Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Lent Series (2): Obedience

Second Lent sermon - warning, long post!  

When the people of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt, the first things they needed were food and water to sustain them on the long journey to the promised land.  Manna and fresh water they receive from God’s hand, and they begin their travels. 
Those absolute basics sorted out, what did they need next?  Remember, this is a newly freed people, fresh from slavery.  It is clear that for a while things were chaotic for them. Quarrels broke out constantly and they turned to Moses, their leader, to make judgements between them.  Moses is desperate for some help, and the Lord leads him up Mount Sinai and delivers him the foundation of the law, the ten commandments, on tablets of stone.

You shall have no other gods but me
You shall not make idols
You shall not make wrongful use of the Lord’s name
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy
Honour your father and your mother
Do not murder
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not bear false witness
Do not covet.

The ten commandments are simple and enduring, and they laid the foundation for the Jewish law, later the Christian law.  They were carved on tablets of stone as a symbol of the unchanging nature of the Law of God.

From slavery, to freedom, to law.  That is the theme of Exodus, and perhaps the theme of much of the Old Testament. It seems we need law, almost as much as we need food and drink. 

This is a roundabout way of bringing us to the theme of this address.  Last week I talked about repentance, this week I am talking about obedience.  But obedience means nothing without something to obey.  The bible develops the idea of law right from Genesis, when the people ignored God, to Revelation, when the last judgements are delivered.  It’s the story of civilisation itself, of a move from barbarism to the basic law of the ten commandments to the deceptively simple commandments of Jesus, to love God and neighbour.  We all need law.  Law says that we all matter, we all have rights, we are all free within the constraints of the law.  The consequences of our actions are moderated by the law and those who lay it down.

Law, and obedience, are foundational to our faith.  Without law, there can be no morality, no goodness, no justice.  Mercy and forgiveness are meaningless without that first, objective standard of what is right, what is the law.  And law comes from God.  Whatever your understanding of who or what God is, you have some inner sense of right and wrong which drives your beliefs and your behaviour, and that comes from the deepest part of your humanity.  Without it, you are like the animals.  We call people who behave without regard for that sense as ‘inhuman’.  Even the most amoral people I meet seem to have that inner sense of justice – it comes out in statements like ‘Well if he snitches on me I’ll kill him, because you don’t grass someone up.’  Why don’t you grass someone up?  You just don’t.  These people are living by rules, they are just different rules.  They have evolved their own codes in the absence of any sane set of standards which they can buy into and live by. 

We need law.  Law is the expression of goodness within a society, and God is goodness, God lays down our law.  It’s there in scripture.

Except, of course, that it’s not that simple.  There are six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Old Testament, and not all of them are as useful as the ten I spoke of earlier.  
‘If you find your enemy’s donkey wandering, take it back.’  OK…
‘Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’  er… 
 ‘Free your male slaves after six years….’  Now we are  getting problematic.  Because simple commandments cannot legislate for every time and place.  The detail has to be worked out afresh, and the Jewish people knew that.  The rabbis spent endless hours interpreting the law.  And Jesus came along and reinterpreted it, giving fresh perspectives on ancient commandments.  Moses brought the people from chaos to stability, with justice and law as the foundations of civilisation.  Jesus did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil it.  Jesus takes justice, and adds mercy.  Jesus takes law and adds forgiveness.  Jesus brings the new commandment of love.

And so obedience to the bible must be obedience refracted through the teachings of Jesus.  Love your neighbour as yourself, then think about whether it’s OK to keep a slave for six years before you free them.  Clearly, with our modern eyes, it is not.  The bible is not a recipe book for life.  The bible is a complex offering of law, parable, history, exhortation and poetry.  Anybody who picks out one text and hurls it like a weapon violates the bible, for it is not meant to be used like that.  When we enter into the ethical debates that concern the church today, we should look to the foundational commandments of loving God and loving neighbour, and read all else in that light.  Anyone who starts thundering about biblical morality meaning literally obeying the commandments of the bible needs to stop and think.  We have endless commandments about oxen and none about cars.  We have a punishment system which might have worked for a small nomadic people living three thousand years ago but which is hopeless for life today.  We are supposed to reinterpret the bible for our age.  Every scholar has done this since the law was first written.  Every Christian leader has done this since St Peter and St Paul had their first arguments over how to relate to the Gentiles.

