s133o97 sermon MU Woodville 70th birthday celebration

(There are some references to Eph 4.32-5.2,21-32 which are not the RCL readings for today. I have no idea why this passage is being used at this service - it may be their liturgy committee's idea - references to Eph are smaller.)

"therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God." Joshua 24.18

It is a joy and a privilege to be asked to be with you today. It is quite an achievement in anyone's terms to reach the age of 70 years. I guess that at the celebrations following this service, there will be lots of opportunity to reminisce, to remember the good times, to renew friendships, to recall the fun times and the funny incidents.

Sometimes I wonder if we look at the church side of it like the "word from the sponsor", and like the ads on TV, take the opportunity to do something else - to get a cup of tea, go to the loo or think about something else. While the service might be inspiring, the sermon is the thing to be endured. We have heard it all before, when nothing else has distracted us. And so the preacher feels like having to attract the attention of the congregation, like the ads do. We can all remember the jingle "I'm Louie the fly, I'm Louie the fly, I'm bad and mean and mighty unclean, spreading disease with the greatest of ease, straight from rubbish tip to you ... afraid of no one 'cept the man with the can of Mortein, hate that word Mortein. One spray and Louie the fly, apple of his old mother's eye ... was dead."

So, as the sermon begins, the organisers of today's celebrations might have turn their thoughts to the sausage rolls in the warmer, the urns and like matters. Others might be thinking of who they might catch up with, of stories to share, of past achievements to celebrate. In the midst of all this we have the response to the invitation of Moses by the tribes of Israel: "We too will serve the Lord!" Oh dear. Not again! We're 70 for heavens sake! We've done our bit, it's time for others to take our place.

The tribes of Israel also, like us today, were looking backward, to the recent past where God had led them. The picture that the book of Joshua gives us is that all of the promised land had been totally subdued in a space of five years (14.10) after an invasion of 2 million who crossed the Jordan (3.1) in about 1200BC. So we too in the Mothers Union, we may not have conquered the land, but the theological structure of our faith is complete and secure. Between this rosy picture (I think it might be called it a "snow job" by some) and the book Judges we have this reaffirmation of their allegiance to God at Shechem. Then reality sets in, and the very partial nature of the conquest becomes obvious as we continue to read the story in the book Judges. In fact it was not until perhaps 300 years later that King David conquers the last non Israelite stronghold - Jerusalem. They too had a way to go. We too in the Mothers Union have a way to go. Perhaps the theological construct we have - has cracks too. We too have not yet arrived, there are further consolidations to be made, we too have yet to reach Jerusalem.

As we rightly look today at the achievements of the Mothers Union at Woodville, it is important to recognise that, yes they are our achievements, but they are also how God has lead the group. If we solely concentrate on what we have done, we neglect the contribution God has made. Now God is not like us in the sense that God will feel slighted if we neglect him (or her). Neglecting the contribution that God has made, might well lead us to neglect the fact that God has lead us to this day, and that God is leading us into the future. It alerts us that there is a better place to which God is leading us. Our 70th birthday today is not just a celebration of the past, but, in recognising the contribution God has made, opens us to the present and future actions of God. And I think that that is a vital message.

How often do we think that everything is rather turning sour - that God has given up on the world and a society which seems to have (more than neglected God) steadfastly refused to have much to do with the organised faith that we have ourselves found so valuable. That faith has been nurtured both in the Church and in Mothers Union.

There are two particular "better places" that I want particularly to point out, where I think God is leading us. Better places, yet when they are talked about in Christian circles, they are almost invariably thought of in negative terms.

It is indeed felicitous that the reading for the Epistle talks about marriage - I am not sure how we come to read it today. But every time I have a couple ask me to marry them, I always take the opportunity to speak about the relative roles in marriage. I do this because I have this suspicion that most (if not all) people think that the Christian understanding of marriage is that the woman is called by God to give more to a relationship than the man. So the woman is called to obey the husband, and this is seen as a call to contribute more to the relationship than the man. I wonder how many of us here today think this, even amongst committed Christians. Indeed I think it is what the world thinks Christianity is all about - keeping women subservient.

The reality is that the Church has from time immemorial paralleled the love of husband and wife with the love of Christ for the Church. So Jesus died for the Church and the Church responds in the lesser way by trusting and obeying. We trust and obey because we know God loves us so much that Jesus will never ask anything of us for himself. The last thing Jesus would ever do is to call us to die for God - all the dying that needs to be done, has been done already, and by the Son of God himself.

So the obedience of the wife for a husband is a similar lesser command, in response to the love of the husband, who by being prepared to venture and risk his life in the defence of his beloved is not just in the realms of the "knights in shining armour". (It was never contemplated that the damsel was expected to lay down her life for the knight in distress!) So a man can never demand his wife obey him - it would be a complete negation of the love he is called to have. The call to love in marriage actually is first a call to the husband to love his wife as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for it.

So when we as the Mothers Union and the Church speak of marriage and obedience, we need to make it plain that the obedience is not doing everything hubby said, just when and where he might say it, but as a response to a complete self giving love where the man is quite prepared to lay down his life for his beloved, and as a consequence would never ask anything from her for himself.

The second better place I want to talk about is a very prevalent attitude within the Church, as well as in the Mothers Union, that unpaid voluntary work is morally superior to skilled paid employment.

It is high time someone in the Church recognised and rejoiced that some women have found that they have been given or won the opportunity to contribute to society in skilled professional employment. These women are called to exercise their ministries in professional surroundings and with appropriate remuneration. To suggest that they (as Christians) should be home looking after the children, sewing the clothes, and being involved in the running of Church and community centres as "we used to do" is to completely neglect the skills God has given them and asked them to live up to our expectations. It is asking someone else to do something for Jesus, when Jesus never asks anyone to do anything for him.

I come back to the question, Is God still leading the Church now? If God is, then some very practical outcomes emerge. Instead of trying to get people to conform to what is quite frankly a deficient understanding of St Paul's words, we can rejoice that spouses can relate on far more equal terms, not one feeling they have to do for the other whatever they bid. Secondly we can rejoice that God is leading all sorts of people in all sorts of ways, certainly different way from how God has lead us, but in equally as valid ways. And they are better ways, people will see them to be better, and will have no hesitation in turning to God.

God is still in charge, as God was in leading the Mother's Union at Woodville for the past 70 years, God is still in charge.

It is life giving to affirm, with the tribes of Israel so long ago, as they looked back at how God had led them to that day: "therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God." Life giving for us and life giving for the whole world. This affirmation implies that God was with them still and would be in the future - and so with us in the past and with us in the future. Forget God and be depressed - Joshua didn't press them. Affirm God and find life.


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