Sermon - 6th July 2014
The Comfortable Words
Scripture - Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Some 30 plus years ago when I was a boy growing up in a mining village just outside Stoke-on-Trent, my maternal grandmother, Caroline May, rediscovered her faith, aged 70, and began attending the local Church of England, St Luke’s, and she took me along with her.
The service was very traditional and used the 1662 Communion Service from the Book of Common Prayer. From the services themselves, I remember very little: but one part does forever remain stuck in my memory, and those are the same final three verses read to us today.
In the Book of Common Prayer service, they are called the Comfortable Words and are said by the priest just before Communion:
“Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him. Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
I saw how this and the other 3 Bible verses quoted in this part of the service were of great comfort to my grandmother, who had lost her youngest daughter aged 14 to Cerebral Palsy, and who had survived 4 bouts of cancer in different parts of her body. Her life had been far from easy, and her heart and mind were broken following the death of my grandfather after 52 years of marriage. And except for the times when she was in hospital, every Sunday, she used to walk to Church, receive Communion and take comfort.
My grandmother was a simple woman, she left school when she was 14 without any qualifications; she spent her working life as a waitress, then later as a cleaner. She was a generous woman, but she never owed anyone even one penny. She often said, “Shrouds do not have pockets.” She hated people arguing about money, particularly regarding wills. She kept her final illness secret from us, her family, but she knew she was dying, and in her final weeks, unbeknown to us, she gave away all her money to various charities, including to her church.
She loved her family, her friends and the church; she was very proud of me, her only grandchild, especially when I got into university. She died just two weeks after I left the village to start my degree at the University of Manchester. With the exception of an insurance policy to cover funeral expenses, she died leaving just a few pounds in her purse.
For me, my grandmother was someone who truly understood what it means to take on board surrendering oneself to Jesus’ loving care. Every Sunday, in going to church, she took her heavy loads and left them there with Jesus, and she found rest.
For me as an 18 year old at university, I attended an evangelical and charismatic Church of England in Didsbury, not too far away from here. My degrees were in German Studies and Russian and Soviet Studies, and through the lectures in those languages’ literature and history, I was exposed to complex philosophies.
I was a part of the University’s Christian Union, a very evangelical group with a very literal, fundamentalist, uncompromising view of the Bible. And so, within a short time, I became part of those whom Jesus spoke about in the first part of today’s reading. Jesus called them the “children in the marketplace”.
One of the philosophies I learned about is commonly referred to as the Hegelian Dialectic, named after the German philosopher Georg Hegel, even though the idea stems from another German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. It can be summarised quite simply: there are two sides to every issue – thesis and antithesis; each side discusses and interacts, and a resolution or synthesis is found.
We see this is in almost every story or drama, even in our own lives. Take this example: a crime drama; the police and the criminals are the two side; a crime takes places, and eventually the story works its way to a conclusion, lives are changed one way or another.
Here is another example: when two people fall in love, as their lives grow together, there will be compromises which need to be made. If the relationship is to survive and be healthy, compromises must be made.
And herein lies the problem: what happens when one side or both sides refuse to compromise. We see this constantly on our TV screens. Our Members of Parliament sit opposite each other, both sides express their views – often very noisily - but only very seldom is there any agreement. And because each side is so set on its own views, the outcome of a Parliamentary debate when it comes to the vote is almost always a foregone conclusion. It is so easy to be partisan: for example, how easily do you dismiss everything a Conservative or a Labour politician says, just because you support the other party?
We see the same thing on TV news channels: for bias and good journalism, there is an endless stream, for every issue, of 2 people being invited to comment and debate. Have you ever noticed how they never reach a compromise, and one is never persuaded by the other’s argument. There is always stalemate.
And this is what Jesus is talking about in the first part of this reading. For the religious authorities of the day, they rejected John the Baptist, even though he was a severe religious teacher who denied himself all earthly comforts and isolated himself, calling for a turn from sin. Jesus’ approach was different: He drew alongside the sinners, the tax-collectors, the sick, the poor, the prostitutes; His ministry was one of love and joy. He even used his Divine Powers on one occasion to turn water into wine! One wonders what, if anything, could have changed the way in which the religious authorities of the day thought.
We see this inability to be open-minded everywhere we go. It is July and in Northern Ireland, it is Marching Season, and once again we see the inability to listen and to compromise: Catholic versus Protestant. We see in Iraq the two groups in Islam fighting – the Sunni and the Shi’a. In India, there is constant tension between the Islamic and the Hindu. In China, the tension between the atheist state and the believers, particularly the Buddhists of Tibet.
Closer to home, the many LGBT people whose ears are closed to any outreach message of faith, because of the way in which most church groups have spoken about and treated us. I am sure many of us here will agree that it is easier to come out as LGBT in society, than it is to come out as a Christian to LGBT people!
Here at the Metropolitan Church, we are moving towards becoming part of the United Reformed Church, which this weekend in Cardiff is holding its biennial national Synod. One of the items for discussion is same-sex marriage. As with other issues, the United Reformed Church is one which understands compromise and embraces a range of views: there are a range of views on most matters. Some local churches will not be willing to conduct same-sex marriages; other will be willing; and yet others just would like more time to consider the issue. To hold such diverse views apart but together is a great strength: it is a sign of maturity.
Jesus likened the squabbling religious authorities of His day as “children in the marketplace”. If you have ever worked with children and young people, and I previously worked for 17 years as a high-school teacher, you will have had the experience: one day, a particular young person can be completely unreasonable and unwilling to listen; and the next day, the same young person has on their listening ears, showing a more mature attitude.
And herein lies the challenge for all of us. To be both the mature adult, willing to listen to others and others’ points of view, to be open to ideas and notions and the possibilities they might bring, to have a mature faith which speaks up out against injustice and draws alongside those to whom Jesus calls us.
And the call is also for us also to be the child, willing to let go of the troubles and the tensions and all those things for which we do not have an answer. We live in an age, where with our science and technology, it is easy for humankind to believe that we are at the top of the food chain; that there is nothing and no-one greater than we are as a species. But the truth is this: one day, each and every one of us will stop breathing and die, and for most of us that will be proceeded by illness, just like it was for my grandmother.
The Statement of Faith we are using in our services at the moment, which we will say after the song which follows this sermon, challenges us in our inflexibility and unbelief, and calls us back to the core of our belief.
My grandmother knew she was dying, but she did not fear it. For her, she knew that she was, in a sense, going home. She had learnt how to leave her burdens with God. She knew nothing of philosophical arguments or theology. She simply trusted in God.
In the central part of today’s reading, Jesus’ words to God the Father are these:
“I thank you because you have shown to the unlearned what you have hidden from the wise and learned.”
In her life, my grandmother exemplified this.
Surrender is a word we do not often use, and when we do it is often in a negative context of losing a war, but it is also an important thing for us: as children, we surrender ourselves to trust our parents to care for us; we surrender ourselves to trust our partners.
For our God is an awesome God, who is mighty: He deserves our deepest praise. With all of our hearts, with all of our lives, let us surrender ourselves to our God.