Loving community – a sermon for Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday (16th June) 2019

St Laurence, Northfield

Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31; Romans 5.1-5; John 16.12-15

I wonder how you picture the Trinity? I wonder what images you have tucked away in your imagination that help you to understand what it means to say that God is both 3 and 1? Perhaps the old Sunday School illustration of water, ice and steam, or the more recent youth work favourite, stripy Aquafresh toothpaste. Or perhaps there is a particular painting or sculpture or poem that has helped you to understand more about the mystery of the Trinity. Or maybe even a particularly memorable sermon. Whatever images we may have of the Trinity, and however they may help us, they are bound to be imperfect. All images of God are imperfect, because they are created by us fallible human beings.

I have brought along an image of the Trinity which has helped me over the years. It’s quite a famous icon by Rublev. Perhaps some of you may have seen it before. This too is an imperfect image of the trinity. But it can perhaps draw our attention to some important aspects of what God the holy and undivided Trinity is like.

As has been pointed out many times, by people far wiser than me, this is an image of community and relationship. The three figures look and point to one another. But this is not a closed community – there is room for us too. The fourth side of the table is empty, as if waiting for us to pull up a chair.

This is an image of God who is inherently relational, inherently communal. Community exists and always has existed between the three persons of the trinity. We hear in our first reading about the relationship between God the creator and Wisdom, who is often interpreted as representing the second person of the trinity. It is a relationship which has existed since “before the beginning of the earth”, which is characterised by mutual “delight” and “rejoicing”. This is the relationship into which we too are invited, to participate in the life and community of God.

In our gospel reading, too, the emphasis is on the relationships within the Trinity. “All that the Father has is mine,” says Jesus, and the Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you.” There is frustratingly little about the Trinity in scripture, but what there is gives us an image of mutual, interdependent community – God in community with Godself.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not dry or irrelevant theory, or an intellectual puzzle. It is a fundamental statement of who God is. God is love. God is eternally in relationship and community with Godself, with humanity, with the whole creation. Loving community is at the heart of who God is.

So what about us? Let’s return to the icon, and the space at the table. God calls and welcomes us into the community that already exists within the Trinity. Every time we come to share in communion, we are reminded that God makes space at God’s table for us.

I am reminded of another table which always had space for one more. When I was a child, my Granny had a huge, round dining table. We would all gather around it for meals together – cousins, aunts and uncles – and it would be a real squeeze. Someone would always have to sit on the camping chairs, and two of us kids would share the piano stool. But somehow we’d all squidge in, and it would be quite cosy. But then the doorbell would go, and someone else would turn up – a cousin we weren’t expecting to see, or one of those aunts I was never quite sure was actually related to me, or a neighbour from over the road. And my Granny would always say “come on in, there’s plenty of room!” Another round of squashing and squeezing would ensue, and somehow they would be fitted in. It seemed like an almost infinite number of people could fit around that table, and there was always enough food to go round.

Now, this too is an imperfect image, and there are several important differences between my Granny’s table and God’s table. Firstly, my Granny’s table only seemed infinite, while God’s table really is. Secondly, when more people arrived at my Granny’s table, those of us who were already there had to give up a bit of our space to make room for others. Or perhaps we got one less potato so that there was enough to go round. But God’s provision isn’t like that. God’s resources are infinite. None of us looses out by making space for others. None of us receives less because others are invited to share the feast.

Let’s look at the icon again. What if, instead of taking our seat at the fourth side of the table, and closing the circle, we are called instead to imitate the open circle, to sit as the figures in the icon do, facing outward to welcome others to the table? God invites us not only to take our place at the table, but to join in the work and life of the Trinity by inviting others to do likewise. Becoming more Christ-like requires us to take our place at God’s table in ways which always leave space for others to pull up a seat. We are called to be in community not only with God, but with others – our neighbour, the stranger, and even our enemy.

So what does all this mean for us here, today? The image of the Trinity as community may perhaps help us re-frame how we think about community. The ‘Know Your Church, Know Your Neighbourhood’ process is already helping us to think more deeply about the community of which we are part, and our place as church within that community. I know that those who have been prayer walking have found that it has helped them to see the community in new ways.

