15th January 2017
Church Together service
With Rev Canon Cheryl Collins
It is both a privilege and really quite scary to be asked to preach this evening.
I have to admit that the strength of the ecumenical scene was one of the attractions for me in coming to Sudbury, although I confess before you my brothers and sisters that I have not lived up to my own ecumenical commitment- but more of that later.
Perhaps a commitment to ecumenism is not surprising when I tell you that it was a Roman Catholic- Professor Eamon Duffy who first taught me to love the breadth and depth of Christian spirituality in England in his course ‘English Spirituality 1450-1700.
At University, I studied at one of the few colleges with an ecumenical Chapel and so it was to a United Reformed Church minister that I first confessed
‘You don’t think that God can possibly be calling me’ at a time when my own church did not yet accept women in priestly ministry. He encouraged my vocation, preached at my ordination to the priesthood, laid hands upon me and gave me a gift which is one of my most treasured possessions, a copy of Baxter’s Reformed Pastor, calling me to pray with him that one day’ your tradition and mine may find a way to heal the wounds of 1662 and be one as we break bread and drink wine.
I have tried to live up to that calling, and David has certainly done so as he serves in the thankless role of General Secretary of Church Together in England at this very moment.
It is a gift of parables that they, like other stories, have a surplus of meaning that is never exhausted; but challenges us to look at the hidden aspects of our own values and lives and bring the questions we are avoiding asking ourselves to the surface.
I was able to illustrate that richness from my own bookshelves picking up among others, interpretations offered by a Jewish scholar, a Presbyterian minister preaching and a Roman Catholic priest. I hope my snapshots will reveal that each interpretation has a treasure for us.
The Jewish scholar, Amy-Jill Levine was naturally concerned to challenge readings of the parable which have encouraged anti-semitism, such as the false contrast set up between Jesus’s loving acceptance of all and the judgementalism attributed to the Pharisees. She demonstrates why this is a travesty of first century Judaism, and instead asks us to consider the parable in the light of two others that precede it- the lost sheep and the lost coin. In these two stories the protagonist both notices and in the case of the woman with the lost coin takes responsibility for what they have lost. The Father does not recognise he has lost his elder son until the Son refuses to come in to the feast. She notes that in this household no one has expressed repentance or forgiveness and sees the story as a challenge to all of us not to be complacent about what we are called to care for, not to wait for an apology before rushing out to find the lost and to take opportunities for a new start that are offered to us. By removing the blame from any one person, she asks us all to look into our hearts and consider our own motivation and actions.
The Presbyterian minister Tim Keller gives us a powerful interpretation, apt for his setting in his sermon ‘The Prodigal God.’ He makes this sermon an opportunity for the religious to search their souls and be more ready to love than to judge as he speaks of the number of souls damaged by judgement and narrow legalism who find their way to his New York church, desperate to find God’s love. He sees both brothers as lost, one to moral conformity expecting to be rewarded, the other to a total focus on self fulfilment at the expense of any relationships. Neither Son loved the Father for himself, each was concerned to get what they regarded as ‘their share’ of the property. In contrast to such self-serving attitudes he offers us Jesus the Elder brother who comes to seek all the lost and prodigal children of God and bring us safe home to the feast of the Father where we will share together, restoring relationships with one another in the light and power of our restored relationship with the Father.
No surprises that my third interpretation is the Roman Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen, who uses Rembrandt’s interpretation of the return of the prodigal son to enrich his own reflections. He calls us to find and acknowledge the sins of both younger and older brother within ourselves and to understand the life of faith as the journey of learning to be the Father, the one who blesses and forgives us. We are invited to come home to our own identity as the beloved children of a loving creator, adopted through Christ Jesus. And then ‘from our dwelling place in the heart of love we are free, we can be generous and welcoming while always remaining at home.’
Each interpretation calls us to self-examination and reflection. They each contain what my theological college principal required of every sermon, both the challenge and the gift of the gospel.
Paul offers us both a challenge and a gift in his own inimitable fashion. The love of Christ, revealed for us on the cross, asks us to see others not from a human point of view but from God’s viewpoint. Everyone has value, and our transformation into God’s new creation both affirms that our God is a God who keeps the promises of his steadfast love and in Christ enables us to make a radical break form our old patterns of living. Being reconciled to God calls us to be agents of that reconciliation to those around us. Our newness is revealed in the way our faith works through love. A right relationship with God (our x axis) is to be reflected in a right relationship with those around us (our y axis). We have a responsibility to represent God’s righteousness to others which Paul does with his gentile congregations by for instance encouraging them in their collection for the relief of the Jerusalem Christians.
We are called to reflect God’s righteousness in this town of Sudbury and its surrounding district. We are called to work out what God’s righteousness means in a town where 21% of our children meet the definition of child poverty and where more than a third of our households consist of those living alone. We look around and often the brokenness of others is not hard to identify. Yet we cannot minister to others except out of our own brokenness, the fragile earthiness of our humanity which God has made a place where God’s treasure may dwell.
We are broken. For myself I confess how easy it is to become lost in my own faith community, how the imperatives of my denomination, fighting for survival as so many are, can fight against our call to be servants of God’s kingdom, not of our own survival. As we enter into a new decade of our covenant together let us seek God’s vision for our journey onwards. Let us rejoice and share in what each other is doing, call each other to celebrate when those who are lost return and are found, let us see one another not kata sarka, from the flesh but with eyes made new by God’s creative power. Let us continue to be transformed by the renewal of our minds that our lives may reflect together the glory of God’s new creation.
Let me leave you with some words from Richard Baxter in his dedication of the Reformed Pastor to his fellow ministers:
‘My last request is, that all the faithful ministers of Christ, would, without any more delay, unite and associate for the furtherance of each other in the work of the Lord, and the maintaining of unity and concord in his churches. And that they would not neglect their brotherly meetings to those ends, nor yet spend them unprofitably, but improve them to their edification and the effectual carrying on the work.