Monday, 27 October 2014

Loving God and loving our neighbour

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue URC, 26 October 2014. Recording available (misses first few minutes) on church website. Main text: Matthew 22:34-46.


Love. It’s a four letter word. And like a lot of four letter words of everybody’s acquaintance, it’s dreadfully overused and largely misunderstood. Our culture is saturated with trite little songs about love. All you need is love. I love you baby. Love is all around. The power of love, a force from above. And so on and on. It’s perhaps a good thing I’m not preaching this sermon around Valentine’s Day.

Because what Jesus was talking about, and likewise what the writers of Deuteronomy and Leviticus that he quoted and we’ve heard read this morning were talking about – it’s a very different kind of love from the trite songs. It’s about something quite different from romantic love. You’ll probably know that the Greeks had multiple words for love, and the word here is agape, the kind of love that God is described as showing throughout the New Testament. It’s the love that CS Lewis described as the highest level of love known to humanity, a selfless love, a love that is passionately committed to the well-being of the other.

And it’s that kind of love that the Shema, the words we heard from Deuteronomy, calls us to love God with. To me, that’s why it’s so very important. I think as Christians we do a disservice to this kind of love by trying to bracket it into a quasi-romantic framework. Let me put it plainly, at the possible risk of offending some people. There’s a lot of expressions of worship, in prayers and especially in modern praise songs, which some people have called “Jesus is my boyfriend” worship. They take the trite emotions in the pop songs and apply it to the deepest possible relationship that any human being can have, with our triune God, creator, redeemer and sustainer. They bring Jesus down from the cross and into the soft focus of a teenage crush.

But we are called to something very much deeper than those teenage crushes. And it’s deeper even than the love we have for a partner, or for a child or a parent. The love between human beings and God that we are called to is an experience of the divine. It’s a taste of heaven in the here and now. It’s what Jesus meant when he promised us life to the full, and eternal life. Because God is love, as the epistle of John reminds us. And so by loving God we are coming face to face with God in the very fullness of God’s self.  As the epistle of John also says, “God is love, and those who in abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them”.

How do we do this? Well it’s not easy. Love never is. Relationships of any kind are not easy. They have to be worked at. God doesn’t have to work at loving us, God is complete as love in himself. Speaking for myself, I think God must have quite an effort to love the likes of me, with all my imperfections and all my faults and all the things I do wrong. I could make you a list of all the things that make me unlovable, but it wouldn’t teach you much because everyone here could probably make a similar list for themselves. But God loves us, and remarkably that gives us strength to love God in return.

A few years ago, some of us in this church read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Some people like it, some people can’t stand it. I’m not going to address the central tenets today. But Rob Bell has a marvellous turn of phrase at times. He writes: “God is love, and love is a relationship. This relationship is one of joy, and it can’t be contained. … Jesus invites us into that relationship, the one at the centre of the universe. He insists that he’s one with God, that we can be one with him, and that life is a generous, abundant reality. This God whom Jesus spoke of has always been looking for partners, people who are passionate about participating in the ongoing creation of the world.”

Love is a relationship. We are enabled to love God because he first loved us. He has inscribed us on the palms of his hands. We can respond by loving him in return, with all of our being, by bringing everything we’ve got to him. I really find the song Bring It All to Me very powerful in the way it expresses that invitation.

So how do we strengthen that love for God? The 17th century bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales, put it this way: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and man by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves. If you want to love God, go on loving Him more and more.”

And there’s another way that we have to follow, and that brings me on to the second half of what Jesus said we should do – not just to love God, but also to love our neighbour as ourselves. To me, this is one of the most important things Jesus says. It goes to the very heart of his teaching, his insistence that while love for God is just as important as it had always been in the Jewish faith, but that to be fully worked-out it also requires love for those around us, for those referred to here as our neighbours.

