|Minister's Sermon - Sunday 4th November 2019 4pm|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Sunday 4th November 4pm|
1 Corinthians 13.1-13
We only know the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes by title – not name. In English, it’s translated as “The preacher,” but in the original Hebrew she or he is more properly a teacher. A teacher, whose wisdom is both original, and challenging of accepted, humdrum thinking. The passage we heard near the beginning of the service, is one of the most famous passages from his writing. It begins, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” I’m not sure what you noticed as you heard it read, but I was most struck by these couplets. “A time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…” Only you will know whether this is a time for weeping or for laughing, or mourning or dancing, ‘though there are times when they come together. When laughter comes in the midst of weeping and dancing in the midst of mourning, as moments of thankfulness, tenderness and joy break into our remembering… Some people ‘though, find the passage rather prosaic, suggesting that it merely states facts. Wondering where the inspiration or comfort is in that. I don’t know where you stand on this, but I think there are times when facts are quite useful, because they remind us of reality. The reality that it’s sometimes very difficult to get our heads around. So, in the next few moments, I want to use the passage from Ecclesiastes and then from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians to recall some of what’s real about the world God created and about God. They’re hopeful facts. The profound evidence of our loving Creator’s ongoing and continuing work.
The first thing fact is, that in all life, there is a beginning and an end, and then a beginning again. We know it in our human lives. No one lives forever. So, when we take the risk of loving. Loving someone enough to marry them. Trusting them enough to have children. Loving life enough to choose to allow people to be our friends. We open ourselves to the possibility of pain. Not only of death, but all those smaller moments of loss, too. For whenever we walk alongside people who are suffering our empathy allows us to glimpse theirs as well. When people die we experience it particularly acutely. Because our suffering is no longer be balanced by what we’re also receiving from them… Until there has been space and time, for us to recognise that what they gave us is still available, and we can begin again… But it takes time. As everything takes time. Because everything is a part of the inexorable cycling, the constant rhythm, of time moving forward. Some people feel that the ongoing cycle, the relentless rhythm, is despairing. That there’s no way out. But that’s not how the teacher sees it. For her, it is solid, and dependable. Evidence of the wisdom in the way God created the heavens and the earth. Wayne Muller, an American minister, says this about God’s creativity. “Perhaps the most recognisable quality of creation is its rhythmicity. The pulsing light and dark, expansion and contraction, the seasons and the tides, the cycles of growth and dormancy, of life, death and regeneration are unmistakable characteristics of all living things, from the smallest microbe to the largest galaxy.” (1) This rhythm of creation is embedded in all life. It governs how life grows. And it sustains life. Whether they’re the seasons, circadian rhythms, hormonal cycles, the sunsets and moonrises and great movements of the sea. Spring, summer, autumn and winter. The human life-cycle of birth, growth, activity, retirement and death. The annual, weekly and daily patterns of life. Or the church year, as it moves from Advent through Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary time and back to this season of remembering. We live within these rhythms quite naturally. We’re part of the creation story, people in whom there are beginnings and endings, and beginnings again.
There are times, ‘though, when these rhythms, cycles and patterns are shattered. Times when creation, and life, isn’t at all predictable. Times we don’t understand. Times when the teacher’s wisdom seems too prosaic for comfort. And when we question God about everything. Now is one of those times, as we hear about the way human activity is causing climate change, and the seasons are getting out of sync. But there are also times when creation feels unreliable and capricious. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanos don’t feel like a natural part of a loving creation. Except that in the greater scale of things, the constant movement of the earth’s tectonic plates is the earth’s way of renewing itself, and without it no new growth would be possible and the planet would die. Yet even ‘though this is part of the deeper wisdom of creation, even ‘though we understand that death is part of the pattern of life, that doesn’t take away from the times when we feel cheated by it all - and maybe by God as well. And that’s OK. God can cope with our anger, our disappointment, our withdrawal – if that’s what we need. For God loves us, even when we cannot return God’s love, or we’re no longer sure of it. “Love never fails” says Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. For he wasn’t just writing to them to tell them how to love each other. He was also telling them about God’s love for us. And, even ‘though we usually think of this as a reading for a wedding day, I’ve always thought it’s more appropriate for times when marriages and relationships are in trouble or struggling with times of illness and death. For times when we need to take care with one another. So, at those times, it speaks about God’s love and human love at its best. “Love is patient, love is kind… it is not self-seeking…it keeps no record of wrongs. Love… rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” Even ‘though we can read and hear this, it doesn’t always make sense, especially in times when we’re struggling with life. So, as he continues, Paul encourages them to accept that we cannot know everything now. “For now,” he says, “we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully even as I am known.”
In these words, Paul expresses a truth, that is familiar for those of faith. God knows us and loves us, before we are born, and after we die. Listen to these verses from Psalm 139.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth… In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed…
I come to the end - I am still with you.
God loves us. So, we are with God, known by God, before we are born. And we are still with God at – and even after – our end. For those of us left behind on earth by those you have come to remember, today, that is also true. God loves you. Just as much as you loved the person you are remembering today. God is with you as intimately as you were with your mother in her womb. And for those of faith, this is a fact that sits alongside the reality that we’re part of a creation story, in which there are beginnings and endings and beginnings again. We may not understand. In fact, we won’t fully understand, until we are fully incorporated into God’s love. As those we love are now. It won’t take away the pain, the suffering, that comes with loss and death. Yet, God’s love remains, intimately present, whether or not we can feel it, and even if we think it absent. For God is. And God is love. More reliable even than the rhythms of life, because even when they are disturbed, God remains closer to us than breath. Maintaining our life with every breath we take. And drawing us gently into love – into God-self – until and after the time comes for us to take our last breath…
For “these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Amen.
Sue Keegan von Allmen
Wayne Muller Wayne Muller, Sabbath, 1999, 67.