Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Trinity 10
August 5, 2013, 9:26 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at St john the Evangelist, Clevedon, Sunday 4th August 2013

Before considering today’s Gospel, may I just run through the lessons we have been given over the last few Sundays. Three weeks ago, our Lord reminded the questioning scribe that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart and mind and soul; and the second is to love our neighbours as ourselves. Two weeks ago, we heard him tell busy Martha that it was her sister Mary, who simply sat and listened to him, who had chosen the one thing necessary. And last week, he taught how to pray as children of a loving and generous Father. Keep all these lessons in mind as we ponder his message to us today.

Jesus had just taught that we should ask God confidently for what we need, when a man in the crowd said, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Clearly, he recognised Jesus as someone who taught with authority, who would be listened to. He wanted Jesus to tell his brother (who we must assume was keeping the whole inheritance rather than sharing it properly) to do the right thing. A very believable situation! How may disputes there are over wills and inheritance! He must have been disappointed when Jesus (in a very friendly way) refused to get involved.

And yet, I think we may take the following words as meant for the hearing of the selfish brother: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” And he told the story of a rich man, so successful that he had to increase the storage capacity of his barns, and who thought he could then relax without a care in the world. Yet that very night, God called him to his eternal account.

The moral is easy for us to see: the old teacher who wrote the book we call Ecclesiastes saw the same thing centuries before. “Vanity of vanities! What do mortals get from all the toil they strain with?” So often we have to leave the fruits of our efforts to those who have done nothing to deserve them. St Paul tells us that we should set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.

A question each of us must answer for ourselves is, “What do I really value in life? What is most important to me? Is it material possessions- my house, my car, my holidays abroad? Is it my bodily health? Or my family and friends, and their material welfare? None of these is bad, some are very good indeed; but what is it I value most of all? That is where we come back to our Lord’s teaching on the commandments: the first and foremost is to love God with all our heart and mind and soul. To love God is to want to please him, to make him proud of us, as a Father is proud of his children when he sees them growing up in the way they should. When we pray, “Our Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done”-  in other words, when we are making every effort to align our wills and desires with his- then we are truly setting our minds on things that are above. And notice, St Paul says, “things that are above, where Christ is.” Jesus, risen and ascended, is the beloved Son in who the Father is well pleased. We can only try to be as Christ-like as possible.

That is why the one thing necessary (as Jesus told Martha) is to sit at his feet and listen to him. Attentive listening- that is the root meaning of “obedience”, ob-audientia. And what the Lord tells us is that, loving him, we should love one another too. Love is generous, love does not hold back from sharing blessings. The greedy brother should not have clung on to the whole inheritance: one day, he would have to account for his selfishness to God. But we should be prepared to leave such judgements to God. Jesus tells us to return good for evil, to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile. Christians should not be squabbling over property.

Christians cannot be happy with the way our society lives. So much of our public policy seems to be based on the principle that only material welfare matters, that what cannot be measured and priced is of no account, and that the busier we are the happier we shall be. Our witness as Christians must be to another standard, the standard of Christ. Even the language of justice and of rights can be dangerous, because it can degenerate into futile argument about what is of obligation, how much we need to do, how far we have to go and so on. God is generous: we should be asking, “What is the generous thing to do?”

Look again at today’s Collect. We ask God to listen to our prayers: but we further ask him to grant that we ask only for the things which please him. The purpose of prayer is not to persuade God to do what we want, but to persuade ourselves to do what God wants: to love him above all, and (listening attentively to our Lord) to love one another. Everything else is vanity of vanities!


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