Now, this passage is so well known and widely perceived to be central to Jesus’ teaching, that it’s sometimes perceived as being quite radical, an extension of Jewish teaching. I have to say I’m not convinced by this. There’s plenty of evidence that what Jesus was saying was a familiar idea in his day. Both his phrases were quotations from the Torah, and we heard them read earlier from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Others seem to have also made the connection between the two phrases, and to have suggested that they summarised the Torah in these two ideas. Indeed it’s striking that when Luke tells of this scene in his gospel, he puts the ideas not into Jesus’ mouth but into the mouth of the person he’s talking to. In Matthew, it’s framed in terms of the Pharisees trying to catch Jesus out. It’s said that there were 613 commandments in the Torah. How could Jesus bring these down to just two?

Whether or not this was something original to Jesus, it’s certainly an idea that’s absolutely central to Jesus’ thinking, that we can only love God if we love those around us.

So we come to the question that was put by Jesus’ interlocutor in the gospel of Luke: but teacher, who is my neighbour? This was something the scholars of his day discussed at length. Who are we obliged to love? What is the boundary upon which we should place our love? In Leviticus, the phrase appears as part of what we might call social teaching – the establishment of a fair and just society, of right relationships. The book of Leviticus has a rather bad name today, as a set of rather harsh and unbending rules, applicable to the people of the day but not to us who live under grace rather than law. Indeed, in just the previous chapter of Leviticus to our one day, we find the text which has been used by some Christians to justify prejudice against same-sex relationships. It’s not an easy book to like. And yet we can see in this passage the start of a very clear statement: for society to work, it needs us to treat those around us well, in the same way that we’d like to be treated.

Jesus answered the question about who is our neighbour, as so often in the gospels, by telling a story, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now there are many ways to interpret that parable, but to me it’s clear that Jesus is saying that the answer is: everybody, who is in need of help. Our neighbours are not just those who live next door, or in our little area, or in our town or our country. Nor are they just those who are like us. We are called to love everyone, regardless of their politics, or their skin colour, or their nationality, or their wealth, or their sexuality, or whether we even like them very much. We are called to love everybody.

Going back to loving our neighbour, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes this wider still – we are called to love our enemies. Now I used to believe quite fervently that I didn’t have enemies, that even if my country chose to fight wars in my name it didn’t make the people of those countries my enemies. But as I’ve got older I’ve come to understand that there are those I disagree with at such a fundamental level that I would have to say that I hate them, at least in terms of the ideas they represent. I hate racism, I hate homophobia, I hate those who seek to choke off immigration, I hate those in power who destroy people’s lives in the name of austerity. My list goes on, and you’ll have your own list. It’s not too big a stretch for me to call those who embody and champion those beliefs my enemies. I was a teenager in Scotland in the 1980s, and we really did hate Margaret Thatcher for what she was doing, or letting happen, to the Scottish industrial economy. Of course, in some ways that was a nice safe hatred. Elsewhere in Glasgow there were Protestants like me, who would have counted me among their number, who hated other Christians simply because they were Catholics, and vice-versa of course. It might not have been as violent as in Belfast, though woe-betide you if you wore green in Ibrox. Loving those neighbours is something that took a long time coming, and it’s not entirely healed. The Orange Order is still marching in Scotland, and they’re really horrible and frightening even if you’re a Protestant. And even if you reckon you’re above all those things, there are those who may well choose to define you as their enemy.

We are called by Jesus to love all these people, to love them to the same extent as we love God, as part of our loving of God. The first epistle of John again puts it clearly:  “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

So who does Jesus call us to love as our neighbours? Everyone. And how does Jesus call us to them? Fully, abundantly, in just the same way that God loves us. Ignoring their faults and even ignoring whether we like them or whether they like us. And by coupling it with the Shema, the central idea of Jewish thought, Jesus says clearly: this really matters. How you treat others really matters. If you treat others badly, you’re not just failing in the code of reciprocity, of the self-interest in treating people as you’d like them to treat you – you’re failing in a religious duty.

