SLAVES TO LOVE
On Sunday 28th June, the fourth Sunday after Pentecost (otherwise known as "Proper 8") I was privileged to take the Sunday service of worship. Here is the text of my sermon.
There is a story of a recently licensed pilot who was flying his private plane on an extremely foggy day. He was not very experienced in landing just using instruments, and was beginning to panic as he started to come into land. When the control tower gave instructions he started to do what he was told, but his fear made him make mistakes. He read the instruments wrongly, and thought the controllers were wrong; his piloting became less decisive and more dangerous. Finally, a stern voice came over the radio, “You need to obey us but you also need to trust us!”
When I look at these readings the notion that jumps out at me is obedience – but it’s obedience coupled with trust. The idea that one obeys not just because one is told to obey, but because one trusts it is the right thing to do, even if it seems counter-intuitive.
Let’s look at the Abraham story. When preparing for this sermon I read one commentator who said that she found this reading abhorrent because God was (apparently) demanding a human sacrifice, and Abraham was willing to go along with it. This, she wrote, was not the God she worshipped. But I think that train of thought misses out on the fact that Abraham lived in a time when there were many belief systems, and within those belief systems, sacrifice to the god was common, and human sacrifice was not rare. This monotheistic religion that Abraham had been called to was new. This one God, YAHWEH, with whom he had made a Covenant was, as yet, an unknown. Abraham had been designated as the root, the Father, of all who would follow this religion, but the rules, the laws, the expectations had not yet been laid out. So for him, a sacrifice – be it human or otherwise, was not a strange thing to carry out. It was normal to make sacrifices to gods, and so for Abraham it was not something to be questioned. At least, not for that reason.
What is more surprising is that, having been told he would be the father of a nation, through Isaac, Abraham was all set to follow God’s instructions to the letter – there was no “But, God, you said…” or “You can’t be serious..”. Instead, he prepared Isaac for sacrifice, binding him, laying him on the altar, raising the knife. I’m not sure what this would have done for the relationship between Isaac and his Father, but certainly it shows that Abraham had enormous trust in his God. YAHWEH had promised that he, Abraham, would be the Father of a nation, through his son Isaac, and so, believing that God had a plan, he did what he was told to do. Even to the point of being ready to kill his son.
And, as we know, it all turned out well in the end (except for the ram caught in the thicket) and Isaac was reprieved. The Covenant was fulfilled and the Jewish nation was born, and multiplied through Abraham and his descendants.
Abraham had no idea how this was going to turn out and yet he still went ahead, doing what he had been told to do – possibly muttering under his breath “how on earth is this going to work out…? –and he saw the wheels of the plan of God put in motion. He did what he had been told to do, even though it seemed to be the opposite of what God had promised.
I think the Psalmist was a little like Abraham too. He (or she) was perplexed that their life was not easy, although they were doing what God had asked. In obedience they had followed the Covenant, and yet here they were, oppressed and grieving, set upon by their enemies, with none of the promised protection and good things, that supposedly come to those who obey their Lord. But the Psalm finishes with optimism, with a belief that all shall be well: But I put my trust in your mercy; my heart is joyful because of your saving help. I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly; I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.
Finally, like Abraham, the Psalmist learns that there is a plan, even if we do not see it, and what we need to do is trust and have faith that God knows what he is doing. That having made the Covenant with Israel, and later with us, when we became Christian, he will not let us down. But we must also remember that living by faith is not always cheerful, and easily managed. There is often the idea that those of deep faith never grumble, never rail against God or experience feelings of hardship or abandonment. This psalm captures a real vision of living. We can venture from the highs of the knowledge of all that God has given us to the lows of feeling bereft and distant from God’s presence. But through it all there is obedience to God – trust in his mercy.
In the Epistle that we heard read, Paul compares slavery to sin to being slaves to righteousness. Perhaps in these current days, speaking of slavery, using it as a metaphor, makes us feel uncomfortable but it is a useful metaphor, for it reminds us of two things:
Slaves have no choice but to obey their masters
And what they were told to do, and how they were treated by their owners, depended very much on who the owner was.
And this is as it is with us. I suppose the difference is that we have been given the choice about which master we will serve and obey. Will we choose the way of selfishness and thoughtlessness, or will we choose the way of love? And having chosen that way, will we obey our master?
