Readings: Romans 8:26-end, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
These are challenging readings at the end of the school term, and the beginning of the holiday season. Of course, not everyone takes a holiday at this time of year. Many people need to work throughout this period; some cannot afford a holiday, and some take their recreation at other times of the year. Whatever the case, this time of year is as good as any other to reflect on the need for everyone to be recreated through recreation. Who does not know the relief from stress brought by a break, or by doing something completely different? If you work with your head, it may be working with your hands. If you work with your hands, it may be not having to do that. It may be doing more physical exercise or sport. Time for reflection also gives us the opportunity to reflect on ourselves, whether we are using the opportunities open to us, and whether we are making best use of the talents and gifts which God has given us. The readings for today help in some senses, but the blessing is mixed.
First, from the Letter to the Romans. Here, Paul writes about the afflictions and hardships he has personally experienced. His reflection helps and encourages all those who are going through tragedy and persecution – be that the people of our community at Grenfell Tower, or the people of Mosul in Iraq, recently liberated from their oppression under Da’esh. Personally, I will take great encouragement from being with them and learning from them in a short visit next month. What Holy Scripture is is a record of God’s dealings with real communities and real people. The Scriptures are not a distilled potted philosophy with simple words of wisdom appropriate to all times. They are a record of human activity as a mixed bag of things- like every one of us. No-one is a cardboard caricature of only one quality or characteristic or personality trait. We are a bit good, a bit bad, some successes, some failures, and so on. This is true for us as individuals, and it is true for us as communities. So Scripture is what it is, a record of God’s dealings with flawed humanity, told from a flawed perspective. But the positive point of this is that God can and does use the most unlikely people as his co-partners- and the most unlikely people are you and me.
The New Testament reading which we heard conveys a similar perspective. Paul puts it like this. “If God is for us, who is against us? “and then goes on to write one of his great phrases, often used at funerals and times of distress, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” In other words, the prayer of Paul is that we may know ourselves as loved by God and totally intrinsic to God’s plans for the world. Here is a plea to remember our first love for Christ and be lifted up by it. This is again, as the first reading, the sense that God works through ordinary fallible human beings to achieve the extraordinary. In other words, faith in God will sustain us through the good times and the bad.
Now come immediately to the Gospel of Matthew. In this passage, we hear no less than five different parables drawn from everyday life to illustrate our relationship to God. Above all, the parables demonstrate that the love of God becomes effective through us, acting in the world as co-creators with God. God’s love is not magic, but needs to be made real and worldly by our working together in and for God’s plan for the world, which is for good and not for ill. Here again we have Holy Scripture as a record of God acting through the most seemingly senseless and brutal situations. The Christian Gospel very rarely fits into any neat system, it does not have predictable consequences, and it contains within it good and bad.
From these readings, here’s a clear message. Ordinary fallible human beings are the medium God chooses to use for his work in the world. Wicked Kings, ordinary commoners, all of them have their role to play. Secondly, the scriptural message is clear, “Keep your first love for the Lord.” It’s also an important and basic message on a day on which we baptise Leyah. In this baptism, we are reminding the community that we are all loved by God as his sons and daughters, and as we bring Leyah to the font for baptism we pray for her and for her family, that this physical act, this sacrament, is a powerful reminder of God’s love for us all. Leyah is an infant and is 100 percent dependent on that love of god being expressed through those who are responsible for her, principally, (but not exclusively) her parents. But we do not bring up children in isolation and I return again and again to the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” In baptism, we rest in the love of the Lord, and in doing so are re-created.
This is the ultimate context for our recreation. Taking time out can allow us to be reminded of what’s important in life. Especially in this neighbourhood, one of the difficulties for people is achieving this work-life balance. Most people work too hard and too long, and I’m constantly listening to and observing people who are so exhausted that they are on the verge of collapse. I’m guilty of it myself. But as the former Bishop of London often said, “No-one ever went to their grave saying I should have spent more time in the office” But I would suggest that plenty of people express the opposite. Remembering what is important in life may come from our taking time out, switching off, and remembering that I can switch off my iPhone, and the world will not collapse. I am not indispensable. So, if you are having a break, enjoy it, banish the iPhone, switch off the phone, and do something you wouldn’t normally do. If you’re not having a break, then equally well remember our dependence on God, the sustainer of all things, through good and through bad. I am a great admirer of the fourteenth century Ara traveller Ibn Battuta, whose route along the silk road I partially followed. Ibn Battuta, wrote this after having been robbed and having only been left with his underwear “I have never encountered on my travels anything but good fortune.” Take that as an echo of the readings which we hear today, “” If God is for us, who is against us?” If that isn’t a model for our creation and re-creation, in good times and in bad, then I don’t know what is, especially as we turn to the font for the baptism of Leyah.