What I’m trying to say, in all this waffle, is that we should obey God’s commandments, in a loving way that fits with the society in which we live.

But law and commandments are only the foundation stones of obedience.  Above law come the great voluntary commitments of our lives.  We make promises, sacred promises which bind us in ways we cannot always predict at the time we make them.  I am bound by my ordination vows and they are precious to me.  I took them freely, and now they both constrain and protect me.  I am obedient to my bishop, to my church council and to God (not in that order).  This matters to me.  It matters hugely, because if I don’t take my vows seriously, how can I expect others to take their vows seriously?  We make promises and vows at baptism which are life-changing.  We make big scary promises on behalf of little children.  And when you marry in church, you take sacred, solemn vows before God and his people, to love, cherish and stay faithful until death.  It’s a high standard, a holy standard, a way of life made sacred by God.  Obedience to vows is voluntary, but it is God’s way.  And vows have a strange way of leading you into right paths in unexpected ways, if you take them seriously.

Let me give you an example.  I received a letter this week asking me to go on a training course in a couple of months’ time.  An interesting course, a mandatory course for priests.  But it happens to take me away from home, on a residential course, on my daughter’s thirteenth birthday.  Where do my loyalties lie?  In learning to grow the kingdom, or looking after my daughter.  Without my vows, that tell me I should live an exemplary family life, I might find it difficult to know which way to turn.  My vows protect my household and set me a standard.  Stuff the course, I have a cake to bake.  God will show us how to grow the kingdom without me going on a three day residential in West Wickham.

Our lives are shaped by commandments, the law laid down for us, and by vows, voluntary commitments made before God.  But beyond even vows come another set of holy demands from God.  Every one of us has a vocation, a calling from God.  Sometimes it is hard to discern quite what God wants from us.  Sometimes it is scarily easy.  I can still remember the shock of seeing the advert for this unusual combination role, advertised in the Church Times last January.  I took one look at it and said, ‘That’s my job.’  Calling is sometimes as clear as that. What are you called to do?  It may not be anything overtly to do with the church – doctor, cleaner, writer, advertising executive, benefits adviser, retired volunteer, you are all equally valued by God and called to work out your vocation in this world.  A secular calling is still a holy calling.
We all have more than one calling – I am mother, chaplain and priest, disciple, neighbour and friend.  All of you have a role to play in your church and your community, no matter what your age or your condiiton.  Find your calling,
But if you are struggling to find your role in the church, or in life, seek help.  We have vocations days coming up, and they are not just for putative vicars but for anyone who would like to explore the way forward.  Take a look on the noticeboard at the back. 

I could leave it there.  You’ve had your eight minutes, probably more.  Except that obedience, in our church at this precise moment in history, is a contested area.  We have decisions to take in the church which are not easy.  We are squabbling over women bishops, over gay marriage and other issues which have yet to hit the headlines.  Staying faithful and obedient to the commandments of scripture, to the call of Jesus to love and understand, and to find a way to work out God’s call in our lives is hard going.  You may have realised that within this church there are disagreements, just as there are nationally, and I hope they will not tear us apart.  For what it is worth, I am in favour of women bishops, and I am in favour of gay marriage, and I will happily explain why to anyone who cares to ask me, as several of you have already.  But above my own views come my vows, and I do not and will not act in disobedience to my PCC or my bishop.  I will wait until the day comes when canon law, the bishop and the PCC take us forward together. 

At the same time this is an inclusive and loving church, and I expect all to be made welcome here. 
Love one another, as I have loved you.
Jesus said that, without qualification.  Not love some people, but love everybody.  Love one another, as I have loved you. All are welcome, here at God’s table.  Jesus has already issued the invitations.

Obedience is our lifelong state, as Christians.  We are to obey the laws of God and the land.  We are to remain faithful to the vows we take as husbands and wives, as parents and godparents, as the holy priesthood of all believers, united in one baptism.  In obedience we find our true freedom, for we are free to accept or reject our calling.  We are free to decline our invitations to join at God’s banqueting table and share in his love.  But who would want to?

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