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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday before Advent 2018

In this new era of moral challenge, do we, as Christians, have anything to offer?

The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist

Sunday, 4th November 2018 at 11.15 AM

According to the gospel of Lennon and McCartney, ‘Love is all you need’ (I wonder where they got that idea from?). But half a century or so later there seems to be precious little love in the public square. What we hear is a great deal of anger—Brexiteers and Remainers as polarised as ever; a great deal of heated rhetoric—with certain Presidents providing global leadership, of a sort; and a great deal of public unpleasantness, hatred even; opinions being openly-expressed which many of us assumed were ruled-out of public discourse a generation ago, if not longer. Not a lot of love, love, love, it seems.

Many of us, I imagine, are having to deal with an unexpected and rather unwelcome personal challenge. A challenge to our sense of our own decency; our own basic values and what sort of people we think we are. We thought we were almost entirely benevolent, tolerant, open-minded, ‘love, love, love’ kind of people, but now we find ourselves faced with people and opinions who elicit visceral responses within us of the least warm and fuzzy kind. I think many of us have been unpleasantly surprised by these feelings—we didn’t think we were the kind of people who could feel so angry.

Psychotherapists within the congregation can perhaps allow themselves a wry smile at such naivety; and indeed as people of Christian faith, rather than just ‘love, love, love’, we should be rather less surprised to discover these feelings within us. We know that we are a work in progress—redeemed, but not yet perfect.

The concept of ‘Moral luck’ might be important to note. People of a certain economic standing in western countries like this one have been fortunate to live in a climate where it is, frankly, easier to be moral, benevolent, tolerant, open-minded, and all the rest—easier to be good than if you should find yourself in less-favourable circumstances. That’s not to say that bad circumstances excuse bad behaviour, just to say that it is easier to feel good about your neighbour, and easier to want to do good things for them if the circumstances are generally favourable to your own well-being.

So perhaps what we are facing is a change in our moral luckiness—a new era of moral challenge, which perhaps should come as no surprise after a severe financial crisis and long years of austerity. Perhaps many of us here have been rather well-cushioned from the effects of both those catastrophes, and haven’t quite noticed just how deep a chasm was developing between the haves and the have-nots; the winners and the losers.

So if this is a new era of moral challenge, do we, as Christians, have anything to offer?

My suspicion is that our more secular-minded brothers and sisters think they’ve already got all they will ever need out of Christian ethics. Love, love, love—love is all you need—got it!

But the touchstone of Christian ethics is a double love commandment—not just ‘love your neighbour’ but ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ Scripturally-speaking, the former depends on the latter. Love of neighbour is the proper outworking of the love of God.

In our culture, this has been somewhat turned on its head. If anything, loving your neighbour is thought to supersede the love of God; rendering the love of God unnecessary. Indeed, there is almost a feeling of moral superiority among those who have done away with God—as if it makes the love of neighbour somehow purer if we aren’t trying to please a deity on the side.

So why might it help us to love our neighbour better if we are also in the business of loving God?

Most importantly it might remind us that love is not just a sentiment—not just a warm fuzzy feeling. In fact, this may be the least important thing about love.

The greatest saints would tell us that loving God, most of the time, feels like firing arrows into a thick fog. It involves great effort (all your heart, all your mind, all your strength) but with little discernible effect or reward, because God must ultimately be loved for what He is, not what he might do for us. God must ultimately be loved simply as the source of our existence, beyond knowing and beyond feeling. If we have warm fuzzy feelings for God, then we have to guard heavily against just loving those feelings, rather than loving God.

Similarly, loving our neighbour needs to be a far more robust, austere and mysterious business than simply having warm feelings for them.

If we are practised in the business of loving God for who He is, and not what he might do for us, then we might be ready to love even those neighbours from whom we get nothing. If we can love them simply for what they are—as God’s creatures, loved into existence by God—then even those neighbours who say things that appal us and make us angry might begin, nevertheless, to look worthy of love.

My guess is that my love for certain MPs across the road, or a certain President across the pond, will never be of the warm and fuzzy variety, (that might be a matter of some relief to them) but my attempt to love the Lord my God with all my heart and all my mind and all my strength suggests that love them, somehow, I must, even if that love is beyond my imagining, beyond my understanding or feeling; like firing arrows of love into a dark, ominous and impenetrable cloud.

Reaching for these mysterious heights (or depths) of love is not going to be easy when we are feeling angry, dismayed, or full of hate. But this is where we might realise our need of Divine grace, and within that our need for other people to lovingly and compassionately help us get beyond the anger and bitterness, which is an unavoidable part of being human, but which it would be best for us not to get too caught up in. It is also going to take tremendous self-control (again requiring grace) not to simply collude with others in their anger and impatience—again, this requires a love which is truly robust; a love more likely to be forged in the deserts of prayer than in the blandishments of popular culture.

If I sound unduly miserable; dismissive of warm fuzzy feelings and the ‘love, love, love’ that they denote; then I am sorry, to a degree. I like warm fuzzy feelings as much as anyone, but they are not sufficient to the moral challenge we face. We have to learn to love our enemies—the people we find hateful; the people who vote for people and policies we just cannot stomach. In the political challenges of our time we have to seek a new consensus, if not with all, at least with most—a consensus that will require compromise and patience, and an acceptance and acknowledgement of loss on both sides; a kind of love that will stretch us beyond what we think we can bear. We will not learn this kind of love from Hollywood, from X-Factor, not even from Love Island— we will only learn this kind of love on our knees.

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