Lacking in love: a response to the House of Bishops’ pastoral guidance

I have managed to resist for a few days commenting on the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage, released last week (if you haven’t read it yet, it’s here: http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2014/02/house-of-bishops-pastoral-guidance-on-same-sex-marriage.aspx). Partly that’s because I don’t think it’s up to me to speak for my LGBT sisters and brothers. Partly it’s because I was dealing with a difficult and rather all-consuming pastoral situation for most of the last week. Partly it’s because I was just too irate to write coherently.

I’ve read and heard a number of objections to the bishops’ statement. It’s insensitive. It’s out of touch with society. It’s unenforceable. It’s too harsh. It’s not in any sense “pastoral”. And all of that’s true, and all of that’s problematic. 

But here’s what it boils down to: there is no love in this. I have read every word and re-read it, and I see nothing here that points to the love of God for every one of God’s children. I see nothing of the abundant, generous, unconditional love of Christ. I see nothing of the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where are they? Not here. “By their fruits you will know them,” says Jesus. Never a truer word spoken.

And that worries me, that absence of love. It worries me in the bishops who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the church I call home. It worries me in men I am supposed to look up to as my father in Christ. It worries me that serious theologians and pastors can have sat together and prayed together and agreed, as the best way forward for their flock, something so utterly lacking in love.

It worries me in ways which extend far beyond the vital issue of equal marriage. Our faith is built on love. Our hope is in the one who is Love. And if we fail, if our leaders fail, to put that love front and centre in our thinking on every issue, then we have failed in the mission God gives us.

Flitting across my mind this week have been the words of St John of the Cross: “where there is not love, put love, and you will find love.” I wonder how that applies in this situation? I wonder how we put love back at the heart of the Church? I wonder what each of us can do to proclaim the Love on which our faith rests?

There are no easy answers. But however unlikely it seems now, I go on believing that in the end love will have the last word. Because love is stronger even than death, and love will win.

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All Age sermon for Proper 1 (Year A): Isaiah 58.6-10 Matthew 5.13-16

NB. the readings used are shorter than those given by the lectionary.

For this sermon you will need:

  • 2 packets of salt ‘n’ shake crisps
  • a torch
  • a large piece of white paper (or a screen, if you have one)

In today’s gospel Jesus gives us two quite different images: salt and light. And he tells us this is what we should be like: salt and light in the world. I wonder what he means by that?

Let’s think about salt first. I’ve brought some crisps. [get children to add both lots of salt to one packet and shake] What difference does the salt make? Let’s see. [ask children if crisps look the same or different, then let children taste and ask if they taste the same or different]

Salt makes a difference to the crisps. We can’t see the salt, unless we look very closely, but we can tell it’s there because of what the crisps are like. What difference do we make in the world as followers of Jesus? How can people tell that we’re here, that there are followers of Christ in this place?

Perhaps by the way we treat one another. Perhaps by the way we treat the least among us, the marginalised and unloved.

And now let’s think about light. When a light shines, we don’t just see the light itself, we see all sorts of other things by the light. [two children to hold up large piece of paper and one to hold torch, invite children to make shadow puppets]

Light changes how we see things. An ordinary hand becomes a crocodile or a dog or a butterfly. Dark places become light. Hidden things become clear. When Jesus says that we shouldn’t hide our light, he means that we should show people how God is at work in the world, by what we do and say and how we relate to the world around us.        

Salt and light. They make a difference to the world around them. And that’s what Jesus calls us to do too. To make a difference in the world. To be the difference in the world. To change what is around us, not by drawing attention to ourselves and what we are doing, but by bringing in God’s kingdom.

Part of that kingdom is justice. I read recently that the richest 85 people in the world own between them the same amount as the poorest 3.5 billion people in the world. The numbers are almost too big to grasp, but let’s look at how that would work with the crisps we were using just now. If I give this packet of crisps to Jackie and Hugh to share, and say that this other packet is for everyone else at church to share between us, is that ok?

No? What should Jackie and Hugh do with their crisps? [hopefully someone will suggest sharing] Yes, when we see that something is unjust we should do something about it. Something to bring God’s justice to whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Because whoever we are, and whatever we’re doing, it’s up to us to make a difference. To quote one of my favourite children’s books, The Lorax by Dr Seuss, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not”. We are the instruments God uses to bring in the justice of his kingdom. We are the salt and light that makes the difference.

