A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this service: Luke 15. 1-3, 11b-end
Love waits for you at the station
Filled with joy at your coming
Or outside the doctor’s surgery
In the car to drive you home
It frustrates, irritates, gets in the way, longs, hopes, worries, wants to do it for you, knows jealousy, protects, confronts, defends, flashes with anger at your selfishness or neglect,
Longs for your successes
And yet loves you exactly as you are
Through years of imperfections
Love waits at the door for your return
Under the hanging basket of flowers you gave them years before
And welcomes the whole of you.
The bed is already prepared with towel
The endless cooking of the food you like
The room which you painted is waiting
The photo by the bedside from twenty years ago
And the thousand memories that pierce you heart
with affection and concern
and fear of loss
This love is home
To which you will return in search again and again
For this one who is watching and waiting with excitement
Whose eyes you know better than your own
And clothes you with the carefully folded clothes they have kept in your draw for your return.
And the clock on the wall already aching with the tick of departure.
I wrote that poem about my Mum. Mum’s are not always easy. I know that. But they are still your mum. Sometimes they say or do terrible things mums do, stuff that other people could never say or think of saying. But they are still your mum. And of one thing I am certain, that none of us would be here in this church without them. And children are not easy either. Think of the problems Jesus caused Mary. It’s got something to do with what the Old Testament call steadfast love. Because ultimately relationships are about much more than about what we say, or what we do. They are about who we are and they are there whatever, forever.
But our parable today is about two sons who don’t fully get that yet. They think relationships are a commodity. Both sons want something for themselves. They don’t realise that in fact that’s the way to having nothing. I wonder what it is that makes us come to our senses? This story of Jesus perhaps touches upon all of our lives and the life of our nation at this time. We often read this story in terms of us as individuals but it is of course also the story of human relationships and how we live together as a family or wider society or nation. The younger son demands his share of the money, not only leaving home, but also breaking a relationship of trust, seeing it in terms of material inheritance rather than as a covenant or partnership of loyalty and love. He thinks he can manage alone, that he doesn’t need his family, or at least only needs what they can give him: “So stuff them. Give me my inheritance now! I’ll go it alone.” At first he thinks he is much richer but it is not long before he is forced to realise he is also much poorer, because once you start treating others as commodities that can be used, exploited, valued for what you can get out of them- in others words once the sacredness of relationship is dispensed with, we too can become commodities that are also dispensable. It’s like changing the rules of the game to suit yourself only to realise later on that needed those rules just as much as anyone else.
When does an act of self-becoming become an act of self-harm both to the community or to self? It is when your own ambitions and self-interest ceases to acknowledge respect and honour the needs or interests of others around us. In our national life in the last months there has been a lot of talk about who is right and who is wrong, there has been a lot of disagreement and anger. And the arguments have become ever shriller and ever louder and ever more divided. In fact, as I write this, I can hear the anger in Trafalgar Square as a demonstration shouts out about how our nation has been betrayed. But perhaps the real betrayal begins not in the fact of whether you believe in being part of the European Union or not but in how you treat others and respect those who have opinions different from your own. As Jesus pointed out a house divided against itself cannot stand.
When there are divisions in a family one often realises that they cannot be resolved simply at the level of who is right and who is wrong. Because when you examine arguments closely there may be both right and wrongs or misunderstanding on both sides. Both sides feel they are not being listened to, both sides feel ever more angry and hardly done by. The way forward can only be to find mutual ground where one affirms the importance of the relationship that has a far greater significance than the argument that is dividing.
Thus wise parents often decide not to take sides in the arguments of their children but to affirm that the most important thing is that they are still brothers and sisters within one family who need to respect each other and get on with each other or life for everyone is going to be worse. I spent Fifteen years of my life living in community and of course in any community life divisions and arguments are often fierce and they can poison life together. In order to live together we needed to search for what we called “the common mind” To arrive at a common mind you often had to be prepared to go beyond your own vehemently held views. The community believed that a decision made in turmoil would not find any peace. It would be like trying to bandage or stitch a boil before it had been cleansed or drawn out. If a decision reached caused disruption and even greater hatred and antagonism or destructiveness, then it was obvious that decision reached would need to be revisited. You cannot plug a volcano or the eruption when it comes will be even greater.
The father of the prodigal does not actually stand in the way of his younger son. This is not because he does not care or cannot see the danger signs. I think it is because the only way of healing division is by not becoming divided yourself but by modelling an even greater unity- he makes the place of reconciliation and hope possible. And in the final scene he runs between his two sons honouring both and trying to weave them both back into becoming part of the whole.
In Lent we remember how Christ calls us all to follow him even into the place of division- the painful place, where somehow from the darkness that covers the earth on Calvary, Christ is going to weave a people of resurrection and love back together and into a sign of hope. It is often only when our lives are at stake that we come to our senses and glimpse the meaning of that kingdom that we are in danger of losing forever. Like the lost son it is when we lose everything that we come to our senses and remember the Father.
Today we come to the Baptism of Tess. In this church she is surrounded by an incredible amount of love. She is adorable but baptism is not saying that she will never struggle or face division, or pain or evil. But what we are saying is that with Christ’s love, she will never be lost, because God will never lose her. Today God has called her to be his own. The one who has taken upon his own shoulders the pain and division and struggle of our world and shown us a love even greater than death itself. Today with those powerful symbols of water and oil we have recalled and lived that relationship, that covenant love which Christ has promised will never be overcome or broken and into which today Tess belongs.
Tess Elizabeth Harris I want to end this address by speaking to you. If I could write a letter to you today that you could read later on in your life this is what I would say. Tess on this day of your baptism when so much in our nation spoke of division and uncertainty and mistrust you became part of Christ’s church. You were a sign of hope for all of us. You were baptised into Christ, into a love that knows no border or division, no beginning and no end but is for all eternity. On that day Tess, promises of great faithfulness were made. That your mother and father and Godparents and family and church will love you forever and that Christ has chosen you for his own. I want you to know Tess that you were baptised at St Martin-in-the-Fields by your loving grandfather at a church where your mother and father met and fell in love and proposed and were married with great joy. You have changed them and turned their lives upside down. Since you’ve arrived, your mum and dad Helen and Adrian are learning a new grammar, a long sentence whose punctuation marks are feeding and winding and nappy changing and these occasional moments of quiet and peace. It is the language of God’s unconditional love. And you will be very blessed by them and they by you.
But I want you to know too that you also belong to a wider family, God’s family. A family which encompasses the whole world- l want you to know that you were baptised on Mothering Sunday on a day that celebrates a mother God who wants to gather us all, all as one under her wings and who waits for us with outstretched hands whatever our race, or creed or sexuality or colour or wealth, our past sin, or success or failure. I want you to know that this church represents the open hands of God’s love and that it will be your home where you will learn, as we learnt, of the love of God- a love which knows no barrier or prejudice or division- a love which says take my robe my best one, put rings on your fingers and shoes on your feet, let us celebrate this day for you are my beloved. For when you dwell in my love the lost are found and all, all are given new life. And I want you to know Tess, that although you may seem very small and the world a very big place- it is this same love and care and belonging that we witness today that can transform our world from the place of division and fear into the kingdom where our sins are washed away and we can all can receive new life.