So perhaps God might be calling us, the people of St Laurence Church, into new ways of being community, new ways of seeing our place in our local community, new ways of inviting and welcoming others into the community of the church. Perhaps the idea of new ways of seeing or doing or being seems a little daunting. But be encouraged – Jesus in our gospel reading speaks of the Holy Spirit who will “guide you into all truth”. That is a process of revelation which is still ongoing. Behold, God is still doing a new thing. When God calls us into something new, individually or as a community, it is not a break with how things have been before, but the continual unfolding of God’s faithfulness, the continual outworking of the unchanging nature of God the Trinity.

God is as God has always been, the loving community of the Trinity, formed before the foundation of the world, facing outward to embrace us. We must be open and attentive to how God is calling us to be, here and now, a loving community shaped and formed by the love we see in the Trinity, facing outward to embrace whoever God sends to us. What that looks like in this time and place is still unfolding, as it always will be, and it is up to us all – guided and empowered by “God’s love… poured into our hearts” – to discern and shape it together.

Amen.

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Love poured out – a sermon for Passion Sunday

John 12.1-8

Isn’t it a great story, our gospel reading today? It’s a really dramatic scene. Jesus, Lazarus and their friends at the table, Martha serving the meal, and then suddenly there’s Mary behaving absolutely outrageously, pouring out this precious perfume over Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair.

When you picture the scene, I wonder how you picture it? What kind of room? What is the atmosphere like, and how does it change when Mary starts acting so strangely?

And I wonder where you find yourself in this story?  Are you more of a Mary or a Martha? Are you among the disciples at the table, or an onlooker? Do you put yourself in the place of Lazarus? Or Jesus?

I’m afraid I run into a bit of a problem here. In this narrative, the person I really automatically identify with is Judas. Yes, “Judas Iscariot, the one who was to betray Jesus”. That’s not a great place to be, is it? Identifying myself with Judas is not exactly something that’s encouraged for trainee priests, I don’t think.

But… he’s got a point, hasn’t he? What Mary’s doing is absolutely outrageous. It’s such a waste! Just think what could have been done with the money if she hadn’t wasted all that precious perfume on Jesus. It’s hard to say how much 300 denarii is in modern terms, but in Jesus’ times it was roughly the equivalent of the average annual wage. A year’s pay – by any standards, that’s a serious amount of money. Just think how many hungry people you could feed with that. It’s the sort of donation most food banks can only dream of.  And here she is, this upstart Mary, just pouring it away at Jesus feet. Money down the drain. No wonder Judas was angry.

Yes, I can see where Judas is coming from. His is a very reasonable, rational, even sensible response. But Jesus looks for something more than that in his followers. And he finds it in the utterly unreasonable actions of Mary.

To understand why Mary does something so outrageously extravagant, so wasteful, we need to understand the context. In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, Mary’s brother Lazarus has died. Yet here he is, sitting and eating with Jesus. How come? Because Jesus himself has raised Lazarus from the dead. And not only that, he has done it with such love. Lazarus is described to Jesus as “he whom you love”, and Jesus weeps when he hears that Lazarus is dead. There is no doubt Jesus loves his friend Lazarus, and Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha too, and he demonstrates that love in the most extraordinary way possible, by bringing Lazarus back to life.

It is in response to this love that Mary pours her precious perfume over Jesus’ feet. And when you understand that, suddenly it doesn’t seem quite such a strange thing to do.  Mary is giving the most precious thing she has to Jesus, because Jesus has given something far more precious to her and her family – life itself.

Mary in this sequence embodies the idea that “we love because God loves us first”. She is pouring out not only her perfume but her love for Jesus in the most extravagant way she can, precisely because Jesus has poured out his love for her, and will do so again, infinitely more than she could imagine, in the death and resurrection for which she is preparing him. And so he does for us too – pouring out such abundant love for each one of us.

Mary knows how much Jesus loves her, and she responds with her own outpouring of love. What can we learn from her response about how we too might respond to Jesus’ love for us?

Mary gives out of her abundance. She gives what is precious to her, and she gives incredibly generously, but she doesn’t give what she doesn’t have, and she doesn’t give in ways which damage or diminish her.

She gives freely. Her giving is unexpected, and it is un-coerced. Nobody – least of all Jesus – demands that she give anything at all. It is her own free choice to respond to Jesus, and her own free choice to respond in the particular way she does.

And when Mary gives, that giving is life-giving – both for her, as she becomes more truly herself in the presence of Jesus, and for Jesus, as he receives such love and generosity. And also for us, as we encounter Mary’s witness in scripture.