We make a difference when we treat people justly, when we value people as children of God, when we take whatever action we can to put right what is wrong in the world. It might be something as small as sharing our crisps, or putting a tin in the One Can Trust bin at the back of church. Challenging what is wrong in the world, reaching out to those in need – this is what Isaiah speaks of as being the offering God demands of us.           

Some situations seem too big for us to make a difference, too complicated, too hopeless. And yet we can always do something. Again our reading from Isaiah has the answer: we can pray and God will hear us. Perhaps that sounds a bit trite. But think how many millions of people prayed for justice in South Africa during apartheid, or for peace in Northern Ireland during the troubles. And many of you will remember how long those prayers went on – for years, for longer than some of you have been alive – in what seemed like a hopeless situation. But things changed. Because of people standing up for what is right. Because of people making whatever small difference they can. Because of people like you, praying and going on praying.

Perhaps you feel like you can’t make much of a difference in the world. Perhaps you think you are not old enough or not clever enough or not big enough. But think how tiny a grain of salt is, almost invisible, and yet it makes a difference to everything it comes in contact with.

We can be like that. If we live faithfully and follow Jesus and do whatever small things we can to God’s glory, we will be the salt of the earth. And slowly, one grain at a time, we will transform that earth into heaven.

And If we do nothing else, let us pray this daily: Lord, may your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Come as you are

It is fair to say that time-keeping is not a strong point at the church where I work. Our main Sunday service starts at 9.45. At 9.43, approximately half the congregation will be there, some of them even sitting down. By 9.50, most have arrived. A steady trickle will continue until at least the sermon, with the odd one or two continuing to come in at random intervals throughout. Some will arrive just in time for coffee afterwards.

Me. I’m obsessively punctual. I hate being late, and will go to great lengths to avoid it. And to be perfectly honest, it drives me up the wall when other people are late. So how do I feel about the time-keeping at All Saints? Actually, it doesn’t bother me at all. It has done, but it doesn’t now, because I’ve come to see it as part of how we welcome people as they are.

To take a not-unusual example from the other Sunday, I was chatting after the service to a mum of two children, who told me about the awful week she’d been having. It had clearly been one thing after the other, culminating in the realisation that various factors involving changed timings of a rugby practice for one child, an unexpected dance workshop for another, and a husband on nightshifts, meant there was no way she’d be able to get to church on time. “I nearly didn’t come,” she said, “and then I thought loads of other people come in late, no-one’s going to mind. So I came. I missed the sermon, but I got here in time for communion. I’m glad I came, I really needed it today.”

Here is an example of exactly the sort of person who most needs us, the church, on a Sunday morning. Busy, stressed, snatching time between family commitments, but desperately wanting the comfort of belonging, community, communion, drawing near to God to be refreshed and renewed, ready for the next long slog of a week. And if we were the sort of church where people turn and stare and tut when you come in late, she wouldn’t have come. It’s as simple as that.

So no, I don’t mind when people wander in half way through the sermon. I don’t mind when they take their children to the toilet in the middle of the prayers (after a loud “but Mummy, I need a poo NOW”), or when a toddler is laughing or yelling, or when the two old ladies behind me carry on with their conversation throughout the Eucharistic prayer. Because that’s part of who we are. It’s part of being a family, God’s family, as we gather at his table.

It’s part of how we welcome people. Jesus doesn’t wait for people to be sitting in neat rows and listening quietly before he welcomes them. God says “come as you are”, and so should we.

But we’re so far off from that, aren’t we? So far from accepting and welcoming people however they are, whoever they are. We might be ok with a yelling toddler, but what about a drunk adult shouting the odds? A couple of old ladies talking, fine. But what about someone talking to voices only they can hear?

Mental illness, addiction, disability, family breakdown, challenging behaviour, poverty, a dozen other things that make up what professionals politely refer to as “chaotic lives”. Are we really ready to say “come as you are”? Or do we mean “come as you are, as long as it’s not too disruptive to how we do things”?

If we believe in a God who loves unconditionally, extravagantly, outrageously, and if we believe Christ calls us, as the church, to be his body in the world, how can we place limits on that love? How can we say “we love you if…” “we welcome you unless…” Those are things we’ll never hear God say. And if we the church say them, in our words or actions, rolled eyes or tutting, disapproving glances or avoided eye-contact, we place limits on that love which are nothing to do with God at all.