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Sermon for Trinity 14 – Sunday 13th September 2020

Readings: Genesis 50: 15-21 and Romans 14: 1-12

I’m sure we’ve all noticed how people’s reactions to the Covid-19 emergency have differed considerably. Some, perhaps more those with particular health issues, or who live with frailty or a long-standing condition, have not only observed lockdown, and shielded for months, but even now are reluctant to go out and mix with others. Not a few people actually welcomed the restrictions, and many folk have said they felt happier under complete lockdown than they do now when life is more relaxed. Then there are those, and I include myself in this category, who don’t feel particularly at risk, but acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, and who have largely observed government guidelines, endured lockdown, but now welcome more of the freedom we have. Then there are those we hear about, who appear to have very little regard for what we might call ‘the common good’; who play down the crisis, flout the rules, meet up in large groups, take little care about brushing past people in the shops or on pavements. And this week we’ve got to get our heads around the detail of new restrictions, limiting many social gatherings to six. Again, some people will realise the necessity for this; others will think it an infringement of liberties only just restored, and may try to find a way round it.

Every society has to work out ways of living together fruitfully amidst difference. The early Church faced the same problem. How could different cultures, with their innate prejudices, suspicions, memories and wounds, live together as a family? As the Church grew in the decades after Jesus’ life, with the so-called Gentiles turning to Christ alongside those of Jewish background, so the traditions each brought with them proved to be causes of division. Today’s passage from the Epistle to the Romans mentions eating of certain foods and keeping of festivals: some ate meat, others would only eat vegetables; some judged one day to be better than another, while others considered all days to be alike. Do not wonder that such issues divided people – lesser things do today. But now, as then, attitudes can easily become entrenched.

I once worked with a bright young curate who was extremely liberal in her outlook. Now there was nothing wrong with that, and she was an attractive advert for the Church of England, and had many gifts, bringing people into church and welcoming them, truly displaying God’s love through her attractive personality and vibrancy. But she just couldn’t appreciate that there was another way of looking at the Church, at the bible, at worship than the one she followed. She thought of herself as an open and liberally-minded person, but in fact she was fairly intolerant of people who did not think in the same way. I used to think of her as a ‘fundamental liberalist’- if that isn’t a contradiction in terms.

The former chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, wrote two seminal books, and it is the title of one that comes to mind – “The dignity of difference.” It was published in 2002, in the wake of 9/11, the anniversary of which passed this week. The world seldom seems more divided than when it comes to religion, and history is littered with shameful episodes of difference degenerating into suspicion , mistrust, and hate. Sacks sub-titled his book ‘How to avoid the clash of civilizations’ and a reviewer wrote that ‘The Chief Rabbi argues that peace will only be achieved when we learn to respect and rejoice in each other’s differences, whatever our ancestry or convictions.’

St. Paul urges the superior Christians in Rome to welcome those weak in the faith, and not to pass judgment. He doesn’t seek to settle the dispute over foods or the keeping festivals, but urges ‘let all be fully convinced in their own minds.’ The writer Jane Williams says ‘It would be easy to read this passage as an endorsement of individualism and lazy liberalism. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you think it’s all right. Love is all you need.’

But St Paul isn’t just saying that; he’s trying to get his readers to see the bigger context. As Jane Williams continues, “ It’s not just about you and God, but about the sweep of God’s saving activity in Christ. While you sit there, trying to force your own practices on other Christians, God is saving the world. Your small life, she says, will have ripples of consequences in God’s great design. Will they be ripples flowing out from the huge impact of God’s forgiving love in Christ, or just a very small eddy from a tiny, self-obsessed pebble, which has nothing to do with the tidal wave of God’s love.”

The correct Christian attitude should be to remember, as St Paul says, “that we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” No, we are the Lord’s. We have received the great of life from the Lord, and that life should be lived in constant awareness of that great gift, and of the Giver, and of Christ who died for us. The passage ends with a reminder that ultimately we will be accountable to God, but for most people, that is not why they try to keep on the right side of God, but because they want to please and honour the one who created us and loves us as his own.

The Old Testament reading from Genesis and the gospel for today both focus on forgiveness, If we take to heart the teaching that we do not live to ourselves, or for ourselves, and that we see life as a response to God’s love for us, then our relationships with others will naturally reflect the desire that God’s love be extended to others too. Joseph forgave his brothers the hurt and wrong they had done to him many years before. He was mature enough to see that what happened then was turned to good in God’s plan. Nor should he take it on himself to refuse forgiveness, asking “Am I in the place of God?”

Of course, our fine words and sincere intentions are not always easy to live out. Forgiveness is not always easy either to give or to receive. But if we can just stop when embroiled in a dispute with someone else, or ready to criticise another, or when we wallow in a hurt done to us, or even wishing a hurt on someone else, and ask “Who am I? What am I? Am I in the place of God?” we open our hearts to the possibility of God’s grace changing that situation. Or we could turn back in the pages of the Epistle to the Romans and read the opening verses of chapter 12, especially verse 3. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

In ‘The Dignity of Difference’ Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “Every great faith has within it harsh texts which, read literally, can be taken to endorse narrow particularism, suspicion of strangers, and intolerance toward those who believe differently than we do. Every great faith has also within it sources that emphasize kinship with the stranger, empathy with the outsider, the courage that leads people to extend a hand across the boundaries of estrangement or hostility. The choice is ours. No tradition is free from the constant need to reinterpret, to apply eternal truths to an ever-changing world, to listen to what God’s word requires of me, here, now.”

 

 

 

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