Sermon for Cotham 16 December 2018 Advent 3
Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-end
Today is the third Sunday in Advent but it does have another name – gaudete Sunday. That’s the Latin for rejoice and it’s the first word of the introductory sentence in the Latin mass on this Sunday. It’s also the theme of the passage from Zephaniah that we had read at the start of this morning’s service. Many of the readings during Advent are quite sombre with their emphasis on the last things – death, judgement and so on. But this Sunday is different. Look also at what Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, that’s the passage we had for the second reading. He also tells us to rejoice. Does that ring true to you? Do you feel that being a Christian does bring joy to you? Do we reflect that joy when we get together. If you look at the press Christians get, it would seem that we spend our time telling everybody else what not to do and being highly critical of others. But that’s not a picture I would recognize here or at St Paul’s. In April 2015 Desmond Tutu spent a week with the Dalai Llama. A book emerged from their conversations called The Book of Joy. From what I’ve heard about both these men, I expect that week was full of laughter But they managed to control their giggles for long enough to agree on what they called eight pillars of joy. Four were qualities of the mind perspective, humility, humour, and acceptance. The other four were qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. I’ll just repeat them: Perspective, humility, humour, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, generosity. Those, they said are Eight characteristics of joy.
To quote Desmond Tutu “I am created in the image of God. I am a God carrier. It’s fantastic. I have to be growing in godlikeness, in caring for the other. I know that each time I have acted compassionately, I have experienced a joy in me that I find in nothing else.” And he continues:
When we practice a generosity of spirit, we are in many ways practicing all the other pillars of joy. In generosity, there is a wider perspective in which we see our connection to all others. There is a humility that recognizes our place in the world and acknowledges that at another time we could be the one in need, whether that need is material, emotional, or spiritual. There is a sense of humour and an ability to laugh at ourselves so that we do not take ourselves too seriously. There is an acceptance of life, in which we do not force life to be other than what it is. There is a forgiveness of others and a release of what otherwise might have been. There is a gratitude for all that we have been given. Finally, we see others with a deep compassion and a desire to help those who are in need. And from this comes a generosity that is “wise selfish,” a generosity that recognizes helping others as helping ourselves. As the Dalai Lama put it, “In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.” And I would add to that Acceptance means accepting other people as they are and allowing them to be different. That’s all part of showing compassion.
This all sounds great – and there’s so much in that paragraph that it’s hard to take it all in – but I find myself wondering why so many people who regard themselves as Christians just don’t seem to get it. Why we talk of God being love but so much of what we hear talked about in and around churches is about judgement and the wrath of God. If you go to a Bristol diocesan events you will probably find yourself singing that hymn which includes the line “The wrath of God is satisfied”. To me that is just wrong theology – I don’t sing it. And while I am involved in choosing the hymns we sing at Cotham we won’t be singing it here.
So let me try to tell you what I think happens. All of us have a continuing conversation going on in our heads. Exactly what that conversation is about is not often revealed. It will include desires and impulses that we would probably be ashamed to admit to others or quite likely to ourselves. They are all part of being human – we don’t choose our feelings, they just happen.
For many people this inner conversation will include a critical commentary on these feelings and impulses. A commentary that may be very harshly critical both of these feelings and impulses and of more or less anything that we do. I say “for many people” because I don’t know if it’s really some people or most people or even nearly everybody. But those who do live with this critical commentary will tend to assume that everybody else is the same. They feel condemned and this sense of being wrong easily spreads out to include other people. There is a Catholic priest called James Alison who writes very clearly and openly about many things including being gay. And he points out that among his priestly brothers the ones who shout loudest about the evils of being homosexual are the ones who are themselves homosexual. It’s all part of that human characteristic that we are very good at condemning in others what we cannot accept in ourselves. Remember what Jesus said about the speck of dust and the log of wood. It’s a lovely image of what I am talking about.
And it gets worse because this critical commentary can be confused with the voice of God. It can seem that what we are saying to ourselves reflects God’s attitude to us – and to other people. And so it can justify our prejudices. And because it is perfectly possible to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time it‘s possible to believe that God is love while at the same time believing that he or she profoundly disapproves of us. One of the times I left the church was when I realised that whatever I thought I believed, God for me was identified with the very critical non- accepting part of myself. And coming back to faith involved changing the way that I thought. That’s what repentance means. It means starting to think in a different way. But changing the the way that we think is not easy.
The gospel reading was about John the Baptist who is usually thought of as preaching a gospel of repentance. And the examples of what he said given by Luke are about changing particular behaviours. And that is how repentance is usually presented. I am suggesting that the changes in behaviour follow from changing ways of thinking and believing. And that they will follow if the internal changes are real.
Which leads me to the obvious question – if changing the way that we think is that difficult – how can it happen? Or what could we do to make it more likely that it could happen? Of course there isn’t one easy answer. What helped an introvert like me may not work for somebody else. In a sense I am talking about the grace of God – but that still leaves the question – how does the grace of God work? So I will just say it’s very hard to do it on your own. You need a wise guide who can help you recognize what is happening. And probably one of ways of meditating would play a part. And it is very likely that any change will be a gradual one.
Time I think for me to stop talking – just let me remind you of those eight characteristics of joy – Perspective, humility, humour, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, generosity. And remember they are about how we treat ourselves as well as how we relate to others.