How can those three things – giving out of abundance, un-coerced, and in ways which are life-giving, inform our own response to Jesus?

We too are called to give out of our abundance. It is a truism that “you can’t give what you haven’t got”. God gives to each of us gifts which we can use to give to God and our neighbour, but we need to be offering the gifts we’ve got, not the gifts we wish we had, or the gifts other people wish we had. Giving out of our abundance is a source of joy. If what we give doesn’t bring us some measure of joy, we might want to consider whether there is a different way we could be giving, which is more in keeping with who we are and the gifts the Holy Spirit has given to us for the common good.

We too are invited to give in response to the love we encounter in Jesus, but never coerced. The church has a long and shameful history of trying to force people into a particular response in ways that are coercive and abusive – whether that’s expecting women to be silent, or gay people to be celibate, or people of colour to be subservient – but that is not the way God works. God does not coerce. God does not demand. God does not force us. God does not expect payment, or tit-for-tat, or a thank you card. God simply loves. God simply is love. Our response is up to each of us.

And we, like Mary, are called to give in ways which are life-giving rather than life-draining for us, as well as for those to whom we give. “I have come that you may have life in all its fullness” says Jesus. Not “I have come that you may offer life in all its fullness to other people at the expense of your own life”. That’s not how Jesus works. If it’s not life-giving for both giver and receiver, then it might not be what God is calling us to.

“That’s all very well”, you may be thinking by now, “but there’s work to be done. Folks need feeding and housing, and helping with their benefits forms, and listening to, and somebody’s got to do it”. It’s a fair point.

But perhaps the most important thing Mary points us to in this story is that our giving – all our giving, of time, talents and money, of ourselves in service of our neighbours – needs to be rooted in an encounter with Jesus.

Mary models an encounter with Jesus which transcends the rational, the sensible, the transactional. In her response to Jesus, she shows a generosity, an extravagance – a waste, even – which we (like Judas) might find quite shocking. And she does it because she has been transformed by her encounter with Jesus, and her way of seeing and relating to the world around her has been so transformed, that her priorities are different.

When we encounter Jesus in worship, whatever form that worship takes, we too are entering into an encounter which should transform and go on transforming the way we see and interact with the world. Generosity, extravagance, waste. These are some of the characteristics of encounter with Jesus – for Mary and for us.

Worship is, quite frankly, a waste of time. And that’s exactly the point of it. In a world dominated by concern for productivity and efficiency, we set aside time for worship which – unlike almost everything else we do – has no measurable outcomes, no targets or benchmarks, no indicators of ‘success’. Like Mary pouring out her perfume, wasting it at Jesus’ feet, we pour out in worship our time, our attention, our hearts, minds, souls, our very selves.

And when we do, when we choose to waste time with Jesus in this way, like Mary wasting her expensive perfume, we come to see things differently. Our priorities change. We learn more and more – and it is a lifetime’s learning – to see the world through grace-tinted lenses.

That ongoing transformation affects everything. But perhaps most of all it affects the way we serve and give. It is very easy to make our social action, our serving and giving, about what we ought to do. We ought to love our neighbour. We ought to feed people who are hungry. We ought to stand up against oppression and work for justice. Life can become one long series of ‘ought’s. And that’s exhausting and draining, and the very opposite of the life-in-all-its-fullness which Jesus wants for us all.

But when we reframe our action as a response to loving encounter with Jesus, it becomes not an obligation, an ‘ought’, but a freely given response. We love and we give and we serve not because we ought to, but because God loves us first. Truly Christian service always springs from life-giving encounter with Christ.

Jesus calls us, as he called Mary, to step out of an economy of obligation – all those ‘ought’s – into an economy of grace, of loving response to the infinite love we encounter in Jesus. This is the alternative economy of God’s kingdom, based not on obligation but on gift, not on scarcity but on generosity, not on fear but on hope. It is encounter with this grace-filled, hopeful, generous, loving reality that transforms us and moves us to respond. And by our response, by our own loving generosity, we invite others into this changed reality.

When we live our lives rooted in our transforming encounter with Jesus, we demonstrate that there is another way to live, driven not by fear or obligation or anxiety, but by outrageously extravagant love, freely poured out for all. That is immensely attractive – living and giving and serving in that way is perhaps our most effective witness to who Jesus is and what God has done and is doing – and it is also the means by which God is transforming the whole of creation, drawing all things to Godself.

