GIMP fridge_magnetAddress for WWDP Service 2013.

(Leviticus 19, 1-2,33-37; Matthew 25, 31-40)

 

When I was a teenager, I had a number of pen-friends from abroad: one in the USA, one in Norway, one in Germany and two in France. In the summer holidays before my O level exams, I spent 4 weeks with my two French pen-friends to improve my knowledge of the language.

 

I remember two things very distinctly about that holiday in France. The first was how home-sick I was. It was the first time I had been on holiday on my own without my family. The food, the money, the customs, even the toilet facilities were very different from those I was used to at home, and, although I was thinking in French by the end of the four weeks, at the beginning every conversation was a real effort. I can remember how I used to pretend not to have woken up, in order to delay starting the daily effort to understand, and make myself understood.

 

The second vivid memory was walking through the streets of Rouen with my friend Sylviane. In order to get from her home in an old apartment block to the tourist area around the cathedral and the Old Market Place where Joan of Arc was burned, we had to go through the immigrant quarter. I still remember the atmosphere of hostility and fear from both sides as we walked through that area. When I look back now, I realise that some of those immigrants were probably as homesick as I was, especially the Muslim women. At the time, though, all I absorbed was the fear of my hosts at the different and the new.

 

Later on, when I did French for A level, I had to learn about French culture and politics as well as studying their literature, and I learnt that citizens from the French overseas colonies were supposed to be treated as as French as those born in mainland France. The history of the French colonial empire especially in North Africa and IndoChina showed me this ideal was rarely realised, and explained the tense atmosphere I’d experienced in Rouen.

 

Current newspaper reports, and the testimonies we have heard in this service from women living in present day France, would indicate that things are not much better for strangers and immigrants to France than they were back when I was at school. But France has a long and proud history of being a place of asylum. Their political tradition – as the land of liberty, equality, and brother and sisterhood – as well as their dominant Catholic faith should prompt them to welcome the stranger as an equal.

 

The life-stories of women we have just heard – Vera, Françoise and Marie-Léonie, give us hope that things are improving In France. But are things any better in the United Kingdom?

 

Anecdotal evidence – remarks made to someone I know by people from overseas he sees at a charity he worked for, that they prefer living in London to other major cities, including Paris, because no-one takes any notice here of what you dress like, or what you do; and our own experience of welcoming people from overseas into our own family and church circles, could convince us that we are doing well.  But our news bulletins, the headlines in our newspapers and the demonstrations targetting immigrants and asylum seekers in some of our towns and cities should shake our comfortable assumptions of superiority. We have women and children who end up as sex slaves in this country too, we have people who have to work in the black economy, we have children torn from the place they regard as home and deported, just like those we heard about in France.

 

The first readings the women of France chose to guide our thoughts and prick our consciences today come from the book of Leviticus. We tend to think of Leviticus as a book that doesn’t concern us modern believers much – all about obscure regulations about what the Israelites could and couldn’t wear, or eat or have sex with, regulations designed to keep them pure and separate from anyone else. But the passages chosen here show that parts of it remind the Jews (and us) that a holy life involves justice and fairness for the strangers living within your country, that holiness involves actions as well as a state of mind. We must remember that Jesus took part of his summary of the law from Leviticus “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19.18).

 

The New Testament reading again challenges our beliefs about what makes us a good Christian. The parable of the Sheep and Goats tells us that it’s not what church we belong to, or  what we believe about God, or Jesus, or morality, that we will be judged on in the final instance; it’s how we act, and particularly how we act towards the homeless, the hungry, those without adequate clothing, those who are in prison, the strangers within our communities – in other words, all those who are the most vulnerable in our society and our world. We don’t usually behave as though that is what we will be judged on; it’s not what people outside the churches hear most about from us. How do we respond to that challenge?

 

In the hymn we will sing in a moment, we will commit ourselves to serving our brothers and sisters, to being Christ for them, in the ways which the parable of Matthew 25 outlined. In the prayers of intercession which follow, we will dedicate ourselves to reaching out to those who come to our country looking for asylum and work, to welcoming the stranger into our communities, and to caring for those who find themselves in vulnerable situations.

