Cross-shaped Relationships

A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter

When I was in both the cubs and the scouts I remember that in our scout promise each week we had to promise “to do our duty to God and the Queen” But what is one’s duty to God? In today’s Gospel we are given a tough example which has always struck me as quite oppressive. ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field: ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table. Would you not rather say to him prepare supper for me and put on your apron and serve?’ Well given the fact that most of us do not have slaves anyway this is all difficult to imagine but if we did and a servant came in from ploughing and tending the sheep, would we not have the care, awareness and humanity to say: ‘I think you need to take the night off from waiting on me, you’ve done quite enough already to help?  So how are we meant to understand Christ’s words within our present context?

While this particular example has always seemed hard to appropriate nevertheless I have often so seen the truth of this parable when we look at the nature of service. Think of a parent for example who after a long day’s work who comes home and then immediately begins preparing food for his or her family with no expectation that there will be much thanks or realisation of the effort involved when the food is put on the table and then wake up all night with one her children they are not well. In fact, you often only notice such acts of service, when for some reason that act of service comes to an end. I know a husband who has been married for sixty years. It was only when his wife got dementia that his daughter realised he could not even boil an egg for himself and so disconcerted that the service he had taken for granted for so long had come to an end. “My poor mother, what she has had to put up with!” said his daughter. That example is of parental or married love. But how about a carer, of whom there are so many in our country, who care for the elderly all day bringing practical help, company, physical care and dignity, rushing from house to house, washing, cleaning, dressing, toileting, emptying bedpans, changing pads, cleaning up mess, hoisting into wheelchairs,  before cleaning up the house and bringing a cup of tea -literally waiting on a patient hand and foot and then going home to look after a family all for  often no more than the minimum wage, with no pay at all for the journeys between patients.

Or what about one of our own International Group’s Ebenezer who for more than five years, every single Sunday without fail, turned up to our International Group, prepared, carried the food, served the food, washed up, so the sink became the place his hospitality and smiles, plates and then pots and serving trays- then he cleaned the counters, swept the floors, put everything away, cared for everyone with few words just action, worked harder than any other volunteer I have ever seen to serve others who were destitute but never wanted anything material in return for himself until one day the home office locked him in a detention and removal centre without even allowing him to pick up his one  bag or notify the community he had served so diligently for so many years. The community in which during our passion play he had carried Christ.

When we open our eyes all around us there are acts of unnoticed, undocumented service, service that most simply take for granted. Service that takes your breath away because it seems to ask for nothing in return:

Real service is costly. It goes on giving.

Service is not a public display that is over in an event
It is the daily turning up
It is the problem addressed that has no obvious solution

It is the cleaning of the toilet and the basins
It is the carrying back of heavy bags
It is the accumulation of unfinished need that lies heavy

It is in the kindness of the returned phone call or email that says I care

It is the continuing remembering and care long after others have given up and gone home

It is in the time taken.

It is the visit to the elderly relative

The voluntary help
The being with when no one else was
The offering without recognition
The caring without expectation of thanks
And not a one off- often again and again

Sometimes costing not less than everything.

Extract from: The City is my Monastery


But what has this got to do with God?

Well everything.

Because is not our God the God who goes on giving without recognition.

All around us are the gifts that should rightly astonish. A world we have gone on harvesting and mining and using up with very little recognition until the gift dries up, or melts, or gets washed away in flood or cyclone or gets destroyed by pollution or global warming or fire.

And is not Christ, the Christ in whom we live and move and have our own being, is not Christ himself the one who gives everything away, absolutely everything, everything, including his own life in love and whom we only begin to fully recognise when he is hung out on a cross. This is how redemption is revealed in countless acts of uncountable service.

What Jesus in this parable is pointing towards is not a religion of personal gain: I will do this in order that I will get for myself. Rather an offering of self of huge generosity. A giving without counting the cost. In fact a giving that costs Jesus his life. This is so counter cultural to our times that I can feel within me the objections rising. What about self-assertiveness? Here we have rather an example of faithful none assertiveness. Compare this kind of service to  the empty promises of our public debate- this is what we will do for you, this is the tax concession, this is the money you will get, this is the self-interest that will lead to success, this is how you will become great again. This is how you will achieve power.

I wonder if the Christ like model is possible. I wonder if we can still recognise the God who transforms offering into pure gift.  And service into blessing. I wonder if we as the followers of Christ can be led not by the longing for personal gain but by the one who offers self in order to show the way, the truth and the life. Just for a moment think about your own life. What is it that has transformed you, become for you the treasure beyond compare and beyond all price? Was it the power or wealth you acquired for self? Or was it the love you gave away and freely received that remained when everything else was taken away?

Real love and service does not give up. In chapter 18 of Luke’s Gospel immediately following the chapter we heard today Jesus describes a judge who neither fears God or has respect for people and a poor widow who keeps on coming again and again and again to entreat him for justice. Bishop James Jones spoke here last Monday about the Quality of Mercy in Social Justice and in a deeply moving part of that he spoke about the Hillsborough Tragedy, they were words I will not forget:

For 27 years there was a memorial service at Anfield on April 15th.  At the last one in 2016 I was asked to give the address.  I spoke about my daily reading of the allegory of the widow pleading with the judge for justice.  When I got to that part in the story of saying “But she would not give up” the crowd of over 20,000 people began applauding and standing.  On the way home on the train I mused in my thoughts to God, that 2000 years after he first told that story 20,000 stood to cheer.  It made me think that this thirst for justice is universal, and it’s there at the heart of the Gospel.  The calling of Christ’s collaborators is to help people trace back from their moral instinct for justice to the source of all goodness who has revealed God’s character in the just and merciful figure of Jesus.”

The Jesus who does not give up on us, no matter what, whatever the cost, however many the extra miles, or the shirt and coat as well. And it seemed as we listened we glimpsed that not giving up, that faithfulness in Bishop James Jones himself.

I began by asking what doing our duty to God means. Duty suggests a moral and a legal obligation but the duty we have been reflecting upon goes beyond obligation. We are talking of course about the offering and orientation of our hearts. The gift of relationship, the gift of all that is alive in us, the gift of love. Three sacred duties. Our sacred duty to show attention and love and care for God who is the giver of all that we are. Our sacred duty to protect, safeguard, and steward creation entrusted into our care. Our sacred duty to protect and care for one another as though our own lives depended on it- because they do depend upon it.

There is a prayer that is well known that expresses this. It is a prayer that I have often found difficult to pray because it seems to be asking too much of us. It is nevertheless the prayer of todays’ parable. It is the prayer of St Ignatius of Loyola who in the struggle and suffering of his own life began to discern that it was not dreams of conquest, or possession or riches that brought joy and consolation but the offering of self. This is his prayer which I still pray with trepidation

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve

To give, and not to count the cost
to fight, and not to heed the wounds,
to toil, and not to seek for rest,
to labour, and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do thy will

Tough stuff this offering of self. As tough as today’s Gospel this path that leads to life.