Sermon 2017 July 23rd

ST COLUMBA’S CHURCH OF SCOTLAND

SUNDAY 23rd JULY 2017

Revd Andrea Price

Listen here: https://youtu.be/MmKZ2wotrWE

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Lord and Redeemer. Amen

Anyone who has admired medieval art will have seen depictions of the last judgment. Who could fail to enjoy the relief scenes above famous gothic cathedral doors depicting the last judgment? Christ sits in glory and the angels wake the dead, some to go to heaven and some with faces in utter horror being drawn by grotesque figures into hell – among them high status clergy!

At the time only clergy could read. These reliefs and other images in the churches served to tell the gospel to illiterate people. While we see them in pale stone, they would have been originally brightly coloured, like story books for children.

And as parents admonish children to behave so the church preached often and at times too simply a binary choice: heaven or hell, good or bad, glory or gnashing of teeth in the fiery lake.

 

Matthew told God’s good news of Jesus the Messiah for a congregation steeped in Jewish tradition. They knew the book of Daniel, which tells of the son of man, the fiery furnace and the righteous shining like the sun, strong images. The book of Daniel was a source of hope to them, predicting the soon to come victory of Israel over the nations, in troubled times – Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans and its inhabitants driven out.

This is why Matthew mentions weeping and gnashing of teeth six times (against Luke’s one and none in Mark and John). Like Moses before him in Deuteronomy, Matthew wants to move his audience to make a choice – and they are easier explained using stark contrasts.

 

However we know that life rarely offers such simple, black and white choices. When we have to make a choice more likely than not we have to choose between different shades of grey, or choose not knowing the outcome, merely guessing what might be for the best.

And although God knows us intimately, (Ps 139,4:  Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.) as the Psalm 139 reminds us, we do not have the gift to know our own vice or virtue completely or that of another person.

Nor is it our task to judge each other – that is God’s task. Instead we are sent to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. Now is that not enough to get on with?! May God forgive us old and new witch hunts, casting of stones while sitting in glass houses and forgetting the task set for us in favour of being self-righteous hypocrites.

 

This does not mean that we do not need to stand up at times and say no and halt evil when we come across it! The evils of degrading and abusing other people for their race, religion or political opinion need to be revealed and stopped in any guise.

God’s will is to let his creation live a full life. God’s will is one of peace, justice, truth, beauty and fulfilment. Exploitation of the earth, its creatures and peoples is not the way forward.

Painfully and slowly do we begin to learn that the way we have used the earth, have exploited and abused it without thinking of the consequences will lead to disaster unless we change our ways.

And change seldom is easy. Paul compares the suffering of the earth with the agonies of childbirth. Although God’s will is for his glory to be reflected in the life of nations, the great shadows of war, exploitation, dehumanising slavery and ecological destruction are endangering God’s great creation of planet earth.

Can we live up to the task God sets us in among the pain and suffering, among the temptations to sit pretty and judge others?

 

Fjodor Dostojewsky told this story:

“Once there was an evil old woman who died.  Throughout her life she had done no good deed. So the devils came and threw her into the fiery lake. Her guardian angel watched and thought: “Is there no good deed I can remember to tell God?” Then he remembered something and said to God: “Once she pulled up a small onion in her vegetable garden and gave it to a beggar.”

Then God said: “Then take the small onion and hold it out to her in the lake, so she can grasp it. And if you can pull her with it out of the lake, may she go into paradise. But if the plant tears she shall stay where she is.”

The angel went to the woman and held out the small onion to her: “Here”, he said to her, “take it and hold on. Let’s see if we can pull you out.” And he began to pull her very carefully out – and had nearly pulled her out, when the other sinners in the lake noticed, and when they saw it they took hold of her that they too might be pulled out.

But the woman was bad, very bad and kicked them with her feet and screamed: “Only I shall be pulled out and not you, it is my onion and not yours.”

When she had said this the small plant tore in two and the woman fell back into the lake and still burns to this day. The angel however wept and went away.”

 

Jesus tries to tell us through his life and ministry: DON’T BE A WEED! Don’t suffocate others, nor think, say or do things which destroy the will of God to have peace, justice and truth blossom on this earth.

And if you think the whole task of loving God and your neighbour is too hard for you, remember Jacob, who behaved as a weed to his brother and father when he stole the blessing for the first borne.

Jacob, jealous and crafty little brother of Esau, swindled himself into an inheritance and had to flee his brother’s justified and murderous anger. But when he finds himself cast out, a refugee with a shady past, an economic migrant desperate to find protection and somewhere to survive, God appears to him and promises his presence and company. God even renews the promise he had made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham that he will be a blessing for the nations.

God works even with and through weeds like Jacob. God can work his wonders even through the shadows, the greys of our dubious virtues. So do not hide behind what you think are your faults.

But neither forget to be humble and remember that we are not to judge others. If a sinner is given a small onion and remembers God’s will that he or she should love our neighbour as ourselves God may use even a small onion or a crooked person for his purpose.

 

 Paul wrote to the Romans,

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”

We have much to do, secure in the knowledge of God’s love for us, our adoption as his children and heirs.

May we reflect the glory of God by our love and care for all of creation, its plants, creatures and fellow man, woman and child.

Amen