 

How can we make this not just a prayer, but a practical reality?

 

We can do it first of all by choosing who we listen to.  When we are confronted with scare stories about the strangers in our midst in the media, and especially in the tabloid press, and at election time, do we believe them, or do we listen to the voice of the scriptures, which tell us these newcomers are members of our own family, children of the same God, Christ in our communities?

 

We can do it by choosing carefully what we say. Do we repeat the scare stories that reinforce the suspicion and fear between immigrants and native born, between different classes and religions, between those of different customs, between those who live in relative security and those who are going through hard times? Or do we counter those experiences with our own positive experiences, however unpopular that may make us, and remind  our fellow citizens of the core Christian teaching about welcoming the stranger  – the teaching that really underlies our culture and our history.

 

We can make welcoming the stranger a practical reality by offering our help to the strangers and the vulnerable. There are so many opportunities to do so in our immediate area as well as further afield. We can make donations and offer time to the Food Banks and the Credit Unions; we can donate supplies to the Catholic Worker Farm here in Maple Cross which cares for female and child asylum seekers who would otherwise be homeless; we can join the volunteer hospital and prison visitors schemes; we can volunteer for Care; we can volunteer and donate to the Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Project; we can support projects for the homeless like the New Hope Trust and Herts Young Homeless. We can make our churches places where newcomers feel welcome.

 

WWDP logoThe WWDP service this year is not, as it often is,  about something that happens in a country far away – something we can pray about this afternoon, and then forget.  It is about something that affects us, in our own homes and neighbourhoods, as much as it affects the people of France who put the service together.

 

Can we see in these strangers in need Christ himself needing our help? Do we really accept that ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it unto me’?

Being God’s Temple

February 20, 2011

Leviticus 19, 1-2 & 9-18; 1 Cor. 3, 10-11 & 16-23; Matthew 5, 38-48.

This week I found out a little bit about the history of this church. I learnt that the first Methodist Chapel was opened in 1852 near Clay Hill, and was replaced by a building in The Rutts in 1883. Then there was another building in the High Road which lasted from 1891 until 1967, and then this building was opened in September 1968. So, as with many places of worship, there was a continual process of renewal, refurbishment and replacement, to create a suitable ‘temple’ in which the Methodist people of this area could worship and encounter God.

 

It was the same for the people of Israel. Their first centre of worship and encounter with God was the Tabernacle, a large tent which could be moved around with them. That was replaced by the Temple, built by King Solomon, and one of the most magnificent buildings of the ancient world. The second Temple which replaced it after the return from Exile  was not so grand, but King Herod the Great was determined to equal the glories of Solomon and rebuilt and extended it from 19 BC. This was the Temple which Jesus visited, and which he called ‘my Father’s house”. But it too was destroyed in AD 70.

But even before that destruction, for the followers of Christ  the place where they encountered God had already changed. It had become not a place, but a person. The Gospels have Jesus speaking about himself as ‘the Temple’, and the heart of Christian belief is that in Jesus we see and encounter God. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostles Paul and Peter speak about the Christian community as ‘the Temple’ where God is both found and worshipped on earth. In the passage from the letter to the Corinthians we heard today, Paul tells them (and us) that we are God’s Temple, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, filled with God’s Spirit, and holy.

 

So, if we are collectively and individually God’s Holy Temple, how can we ensure that we remain ‘holy’, truly  a place where people may encounter the living God?

 

The ancient Jews came to believe that if you were to encounter God, you had to be ritually pure. So they forbade anything they considered ‘impure’ from approaching the Holy of Holies. Unfortunately, some Christians have also adopted that approach. Paul’s words about ‘being a temple of the Holy Spirit’ have been interpreted as referring primarily to sexual purity, because in another part of 1 Corinthians he refers to the human body being the temple, which should therefore not be used in immoral ways. As a consequence, Christians, too, have tried to ban those they consider to be sexually impure from the Christian community and Christian leadership. This is one argument that has been used for the exclusion of women from Christian leadership roles, and for excluding gay and lesbian people.

