s042o02 Lockleys Sunday 9 2/6/2002
"See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse." Deuteronomy 11:26
When I read through the words: "You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates ..." - I thought of Catherine and Philip and Timothy with a good deal of compassion. If anyone thinks that I harp on about the same thing week after week, spare a thought for them as they have had to put up with my theology for so long. It gets so repetitive. They in particular are enjoying the opportunity to hear a different slant from Fr. Douglas.
Yet there is a sameness about the message - we are meant to be a blessing. To deviate from this message is perhaps to miss the blessing. It is not that you or I haven't got the message, but the message of the prodigalness of the love of God for all needs to be recounted again and again, lest anyone slip back into thinking that we or anyone else has to earn the love of God. So St Paul says: "there is no distinction, ... all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; (all) are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus .." (Rom 3.22-24)
I suppose it is the same reason we come to Church again and again, and that we kneel down at the Altar rail again and again to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion which tells us again and again that we are loved, that Jesus died and rose again for us and for all, so that neither we nor anyone else has to earn our way into God's good graces.
Why anyone would turn away from this God who "put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood ... to show his righteousness ... his divine forbearance" (Romans 3:25) "to follow other gods that you have not known" (Deuteronomy 11:28) is quite beyond me.
And yet it is not beyond me. I am my own worst enemy. I struggle with life and I struggle to understand why God would choose to use me.
Without this reassurance we can become like the debtors in the parable who plead only for time to repay - particularly as we get older, and some of our less than glorious exploits of our youth come back to haunt us. (Matthew 18.29) This is no better than the torture that we seek to avoid, and indeed it is precisely this torture that the unmerciful servant is condemned - he actually asks for it!.
As we go through life how frequently do we find ourselves the victim of other people's negligence or outright hostility? Again and again we need to remind ourselves that we are loved, dearly and tenderly. Our thoughts can so easily turn to vengeance and reprisal. Perhaps this continual reassurance might avoid this.
I do not care what particular name you give to God. I am not exactly certain that the name of Jesus has always been used for honourable purposes. As Jesus himself says "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Matthew 7:21) There are many who can do wonderful things but the effect of this is to make others cower, being made aware of their own (apparent) inadequacies. Our Church has not always reflected this prodigalness of God's mercy. Often in her proclamation and often in her exclusiveness in just who may receive the sacrament and who may not - the prodigalness of God has been hidden rather than proclaimed.
It is the prodigalness of God that is paramount, for one and for all, that seems to me to be far more inclusive than exclusive. I suspect that there are some who call God by a different name than we do and worship God in a manner quite foreign to us, yet perceive the prodigalness of God's mercy just as clearly as we do, and it is well that we honour that.
And it is also true that people can use the threat of religion to wrangle money or other sacrifices out of the gullible. I have no doubt that this is why Jesus warns people "of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves." (Matthew 7:15).
There is no need to be ashamed of the gospel. God sets before us, again and again, a blessing. The curse we bring upon ourselves as we try to earn what is already given freely and as we try to get others to earn what has been given them freely.
It is a long time before Sunday 21 when we read the lovely passage from Romans chapter 12. The last verse of the reading for that day, verse 8 says: "the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness." If we are bidden to cheerfully be compassionate and forgive others, God must certainly be better at it than us. God is cheerful when God is compassionate and forgives us and others. The word for "cheerfulness" is precisely the word from which we get "hilarity" `ilarothti. We need to hear God laugh when we sing the "Agnus Dei". We must hear God say: "Of course, of course, has there ever been any question about my forgiveness?"
One can get the feeling from my text that God is a stern God, putting before humanity the way of salvation, but also the way of damnation, daring any who would - to take this path at their peril. Sometimes we can think of God "rubbing his hands in glee" at the prospect. (I am sorry I can't make this phrase gender inclusive - and perhaps it is well that I can't). The God I worship is a cheerful soul, inviting all to join in the celebration - the cheerfulness of the prodigalness of the father.
I am reminded, because it has been set to be read in the daily offices recently, of the quaint tale of Balaam being "forced" to bless the tribes of Israel when the king who summoned him, Balak, wanted the tribes of Israel cursed. God does not trust even the prophet Balaam lest he be tempted to use his relationship with God to curse rather than bless, and so there is that lovely interlude where Balaam's ass saves him from being slain by the angel of God. I think we can take the message that God has no delusions about the Church's ability to abuse her relationship with God - to curse rather than bless.
So inevitably there is a path of peril, and that path is when we are unmerciful towards others. Now I do not pretend to know or to be able to evaluate the hurts others have suffered, and so their justification or otherwise for their retaliatory actions, but I do know the love of God through the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, for me and for all people. The path we are to follow as individuals, as victims, is clear, if we can. We all fail and we all need forgiveness when we do. God will hear our prayer for forgiveness, but not, I suspect, our pleading that we were justified in how we retaliated.
However there is no reason that we as Christians, those who know the cheerful prodigalnesss of the Father, need be or should be a curse for others in the name of our religion - Jesus has died and has been raised to life - to include others. We are merciful, as we can, towards others who as individuals may hurt us. But implicitly we are forgiving towards others in the name of Christ, when they believe in different terms to us, who may worship in different ways, provided ever that the cheerful prodigalness of the Father is maintained.
In fact the reality is that people choose their own god, and if people choose a strict and unmerciful one, it is they who curse themselves, and ultimately others too, if they want to inflict their conception of their god on others. We as Christians can in fact be a blessing to others as we proclaim and celebrate a God, prodigal beyond measure, which may encourage others to let go of their god of severity. Again there is no need to be ashamed of this prodigal God who sets before us and all people a blessing. We and all people are encouraged to grasp this God with all our being.
I want to return again to the concept that God is waiting to punish us when we step out of line. I personally believe that the reality is that God actually has no need to punish us at all. If we are unmerciful towards others, either in our personal relationships or as Christians towards others who do not believe or act in ways we think they should - there is no doubt in my mind that this will rebound on our own heads, "as the measure we give out will be the measure we get back." Others who know not the loving kindness of the Lord will have no hesitation in responding in kind. We cannot expect them to act in any other way. In fact I think that this is really the age that we are going through. We perceive often that secular society is "thumbing their nose" at Christianity, precisely because so often they have perceived the Church as unmerciful and uncaring. Perhaps we should consider that people are not "thumbing their nose" at God but at us when the perceived positions of prestige and power we "enjoyed" in the past are now seen to be so fragile as to be non-existent.
But there is no need to end on such a dreary note, for it is also my experience that when the Church does relate to other people as real and valuable human beings in their own right, that is welcomed and warmed to. I cannot say about experiences in "real life" for I have been "in the Church" for so long. However my suspicion is that in the real world it is rare that individuals are regularly treated with courtesy and respect, especially in the work place. Real unconditional love is a precious commodity in the Church and in the world; but we all welcome and warm to it where-ever it is found. This is the blessing of God, it is the way Jesus exercised his ministry, and the only ones who demurred were those who wanted to retain their positions of power and authority over others.
The blessing is put before us all. The blessing is not however just for us, but for others. If it ever becomes just for us and not for others as well, it will be our curse and our downfall, not through God's intervention, but through the reactions of others to our departure from the gospel.
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