SERMON 5 FEBRUARY 2017
It has been quite a week; one in which we may well all wonder what lies ahead in this world we share. I had words from Proverbs going around in my head: “Where is wisdom to be found?” We seem now to have entered dark and troubling times, though some may find them exciting. I do not see the pulpit as a political platform but nor should the Church separate itself from the world we live in. To do so would not be to follow Christ. Karl Barth, the towering theologian of the nineteenth century said that ministers should always preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.
I have not brought the newspaper, though I could have brought many. But we have the Bible right here. The reason we heard three readings this morning is that they all address us, quite simply, as we look around today. Actually I cheated a bit because the passage from 1 Corinthians was really the lectionary reading for last Sunday which we didn’t hear then. One needs to hear it before the reading that we would have heard today. You can find that in 1 Corinthians 2: 1-12. It too is important.
Where is wisdom to be found in these turbulent times? How are we to respond?
The voice of Isaiah is very clear. He is speaking to those, who, maybe not so differently from ourselves, would try and hide behind the patterns of living they have shaped for themselves. God speaks through Isaiah, dismissing the people’s ritualised fasting and says: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked to clothe them, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear…”
It seems to me that the times we are living in call us back to the fundamental message of the Scriptures, to the prophets, to the gospel, to what Jesus lived, preached and ultimately died for. One of the themes of Matthew’s gospel stands out for us today: love and compassion. These lie behind the Beatitudes we heard last week. They are the thread that holds together the body of teaching in the rest of Matthew 5,6 and 7. Maybe today’s words about being salt and light do not seem to connect immediately with love and compassion, but how can we be such important facets of life, as we are told we should be, if we are not, ourselves, deeply connected to the source of life, to the God of love and compassion?
It’s easy to say those words “love and compassion”. But do we really believe they are enough for the challenges around us? Is there a little voice in your head that says “that’s all very well, but...”
They are only enough if we really believe what lies at the heart of our faith, that we, the ordinary people that we are, are loved unconditionally and that the loving God is with us, Immanuel. We can’t live truly lovingly without that. We often put an “it’s all very well, but…” alongside this also. Why is it so hard for us to believe in this love? I led a workshop on Wednesday about shame. I expected there would be 20-30 people. There were about 80, because, I think, shame is something we all know about. It is a powerful emotion that can silence us and make us feel a deep sense of lack. There is something in us that is held by the notion of our not being good enough for this love of God; or that God is a punitive god, a god who does not really care, who fails to answer our desperate prayers, who does not do for us what we think we need. We forget God “with” us and focus on what we think God should be doing “for” us. As someone at the workshop commented, everyone loves the hymn “Amazing grace” yet we find it so hard to accept that very grace, that gift we cannot earn.
So how do we hold these passages of Scripture before us as addressing the turbulence of our times? Maybe Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2, which we could have heard today, speak to us. Paul has said that his words and message were not about wise and persuasive words, but were a demonstration of the Spirit’s power - “so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on God’s power”. “So that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on God’s power”. I find that comforting, because, when human wisdom seems lacking, God’s power is not.
Believing in this God, the God who, in Jesus, stayed with us even through the cross is, as Paul writes to the Christian community in Corinth, “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Holding on to the power of love in these troubled times may seem foolish. But Paul also writes “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”, and “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him”.
The Church is called to preach the gospel, the Good News of God’s unfailing and redemptive love and to live in that way. To be salt when things have become tasteless and to preserve what is good; to hold out the light of love so people who feel lost can find a way out of their darkness.
To be honest, when I was younger, I always used to feel a bit reticent about this passage from Matthew’s gospel. I didn’t know if I was confident enough to shine my light from a lampstand, let alone from the top of a hill! There are probably times when we all feel that our lights are rather flickering 40 watt globes and wouldn’t be bright enough to be of any use. But what is the light Jesus refers to except the love of God which is there for each one of us and never can be extinguished? Jesus goes on to talk about the Law. He makes the important distinction between the Law and the legalism of the Pharisees. There has always been the danger of Church institutions getting caught up in legalisms. The fundamental law that Jesus came to fulfil was about living in the mercy, grace and love of God. Unfortunately it is often our legalisms which dim the light of the gospel.
Here is a true story. Many years ago now, a retired missionary was asked to take a service one Sunday evening at a tiny church somewhere out beyond Windsor. As he was there waiting, he realise that it was getting dark. There was no electricity and no other lights. It was becoming difficult to see. Hardly anyone was there. But he was told not to worry. Then, out of the fading light came boats up the river, boats with people carrying their lanterns. They brought their lights into the church and created a bright glow together.
Where is wisdom to be found? The Scriptures tell us and our hearts and lives together confirm it. The power and light of God’s love is enough. It is stronger and wiser than the power of any person or people, and we are called to come together and live in it for the sake of the world we share. We will celebrate this as we share in the sacrament of Holy Communion shortly. It is the feast that invites us all to come, in humility, hopefulness and love and allow the profound simplicity of God’s grace to address us, more deeply than the clamour of the world.