All you need is love (no really!)

Jeremiah 1:4-1
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Luke 4.21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

One Sunday a Vicar told his congregation that the church needed some extra money and asked the people to prayerfully consider giving a little extra in the offering plate.

He said that whoever gave the most would be able to pick out three hymns.

After the offering plates were passed, the vicar glanced down and noticed that someone had placed a cheque for £1,000 in offering.

He was so excited that he immediately shared his joy with his congregation and said he’d like to personally thank the person who placed the money in the plate.

A very quiet, elderly, saintly lady all the way in the back shyly raised her hand.

The pastor asked her to come to the front. Slowly she made her way to the pastor.

He told her how wonderful it was that she gave so much and in thanksgiving asked her to pick out three hymns.

Her eyes brightened as she looked over the congregation, pointed to the three particularly dishy young men in the building and said,

“I’ll take him and him and him.”

Not so much “The Old Rugged Cross” as “Bind us Together.”  The woman was offered the ecclesiastical and wanted relationship (relationship with three young men at once – but I shall draw a veil over that).

Now I enjoy hymns (H-Y-M-Ns) – they can lift my spirits, as I feel a part of a group united in one song, and my soul is lifted heavenwards (sometimes – I’d be lying if I said every hymn has that effect – but we should always worship open to a sense of wonder…)

I am fascinated by church buildings – in most communities the Church is the most interesting building, and if the church building is suitable, it can also be the most useful building.

I am inspired by liturgy, how ancient words and modern prayers can connect us to God, to our history and to each other.

I even have a great fondness for vestments – these strange frocks that connect us to our past, and remind us of our history and give the signal that this is a special time and place…

But the hymns and buildings and liturgy and posh frocks are only a means to an end.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

No matter how beautiful our hymns or how Listed our building, if we are not loving, there is no point.

“If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

If our liturgy is perfectly crafted and our vestments the finest that can be bought or made, but if we are not loving, we are wasting our time.

But, you may protest, looking after buildings and creating beautiful music and meaningful liturgy is really difficult! Love is easy! As Elvis sang we “can’t help falling in love.”  Why do we need so much “stuff” to help us do what comes naturally?

Why do we need so much “stuff” to help us do what comes naturally?

Firstly, there are some ways of loving that we can only do because we have all this “stuff.” Our love for God is focussed by music and liturgy, and a building like this one can be an amazing resource for our local community.

Secondly, if you think loving is easy then you do not fully understand what the word means.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Love is not just a warm feeling, it is difficult, challenging.  Love is demanding; true love demands everything.

St. Augustine said:

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men and women. That is what love looks like.

In the New Testament, love is more of a verb than a noun. It is a doing word, it’s not a thing or a feeling. The call to love is not really a call to a certain state of feeling as it is to a very particular type of action.

David Wilkerson put it very well when he said, “Love is not only something you feel, it is something you do.”

When it comes to Christian love, feelings are secondary to action, as C.S. Lewis said, “Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbour; act as if you did.”

If we return to our reading about love, St. Paul introduces a paragraph that seems out of place:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

We were talking about love, why are we suddenly talking about growing up? The love of children is linked to their dependence on others – they love the adults that care for and provide for them.  St Paul is demanding that we mature in our love, and learn to love those who may need us too.

Following the teaching of Jesus, we are to love even our enemies.  God teaches us to love by putting some unlovely people around us. It takes no character to love people who are lovely and loving to us.  We never really love until we love someone who hates us.

And this kind of love is powerful, it can change the world.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.

The whole point of Christianity is to teach us to love: to love God, love our neighbours, love ourselves.

I end with a quotation from Rick Warren:

“The best use of life is love. 
The best expression of love is time. 
The best time to love is now.”

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Holiday Sermon – New Year in New York

There are two words that strike terror into the hearts of congregations throughout the developed world.  Usually they only occur in the summer months, but you, poor unfortunates are going to hear them this morning.

You must brace yourselves, for this is a HOLIDAY SERMON!

Holiday sermons are usually written on the beach, often on the slightly stained napkin that once cradled an ice cream cone, and the text usually develops some torturous analogy and asks such searching questions as “is there a sandy beach towel in your life?” or “don’t you think receiving the Eucharist is like suntan lotion for the soul?”

This sermon was written in New York – it was started as I waited to see in the New Year for the second time (we celebrated at 7.00 p.m. New York time which was midnight in the UK and then struggled to stay awake for another midnight!)

So what sermon illustration do I bring back from the New World?

We were staying at the North end of Central Park, on the edge of Harlem.  I don’t know if any of you went to New York in the 1960s or 70s, but if you did, you were probably warned to avoid Harlem.  It was an area of burnt-out tower blocks and riots, a neighbourhood of crime and poverty.

But it was regenerated, and although it still has poverty the streets are safe and it’s a very pleasant place to visit.

It changed because local people worked to rebuild and take pride in their neighbourhood.  The improvement is obvious:

London had 7.4 robberies per 1,000 residents last year. In Harlem it was 5.9.

Less than 15 years ago, Harlem did not have a single cashpoint machine. No one would have dared to use one. Now Harlem has all the usual banks, shops and cashpoints. A bit of online research showed that the biggest crime problem in Harlem at the moment is double-parking.

But this did not happen by chance.  Partly it was police policy and also it came about through citizens campaigning, giving their time and energy and money.

The words I saw engraved by a statue of anti-slavery campaigner and former slave, Frederick Douglass, by the entrance to Harlem:

“Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

People can and do change the world.  People like you and me.

One of the very few books I have read more than once is J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.  My favourite line in the book comes after Gandalf falls to his apparent death after facing the demonic Balrog deep in the Mines of Moria.  The surviving members of the Fellowship of the Ring gather outside the mines and Aragorn admits that there is no hope without Gandalf, and says “then we must do without hope.”

One of the themes of the books is about facing hopeless situations and soldiering on.  Without a doubt Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches of World War One influenced his writing.

It’s tempting to see the struggle of building community and indeed the struggle of religion in the modern world as a hopeless fight.

Secularism and a selfish materialism seem to be winning the day and religion, like the tide on Dover Beach in Matthew Arnold’s poem, is slipping away….

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

We are left confused “on a darkling plain.”  But we are not without hope.

Our Church here at the Ascension is growing – we just had a largest Christmas Morning service that I’ve seen looking back at our records.

Our projects are making a difference in our local community and although many of us are despairing at government and church cut backs, we must not lose our hope or our faith.

Our reading from Jeremiah comes out of a seemingly hopeless situation: the nation of Israel has been shattered, the Monarchy brutally slaughtered, the leaders among the many forced into slavery and exile in Babylon.

The response of some was to give up hope: “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

But Jeremiah (not known for his cheerful disposition) has a different story to tell:

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.

There is always hope.  Tides do turn, the world does change.  As a world, as a nation, as a local community and as individuals there is hope. I will close with the famous poem, “The Gate of the Year”. You are probably familiar with the first verse, but there is more.  The first verse is probably the best, but the rest of the poem deals with the idea that God has the future in her hands although it is impossible for us to understand God’s plan. The poem, published in 1908, caught the public’s imagination when the then Princess Elizabeth handed a copy to her father, King George the 6th, and he quoted it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast.  It spoke to the uncertainty of our country in the days leading up to the Second World War.

God Knows
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.
God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.