Gifts and possessions
St Mary's Church, Lent 4 (Mothering Sunday), 26th March 2006
Colossians 3: 12-17; John 19:25b-27
Isaac is very good at receiving presents. For those who don't know him, Isaac is my three year old grandson. For three years – and specially the last half of that time he has assumed that anything entering his house wrapped in special paper must be for him. Generally he has been correct. One look in his bedroom will tell you that. Until the last month anyway. Then, inconveniently – but not unwelcome – Isabella arrived. Isabella has for the past month also been receiving presents. It has been a challenge to Isaac to understand that this nice new friend, whom he says plaintively, does not talk much, also gets a share of the goodies. I'm glad to say that, with good parenting he is getting the hang of it, even to the point of becoming very defensive for his little sister's possessions when an interfering grandfather wants to play with them.
Gifts. Possessions. A rather obvious theme for today. We are transported – albeit very briefly – to the foot of the cross, to that moment when God gives to the world the ultimate gift of love. As the enfleshed Word of God is fulfilled above them, through an outpouring of grace from the emptied outstretched arms, the Church is born. 'Woman, behold thy Son. Behold thy mother'. The water of life flows down from the cross and creates anew the Body of Christ. A gift of God. You will see many representations of that scene in art. Icons have been written again and again to help us to enter into the richness and generosity of that gift. And always you will see the figures of Mary and John gazing in rapture at the dying figure above them. In grief too, but always looking up. For this church is not a place of escape, a place of security where we build walls around us in order to shut out the awfulness of the world, or the differentness of our companions. This church is a place where we are given one another, and we are all drawn into thanksgiving and adoration of the God who empties himself in order to give us life. The Church is a gift. It is not a possession.
When we are in dispute with one another, as so often we are, and always have been, we seem to think that our task is to defend God. If we don't stand up for what is right the Church will fall apart. Unfortunately, our version of right seems too often to be rather us-shaped, or worse still, me-shaped. I know what I like, and I like what I know. What we are really saying is that we don't like and don't want the discomfort of allowing for the possibility that others may be right; or at least that they may help us to see right from a different perspective. In short, we have taken possession of life. We have taken possession of our faith. We have taken possession of our church. We have taken possession of our God.
But that we cannot do. We are fooling ourselves. God in Christ gave us life, and gave it freely. And good lifegiver, good parent that God is, he invites us into a relationship with him that institutionalises freedom. No longer is our life of faith controlled, constricting, governed by an obscure, dusty book of rules that tell us which foot to put forward first and when. The law, in Christ, is simple. Love God, love one another. There, standing, gazing up at the Word pouring forth his life into our hearts, you, me, them down the hill, the Catholics at the Cathedral, the Charismatics at the Christian Centre, that is where we all start. That is where we belong. That is where resurrection begins. That is where we begin as we move forwards into a new era. The cross, rooted in every life, in every age. The world moves on, and on again. It moves away from God, it moves back towards God. Or so it thinks. We move away, we move back. We grasp, we cling, we cry out 'Oh God where are you? Rescue me! All are plotting against me' In our emptiness, our fingernails desperately clutch at this spectre and that spectre as we look back longingly at how it was. But the cross of Christ never moves. It is here, rooted, rooted in the very fabric of our life, our lives, the life of our city, the life of God's world. I may turn my back and deny him by the warmth of the fire, comfortable amongst the crowd that warms its hands and gossips round the tea urn, but Christ looks. And still he looks. And yearns. His arms outstretched, his heart pierced, his life pouring out. New life, fresh promise. It is God's gift. We can never possess it. We can receive it, we can reject it. We may take what we see, what suits us and, as a little child might do, cry 'It's mine', and turn away, clasping it to us, hiding it away from those who might adulterate it, and try to wrest it away from us. But while we are caught up protecting it, imprisoning it in us-shaped boxes, the world has moved on, and the crucified Christ's life-blood with it. We cannot imprison God. We cannot hold him back. The Gospel calls us to look up, not to look back. The call of faith is, as for Abraham, to go to a place where God will show us, unencumbered, hand in hand.
Siegfried Sassoon wrote a beautiful poem 'Because we two can never again come back'. With that I will finish. You will sense the longing for things to be as they were, the rich memory of the place they loved, a memory that fuels and feeds 'life's one forward track'. And as we walk forward, in faith, hand in hand with whoever will join us, let us pray for the vision and the courage to look up and not to look back.
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