On Self Regard

Sunday 15th April 2018
The Third Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Deuteronomy 7.7-13
Revelation 2.1-11

As a long standing member of the Holy Trinity choir in Hurstpierpoint I have had the pleasure of singing at many weddings, almost always happy occasions. I don't know about Father Michael's way of conducting weddings but in my experience one of the drawbacks is that the priest has one stock wedding sermon which you hear over and over again; of course the couple only hear it once, so that's fine!

One of the priests at Hurstpierpoint based his wedding address on a passage in Louis de Berniere's Captain Corelli's Mandolin where the wise doctor explains the difference between falling in love and growing in love, the former being an overwhelming experience and, to an extent, an escape from reality, the latter involving a hard grind in the real world.

Our two Readings are both about that hard grind in the real world. Whatever the Chosen People experienced during the Exodus triumph had long since been engulfed by their exile in Babylon during which the Book of Deuteronomy was almost certainly written, and in our reading from Revelation the first flush of Christian experience has also turned into a hard grind.

Now it is easy to make dismissive generalisations about contemporary culture where people with short attention spans want quick results without putting in much effort. I remember my parents being scandalised that people would buy anything on hire purchase or using a credit card instead of saving up for a purchase; and I also remember that they expected what they bought to last a lifetime; indeed, the sofa and easy chairs that my mum and dad bought after their marriage are still in use and I have inherited a love of shoes that last for at least 20 years.

But without wanting to dismiss or caricature the strengths and weaknesses of our grandchildren, I think it is fair to say that we are living in a postmodern, fluid culture which is undergoing massive and rapid change which makes steady application very difficult in everyday life; and there isn't very much point grumbling about it. Better, I think, to look at ourselves and let youth get on with it.

Let us start with three propositions about love:

And, finally, an observation of my own which is deeply unconventional in view of our culture's wish to express love in words and generous actions, for me:

And it is this aspect of love that I want to concentrate on as it most closely relates to our Readings.

The problem for the Chosen People was that they became so bound up in the idea of a quasi-legal transactional, Covenant relationship with God through Temple sacrifice that they forgot the wider meaning which involved thankfulness and faithfulness due to a Creator. They were completely committed to the idea of doing and saying and not at all interested in being listening and open, in being vulnerable. There are hints of this vulnerability in the Psalms but, by and large, the Old Testament is a history of botched transactions.

When we come to the Church  of Ephesus we are in a place long past the excitements of Paul's visits (Acts 19) suffering from what management theory calls the second generation crisis, when the founder has gone and the enterprise has to carry on with less charismatic and passionate leadership. But if that was a problem for them, it is nothing to our problem after 2000 years of being passionate about our Christian life and inheritance.

And here I go back to the beginning: to be serious about Christianity is very, difficult; to avoid cherry-picking our way through the Gospels is very difficult; but it is made more difficult because we insist on being transactional, contractual, thinking that we deserve salvation because we have done our best. But if we were to be properly vulnerable we would recognise that we deserve nothing; the word "deserve" is wholly inadequate to describe a relationship in which we are to love God by being as vulnerable and open to 'him' as we possibly can.

But this does not mean being passive, thinking that vulnerability is synonymous with fatalism. Being vulnerable is a function of active humility and to be humble is to be unconditionally active without taking any credit. We might think of him as rather stupid but Boxer in George Orwell's Animal Farm just got on with what he believed was his duty to the cause. Perhaps what we need to do is to see Christianity as a cause and not as some steady state in which we find ourselves. And perhaps our problem is that we value our way of doing things because it gives us comfort rather than because it is effective.

Never in recorded history have we been so materially well off but never in recorded history have our children and teenagers felt more vulnerable, more uncertain, more at risk of failure and exclusion. If we could be more vulnerable ourselves we would be less likely to be judgmental and more likely to be effectively empathetic.

In conclusion, then, we should not assume that the only way to love is by saying and doing; we should also consider the virtuousness of vulnerability which possesses an inherently noble form of generosity; and love, after all, blooms in the soil of generosity and withers in the dust of self-regard.