As slaves do not do as they are told because of any reward, we too should not obey God in the hope of a reward – we have moved beyond that. As Bishop Mark reminded us, we do it because we can do no other. As Father Thomas reminded us, God’s grace is unmerited favour that we should respond to with loving obedience. Having been saved by grace, we want to show that grace and that love to others
The last passage is a little more difficult to include in this notion of obedience, as it seems to be talking about what other people do for us…If they welcome us, then they will be rewarded. But we should remember that this short passage comes from a longer set of instructions, where Jesus is sending the disciples out into the world. He has already warned them that they will face dangers, and conflict, but also that they will meet welcoming people, who will be interested in what they have to say. And Jesus has also reminded his disciples that God cares for them – as he cares for the sparrows that are bought and sold, even more so he cares for us, as we are involved in the unfolding of his plan, of his Kingdom on earth. And those who welcome others will be part of that Kingdom, whether it is us welcoming the stranger, or the stranger welcoming us. We are being told to both give and receive generously.
And so we see that as the Jewish religion developed and grew, it moved further away from the other polytheistic religions of the surrounding cultures. And as it evolved, and grew apart, YAHWEH began to mould the belief system…Speaking the voice of God, the prophet Hosea says: For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” or from the prophet Micah: Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”
More and more we see that God, YAHWEH, does not demand sacrifices of animals, or crops. In the Psalms we read: You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
There is the sense with sacrifice that you have given something to God and so you deserve a reward. Sacrifice is a way of “buying” whatever we want to get from God (protection, deliverance, provision, favour), while at the same time remaining independent from him. “God, look at all I’ve done for you! You owe me this, it’s only fair!” we say. We demand our goodies from God, but we retain our right to do what we want with our lives. We just need to make sure we throw a few sacrifices God’s way every once in a while to keep him at bay.
But the religion of the Covenant moves further away from this until we read in Mark: to love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices”
The life of sacrifice is a life of demanding my rights and living as I wish. The life of obedience, though, is a response to God’s gracious invitation and is lived as an upward spiral of dependence and intimacy. This is why Jesus didn’t say, “If you love me, sacrifice for me.” Instead he said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
This kind of obedience (as a response to divine love) always leads to intimacy and dependence. Yes, we are slaves, but in the words of Bryan Ferry (sorry!) we are slaves to love.
And as slaves to love, we should be willing and ready to carry out the demands of our Master, in the same way as Abraham. In the same way as the Psalmist. Trusting that what we are asked to do is part of God’s plan; trusting that we are playing a part in bringing the Kingdom of heaven to others.
I know that at times – both during 40 Acts, and at other times - I have felt an impulse to do something for others, and then thought “Don’t be stupid. That’s ridiculous…” and I have turned away from doing it. Who knows what wonders could have happened had I been obedient enough to do these things? When we look at some of the Acts in 40 Acts they seem whimsical or ridiculous – how is giving a chocolate bar to a stranger bringing about God’s Kingdom? But the chocolate bar is a way of saying “I care”…which leads to conversations about Christ, or the seed of a thought planted that will come to fruition two, three, ten, whatever years down the line.
Thankfully, our salvation, our relationship with God, our Covenant does not rely on what we do. It does not rely on our actions.
As Paul reminds us, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord – it is a gift, and if I disobey, I do not lose that gift; I can repent, I can say I’m sorry, and I can turn back into God’s love and life. I can turn back to obedience to my Master.
Finally, I finish with the words of a woman quoted by another commentator: I know why I want my morality to save me. If I’m saved by my good works, then like a taxpayer, I have rights. I’ve paid into the system and God owes me a good and decent life. And there is a limit to what the Father can ask of me. But if I’m saved by sheer grace, then my life belongs entirely to the Father, he owes me nothing and there is no limit to what he can ask of me.
We have been saved by grace. Our life belongs to our Father.
Help us to be willing to walk in your light. to show others the way to your heart. to bring hope and healing to the world. With a gift as simple as a cup of water, and as complex as our lives, we will obey you by serving those around us.
We know that the only sacrifice that pleases you is the open, willing sacrifice of our hearts and lives.
As Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac for you, help us to be as willing to become your slaves and work tirelessly to bring about your Kingdom