This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 13 June, 2021. (Pentecost 3B)
“For the love of Christ urges us on…” 2 Corinthians 6:14
At the meditation time on Thursday, Dianne provided us with a poem by Sister Sandra Sears which encouraged us to reflect on God’s Spirit as a “wild Spirit” who wants to shake us out of complacency and set us on fire to work for justice, and to reflect the nature of love in a radical way. I was at the time trying to reflect on the two parables in this morning’s Gospel and this “wild Spirit” sent me back to reflect on change.
I know that, according to the “light bulb changing” jokes, Anglicans rebel against change (“after all, my grandmother gave that light bulb!”), but I don’t see how the subject can be avoided when we see what today’s readings place before us.
They begin with the change that Samuel is forced into initiating — king Saul, whose appointment we were looking forward to in last Sunday’s reading, had been seen originally as God’s favoured appointment, but had more recently lost that favour by presuming to act in ways that betrayed his own pride and fear. Now, Samuel is told, God has rejected Saul from being king, and Samuel must take the necessary steps to prepare David to be king. This commission makes Samuel nervous, but eventually he goes, and under cover of offering sacrifice, he meets Jesse’s family and looks at the possible candidates. He is reminded over and over that God “does not look on the outward appearance, but on the heart”, and finally he finds the shepherd boy and anoints David as the next king. We will be reading more over the next few weeks how that appointment works out, but a radical change is taking place.
This change is taken up in the words of the Psalm as “the Lord answers his anointed from his holy heaven: with the victorious strength of his right hand.”
When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he is addressing this theme of change in various ways. He says that we change from being “at home in the body” to “being at home with the Lord”. The life of faith demands that change, a change that will enable us to “appear before the judgement seat of Christ” with confidence and hope. He goes on to remind us that “the love of Christ urges us on” to live in a new way — a way that is no longer for ourselves, but for the one who died and rose again for us. The Christian life demands a movement, a constant process of change, urged on by the love of Christ — and we’re never quite sure whether “the love of Christ” means “the love that we have for Christ” or “the love that Christ has for us” — either way we are urged on to change.
Then come the Gospel parables, where Jesus takes two “growing” pictures to illustrate the change that the Kingdom of God brings about. He gives the picture of seed scattered on the ground, and growing “secretly” — as the one who sowed it sleeps or wakes, the seed carries on its work of changing from the single seed to a plant that can be harvested. Of course those with experience of growing things from seed know that there is human intervention required if this secret growing is to be given the best chance of happening, but still the actual change happens “of itself”, and doesn’t depend on what else the sower is doing at any time.
Then there is the lovely picture of the tiny mustard seed growing into a great shrub, with large enough branches for birds to find nesting-space within it. The size of the beginning is not the issue — some seeds have enormous potential for change!
Everyone seems to be on at us to think about change! Sometimes change happens by evolution, and sometimes by revolution. As I think back over my experience of ordained ministry, I find examples of each of these changes, and sometimes we don’t realize how revolutionary a particular action might become as its implications are worked out. I was reflecting the other day on what moving the place of the celebration of the Eucharist from the “high altar” to the “nave altar” caused to happen to our lives. [The emphasis at the “high altar” was on reverence, awe, wonder, and as we climbed a number of stairs to kneel and receive the Blessed Sacrament, we were encouraged to think of our unworthiness to approach the throne,and the wonder of being allowed to do so. Our attitude from the moment when we entered the church was one of quiet respect “enter the church to speak to God — go outside to speak to one another” — or even “go home quietly without ordinary conversation — remember your Guest” as my Confirmation manual advised me.
When we focus our celebration on the nave altar, before which we stand “on the same level” we are made more aware of the presence of our fellow-worshippers, and perhaps as a result, we take care to establish our contact with them as soon as we enter the building — so the service begins, not with the quiet hush when we rise from our knees to sing God’s praises, but with the need for a bell to say, “worship is beginning — please pay some attention” Those with long memories will recognize this kind of change, growing out of a revolution in geography in an unexpected way.]
Perhaps the change that has quietly happened “whether I sleep or wake”, has been in our bodily attitude for prayer. One of the powerful factors in encouraging me to become an Anglican all those years ago, was that Anglicans knelt for prayer, rather than sitting and bowing their heads as the Methodists did in my youth. Now I refrain, when using the BCP service, from exhorting people to make their humble confession “meekly kneeling upon their knees” — its no good saying it, because most people decline to kneel. And I’d rather they thought about “being in love and charity with their neighbours” than ask them to do something that they were not going to do anyway!
Perhaps this is a time when we might profitably reflect on the changes that we have observed in the life of this Parish — some evolutionary, some revolutionary: some traumatic, some occasions for celebration. In a community of this kind, we find people who have different abilities to deal with change — some seem to welcome change simply because it is change, while others resist anything which tries to move them from the way they remember things “always were”. Perhaps most of us are somewhere in between those two extremes. In what ways is “the love of Christ urging us on”? In what ways can we see the seed of the Kingdom ‘growing secretly’ in this community? In what ways do we see new kings being anointed? And how do we deal with one another respectfully and in “the love of Christ” when we approach the changes differently?
We sometimes pray to the “God of eternal changelessness” and imagine that that means that God’s purposes for our life never alter. I find a more helpful picture to be of a God who is continually adjusting his plan for us to take account of where we have put ourselves. God would never say, “If I were going to the station I wouldn’t be starting from here” — he always begins, and begins again, from where we are, not where we should be!
Perhaps we need to pray the prayer of Ronald Niebuhr commonly used in a slightly different form, “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” May the God of unchanging love guide us in this constant process of change.