s148e97 Somerton Park 30/11/97 First Sunday in Advent
"May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you." (1 Thessalonians 3:12).
This is a wonderful verse in one of St Paul's earliest letters. Indeed it is one of the earliest writings in the New Testament. It expresses his affection for his readers and his confidence in their faith. That confidence in the faith is actually reflected in both the other readings - Jeremiah speaks that "Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in prosperity" (Jer 33.16) and Jesus, speaking of the chaotic times to come says: "Stand up, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." (Lk 21.28)
After last week's service one person shared with me that they had (as a result of the readings and the sermon) realised for the first time that if one wants to get a message across one uses the minimum of words. This was a quite legitimate inference to draw from the readings and the sermon, yet it was not especially my main message.
However the comment is helpful for me for it serves to reassure me that what I say and what the hearer hears are two quite different things. As someone who struggles to communicate the good news each and every week, I can but trust God to point you the hearers in the right direction to hear the good news and to disregard the bad news.
It is an interesting exercise to say the least to stand up week after week and expound the holy scripture to largely the same group of people and say something new. It is far, far easier to go from one group to another, for everything is new for those differing audiences. For the reality is that there is only one gospel, one message - the message of love. How many differing guises can one dress up love? For of course we don't want to disguise love, but to reveal it.
I am constantly grateful for the small words of appreciation I am given for my words. (For my Internet readers, my "real" congregation is not generally aware of the existence of my "cyber" congregation - I am grateful for the expressions of support from my cyber congregation especially). Even if what you may get out of a service is different from what I think people "ought" to get out of it, that you get something out of it is the most important thing.
I think I said during the notices last Sunday that this week was a fairly standard and straight forward week - nothing much is happening. We had of course just got our 16 year old onto the plane to Rome and England the night before. I suppose I was breathing a small sigh of relief, along with a certain amount of pleasure in seeing him relate to his fellow students in the choir so well, prior to boarding the plane at the airport. But life is full of surprises and to have a hurried (reverse charged!) phone call from the airport in Rome, simply to say they had arrived, and to hear the tiredness and excitement in his voice last Sunday night, showed me again the importance of the invisible yet powerful bonds between people. I suddenly realised we are entering that phase of life where siblings are stretching their wings, and we are left way behind. I mean, my only overseas trip has been to Kangaroo Island, and that of course was by ferry.
And of course Catherine (my significant other partner in life) started her new job on Monday ... Just an ordinary week with nothing extra ordinary happening ...
One of the good things about the Anglican tradition - of course it is not unique to us - is that our major service is the service of Holy Communion. This is not a criticism of those traditions for whom this is not the case. It is simply that I rejoice that in our tradition whatever I may say in my sermon, whatever the inadequacy of my words, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, God says to each and everyone of us here: "You are my son, my daughter". That invisible bond is established and reaffirmed and strengthened. It is God giving of himself to one and to all, just as St Paul says to the Thessalonians: "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you." None of us are good at expressing ourselves in words, and our reticence is a good thing. We don't want to live in other people's pockets, or they in ours.
Last Saturday, the unexpected death of Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of INXS, really didn't impact on our family very much. It was amazing how much of our attention was focussed on the departure - even though the bags were packed and repacked long before. But that sad and tragic death perhaps shows us the debilitating tragedy of depression which accompanies often those with great genius. It shows us again the importance of people. Here was someone who had everything, success, no lack of money, prestige or friends. It reminds us that for all we find others confronting and difficult, the possibility of being alone may only be just around the corner. We all need other people, sympathetic people, people who are prepared to be there for us.
None of us are perfect. Catherine will happily affirm that I am not perfect. St Paul wasn't perfect. Why do we expect him to be, others to be, ourselves to be? Molly Wolf, in her Sabbath Blessings for last week - entitled "Damn" - expresses this very well. You can read the print out in the folder in the foyer.
I find as I look around little expressions of support, little rays of sunshine to be seen and appreciated for what they are. There are so many when one takes the time to look. And it is a sure remedy against our hearts "being weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life ..." Lk 21.34 Look around for people, and for the good that they can contribute. Whatever might seem negative or inappropriate, in what I say especially, simply disregard. We are all still simply sons and daughters of God, members of Christ and heirs of the kingdom of heaven, and God has been calling us these things since our baptism.
One of the aspects of parish ministry is the privilege of taking the reserved sacrament to those who through infirmity are unable to come to Church. Being brought up in the tradition I have, I would never have thought of receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion without saying a form of general confession - if not hearing the words of absolution by the priest. But lately I have been wondering, these lovely people to whom I take the sacrament - they have long ago given up raping and pillaging - that is if they ever did. My mind goes back to one particular person whose sole sin could only have been falling down when she forgot she couldn't support herself on her legs. This is hardly sinful, even if exasperating for her doctors and nurses. I wondered what actual sins she could confess. I wonder if we haven't made much of what is internal into sins, when God is far more concerned about the big picture - the raping and the pillaging. I am suggesting that when God looks at us we actually don't shape up quite so bad as we think.
I quoted a couple of jokes from the "Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua" by permission in the latest edition of the Anglicanews. There are some lovely Bylaws that express what I am trying to say very well included there - by John Futterman, and I want to finish with them - they are wise words indeed: (www.dogchurch.org)
1. Hold your beliefs firmly, but gently.
You are not your beliefs. Ultimately, it is you that God loves and judges, rather than merely your beliefs. Beliefs are only a way of verbalising about religion, not its content. The experience of God's presence is the content.
2. Be gentle with the beliefs of others.
Otherwise you may miss an opportunity to gain a new perspective on your own faith which, if your faith is genuine, will only broaden and deepen it. Moreover, you will drive away people who may need to partake of the spiritual gifts you have to offer, if you insist only on your own terms.
3. Every once in a while, when you assert, "I believe ..." ask yourself just exactly who is it that is believing.
After all, if you don't even know who you are, you should be very cautious in making assertions about who God is. This exercise may help you refrain from projecting your inner demons onto God when you are witnessing to others.
St Paul was able to see past the faith or lack of faith of the Thessalonians, past whatever frustrations and difficulties he may or may not have had with them, to simply proclaim God's love for them. In doing so St Paul proclaims God love for all and he prays that "the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all" - as we see how others contribute to our own perceptions of the faith.
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