Sermon preached at Evensong, Epiphany 2, St Mary’s Fordingbridge
The theme today is very much about gifts and relationships. This morning the gospel was about the wedding at Cana in Galilee when the wine ran out and Jesus produced a miracle – not I might add according to his own wishes but that of his mother, Mary. She knew who he was and what he was capable of but maybe she had slightly misunderstood when he would use his gifts. They have a bit of a difficult conversation where Mary says, it’s ok my boy can fix this” and Jesus says to her “oh mum, not now, not here”, but he realises he has to help so he engineers a situation where the only people who know what is secret is are his few friends and the servants who won’t be believed whatever they say. This morning’s epistle also discussed the varying talents give to us and that we should use them wisely. But the theme of both passages was about relationships. Jesus did what his mother asked because he loved her and he used the situation to show his disciples a bit more of himself before they all left the wedding and it says that he “revealed his glory to them”. I’m sure the miracle he had performed helped them to believe. So Jesus turned a difficult situation into a win-win for everyone although I suspect Mary got a bit of a telling off later.
This evening Paul is still talking about the gifts we are given and the need to use them in relationship with one another to promote the Gospel and to achieve his work, showing the world that the Christian way is service. Paul also tells us that sometimes we may need to tell the world how it is and that may make us unpopular, but we must stand up for what is right. Samuel learned this lesson in our first reading. Eli seems to be a mixture of wisdom and stupidity, he soon realises it is calling out to Samuel and tells him what to do, but Eli has not done the thing he knows he should do – stop his sons’ evil talk, and Samuel has to repeat this to Eli, the man whose roof he lives under, and also that Eli’s family will be cursed for ever. I wouldn’t have wanted to be Samuel. Eli however realises the truth when it is given to him straight and he accepts what will be. It is clear that Samuel has the gift of prophesy and God uses him this way from this point onwards.
Relationships are easy when everything is ok but sometimes it is really hard to tell someone the truth they need to hear because we appear to be judging them and they may not thank us for it, and that relationship may suffer. Clearly some people are better at this than others, and so in our Christian context I guess we should always try to ensure the right person has that conversation, perhaps because they are known for wisdom or we know the person who has to hear trusts them, “use your talents as you have been given them.” I work with some very evangelical Christians who I often think tell it rather too straight which upsets people more than necessary and they simply justify it by saying “that’s what I have been told to do” forgetting they have also been told to have compassion as well.
Where this morning and this evening diverge is about this issue of telling the difficult truth. Being prepared to expose the elephant in the room and to deal with it. The Anglican bishops have been meeting over the last few days and one of the subjects they have to deal with is how the Anglican Communion deals with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender situation, just one of a number of elephants following on from one another, women priests, women bishops and now single sex marriage.
So what should our response be? It is easy to quote the bible and say, it is there in black and white – marriage is about a man and a woman and any other relationship whether married or not is not in accordance with the Christian view. But at the same time those very same passages and books do not condemn slavery or treating women as chattels of men. I’m not sure any of us in our culture would continue to support either of those two issues, yet in Jesus time and both before and after, they were acceptable.
And that is why reconciling an evolving life with a book whose words are set in aspic is an issue. So we then have to look at how we treat interpretation. Some will argue that the bible is true in every word and some will say that stories are there to explain situations. Was the world created in 7 days or has it evolved over billions of years, some will argue “yes” to one and “no” to the other and others will have the opposite view. For me I have to say it is academic, the point is God created the world and all that is in it. I’m also quite happy to accept that the sea creature that swallowed Jonah could have been a complete one off created by God for the purpose.
In 200 years all sorts of things have happened, take a simple one – lifespans, when the prayer book was written and “til death do us part” was introduced into the wedding service, many would only live into their thirties or forties. Apparently divorce is now quite significant in the over 60s could that be partially because 400 years ago no one ever assumed two people would have to live together for maybe 60 or even 70 years? Divorce and remarriage in churches is now accepted. I’m not arguing that it is right or wrong, I am simply saying that the church has modified its view. I well remember when Michael Barratt, the Nationwide presenter took over presenting Songs of Praise and he was divorced. I recall my mother threatening to never watch Songs of Praise again, but of course she did and I suspect if she was still alive as she would be under 80, she would now accept that divorce happens and not deny someone happiness following a church wedding.
So given the decision of the Anglican Primates this week to suspend the abilities of the American Episcopalian Church to make its own decisions for three years because they allow single sex marriage in their churches – what do we think we should say. The primates have not expelled them; their statement simply says there is to be a working party to work out what to do next. So at the moment it appears there is more concern that the American church has done something on its own than the actual act itself because no one is seeking to stop them. And in that same statement the church apologises for the hurt it has cause to people who don’t fit the biblical norm.
Is the solution inevitable – does the church change its stance and allow everyone equal rights or does it say, “no this is a line we will not cross”. It seems to me that it has to do one or the other – another fudge like women bishops won’t do.
Should we be worried about being out of step with the world or should we move with it, do we see ourselves as a moral compass or a church of compassion that reaches and welcomes everyone. As far as I’m concerned it is quite difficult to say we love you as you are and then add a “but”. Clearly someone’s sexuality isn’t an illness or something they have brought on themselves. As an example, we met someone at the Trust about 3 years ago, she was on drugs, she was in a bad place, she had no money and no food. Some organisations would have turned her away but we exercised some compassion and we fed her despite the fact she had money but it was going to feed her habit because she wanted to get clean. But it was a risk, she might have just been saying that to get some food she could sell to buy more drugs. So we took the chance, and in time she became a volunteer and then we had a job going she was qualified to do and she applied and we appointed her. She needed some dentistry as drug addicts often do and so her appearance wasn’t great and she was now going to meet people, but over time as she conquered her habit, which involved us having to give her time off to get her methadone, she started to make progress. She is now drug free, has had the dentistry done and has just been able to buy a half decent car to replace the wreck she used to drive. We were able to intervene, take a risk, show some compassion, and turn a life around. But in matters of sexuality that isn’t possible, we either have to accept or not, and if we accept I really don’t think we can set boundaries for that acceptance.
I don’t envy our leaders at all. But I do think that we have to start from a point where we seek to build relationships and encourage people’s talents and let God be the judge. And finally we need to decide if the Bible is an instruction book we can never change or a rule of life which allows interpretation and change as a living thing.