Sermon preached at St Anne’s Dunbar, Sunday 3rd Sept 2017
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Every moment has meaning.
Imagine the scene: a villa in Tuscany. Family and friends are gathered on a warm veranda as the sun sets. There’s an aroma of sweet, ripe tomatoes, basil and garlic from the local market. A murmur of conversation rises as the group tuck into fresh, delicious food and savour one another’s company. All is right with the world.
This sort of scene is what is promoted by something called the Slow Food movement. Started about 30 years ago, Slow Food is sort of a reaction against the culture of fast food, and of everything being bigger, better, faster. It promotes a way of life in which people might pay more attention to local, fresh, ingredients and choose to take quality time over cooking and enjoying food together.
It’s been a successful idea. Slow Food is now promoted in over 150 countries. Other “Slow” movements have taken root too. Slow Cities encourages people to get rid of cars and take their time in urban environments; Slow Travel invites people to have slow-paced holidays. There’s Slow Design, Slow Fashion… the list goes on. And they’re all intended to help people to reflect on how to live more intentionally, valuing the world around them.
We humans are meaning-making creatures. We flourish when we have a sense of significance: in our work, our relationships, our possessions and our communities. We want to know the “why” of things, and that they matter.
“Slow” movements key into what Christian spirituality might call “the sacrament of the present moment” – the possibility that we can find meaning, and encounter the Divine, in anything if we will only slow down and pay attention. Perhaps we catch a glimpse of Jesus in the face of the other; or maybe we see God in the beauty of creation. These are pointers towards a bigger reality. To a ‘something more’ than the humdrum that can sometimes seem the be-all and end all of life. What might happen, I wonder, if we were to slow down and take this possibility of encountering God in all things seriously this week, I wonder?
Today’s two readings are both concerned, in different ways, with how we find meaning in life. And while finding meaning in the romantic haze of a sunset evening in Tuscany might be easy, hearing Jesus in today’s Gospel must have left the disciples with all sorts of difficult questions about the point and meaning of following him. They’d been following this good, if quirky, teacher for some time now, and had come to believe he was the answer the Jewish people had been waiting for – a Saviour. But in today’s encounter he dashes their hopes with a shocking revelation: that following him will not be all sweetness and light. Jesus will suffer and die. And to follow him, they – and we – must also be ready to suffer.
“Pick up your cross and follow me” is not an appealing prospect. Perhaps the sensible answer would be to run away from Jesus. And some of us will have done that in our time… maybe some of us are even doing it this morning.
But human experience tells us that one way or another, none of us avoids suffering in this life.
The Gospel doesn’t shy away from this reality. What Jesus tells the disciples, and what he models in his life by his passion, death and resurrection, is a God who walks a mile in our shoes. Who suffers, who knows despair, and who dies, as we will. In Jesus we find a God who has chosen to embrace human suffering in some of its most extreme forms, and can therefore empathise with our experience.
But through Jesus see, too, that suffering is not the end:
The day of resurrection. Death is defeated. Somehow, because of his suffering, our sin can be forgiven. And so for us too, pain and death are not the end. Instead we can have hope – hope that the grave is a step towards something new and something wonderful – to a place of eternal life beyond suffering.
Nevertheless, there will be suffering in this life.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans what we find is practical advice to help us as we live through it. Paul is too wise to try to explain why suffering happens: there are some questions that we may not have answered on this side of the grave. Instead, he teaches about practices we can choose to cultivate in the meantime: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.”
It reads a little like a manifesto for Slow Christianity. Rejoice. Be patient. Persevere. This is wisdom about life in the here and now, in the present moment: in our home lives, among our friends, at work or in our church community. To seek to nurture the small, relational things: reject what is evil; hold fast to what is good; honour and serve one another; be hospitable to strangers; contribute to others’ needs; bless those who persecute you; live in harmony; associate with the lowly; so far as is depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Its one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture. And though Paul’s advice might seem rather scattergun and unfocussed, it has a single unifying theme: each of these ways of being is rooted in love.
We are to love, because God loved us first.
The present moment has much to offer, whether we are in joy or anguish, celebration or grief. If we will slow down and be open, the encounter of God is possible in all things.
In “The Sacrament of the Present Moment” the French Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade has this to say:
The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams. But you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds. The will of God is manifest in each moment, an immense ocean which the heart only fathoms in so far as it overflows with faith, trust, and love.
In every moment of life, God is alive and well. Christ is here with us by his Spirit. We are loved, however difficult life may seem. And we, who know we are loved, are called to respond in kind. This is the call and the promise of the Gospel: We love because he loved us first.
Every moment has meaning.