How you do it – that varies, of course. For some people it might involve campaigning against injustice, or volunteering at a practical project such as a food bank; for others it might simply be about the way we relate to others, about treating everyone with respect and as a child of God, made in the image of God. And indeed it might involve how we relate to those nearest to us. Knowing how we can and should love our neighbour is a matter of discernment. There’s a Quaker phrase, part of a longer passage, which has been in my head this week preparing for this sermon: “attend to what love requires of you”. Love might require very different things of you to what it requires of me. But it requires us both to see the image of God in those around us, nearby and far away.

Of course we can’t manage it. Loving all these people, all the time, to the extent that God does? Even if they’re horrible, or irritating, or offensive, or smelly, or just because you’re a bit grumpy? Because if this is the summation of the law, then that’s the thing about the law, as St Paul said again and again – we’re going to break the law of God, and yet we’re going to be forgiven again and again. And this applies to loving our neighbour as much as anything else. But we still need to see it as our basic calling as Christians.

Kahlil Gibran wrote that “work is love made visible”. I think it applies to this passage. Relationships take work, and love takes work, but also to show that love, both of God and of our neighbour, takes work, it needs to come out in action.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself. Bring everything you have to him, and he will use it to create unimagined goodness in the world. What a challenge, but what a joy. Amen.


Tuesday, 30 September 2014

What's in a word? On debts, sins and trespasses

Words matter. Human life is lived very largely through language. It's perhaps the single most important thing that distinguishes us from the apes. Dennis Potter once remarked that "the trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in".

Now if you're a spiritually-minded person, a key part of any interaction with the Divine, the Transcendent, is prayer: a conversation, a meeting between the individual and God. Some people have experienced this in silence or through wordless interaction: mystics, Quakers, Sufis. But for very many people, their prayer life happens through words. We are told at the start of John's gospel that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God".

Over the past year, a church I value (but have never visited), Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been preaching through a series of 12 words which sum up 12 seasons of the spiritual life. The series is based on a book by Brian Maclaren, "Naked Spirituality". I've heard most of the sermons through the year. A constant theme has been the interplay between words and the place beyond words, of a deliberate statement of what we mean by God and how we talk to God, and the total inability of human beings to do that explicitly. It's been a very worthwhile and inspiring series of sermons.

I recently heard the final sermon, and it ended with a single prayer - THE prayer, the one Jesus taught his disciples when asked "how do we pray", and which has since become known as the Lord's Prayer. It's an interesting end-point for an examination of the spiritual life, because it's a set of words which contains all the key themes of any prayer: calling God holy, thanksgiving, asking for things we need, saying sorry and asking forgiveness, seeking protection, and looking towards action in the world. I'm not convinced Jesus necessarily meant it to be spoken word-for-word in every church service (as is the case in very many Christian traditions), but it does serve as a great summary.

There's a word in it (or a pair of words) which I've wrestled with for many years, for cultural reasons as much as theological ones. I learnt them as "debts" and "debtors", and that's how they appear in many Bible translations, including both the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version: "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12, NRSV).

The word in Greek for "debts" is "opheilemata", literally "that which is owed". In the Latin version, prayed in so many Western churches for so many centuries, it's "debita" (the same root as the word "debit" in banking). In the Church of Scotland I learnt the Lord's Prayer as "debts" and "debtors", it remains the standard Scottish use and also that of Presbyterian churches in North America. To the modern ear, it has a slightly financial air, a little too close to the English stereotype about Scots and their over-emphasis on money perhaps, but understandable enough.

But of course in the English tradition, the word is most often said as "trespasses". (This word appears in the King James Version, in a brief commentary Jesus gives on the prayer after it, in Matthew 6:14.) To me it's long seemed an alien word, not part of my tradition. And I still don't find it very meaningful. If the 'Scottish' version is a bit over-financial, this seems to suggest land-rights, going into places where you shouldn't be - not really a metaphor for wrong-doing.

