Religious humblebragging

A Short Mid-Week Communion Talk

Matthew 6.1-8, 16-18

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the word “humblebrag”?

It’s a kind of ugly word, in my opinion, but it perfectly captures a particular phenomenon.

It refers to saying something which is designed to seem modest, self-critical or casual while actually highlighting something you’re very proud of.

For example, someone might say “I just spent £2000 on a handbag because I’m so terrible with money”.

Or they might say, “I don’t know why people keep complimenting me on how I look”.

It happens a lot on social media, maybe because it’s easier to do behind a keyboard than directly to someone’s face, where they might laugh or challenge you.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus talks about the religious equivalent of humblebragging – doing good things to get praise from others.

He highlights those who want to be seen giving money so that everyone will know how generous they are.

Those who flaunt their spirituality and prayer life so as to seem holier than everyone else are also condemned.

And those who make a big deal about fasting so that everyone is impressed by their dedication are also not in favour.

Giving, prayer and spiritual disciplines can be good things to do if done for the right reasons – but those reasons don’t include earthly rewards.

A more recent example I came across was someone saying online that Christians should be exempt from lockdown regulations because of all the work churches do to help others.

I try to avoid getting drawn into online arguments, but I felt I had to point out that we don’t do things for what we can get out of them here, but for heavenly rewards and out of love.

Jesus urges us to do good things quietly and truly humbly, because in this way we’re not motivated by looking good or getting praise.

Instead, we’re motivated by doing God’s will, knowing that even if no-one else notices God does.

We may be noticed and praised, and that’s always nice, but it shouldn’t be why we do things.

Our focus and aim are always to love God and others and do what good we can.

And we can rest assured that every good act and loving impulse is noticed and will be rewarded by our Father in heaven, without any need for us to be religious humblebraggers.

 

Change

A ‘Thought for the Day’ for Black Cat Radio – 12th June 2021

As I write this the G7 summit is starting, and the leaders of the 7 most-advanced economies in the world have descended on Cornwall. Apparently, the big discussion this year is recovering from the Covid pandemic, as well as climate change and trade.

As a world we seem to be facing big challenges all round, and although things are definitely improving with Covid, there’s uncertainty about whether restrictions will be lifted on the 21st after all.

We can react to uncertainty in different ways. We can sit back and say “Well, everything will go wrong, so why bother doing trying to do anything about it?”. Or we can resist change by stubbornly clinging on to how we’ve always done things or denying the need to think or do things differently. We might even blame the messenger telling us we need to change.

In his life on earth Jesus met with some of these reactions, and his message that people needed to change wasn’t always popular, yet he never gave up patiently giving his message and doing what he knew to be right. Dealing with change is hard, whether because it makes us uncomfortable or because other people don’t approve, but it’s important to keep going and show patience with ourselves and others if we want to see good things happen. And for people of faith, it’s also helpful to think of God knowing what dealing with change is like and understanding our situation.

I hope that the G7 summit will lead to some positive outcomes, and that we will see the change in Covid restrictions that we’re hoping for, but even if change is a long time coming and harder than we want, let’s never give up hope.

Take care,

Mel

The Holy Trinity & Geometry

Holy Trinity Church, Great Paxton

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2021

Quite a while ago, I did an online course about Quakers, just out of interest. People could make comments and ask questions as we went along, and one thing I remember is someone asking why a certain person talked about the importance of praying directly to God but then prayed to Jesus instead. It seemed she hadn’t grasped that for Christians Jesus is God.

She’s not alone in her confusion because we set a puzzle in Christianity by saying there’s only one God and then talking about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We say this is a mystery: three persons but one God. Three sides, like the three leaves of the clover leaf; three ‘states’, like water, mist and ice, but one element. But none of the many images we use are exactly right, and it’s a well-known saying among preachers that it’s impossible to preach on the Trinity without falling into heresy. So, it’s no wonder that most Christians, let alone non-Christians, feel confused about the Trinity.

We need to understand as much as we can, though, or we lose a great gift. So, despite the dangers of trying to describe the Trinity, I’m going to talk geometry for a while. Many people think of the Trinity as an isosceles triangle, with two long sides leading up to the Father at the top, and a short side at the bottom with Jesus and the Holy Spirit at each corner. This reflects our human way of putting things into hierarchies. It works well for providing good management in business and industry and is vital for effective armed forces. You get a clear line of command, everyone knows what they can and can’t do, and everyone knows where to lay the blame when things go wrong. But, there is no hierarchy within God. In theology speak, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal.

Another way of thinking is to see the Trinity as an equilateral triangle. Here, the three persons are distributed equally, but then we often fall into only ever addressing one of them.

But we could also see the Trinity as a circle. In a circle there’s no beginning or end, no top or bottom, just an eternal dance round and round. And this, I think, is a good way of seeing the Trinity. We can imagine God, always there, always the same, always existing in a perfectly balanced relationship.

But, you might be wondering, what difference does this make? Why the geometry lesson? Well, this is important because the belief that God is Trinity is the basis for the belief that God is also love. If God were not Trinity, but just a solitary individual, the most we could say with confidence is that God sometimes or often chooses to act lovingly but is not in himself love. When we talk about God as Trinity, we say that, even before there was anything outside God for him to love, God’s nature was expressed in the loving relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God cannot help but love because God is a relationship of love, an eternal circling dance.

And this is not just some inward-looking love or an abstract idea. Instead, it has all the hallmarks of love that we recognise: it’s personal, dynamic and creative. It’s full of delight and generosity and wants to be shared. It longs for everyone to see the true loveliness of the beloved, delights in all their successes, and longs to help in their difficulties. And we, the beloved, are invited to join that relationship, to be in God, and God in us. Instead of searching after God we’re invited into the circle. Instead of praying to God, we pray in God.

This, I think, is why we get the story of Nicodemus this morning. Like many religious people, Nicodemus believes to some extent that God is love. But to him God’s love is measured and sensible and follows a set of rules. And he’s worried that Jesus might not be following the rules like he should. He’s gone further than many of his contemporaries, to give him credit, but not yet far enough. