Readings: Romans 8:31-end and Luke 23:32-46
I was sorely tempted to begin this sermon with an iconic clip from the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian. You know, the one where Reg from the Judean Peoples’ Front asks a meeting of the group what the Romans have ever done for them? There is a pause before people start saying “The aqueduct…the sanitation…the roads…” Finally exasperated, Reg blurts out: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
It is a scene more funny because of its reflection on human nature than because of its historical accuracy. The Roman Empire brought many advancements in their occupied territories but often at great cost. I don’t think that the Monty Python writers, who after all made this film within a generation of World War 2, are celebrating occupation. However, it was true then, is true now and ever shall be – until Jesus returns again – that human beings are very good at forgetting their blessings. Actually, it is neurologically easier for us to remember negative things than nice things – over years of evolution, it is the way our brains are wired. If you think about this from the point of view of an early hunter gatherer, it is probably more important to remember where the sabre tooth tiger lives – and avoid it – than where the pretty glen is with the lovely flowers. It is basic survival. But human beings were made for more than mere survival and we cannot live well and fully if we forget the good. Counting our blessings, developing a mindset of gratitude, is essential to live kindly and courageously in our world.
That is why Harvest is such an important Christian festival. It should not simply be seen as some hangover from the days when we were all farmers – although it remains an important time to remember and be thankful for those who work in this vital industry. Stopping each year to be grateful is of life-giving importance to us as individuals and as a community. It is also profoundly countercultural. The baseline concept in our capitalist society is scarcity – you all need more, it constantly tells us. You don’t have enough! Have one telly – you really need two! Been on one holiday this year? Book another – you are missing out! Got a warm, comfortable home – well, wouldn’t it be better if it was more fashionable, bigger, had a hot tub! Got a healthy body? You’d be better with a skinnier, fitter, better dressed and ideally younger one! You are always one purchase away from a better life, and this message is so pervasive that we can miss how it shapes our thinking. But this mindset is a fearful one – if we never have enough this makes us afraid to be generous, afraid to take risks, afraid to be reliant on each other in case we lose our ability to get the next thing we are told we need. The antidote to such frightened thinking is to be grateful and to make regular gratitude and generosity part of our living and thinking and acting.
Now, over the next few years, we are going to have to be very brave and kind and generous in our living, because we have a dream to grow this church. As we approach our church’s 200th birthday in 2024, we want it to go into its third century equipped to continue sharing God’s love with this community for another hundred years. We know that the best thing any church can have if it wants to serve its community – something even better than a brilliant parish centre or a wonderful hall – is a group of people who love God and love their neighbour. So that is why we are trying to build our congregation – a congregation of 200 people by our 200th birthday is our aim. And, yes, it is a daunting one. If I didn’t believe this was God’s idea and not ours, I would be out of here!
But just as Harvest was a time for the early farming communities to stop, take stock and thank God for God’s goodness before the dark and demanding days of winter; it is important, as we begin our 200 x 200 challenge that we take stock before God, thank God and go into this new adventure (which will have its moments I am sure) secure in the knowledge that God will provide what we need.
So, today we are beginning by taking stock. Why are we grateful? To paraphrase Reg from the Life of Brian, what has God done for us? Our thankfulness is about so much more than tins and veg. God has given us a Harvest, yes, but God has given us so much more. A bit like Reg, we sometimes have lived so long with the benefits of being a child of God, we forget what they are, so let’s remind ourselves of what they are.
Now, if I were to list all the good things God gives us, this would be a very long sermon indeed, so I am going to stick to two main things.
The first is that God loves us. Utterly absolutely loves us no matter what. The other night in the Vicarage, a child who shall remain nameless was being something of a pain. This was pointed out to her. “Oh well,” she said blithely, “God loves me!” And she’s right. God does love her, more than even her exasperated Mum and Dad do. It is not love we earn or deserve. It is love that is utterly for us, longs for the best for us and will never ever leave us.
You. Are. Loved.
All of you. No exceptions. God doesn’t just love the rest of the congregation and grudgingly put up with you. God’s love isn’t conditional and it isn’t fickle. It is never ending and NOTHING can come between you and God’s love in Jesus.
Ah, yes, Jesus. If you ever doubt God’s love, you only have to look at what that love led God to do. The Old Testament is centuries of God loving and leading and warning and disciplining and forgiving and blessing and loving his friends and chosen people. He hoped that through them, all the world may learn of God’s love. But it wasn’t working. Misunderstandings and sins WERE getting in the way of God’s love and something needed to be done. Too many people were falling for the serpent’s first lie in Eden: does God really want the best for you? Does God really love you?
I love RS Thomas poem, The Coming, which imagines the conversation within the Trinity as they looked upon a hurting world that needed to know more of God’s love:
[Read the poem – for reasons of copyright we cannot reproduce it here]
Let me go there. God’s first act of love, in Jesus, was to come to us. To enter our hurting world, our limited human experience and become one of us that we might know God. But of course, it didn’t stop there. God spent three decades amongst us, not as a privileged leader, but as a ordinary person leading a precarious life, bringing truth and healing and love wherever he went. And when that truth brought him into conflict with those who preferred lies, he was murdered, a criminal’s death. He could have called legions of angels to his defence, yet he let humanity do its worst. Because we needed to know. He went through humiliation and pain and loneliness and betrayal; he gave everything he was. Because we needed to know. We needed to know that the worst we could do could never overcome the love of God. We needed to know that there was always hope, always forgiveness, always always love. A love which could not be held in a tomb, could not be beaten by death, a love which upended the laws of time and space and returned Jesus to his friends, scarred but glorious.
You are loved with a love worth having. A love beyond imagining. A love which offers forgiveness from mistakes, freedom from fears. A love which welcomes you as a precious child. A love which will one day welcome you home.
This is what God gives us and what we have to offer others. How badly does our hurting world need that love?
What has God ever done for us? Everything and more. And as St Paul asks, if God would not even withhold his own Son from us, how much more will God give us what we truly need. It won’t be easy, it won’t be without struggle, but we will always ALWAYS be held in God’s love.
Inside your pewsheet are some points to ponder this week. The first – John 3:16-17 – I hope you will have heard before. The second is somewhat more obscure? T.D. Abe “If you are forcing it, you are doing it wrong”! Abe is not some Christian theologian, rather a Ju Jitsu practitioner who applies some of its principles to other areas of life. I like this soundbite for its application toward gratitude and generosity.
Generosity and gratitude are not things we are to force. They are not things we have have to drag together the dregs of ourselves to perform in the hope that God will love us. Rather, when we know that God loves us, when we let that truth land in our hearts, then gratitude and generosity flow from us in response. That is the gratitude that God that God desires from us, not a gratitude of duty or fear, but a gratitude that is the fruit of knowing God loves us. So if you find yourself having to force your gratitude or generosity, pause. It is time to spend a bit more time receiving God’s love.
Over the coming weeks, we are going to look at some of the ways we might show gratitude and generosity to God and use our gifts in God’s service, but we will keep returning to here – you are loved – because that is the starting point from which all else follows. And so in preparation for the coming weeks, I invite you to spend a bit of time with the points to ponder, and maybe even the readings from the service. Take time to remember God’s love for you. If you find this easy, pray for those among us who find it hard – depending on our life experiences, it is not always easy to trust in God’s love. But it is true, and it is real and it is for you. Amen.