May God give each of us, like Mary, the courage to live and give and serve in ways which are rooted in a life-changing encounter with Jesus.

Amen.

“Love changes everything” – a sermon for the Baptism of Christ

Luke 3.15-17 and 21-2

“You are my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
This is one of my favourite lines in the gospel.
It opens up all sorts of questions:
about what it means to be beloved,
about who God loves, and how,
about what place Jesus’ belovedness has in his life and ministry,
as well as in his death and resurrection.

The first thing to notice is where this passage, the baptism of Christ,
comes in the narrative of Jesus’ life.
It is the first thing Luke tells us about Jesus’ adult life.
It comes before the temptation in the wilderness,
before all the miracles and parables,
before Jesus heals anyone or teaches anything,
before he begins to proclaim the kingdom of God,
and before – long before –
he sets is face towards Jerusalem for the last time.
This is important.
Jesus is beloved before anything else
before anyone knows who he is,
before he has done anything to ‘deserve it’,
he is loved.
I wonder how often,
when the going got tough,
Jesus would remember those words:
“You are my beloved”.

We too are beloved before anything else.
I have often heard it said that God loves us not for what we do,
but for who we are.
I don’t think that’s true.
And it’s just as well that it isn’t,
because who I am might not be very lovable,
I might be selfish or unkind, or quick to judge,
but still God loves me.
Many of us – probably most of us –
struggle sometimes to believe that we are loveable,
which is why I am very glad that God’s love does not depend on who I am,
any more than on what I do.
God loves us not for what we do,
nor for who we are,
but for who God is.
God is love, and therefore God loves us.
Our belovedness does not rest on our own nature,
but on the perfect, unchanging nature of God who is love.

Our first calling is to be loved.
It was Jesus’ first calling too.
At the very starting point of his ministry,
Jesus is not called to be the messiah,
the Good Shepherd, the wise rabbi or the saviour,
though undoubtedly he is called to be all those things,
but here he is called beloved,
called to be loved,
as the source from which everything else flows.

We too are called first to be loved,
and our more specific callings, as a carer, or a teacher or a priest,
as the person who has time to listen to their neighbours over a cuppa,
or always has room for one more at our dinner table,
whatever our own particular callings
they all flow from this original calling
when God calls us beloved.

Our first and greatest vocation lies in our baptism
and in knowing our own belovedness,
everything else flows our of that:
love of God, love of neighbour,
acts of service, and a passion for justice.
“We love because God loves us first.”

There is a paradox here, as there so often is at the heart of the gospel.
We are loved for our own sake,
loved utterly and freely,
no strings attached.
But we are also loved for the sake of the world.
Our relationship with God is not transactional.
God’s love does not demand anything from us, any sort of response,
but rather the love we receive must overflow into the love we give,
and so God’s love flows through us into the world.

When there is so much work to be done,
so much wrong in the world to be put right,
so many of our neighbours who need to know that love in really practical ways,
taking time to know and to rest in the love of God
can seem like a nebulous or selfish thing –
but it isn’t.
That sense of our own belovedness, that experience of God’s love
underpins all that we are and all that we do,
just as it undergirded Jesus’ own life and ministry.
In order to be prepared to truly love our neighbour
we need to continually seek to understand what it is to be loved,
what and who love is in God, revealed in Jesus Christ.

Knowing ourselves as beloved enables us to see others as beloved,
to see in them the image and likeness of Jesus,
whom God calls beloved.

Opening ourselves to love is a risky business.
It makes us vulnerable.
But we find a model for that vulnerability in the incarnation –
Jesus shows us not only what it is to love,
but also – and first – what it is to be loved.

Being beloved is not the soft option.
In a world which tells us we have to be good enough,
clever enough, slim enough, rich enough,
that we need to earn things for ourselves,
it is profoundly countercultural and challenging
to say that we are beloved,
that I am loved and you are loved,
not because of our own merits,
but purely and simply because of who God is.
That is grace, and it is radical.