 

We don’t often read the Book of Leviticus in church, and we tend to think about it as being totally concerned with obscure issues of ritual and sexual purity. Passages about mixing two sorts of crop in a field, or two sorts of fibres in a garment and how you deal with mildew don’t seem to have much to say to 21st century Christians.  But, as our reading this morning shows, it does have some passages which, like Deuteronomy, interpret the Covenant with God as being about more than ritual and exclusiveness; and what is more, it has passages which were directly quoted by Jesus.

 

The passage we heard tells us that if we are to be the place in which God is encountered, then we need to be concerned about relationships: relationships with God and our our families first(verses 3 & 4 which we didn’t hear reiterate the commandments about honouring parents, keeping the Sabbath and not worshipping idols); but equally important are relationships with our neighbours, and especially those who are poor or vulnerable. So the well-off farmers are reminded to leave gleanings and windfalls for the poor to gather; the commercial sector is warned not to defraud the vulnerable, or use economic power to leave the workers without daily sustenance, and the judiciary is reminded that they judge in God’s name, so should not favour the rich or take bribes.

 

And just like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Leviticus extends obedience to the commandments to what is going on inside people’s minds and hearts. You cannot be ‘holy’ simply by doing the right things; you need to have an internal attitude like that of God: you need to be forgiving, and just, and to love your neighbour as yourself.

 

That phrase was taken by Jesus to be used as part of his Summary of the Law. Loving and worshipping God is important: but it is not enough if your aim is to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Paul reminds us that, as Christian disciples, we must be ‘in Christ’ as Christ was ‘in God’. That is, we must be as much like God as it is possible for a human to be; and Christ shows us the way.

 

So, Jesus tells us that if we want to be like God, then when someone injures us, we don’t retaliate, and  we even give the person the opportunity to hurt us again. When someone sues us for half of what we have, we voluntarily let them take the other half as well.  We are supposed to co-operate when government oppresses us, give to beggars and lend to anyone who asks.

It may seem to us to be  madness, a recipe for economic collapse and social anarchy; and we could debate whether Jesus meant us to take these commands literally, or whether he was exaggerating to make his point. The point Jesus is making is the same point Paul makes to the Corinthians – God’s wisdom seems like foolishness to those who live by worldly standards. So, if we want to be the place where God is encountered, we are going to have to be thought foolish by the world too.

 

The passages we have been hearing over the past few weeks from the Sermon on the Mount remind us  what a high standard that sets before us. The sort of ‘love’ it demands is not romantic love, or the love we have for family and friends; nor even the love it is easy to feel for those who like us and treat us well. It’s love that compels us to put the needs and preferences of others first, even of others who hate, injure and oppress us.

 

God doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe, righteous and unrighteous, those who acknowledge the divine commands and those who don’t. The good things of the earth, and the chance of salvation are equally open to everyone. That’s what being ‘holy’ means. That’s the difference that becoming the ‘temple of God’ demands of us.

 

When you read the Sermon on the Mount through in it’s entirety, from Matthew, Chapter 5 through Chapter 7, it is easy to become discouraged. There are 27 or more different injunctions about how you are to behave and think, each one demanding that you go beyond what is usually considered good behaviour.  I don’t imagine Jesus actually ever sat down on a mountain and listed all of them at the same time – he was much too wise a teacher to do so. Matthew however wanted to present Jesus as the new Moses, and so created a new ‘Book of the Law’ to equal the books found in the Old Testament, by gathering the precepts Jesus taught into one place. It’s a daunting list!

 

But the Sermon on the Mount is only discouraging if you read it apart from the rest of the New Testament, and make the mistake of imagining we are supposed to do all this in our own strength.  We’re not!

The Temple we are building with our own minds and bodies is constructed on the foundation stone of  Jesus Christ, who has walked the path of human life, and suffered, and died, even for those who hated, persecuted and harmed him. We build it in company with many other  believers, through time and across the world who have tried that way and found it possible, so long as they remain ‘in Christ’. We build it, strengthened by the Spirit of God, who lives in us and loves through us, and empowers us to do what ordinary human beings think foolish and impossible.

 

The building of a Temple made up of humans who live out the message of Christ signals a new era in God’s relationship with humanity, the breaking in of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the sign that God is truly active on earth, in the living Temple, where any human being may encounter and participate in that divine perfection of love.