws, for their possession of the land rests on this… and the third offers comfort to them that there is the possibility of forgiveness and restoration when they fail.
The remainder of the chapters are concerned with the passing on of leadership from Moses to Joshua…and the death of Moses.
That must have been difficult for Moses…despite his years of work it would be someone else who would move it on into the future… all that investment in those relationships…all that effort…but that’s a story for another time..
And so we step back from that to the question of the law… what it is and why it should be kept.
The basic premise is simple…. God chooses Israel and promises blessings, and in doing so asks for faithfulness and obedience. This is all expressed through the covenant’ …its all about being in relationship…with God…and with one another. Obedience is not about duty but is a loving response to the party with which we are in relationship. That’s why it was always in the marriage service…
What’s in it for us.. well its quite simple.. The amazing thing is that when people work together and pull together, even if the project itself fails, there is always something good that comes out of it which leaves us all better of than before. That’s why the covenantal relationship is so important. It’s a promise to stick together through thick and thin.
God is God of Gods, Lord of Lords, he is not partial – he doesn’t favour one person over another because they have come from a different town or county…or even country…and he won’t tolerate anyone else being partial in an exclusive way either – it is for our own good that we open our hearts up – none of this getting together in little groups where some are in and others out.
But this God will show his hand to those who are marginalised, who aren’t given a chance because their accent is different, their skin colour different… those who are not part of the community but come to offer their gifts and play their part – this God is not interested in separation walls whether they are made of stone, concrete, or gossip and opinion. This God will execute justice for those whom others cast aside…and what is more the Israelites are expected to follow suit – caring for the marginalised, the poor, the sick and the disenfranchised, and the alien tearing down walls, and building up people.
And of course it is this message that is picked up in the New Testament…first by Jesus, whose ministry is entirely given to those who are given the cold shoulder by people who should know better. Jesus famously addresses the Pharisees as whited sepulchres, in other words, spiritually dead…because they used their relationships to exclude, condemn and to decry. There is no honour in just looking after our friends.
Of course we can say ‘well its just history and religious history at that’ – life these days is more complicated..… or is it… who are the whited sepulchres in our society these days…those who separate children and families…those who invest in education for the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful…
Those who cut services to people in need in order to accrue more money for shareholders…
And in our churches we are not exempt from these problems either.. . we might think that its easy to equate the ruling class in those days with the ruling class in this… but anyone who has spent long enough in churches will tell you that the people who like to call the shots aren’t always the people in the collars…
No- one in church is exempt from folly…except perhaps those who keep the Lord’s commands despite feeling foolish because they do…
Its important that we remind one another regularly, that which we hear in the baptism service about how the baptised are set apart, just as Israel was, to be a light to lighten the lives of those who have yet to come and belove God…. And that we are those baptised… called to be and do differently.
So what should we take from this, and the story of Paul, who went to great lengths to ensure that the world knew about the good news – not because they had heard it from someone or read it in a book but because they had received it from one of the chosen, one of the anointed..
To be lifted up by words and actions of those around you is to know something of God…
to be encouraged…
to be picked up dusted down, and enabled to continue on in life, especially by your worst enemy, is to know something of the love of God. Conversely, to be undermined, mocked, derided or ignored or pushed aside by some one who, on the face of it, likes you to think they are kindly, or a friend, is to know the work of the devil…
We are called to turn away from the work of the devil… and this requires that we examine what we do and say; to ensure that we build up rather than dash down; to calm, not distress;to help people to play the best part they can… without comparison to others..accepting them as they are. This is what Jesus did and we are called to hold Jesus before us…and to do as he does.
And when we do these things we will find that we will be given glimpses of the promised land… a land overflowing with milk and honey, a taste of heaven; where there is trust and hope for God’s future. When I’m feeling that its all impossible I focus on Jesus and pray
one of my favourite prayers from childhood – this prayer attributed to St Ignatius of Loyola; putting my trust in the God we belove
Teach us good Lord to serve thee as though deservest,
To give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
To labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do thy will