There are some verses missing from the middle of today’s gospel reading.
In those omitted verses, we hear about Herod imprisoning John the Baptist.
In the midst of Jesus’ baptism we hear in the fate of John
a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own passion and death.
It is no accident that Luke chooses to draw the two together in this way.
Only in the light of Jesus’ relationship with the Father,
as demonstrated at his baptism,
can we make sense of his death and resurrection.
Only out of a deep sense of his own belovedness
can Jesus face with love
the pain and betrayal of his passion.

And so it is with us.
Julian of Norwich wrote “before ever God made us, he loved us”.
It is only out of that profound, foundational belovedness
that it is possible for her to go on to write her much more famous words:
“all shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well”.
If it were up to us to earn or to achieve our own
individual and collective wellness,
the idea that “all shall be well” would seem glib and offensive
in a world where all is far from well.
But when we understand God’s love for us and for all creation
as the basic underlying truth of the universe,
then we are free to hear and inhabit those words very differently.

“Love changes everything.”
Knowing ourselves to be God’s beloved children
changes how we approach life, our neighbours, the world.
It equips us to live differently,
to embrace the stranger,
to love the enemy,
to challenge injustice,
and to hold out God’s offer of hope in a world which needs it more than ever.

So let us pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit
to open our hearts and minds
to hear and know for ourselves
the truth that we too are God’s beloved.
Amen.

#adventbookclub Day 29: The Adoration of the Magi

Reflecting on how we portray the Magi – their age, their ethnicity, their gender – got me on to thinking: who are the wise people of our day?

Whom do we count as wise? Those who have the most knowledge, the most experience, the most compassion, the best judgement, the greatest understanding… By what standards do we assess wisdom? And how does whom we count as wise reflect our values and priorities?

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#adventbookclub runs from 1st December until Epiphany. This year we are using “The Art of Advent” by Jane Williams, and raising some money for Mercy UK, a mental health charity over at the JustGiving page here. Search #adventbookclub on Twitter or Facebook to join in the conversation.

#adventbookclub Day 28: Time and Eternity

This is an interesting time of year at which to reflect on the nature of time and eternity. It is very easy, in these days between Christmas and New Year to lose track of time – indeed, I have just noticed I am a day behind in posting my #adventbookclub posts – and somehow, without our usual routine, time seems to move more slowly.

Yet very often time seems to speed up, especially when we are busy and stressed. “There’s not enough time!” we claim, “I don’t have time for this.” But viewed from a perspective of eternity, we can perhaps see time very differently. Not as something we are short of, or something we mustn’t ‘waste’ or something to be given begrudgingly to things we deem ‘worth our time’. Instead, time is a gift, a tiny portion of eternity, given to us for our tiny part of God’s eternal story.

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#adventbookclub runs from 1st December until Epiphany. This year we are using “The Art of Advent” by Jane Williams, and raising some money for Mercy UK, a mental health charity over at the JustGiving page here. Search #adventbookclub on Twitter or Facebook to join in the conversation.

#adventbookclub Day 27: The Nativity with the Holy Spirit

The annunciation is one of my favourite scenes in scripture, and depictions of it account for many of my favourite works of art (though today’s picture is not among them).

The dynamic between Mary and the Holy Spirit is an intriguing one. Who holds the power here? The obvious answer is God, who is all-powerful. But God chooses to hand over part of God’s power to Mary, who by her “yes” has the power to enable God to enter the world in full humanity.

In this moment, God models a radically different way of handling power: not hoarding it, nor denying it, but expanding its scope to include and empower others.

I wonder how we handle the power we have?

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#adventbookclub runs from 1st December until Epiphany. This year we are using “The Art of Advent” by Jane Williams, and raising some money for Mercy UK, a mental health charity over at the JustGiving page here. Search #adventbookclub on Twitter or Facebook to join in the conversation.

#adventbookclub Day 26: Nativity

The thing that strikes me most about today’s picture is a sense of Mary’s single-minded, single-hearted focus on Jesus.

I wonder, on what or on whom do we ever focus so fully?

What is it about Jesus that speaks to us through the myriad competing distractions which vie for our attention?

How can we become more attentive, more focused?

As we begin to look towards the New Year, I wonder how a desire for greater focus and attentiveness might make its way into any resolutions we make.

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#adventbookclub runs from 1st December until Epiphany. This year we are using “The Art of Advent” by Jane Williams, and raising some money for Mercy UK, a mental health charity over at the JustGiving page here. Search #adventbookclub on Twitter or Facebook to join in the conversation.