Although I've now lived in England for 25 years, I spent a big part of that time as a Quaker and not using the Lord's Prayer, so it wasn't a big issue. Every now and then when I was in another church and the Lord's Prayer was used, I either mumbled the word or used "debtors". In the United Reformed Church where I'm now a member, we most often use the modern version that renders the word simply as sin ("forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us") and that suits me fine. The Iona Community uses the same version in its daily worship, and I like it there too. Some older people prefer to use the older version, complete with trespasses, and that's their right. But I think 'sins' suits the meaning well, and fits our modern understanding of the words.

However: while on placement last year in my training as a lay preacher, I was in a church that used the "trespasses" version. And as I was leading worship from the front, I couldn't avoid it. So I taught myself to say "trespasses". There was no thunder from the sky, I didn't collapse. It's just a word. I continue to find the word a bit alien, and it was a relief to return to my own church and say "sins" again at that point. Except on a recent Sunday, when we had a visiting preacher who invited us to say the Lord's Prayer in the 'traditional version', so I followed my own tradition, and said "debts"... (It was a few days before the Scottish independence referendum, so I was feeling mildly patriotic or perhaps sentimental.)

There's something to be said for everyone using the same words at the same time - it has a powerful bonding effect. But for me the meaning trumps that. On occasions my wife and I have used the 'modern' version of the Lord's Prayer with its 'sins' standing next to each other while others around us said the version with 'trespasses', and that separated us from others around but was a moment of bonding for us. Our daughter can happily say the modern version from memory but gets little from the old one.

And perhaps for me the key thing is the concentration on the words - that by questioning what words we use in prayer, they become active and aware rather than passive and recitation by rote. So I continue to wonder, continue to examine the question, continue to ask myself each time "will it be debts, or sins, or trespasses"?

So what's in a word, when we come before the Divine presence in prayer? Nothing much, but also everything.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Unbreakable Vow: on Death Eaters and political promises

One of the great things about being the parent of an almost nine year old is that you get to read (or re-read) children's classics along with them rather than to them. My daughter is reading the Harry Potter series for the first time, and I'm re-reading them in turn after she finishes each volume, so we have something to talk about. She's reading the last one just now, so I've been reading the sixth, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Which contains an interesting commentary on current political events...

Early in the book, the evil sisters Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange (say what you like about Rowling's ability to write dialogue, but she has a great way with names) visit Severus Snape to enlist his help in assist the former's son, Draco Malfoy, in the task that Voldemort has set him. (We later find out that this is to kill Professor Dumbledore.)  Snape swears a mighty vow, magically sealed to be an Unbreakable Vow, and with Bellatrix as the 'Binder' (magical guarantor) that he will protect Draco and if needed carry out the deed himself. I've not seen the movie from this book but clips are available of the vow-casting online - they make for a chilling scene.

The point about an unbreakable vow is that it's (doh) unbreakable. If you break it, you die. It's a big undertaking. Not to be taken lightly. Not to be used as a bargaining chip in an argument you're afraid you might be losing.

And so to politics. A vow was solemnly made this week by three political parties leaders, sealed not by a magical spell but by their own reputations, and guaranteed not by a wizard but by a former Prime Minister of the UK. But they did promise faithfully that "all three main parties will deliver change for Scotland".

Such a vow is not unbreakable in quite the same way as Snape's vow. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will not die if they renege on this vow but their reputations will be in tatters if they do. Moreover, the whole basis on which they finally turned around the referendum, persuaded the Scottish people that voting No wasn't just a resumption of the status quo, would be in tatters. Moreover, it would fuel the cynical belief across the whole UK that You Can't Trust Politicians. And fuelling that belief doesn't just threaten the Scotland-England relationship, it risks letting in the anti-politicians, the populists like Nigel Farage and worse ones further right than him, who currently are just a nuisance but given a measure of power could be extremely dangerous.

So in a way this vow is just as unbreakable as Snape's vow. Except that if they break this, what they risk destroying isn't just their own reputations - it's the future of the United Kingdom as a viable polity, and even of democracy itself within these isles.

The vow must be kept.