THREE TALKS ABOUT LOVE - from our Parish Retreat, 9th - 13th May 2011 (and hopefully of some use for Lent and Easter 2013!)
1) Love and Judgement
God is love.
I think we can all agree on that. In fact, if I had to decide on a big banner which would be hung on the outside of our churches for all to see (and which must not have more than 3 words or more than 10 letters) I would go for "God is love". And some of you might agree. Says it all, really.
And yet, what does it say? GOD IS LOVE - someone walking past the church and seeing that up in great big letters might well feel like going inside and finding someone in the church - probably an innocent flower-arranger or churchwarden - and asking them: what do you mean by making such a huge, all-encompassing statement? God is love - what could that possibly mean? What's its cash value? How does it work?
And in particular, if the person wandering into the church was one of those lovely people who, without necessarily holding any kind of faith themselves, have nonetheless a distinct knack of picking holes in others' theology, they might say something like this:
"All very well, saying God is love - but what about the vengeful God of the Old Testament? What about the vein of wrathful punishment that runs through the Bible? What about judgement, hell and damnation? Where's "God is love" in all of that?"
Fair point, I would mutter in reply (if unlucky enough to be the one caught in church). But maybe, I'd go on, it's also fair to say that real love must entail judgement. Real love isn't about pretending bad things haven't happened, or skirting round difficult or painful issues. Real love isn't the same as indulgence. Real love cuts through to the truth and insists that we face reality, and doesn't let us off the hook until we can acknowledge how it is that we came to be wriggling there. Real love can be very tough.
If God is the lover, and we are the beloved, or if God is the parent and we are the children, the love he has for us must, I would suggest, entail helping us - sometimes making us - come to a more honest appraisal of where we are at. Or, should I say, an increasingly honest appraisal of where we are at; for this facing-up to reality has to happen again and again and again. There may be dramatic moments of repentance and conversion, but there will certainly also be a succession of smaller moments when we are brought to see that our project of self-sufficiency, self-determination, self-centredness, doesn't work - and that we need help. And this is judgement. And its purpose is not to punish us, but to change us and restore us and save us. Loving judgement, in other words.
The best things about the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which were such a delight last summer, seem to me to reflect some of the core values of the Kingdom of God. (And if it helps to have a quick, rough definition of the Kingdom, how about: "things being the way God wants them to be"?) You may notice that the values I pick out equate to your experience of the Church at its best - which is highly encouraging, but also rather scary, once you start to think about the times when the Church doesn't get anywhere near these high standards.
Let's start with the volunteers, the Games Makers - 70,000 people who gave a massive chunk of their time and energy to make visitors' experience of the Games a pleasant one. This was a bunch of people, working together, not because they're forced to but because they want to, giving of themselves to others, and doing it all in a strikingly cheerful, friendly, welcoming way ... Yes, sometimes this is how the Church is (and not only the Church), and it is a little picture of the loving, co-operative, unselfish ways of the Kingdom.
Close behind the Games Makers come the members of the Armed Forces who stepped in at short notice to provide security at the venues, and did so in such a positive, professional and reassuring manner. At its best, as at the Games, the Kingdom of God is reflected by those who follow a calling to protect, educate and care - paid public servants, in other words. Even clergy can do this!... though - I hasten to add - not at taxpayers' expense.
(Just after the end of the Olympics, the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, appears to have had an epiphany about the value of the public sector, prompted by the stark contrast, at the Games, between the efficiency of the service personnel and the ineptitude of the private security provider G4S. Of course, the private sector is often perfectly able to deliver effective services to the public; the key distinction - which ought to give pause to all those who blithely champion privatization - is between, on the one hand, approaching a public-service task with little more than an eye for its profitability, and on the other, seeking to provide the best service possible in terms of human welfare. And this is Kingdom territory - God calls us to put other people's welfare first.)
As for the athletes - how well, how graciously they coped with the pressure of their place in the spotlight. With very few exceptions, we saw humility and dignity, both in victory and defeat, and the outpourings of tears and joy left few of us unmoved. For me, the part of the medal ceremonies when rivals acknowledged one another on the podium, with a handshake and a group photo, showed the possibility of moving beyond competition, to say - "We're all in this together".
And finally, the sense of a nation comfortable with its multi-stranded, diverse identity - reflected in the astonishing opening ceremony, in the composition of Team GB, in the new respect for the amazing Paralympians, and in the enthusiastic response of our whole society - spoke of how the Kingdom is meant to be, and how the Church can be as a sign of the Kingdom: different people joining together in a joyful common cause. When we find this cause, when it matters enough to us, then we're happy to be different, and we begin to understand that this is how God, who is Trinity-in-Unity, wants things to be.
And the cause? Jesus Christ, and his love, to be expressed in all kinds of different ways, often by those who don't even say his name, but always distinctive: generous, welcoming, self-giving, hopeful, co-operative. Like the best of us and the best of these Games.
The Good Shepherd - a sermon preached at the Ordination to the Priesthood of Rev. Linda Walters on September 24th 2011
John 10: 1-16
What makes a good shepherd?
In terms of the example Jesus shows us, it's simple: know your sheep - love your sheep - lay down your life for your sheep. We'll come back to all that, but for now, I want to take you on a bit of a detour.
Linda - remember you're a sheep.
Actually, everyone here is a sheep. Even Bishop Bob is actually a sheep. A sheep in shepherd's clothing, maybe, but still definitely, and first and foremost, a sheep. And...to be a good shepherd, you also have to be a sheep.
Let me explain. This calling, to which Linda has responded - sometimes gladly and with joy, sometimes with doubts and tears and sleepless nights (not giving anything away, am I, Linda?) - this calling to be a priest in the Church of England can, of course, be pictured as the calling of a shepherd: to care for the sheep, to find the lost and bring them back, to bind up the injured, to comfort the distressed, to tend the flock and keep the flock together and defend the flock from attack. It is the calling of God to love his people, and in this simplest sense it is one in which we all share. We are all priests, along with Bishop Bob and Archdeacon David and every person, every last person in our churches. (And that usually means the person who sweeps up after we've all gone. Whoever you are, just remember: the last shall be first.) We are all called to be go-betweens for God, showing his love to every person we can, and bringing every person's needs back to God in prayer. We are all shepherds of one another - but some, like Linda, are called to representative ministry, called to live out the ministry of a shepherd publicly, as an example, as an encourager, as a leader.
But Linda can't do that, any more than you and I can, unless she remembers she's a sheep. By which I mean: the deepest motivation and the surest guide for Linda's ministry as a deacon, as a priest, as a shepherd, is the life-giving relationship she has with God in Jesus Christ, through which - like a sheep - she has been, is being and will be saved. And the same is true of us all.