[A sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany at Prestbury Methodist Church, 25 January 2015]
How do we, as Christians, respond to the Paris massacre at Charlie Hebdo or the Boko Haram atrocities in Nigeria?
We may be protected somewhat from violent extremism, but even here we have xenophobia, racism, intolerance, poverty, corruption, you name it. We live in an angry, desperate and violent society. Look at our roads….
How do we live in such a world? Are we, in fact, any different from society around us?
Paul tells us we are the body of Christ. What does that mean? What difference does it make to our responses, to the way we live? If the community who follows Jesus provides an alternative to the ways of the world, how alternative are we? What do we do differently? Do we project something that is better and more desirable than the way people are living now?
I want to suggest three things that stood out for me in the three readings. Three ways in which we can be different.
First, from the book of Samuel, we learn to listen.
How often do you get into a conversation with someone where you sense that the person is really listening to you? Listening doesn’t come naturally to us. We are so busy, for one thing. But we also feel vulnerable, so we listen with half an ear while the rest of us is trying to think of a response that will keep us safe.
And we live in a society and in a world that is so divided along crisscrossing lines of race and gender, of religion and politics, of poverty and power. So we don’t listen to what people say anymore. We ask who is speaking, then we know if we need to listen or not.
Samuel had to learn to listen to a different voice, to the voice of God. And God had a tough message for Eli.
Eli’s sons had been abusing their position as sons of the trusted priest for years. God had been talking to Eli about it for years, too. But Eli wasn’t listening. Perhaps he thought it was just the exuberance of youth; they’d soon grow up and become responsible. Perhaps he thought it wasn’t really so bad – just a little bit here and there. After all, no one is perfect.
And perhaps it wasn’t God who had spoken to him, anyway. After all, God hadn’t done much speaking to people lately, and he hadn’t appeared in visions. Perhaps Eli had imagined it. But perhaps the visions were rare, not because God didn’t have something to say, but because people weren’t listening.
Sometimes we treat God like the politicians on the front page. We know what he wants to say, and it’s all bad news and condemnation. So we’d rather turn to the sports or the comics.
But God’s message to Eli wasn’t his message to Israel as a whole. Eli and his family were a blockage to the message of God for Israel. God couldn’t get through. So he said, either let me through or get out of my way and I will work with Samuel.
Samuel began to listen
What happened when Samuel began to listen?
‘As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and made come true everything that Samuel said.’ (verse 19)
Samuel’s life, his words and actions, began to reflect God’s activity in the life of Israel.
‘So all the people of Israel, from one end of the country to the other, knew that Samuel was indeed a prophet of the LORD.’ (verse 20)
God was speaking to them again.
The gift we can give to our broken and divided world, to our broken and struggling families, to our fear filled and divided communities: we can offer an ear that is tuned to the heart of God. An ear that can hear God saying, I love this world so much; I love this community so much; I love this family so much; I love you so much.
Like Samuel, we can learn to listen to God, who has so much to say to us that we so desperately need to hear.
The second gift we can give the world is reflection. We can reflect before we act.
Not everything is good for you
In 1 Cor 6 we read about those who say, ‘I can do anything I like.’
‘Yes,’ Paul says. ‘Of course you can. In Christ we are free. There are no rules, no laws. You can do anything you like. BUT … not everything is good for you.’
‘You can eat anything you like, too. But some things will make you very uncomfortable; some things will even kill you.’
You can do anything you like, but not everything is good for you; not everything is good for your family, not everything is good for your neighbour.
‘Yes,’ we can say to the cartoonists. ‘You can draw what you like.’ And to the journalist, ‘Yes, you can write what you like.’ BUT, not everything is good for you. Not everything is good for your neighbour. Not everything is good for the world.
Do we want to live in a world where everyone does whatever they like and says what they like, just because they can? And if everyone else is speeding on the road, then I will, too; and if everyone else is cutting in front of everyone else, then I will, too – why should I be left behind; I also have an important meeting.
Or we can learn to reflect before we act and before we speak. We can ask the question, ‘What would love look like here, in this relationship, in this conversation, in this activity, in this community?
We can do anything, but Paul said: ‘I’m not going to do anything that will make me its slave.’
And believe me, we don’t just become slaves to alcohol and drugs and gambling. Perhaps more insidious is that we become slaves to irritation; we become slaves to negativity. We become slaves to fear, so that we never reflect and speak the truth to our partners, our families, our communities. We fail to take action because we are afraid of what might happen.
But we don’t escape such slavery without reflection. Without learning to create a gap between actions and our reactions:
Someone does something – we get irritated.
Someone says something – we get angry.
Something happens – we are afraid.
Viktor Frankl says we need to get into that gap. When something happens, we need to stop and reflect before we respond. And as we learn to do that, the gap gets wider and we empower ourselves to make new decisions, to take new actions that can transform our lives and the lives of those we interact with.
I can do anything I like. Yes. But what would love look like right now?
I have a sign in my office: ‘How can I make it easy for you to do great work?’
And what if, before we react to people around us, we were to ask ourselves: ‘How can I make you feel good about yourself?’
Imagine how different our interactions with spouse, children, employees might be.
It’s so easy to criticise, to be negative, to be irritable, to put people down. And we become slaves to those reactions. But what if I were to stop and ask how can I make you feel good about yourself?
Wouldn’t that transform our relationships?
Wouldn’t that transform our families?
Wouldn’t that transform our communities and places of work?
What can we do that is different?
We can listen to the heart of God who loves this world he has created so much.
We can learn to reflect; to consider how love would act, what love would say in each situation and every conversation.
3. BRING PEOPLE TO JESUS
The third thing we can do is found in Phillip’s action in John 1. We can bring people to Jesus.
Phillip said to Nathanael, ‘We have found the one whom Moses wrote about…. He is Jesus … from Nazareth.’
When people ask, ‘What’s happened to you? You used to be so irritable; you used to be so angry; you used to be so fearful,’ we can tell them, ‘We have found the one who makes all the difference. It is Jesus.’
If there is anything good in me – and there is a whole lot of bad stuff that still needs to be fixed; the work has only just begun. But if there is anything good in here, you are looking at Jesus. It isn’t me. It’s what Jesus is doing. If you like it, he can do the same for you
How do we make a difference in this world? How do we live differently?
We can listen. We listen to the one who has a message of love and of healing and of hope.
We can reflect. We can ask how would love respond? How can I make it easy for you to do great work? How can I make you feel good about yourself?
And we can point people to Jesus.