Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at St Mary’s Garsington and St Giles’ Horspath on Sunday 29th October 2017.
Readings: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 and Matthew 22: 34-46.
One of the things I used to love doing as a child and rediscovered when I was convalescing is the joy of piecing together a jigsaw. It was my mother who introduced me to this fine relaxing past-time as she always had a jigsaw on the go at one time or another and I in turn have now converted Jonathan to them. For someone who is always active and doing things the discipline of the jigsaw at first glance seems an anathema. Why would anyone spend hours pouring over a mindless disarray of shapes to find and fit one piece onto another until the picture is complete and then break it all up to start again. Yet there is something deeply relaxing, spiritual even, about this seemingly purposeless task which is only realised by entering into the process of it rather than focussing on its completion.
Maybe it is only when the business of life, when all its doings have been curtailed by illness or age that we are more able to be free to begin just to be without the need to define or justify ourselves by what we do. To sit in front of a jigsaw can be enormously helpful in cultivating the art of being in the present moment. For its focussed looking and searching for a certain shape or colour or image causes us to put aside all thoughts. The mind cannot go off on a long preamble or ruminate on worries but must stay completely focussed, still but intent. It’s a state of being which has many similarities to that of silent, contemplative prayer where you focus your attention so much that thoughts are suspended and time passes without one knowing. A watching and waiting which consumes all our faculties and directs them to God in the present moment.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus gives us two rules which are to be the picture which lies behind the scattered fragments of our lives. Much like a jigsaw we are invited to construct our lives out of this golden vision which will not only make sense of our lives but also frame them and give them meaning. The first is ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. Sounds easy but how are we to love someone we have never seen or touched or known. How can we feel fondness, affection or even just interest in an idea, a hidden reality, the divine Lord. Jesus tells us thought that we have seen him and we do know him, for to look at Jesus, to hear his words, is to see the Lord, “Those who have seen me have seen the Father” he says in John 14:9. We therefore have a face, a human face to gaze upon.
In the first commandment of the golden rule, Jesus thereby calls us into relationship with him. But our fulfilling of this rule, framing our lives by it, does not so much depend on us and how we feel. In his first letter, John writes ‘We love because he loved us first’ (4:19). We are thereby called into a relationship of love not by how we feel but because we are loved. I think one of the greatest truths that Christianity holds out to us and the whole world is that we are truly and deeply loved by God. As Philip Yancy so telling sums up in his book What’s so Amazing About Grace: ‘there is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less’. Our experience of love is always conditional so it is very hard for us to allow ourselves to experience the depth of God’s unconditional love. It is only when we really begin to see the depravity of ourselves and recognise the great propensity we have to do wrong and realise that in all our sinfulness God looks on us in forgiveness and love do we begin to realise the freedom and salvation that being loved by God brings.
We love and are able to frame our broken lives together piece by piece into a vision of loving God with all our faculties because he first loves us. He draws us and waits for us to respond to him in our often half-hearted and conditional loving way. To respond to God’s love for us in Christ is to set out on a love quest where we are invited to know more and more fully who our Beloved is. This quest begins and ends daily in our encounter with Christ in scripture. It is here in the written word that we encounter the Living Word as Christ draws us into an ever deepening relationship with him. As we prayerfully and intently focus on the words of scripture we are invited to use all our capacities of reason, imagination and perception to hear the voice of our Beloved Christ and we begin to understand our own lives in relationship to this love.
Scripture therefore is the bedrock, the edges of the jigsaw which contains the picture of the face of Christ and we are invited to understand our own faces through piecing his together in a living relationship of love. But scripture is not the only way that we deepen our knowledge of Christ and ourselves and strengthen our bonds of love. In the silence of contemplative prayer where we allow our own thoughts and feelings to float away like an offering of incense we are invited to just gaze upon the Beloved and know ourselves as loved. Contemplative, silent prayer is like sitting by the bed of someone who is sleeping and just looking, waiting, watching, being and loving. It takes all our faculties to focus on the other so as not to wake them, that same intent and all-consuming focus that it takes to do a jigsaw. But then in contemplative prayer there comes the moment when you realise that it is not you who is the one that is watching but rather that you are the one who is asleep. Then like the medieval hermit and devotional writer Richard Rolle we will say ‘I sleep and my heart wakes. Who shall to my lover say that for his love I long always’.
The second commandment flows and is only possible because of the first. When we begin to frame our lives on the reciprocal love that flows from a relationship with Christ the way we treat each other fundamentally changes. Knowing that we are loved by Christ unconditionally enables us to begin to love our neighbours. This I believe is not the easiest of tasks, for first of all we have to forgive ourselves for not being who or what we would like to be, to acknowledge that we, in all our failings, are loved by God just as we are and there is only one of me who is called to fulfil a special task that is only mine. It is only when we feel secure in this deep relationship with God that we can begin to look on others in the same way that Christ looks on us. To have eyes of compassion and kindness, to forgive another’s failings and deal tenderly with their wounds. Love calls us into relationship with him and a reciprocal relationship with each other.
This is what it means to be the Church, a group of folk who love God with all their hearts, all their souls, all their strength and all their minds. This is why we gather at a love feast every Sunday to worship together at the table of our Beloved where we receive him in physical form and delight at his presence amongst us. Out of that love we then begin to see the face of Christ in each other, honouring one another, forgiving each other as we are forgiven and building each other up in our faith, so that we may understand and see the purpose and beauty and vision which lies within our fragmented lives.
Bishop Steven following his visit to the diocese perceived that we are being called as individuals and as communities of love to become more Christ-like: to be more contemplative, focussed on our Beloved Lord, spending time knowing him and deepening our relationship with him. To be more compassionate, knowing through our own weakness how to deal kindly with each other and to be more courageous to declare the freedom and justice of God’s kingdom of love.
To be more Christ-like can be summed up in the words we heard this morning from Jesus’ own lips: ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all you soul and with all your mind and love your neighbour as you love yourself’. The golden rule, let us embrace these words and seek to make them the framing vision of our lives that we may become more Christ-like and enable other to be drawn into the Trinity of love. Amen.