Mystery, morality & our neighbour
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
14 July 2013, 10:30 (THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY)Some of us are fortunate in this life and are able to take holidays. But are holidays real life or an escape from it?
Do they fit in with our normal routines, commitments and responsibilities and help make sense of who we are and why we are here or are they just an indulgence in flight and escapism?
The worm in paradise’s apple always seems to make itself present at some time during a holiday and there are graphic accounts of extraordinary disasters and falling out whilst people are supposedly enjoying the bliss of the vacation.
However, I want to return to the question: are they reality or escape?
Life is full of change and holidays are a radical change of gear and often place and setting that enables us to be to see new things and old things in a new way. We are refreshed and challenged, restored and transformed at the same time.
But which is real, our everyday lives or the holiday?
My holiday this year got me thinking about these questions and starting in a very particular way.
The first comes in the natural way that we seek the familiar even when on an adventure.
When Ruth and I go on holiday we tend to pack comprehensively (that is the technical term for taking the kitchen sink).
In the deep countryside of Normandy, we unpack the car and set up a music system along with a powerful radio that will enable us to listen to the BBC.
So much for going native!
However, this year the wavelength settings had fallen out and I had to tune in by sweeping the dial!
It was a noisy and tedious process of listening to a teeming barrage of French radio stations and trying to intercept beloved Auntie amidst the Gallic exuberance and serious talks that dominated the airwaves.
It struck me during the holiday that much of life is just like, teeming away in a myriad of languages and beyond my comprehension and access.
Yes, I can hear only a small number of voices in my language.
Why are my life and my point of view important and how does any sense of meaning connect with everything else that is going on?
And then there was the weather in our rural paradise: the cottage we rent is set on high ground with a wonderful panoramic view but it seems to have a residual drawback. The hill seemingly has a regularly resident cloud.
Even when summer is truly evident with sunshine and blue skies, a cloud will come and hang over the sun just where we stay.
And what a difference that cloud makes in terms of mood, temperature and the whole feel of the house, the garden and the holiday.
Everything is just the same and at the same time everything looks and feels different.
Which is real? What is normal? We want one and we get the other.
Life is uneven, complex and mysterious and into it we insert our own sense of normality, reality and importance.
We rely on the world around us and within us being familiar and providing meaning that makes us feel that we are in control.
And this is where God makes the difference.
Our control is partial and a gift and a stewardship from God.
It is relational, provisional and only a tiny part of the real story.
Our viewpoints and preferences, our habits and perspectives are really so small and delicate - and unless touched by God, truly inconsequential.
Our lives hang literally by a thread, and the reality that we think we possess and inhabit can turn and change in a twinkling.
The Bible consistently reminds us of this from beginning to end; if we listen to the world and its news, we hear this truth reported every hour and every day.
No wonder the lawyer in St Luke’s gospel wanted some straight talking from Jesus:
Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
But in fact it was a bit of a trap, a test question, to see if Jesus was an orthodox Jew and teacher who respected the Law and the tradition.
It was a question which led to another after the lawyer had summarised the Mosaic law: …and who is my neighbour?
This question requires particularity and definition in terms of exclusion, because the summarised law drew in the 613 commandments which compartmentalised life and duty and so restricted moral and divine favour.
Jesus’ reply is ground breaking and radical not just for the lawyer and the religious elite of Judaism but for all people, for you and me.
Showing mercy to anyone in need takes the brakes off our love and judgment and sets us free from the unreality of our prejudice, our fear and our small mindedness.
The parable of the Good Samaritan portrays the wide openness of love.
To whom can I and you be a neighbour? – is the question we need to ask.
And Jesus’ answer through the parable is anyone whose need makes a claim on my love.
All barriers break down and grace takes us out of our depth into the divine mercy of eternal life and freedom.
This is the plumb line of Amos, the judgment of almighty God set in everyday incidents.
All our assumptions, preferences and points of view are challenged by God’s truth whose life shifts its centre from me to my neighbour and the ever-present relationship that God has now implanted in our human condition.
Even our religious habits and presumptions must be questioned when we say that others are wrong and their lives beyond God’s mercy.
It is a hard, hard parable to be faithful to in our daily lives.
And to show you how difficult it is I am going to ask you to engage in a mental exercise which is neither threatening, nor consequential nor manipulating!
1. I want you to pick a number between 1 and 10.
2. Now multiply that number by 9.
3. You will now have a new number. I want you to add the digits together. So, for example, if the number is 27 then you would add the digits together and get 9.
4. From your new number I want you to subtract 5.
5. Now I want you to convert that number into a letter. So if your number is 1 your letter is A; if 2 then B; if 3 then C; if 4 then D and so on.
6. Are you there? Now don't think about this, just whatever comes first. Think of a country that begins with that letter.
7. So now you have a country. Take the second letter of that country and think of an animal that begins with that letter.
Hands up if you are thinking of an elephant.
Why does it work? Because we share a common language, a common understanding of mathematics and a common culture.
It wouldn't work if you tried it in India and it wouldn't work if you tried it in Germany.
It works here because we share the same language and some basic beliefs – perhaps we even share these beliefs unconsciously. You can see how powerful local culture and mores are in determining the way we think and choose.
But we also know that even our next door neighbour may have different habits and expectations about noise, gardens, parking, our children and oh so many other things which impact on us.
So although there is a certain commonality in our culture, it is even more amazing with what and with whom we can fall out, demonise, misunderstand and even fight …people right on our doorsteps!
Thank God for Jesus who shows us God’s ways and presence.
Christianity is God’s radical new way of living that changes the centre of gravity of how we see the world and live in it.
And by the power of the Spirit and through the sacrament of the altar we are given the energy, the imagination and the means to live as God in Jesus shows us.
Lord, what we have not, give us.
Lord, what we know not, teach us.
Lord, what we are not, make us.
Forgive what we have been.
Sanctify what we are.
And order what we shall be.
For your mercy’s sake.
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