O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that with you as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not our hold on things eternal; grant this, heavenly Father, for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Gracious Father, by the obedience of Jesus you brought salvation to our wayward world: draw us into harmony with your will, that we may find all things restored in him, our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Eternal God, comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken, you have fed us at the table of life and hope: teach us the ways of gentleness and peace, that all the world may acknowledge the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
long-suffering and of great goodness.
9 The Lord is loving to everyone
and his mercy is over all his creatures.
10 All your works praise you, O Lord,
and your faithful servants bless you.
11 They tell of the glory of your kingdom
and speak of your mighty power,
12 To make known to all peoples your mighty acts
and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.
13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom;
your dominion endures throughout all ages.
14 The Lord is sure in all his words
and faithful in all his deeds.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’
At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 4
Now that the pubs are open, and we can get our hair cut and, further down the list of the governments priorities, places of worship are open again, aren’t we relieved? Here in Slimbridge we will be worshipping together next Sunday – with all the regulations and guidance in effect, of course.
However, aren’t we weary after all the time we have been locked away? We have been in camera, as the lawyers would put it, or as we would say, “behind closed doors”. I suppose we are like the apostles at the first Easter. I would say that we, like them, have all been in dialogue within our homes about the things that really do matter to us. We have talked at length with our cohabiters about that all-important meaning of our lives, haven’t we? We have found that many of the ephemeral concerns of life have fallen away. We have had to do “straight talkin’” with our nearest and dearest – and we have discovered just how dear those near to us are, haven’t we?
Perhaps we have been depressed at the world being just too far away from us, beyond the window pane. But we have also learned about just how close reality is, just a window pane away. (A friend confessed that he now understood why his dogs went wild when people walked by, and I think we now all understand that.) We have, in fact, been perplexed about the world and reality. We aren’t really sure what reality is in light of the changed and enclosed world.
Now we are further confused. With the dismantling of the lockdown everything is being overturned again. We are not sure what is right and what is wrong – what we should do and from what we should refrain. Like Paul,
When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. … I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
The problem of being in that dark place is the problem of being behind closed doors, so I wonder whether we have been private for too long. Everything has been turned around, nothing seems certain. I would even dare to say, we don’t even know what is right and wrong. At least many of the social verities of the past have been called into question. Should I be safe with a two metre bubble, or is the one-metre social distancing really right? When do I get to hug my dearest friends? What should I be doing to “Save Lives” as the government slogan had it only four weeks ago.
Meanwhile, I have been watching a lot of television – there are so many cop shows! The more I watch, the more I am convinced that the lockdown should have helped us solve the problem of murder. We should have come to realise that life is what matters, not the commandeering of power, nor the accumulation of wealth, nor is it sex – even though money and sex are supposed to be the only two motives for murder according to one of the many trailers for the mystery channel. However, the lockdown has revealed that motives are many and involve the whole of one’s intentions.
I think that looking at only money or sex as motive of action is really a “dumbing down” of interpersonal reality, just doing what my teachers called “methodological reductionism” – that is to say, reducing why someone does everything to one of those two motives. I think it is really time to think about motives all over again and realise the many things in our lives that are important and, when they are distorted, how things do go awry, and we have to call in the detectives to help us sort out why things have gone so badly, even to the point of breaking the law. Let’s not dumb down – let’s make reality as complex as we have discovered it to be in our lockdown. Our nearest and dearest have revealed themselves as very perplexing, and we have had to come to grips with their puzzling reality as we have remained in our bubbles of isolation with them.
When things go wrong, I think we would agree that things are confused, that our motives are very mixed, that the aim of our lives can change from time to time and that three or four things can confuse in such a way that “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” We realise that it is not just the accumulation of wealth any way we can get it, nor merely the comfort of another’s arms, that are the reasons we do the things we do. The philosopher has spoken of “being-with” as one of the fundamentals of humanity, and the other’s arms and money are symbols of that human reality, of how we touch each other’s lives. The cynical detective may be right in that sex or money are clues to see motives in life, but the really good investigator sees that essential trait of being human – that bonding with another – is really the reason we do so many things, and the binding with others in love is the finest expression of humanity.
Paul knows the complexity of his life: after all he was a Pharisee among the Pharisees, he knew the Law and kept it, why he even held the coats of the crowd which stoned Stephen. Saul knows what is right, but does he do it? I am convinced that his whole life is trying to achieve that ultimate being-with – the being-with of the faithful with God. That is the motive we must look for in our own detection, both in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. But who is this God whom we pursue with such earnestness? The theologians have always said God is that beyond which there is nothing. If we can touch it, then it is not God, it is merely an idol. The theologians have been proved right, haven’t they? In our lockdown we have learned this lesson of God’s transcendent reality at the very least.
But now, I fear, the idols are being moulded again, the ads have taken over the great thoughts of lockdown for their own ends. Amazon, once understood for its impersonal, goods-only approach, has become a place where the workplace has become a collegiality and caring environment which considers the other, customer and worker, as its primary goal. But are we to believe that? After all, these delivery companies have grown exponentially, and all the practices of the past are still in place, for example, zero-hour contracts. But to listen to the ads we would have to believe differently, wouldn’t we? Are we being deceived, or do we hope that those words actually do reveal that life in all its fullness has been achieved in the workplace?
Let us listen to our own words carefully. I have always been concerned with the corona-virus mantra. What is the prime motivation? Did the mantra really tell that story of life in all its fullnes, that life we have discovered in lockdown? My question will always be – has “the way of the world” overtaken all the lessons we have learned?
We have learned about the life in all its fullness in lockdown, how love is the ultimate motivation for all of us. I hope we will never forget our lockdown and lose our love for God, one another and ourselves, now that we can burst out of the bubble of isolation to enter the everyday world.