Choose life

It’s god to be back from my holiday. Three weeks seems a long time. But on coming back I was thrown into the final preparation and then part of the delivery of our Diocesan Conference. So please excuse me sharing my sermon for today on this blog. It did come our of some of the reflections that were going on in the conference and as we sat beneath the Revd Cecile Schnyder’s wonderful triptych of Christ in community that dominated the hall where we met. The lections for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Philemon 1-21 and Luke 14.25-33.

I’m having to think about how I live. I know that the various and related crises that we’re all going through at the moment are requiring us all to think about how we live – but my thinking is on top of that.

One of the blessings of being ordained in the Church of England is that you’re given a house to live in alongside the stipend that you’re paid. The truth is that the stipend would never allow most of us to live in the kind of houses that we’re provided with. That’s not a complaint, it’s just a matter of fact.

So, I began in Leeds with a nice semi in the suburbs, one of those three bedroomed houses in which the third room is a bit of a box room – but I’d never really had my own home before, so it was amazing. Then I went to a huge flat created out of the first floor of one of those vast Anglo-Catholic clergy houses, then to a four bedroomed more recently built vicarage. Then I moved to Southwark and was given a grand detached Edwardian four bedroomed house in north Croydon, then to St George’s Road where the Sub Dean lives – a nice Georgian townhouse on four floors with all that that offers. Finally I’m in the Deanery – five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a huge hall, garden etc. etc. etc.

My point is that I’ve become accustomed over almost 40 years to live in overlarge houses and to spread out my clutter, to acquire stuff, knowing that I had places to put it. But now, since I announced my retirement, we’re having to find somewhere to live – and that was partly what we did on our summer holiday. But we’re going through something of a reality check. Inevitably we will be downsizing – and that’s the only way in which we can possibly live in the future, smaller, lighter, gentler.

In the musical ‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ the brothers sing of the great days they’ve known in Canaan, when they had everything

Do you remember those wonderful parties?
The splendour of Canaan’s cuisine
Our extravagant, elegant soirées
The gayest the Bible has seen.

And then they sing

Those Canaan days
We used to know
Where have they gone?
Where did they go?
Eh bien, raise your berets
To those Canaan days.

My Canaan days are slipping past. I need to think how to live differently, maybe better, perhaps more honestly.

Moses is addressing the people in the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy that we heard in our First Reading. He’s setting before them the choice that they have.

‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.’

And then he says – and this always gives me a shiver down the spine, it’s so powerful

‘Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.’

Choose life. But contrast that with what Jesus says in the Gospel for today.

‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’

He was speaking to the crowds that’d followed him, to the people who were gathering wherever he went, he was speaking to those who’d left their nets and their families and their communities and their livelihood and their certainty, for the uncertainty of the road and the uncertainty of the future. And he asks them not just to leave all those things behind but to hate them. This is strong stuff – and it’s not just the relationship stuff that he highlights, those human ties that they were expected to reject, because he adds ‘yes, and even life itself’. ‘Hate your life’ says Jesus; ‘choose life’ says Moses.

We don’t often get to read the Letter to Philemon. It’s Paul’s shortest letter and his most specific. He’s writing to Philemon who with Apphia and Archippus leads one of the house churches that were springing up. Paul is writing to them about a friend of his, Onesimus, formerly a useless slave to Philemon, but now someone Paul describes as a son, a bond of love that’s been formed during Paul’s imprisonment. Now Paul wants to send Onesimus back, to give him his life back, but not the life of the slave that he was living, but the life that in freedom he can live, the freedom that we know in Christ,

‘No longer as a slave but as more than a slave,’ he writes, ‘a beloved brother.’

For some reason it’d all gone horribly wrong for Onesimus; but Paul has opened life to him, and as Jesus says in St John’s Gospel ‘life in all it’s fullness’.

‘Choose life’ says Moses to the people; ‘hate even your life’ says Jesus to us. But what I think is going on here is the same thing. Jesus is encouraging his listeners in a dramatic way to re-examine their priorities, their life, their choices, to cast aside the Canaan days if you like and embrace the radical, kingdom life that Jesus proclaims.

Yesterday we concluded the Diocesan Conference. We met for three days in Bacon’s College, a church secondary school just down the road from here, in Rotherhithe. The theme for those three days was ‘Christ centred: Outward focused.’ It was amazing. Each of the speakers challenged us, to choose life, and not just for ourselves but for all people, those living on the margins, those living in fear, our children, our young people, people of colour, people for whom poverty is already a daily, grinding reality.

We were challenged to think about how the church in this diocese can help to make the kingdom reality, the reality, to hate the life that leads to oppression, to injustice, to violence, to abuse, to prejudice, to homophobia, to sexism and all the other scourges of our time and choose the life ‘that really is life’.

That is also the challenge that we must insist that our leaders, our politicians, our opinion formers also address. Tomorrow we will learn who our new Prime Minister is to be. The week that faces them will be monumental. They will be moving into a new house which goes with their new job, but whoever they are, they need to have before them the desperate life situations that are not a matter of our sisters and brothers choices but a consequence of the choices that others of us who have choices have made. Choose life – not just for yourself but for every one of our sisters and brothers, our neighbours, and not just in this country but around the world.

I have to live differently, we have to live differently, we need to hate the choices we did make and embrace the more gentle life that Christ offers that made Onesimus, once a useless slave, now our brother.

It’s a dream, it’s a vision. W B Yeats in his poem ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ says this

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Tread softly, on the dreams of your brothers, on the dreams of your sisters, live gently, dream and as you come to the altar today and hold those empty, emptied hands out, choose life, for it’s life, full life, life worth having, life worth living, that will be placed in them.

Loving God, may I choose you, as you in love choose me. Amen.

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