Sermon: Third Sunday Before Lent
Sunday 12 February 2017
The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor
Choose life! (Deuteronomy 30.15–20, 1 Corinthians 3.1–9 and Matthew 5.21–37)
Choose Life! Is there a choice, when we may feel powerless, because of the world situation, because of our previous choices and because of something that has happened to us, or not happened to us. Moses takes this moment, within sight of the promised land which he will never enter himself, to remind his people that in God’s hands we have a choice at the threshold of every moment.
Wendy Cope’s poem ‘New Season’ speaks about such a moment of choice:
“…And suddenly this paving stone
Midway between my front door and the bus stop
Is a starting point
From here I can go anywhere I choose.”
How do we rediscover the hope that we actually do have the freedom to take the next step in a way which is different from the story we thought we were stuck in. Is this a hallmark of what it means to come together as the people of God, to recover that sense of hope and possibility and freedom in our lives. Not in one sense to ‘go anywhere I choose’ but freedom through trusting the promises of God to follow the God ‘whose service is perfect freedom,’ the God who gives us the agency to make graceful choices which take seriously loving God and loving our neighbour. Choices which might look risky to our own ‘security’ in our individualistic and materialistic culture. But which, if we take what we believe God has revealed of himself seriously, are more likely to bring us to a place of true safety and community.
To ‘choose life’ in this moment for Israel does not mean they have accomplished finished anything. Choosing life means starting something anew: Living in a messy, difficult, and holy relationship with God. The people of Israel are hearing these words after years of experiencing, in their time in the wilderness, their own failure to stay listening to the voice of God, and living with the consequences of the messes it has got them into. Just as we do.
Covenant faithfulness for Israel is not simply keeping the law, but a set of lived practices, which keep them turning towards the love of God and neighbour. Moses is not asking the people simply to recite the creed; Moses is asking them to turn their whole lives toward God. Choosing life means practicing life – developing holy habits (like the ones of prayer and discernment some of us practiced on Tuesday) – in the way we give, the way we spend our time, turning away from idols and turning back towards God.
Of course we, like Israel, need to re-orient ourselves on a regular basis, through our regular practices. But let’s not confuse the voice of God with church. It’s very easy to say that church demands too much of me, isn’t giving me what it should and to decide to withhold ourselves from a higher spiritual ground. But it’s God’s voice we’re seeking; church is simply meant to be the place where we remake that intention and are reoriented together. Is that what it is, or does it sometimes become pretty good innoculation from hearing the voice of God.
I’ve been thinking about what obeying the voice of God might look like right now for this congregation. What’s it like if you are an asylum seeker, and most of the things that you used to take for granted as part of the fabric of life are no longer givens, you live with basic uncertainty about whether you will be able to stay in this country, or how to structure your time when you’re not allowed to work and have no money to think help decide how to spend your time.
I observe, on a daily and weekly basis, that it’s hard to work out how to move from a culture which has quite a lot of (clergy) dependency woven into it, the idea that it’s all up to someone else and we have no power ourselves. Where people who might be discovering their ministries are so time poor that it’s hard to stop to think even. I catch myself imagining that it’s up to me how I drive myself to fit more and more into my days as if it all depended on me. And I find that the people who in the main are responding to what is offered to explore faith further, are people whose first language is not English and who might also be coming from a different faith background. And members of the congregation who are asylum seekers are coming asking how they can serve the body, the Cathedral, and yet our regulations to safeguard other vulnerable people make it far from straightforward to enable that to happen. How do we all obey the voice of God in this kind of situation in a way which sets us all free to choose life? And to find the radical possibility that obeying God’s voice may lead us to discover a spacious place which we might never having been able to imagine – along with those neighbours who we are being asked to serve. ‘The grace of God given to me. . .’
How do we help each other to live faithfully. Perhaps a common first step all of us could take is refusing to take the situation as the absolute in the equation. Sometimes it feels as though the realpolitik is this: I can follow God and my neighbour can follow God in any way except for that which might destabilise the current equilibrium/upset the apple cart. Except that’s not looking so clever any more when in many ways it feels as though the world is going mad. When we might have to put clear blue water between what it means to obey God’s voice and to assent to what governments are doing – the gap between loving God and God’s law and civil obedience might be opening up in a post-truth, post Brexit, Trumpety world. And might also cause us to value the law.
The first word of YHWH is not a demand to follow a set of laws; the first word of YHWH is to respond to the love YHWH has freely offered to the helpless people enslaved in Egypt by first loving God and then, out of that rich love, following the commandments that God has lovingly offered the people. This is exactly why the first commandment of the Ten is the first: “I am YHWH your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Dt 5.6). That, of course, is no command at all; it is a loving restatement of God’s first and greatest act for Israel, the people of God’s choice.
So if we love, and obey, and observe all that God has offered and given for our richest possible life, we will surely be living in the hopes and promises of God for justice and righteousness for all of those who have received God’s promises, namely all of our brothers and sisters – even if that brings wider conflict.
We have all been brought into a place of freedom out of a house of slavery at some level in our lives, if we have it has meant anything much at all for each one of us to meet with God and be forgiven and re-oriented from the things that bind us. All of us are asylum seekers along with the people of Israel wandering through the wilderness, trying to find the fullness of citizenship in the Kingdom of God in the different parts of our lives.
Our gospel today could of course have offered us several whole other sermons – Jesus draws us deeper and provocatively into insisting on the loving freeing relationship at the heart of God’s law. But after a week which has seen the Bishops restatement of their position on LGBT Christians, the dissenting letter of the 14 retired Bishops and with the vote about to happen at General Synod this coming week, let’s just linger for a moment with the journey from slavery to freedom for LGBT Christians and for all Christians including divorcees, in living our human sexuality. Jesus speaks into a context where the power to divorce lies only with men, and where women are the ones who need protecting from the possibility of being alienated from mainstream society by how they are divorced, whilst still needing to take responsibility. He asks us to find the deeper relational practical concern for each other’s good and freedom which is the kernel of the law not its contradiction. Whoever we are and wherever we stand, how does God call us to Choose Life this morning?