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s072e04 Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral 25/3/04

"I have come to do your will" Heb 10.7

No, I'm not Margaret Rowell, she hasn't had a gender change! I'm sure we all wish Margaret a speedy recovery. It is good to be back amongst you. I was dragged out of the closet at the last moment.

There is clearly some debate about what God's will actually is. It is easy to say what isn't God's will, we can list off the majority of the 10 commandments and this gives us a fair idea of what we shouldn't do.

We are told fairly explicitly that God doesn't want sacrifices, burnt offerings and sin offerings, so that is plain. Yet it is a brave clergy person who suggests that parishioners needn't give sacrificially when it comes to money :-)! Nothing actually is ever as easy or straightforward as it seems.

We might think that God wants us to care for the environment, and I'm sure that future generations will indeed be grateful if we do. But Jesus was somewhat silent on issues of the environment - indeed he seemed particularly adverse to unfruitful fig trees and animals in the Temple precincts. However, in Jesus' defence, the whips that Jesus used to clear out the animals at least saved them from slaughter.

I have come to realise that if we are to do the will of God, it is necessary to do that which Jesus did which precipitated the hatred of the authorities, hatred enough to have him killed. The authorities stated their reasons to act against Jesus - that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God &endash; but we do not have to any disrespect for scripture if we assume that this may be but an excuse.

For me, the answer to why Jesus was killed is that Jesus associated with people other than themselves. For me I suspect that the ultimate blasphemy that Jesus could commit was to suggest that God blessed ordinary people - people other than themselves.

So if we are to do the will of God, we may well start by realising that the risen Christ is found in all sorts of people, in people other than ourselves, and not just Christians.

I have been reflecting recently on the hard words in the second of the 10 commandments - that God punishes the sins of the fathers on the "children to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me". I am not sure that I would worship a God who punished my children and my grandchildren, and my great grandchildren, as well as my great great grandchildren, for some mistake I made. I would hate such a God. Yet when I think about the mafia, those who defend to the death their family groups and those loyal to them, and have no compunction to kill anyone else who crosses them, I wonder how different this is to the Church which has been prepared to cheerfully condemn anyone who thought differently, acted differently, worshipped differently, or expressed their affections inappropriately or even prematurely to eternal damnation. Those who counted themselves religious hated the God whom Jesus so accurately portrayed, hated him enough to have him killed, because he loved people other than themselves. This hatred does infect generation after generation.

Today is the feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary, acknowledging the presence of God in a female type person quite some time ago. Orthodox devotion has made the mother of Jesus into a particularly devout and willing participant in the plans of God for humanity, and so, surprise, surprise, commending devotion and a willingness to participate in the plans of God for humanity to us. Yet I wonder if this putting of Mary on a pedestal, we too are implicitly denying that the risen Jesus can be found in us and in others. It is implicitly implying that God can only be found in special people. This is precisely the opposite of the incarnation, which announcement and conception we celebrate this day.

I was interested to hear an interesting sermon at St Judes' Brighton last Sunday. The preacher spoke of God and us as gardeners. The thing I got out of that sermon were the words of St Paul "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth". Again and again we were reminded that we are here to build people up - to nurture one another into becoming the plants we are meant to be. It is not about cutting down to size those who have different foliage to ourselves. It is not about getting people to jump metaphorical hurdles before they are acceptable. I am enjoying Yoga at the moment and in many of our classes we do the tree pose, or in my case, attempt to do the tree pose - standing on one leg with our arms pointed upward. I reflect how frequently God raises people to their feet when they fall on their faces, and how frequently God gives people who loudly proclaim their sinfulness and unworthiness a job to do.

Sometimes I get a bit frustrated with scripture, because it so frequently tells us what not to do, but other than loving God and neighbour, we are not told what to do. And I suddenly thought, of course this must be so. It is actually up to us as to what we do for God and neighbour. In the OT passage for last Sunday, we were told that the Israelites "ate the produce of the land of Canaan" when they entered the promised land. I preached about how we are to be productive and charitable, not devout and a burden on others. God is not interested in our devotion towards heaven and how frequently we are in Church. God is more interested in us providing for ourselves and our families and sharing with others as we are able. "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" does not mean that God wants mercy from us. God wants us to be merciful towards others, and I wonder how merciful we are as Anglicans towards those who express our Anglican faith differently. I wonder how merciful we as Christians are towards people who hold different faiths to us. I wonder how merciful are we as people of faith, towards those who do not have a faith. I wonder how merciful we are towards those who have had a marriage breakdown or who are gay? In my experience we have exempted Christians from being merciful towards these people.

I wonder how many people had the same reaction as me to last Sunday's Collect? The words were: "God of compassion, you are slow to anger, and full of mercy, welcoming sinners who return to you with penitent hearts: receive in your loving embrace all who come home to you ..." Don't we actually mean all Anglicans, all Christians, all people of faith, all who have successful marriages, or all heterosexuals? Those who actually don't really need God's mercy or our mercy? Is God so less accepting of difference than humanity that we have to ask?

Today is the feast of the Annunciation, and Mary's task in this world was to bear a son. It was not an especially remarkable vocation, for in all likelihood Jesus would have been indistinguishable from every other Jewish boy in the neighbourhood. She was simply to be herself and God would act through her. So we too do not have to become something different from who we are before we are useful to God. We are to be fully ourselves and God will work through us.

So God is found in flowers and sunsets and in all sorts of people. Some people are great, like artists and poets - others do not aspire to such dizzy heights. God is found in word and sacrament, in fellowship and prayer, in works of charity and works of art. God is found in every search, if it is God for whom we are looking. It was those who thought God could only be found in their way who had Jesus killed. That Jesus was raised to life means that the risen Jesus is still to be found, consorting with tax collectors and sinners.

I was thinking about that text: "If anyone says to you at that time, 'Look! Here is the Messiah!' or 'Look! There he is!' -- do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. ... So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near." (Mark 13:21-22,29) The problem is not that God will not be found in those places where others bid us to look, but that God will indeed be found there. The problem is that these false messiah and prophets imply that God is found there and not elsewhere - and this has been what the Church has claimed for years. If we look for God we will find God everywhere. The trick and the joy is to find God in ourselves - and in others. The false messiahs and the false prophets are correct in their pointing, but they point away from the place where it is most important to find God, as I say, in ourselves and in others. True prophets say to us, look see the risen Christ in yourself and in others.

It is an eternal rebuke to we who consider ourselves religious, well, in my case at least just a little bit, that the risen Jesus is to be found amongst people who have no inclination to be religious at all.

And Mary wasn't called to repent. Silly me! Of course, she of all people had nothing to repent of! But again referring back to that sermon at St Jude's and God's garden, we are called to plant, to nurture, to water, not to challenge others, to get them to repent, to change their gender, or to be intimate with only those whom we approve and only when we approve as well.

The good news is that it is God's will for us to be lifted to our feet, to be planted and nurtured, to grow into the human being God fully intended for each and every one of us in the beginning. And it is not just God's will for us, but it is God's will for others too - all others.

We are not all called to be cacti or succulents. Some trees are just there to give places for the birds to nest.

God's will is for us to be strong, for all people to be strong. This is what the announcement and conception that we celebrate this day implies. God doesn't want just to bless special people, for special people are already blessed. God acts to bless all people, and it is as we recognise how the Blessed Virgin Mary is identical to us ordinary mortals, rather than different, special or removed, that we begin to glimpse God's will for us and for all and so allow this into our lives. God blesses and uses us as we are, not as something other than what we are - and this is no less true for every one else as it is for us.


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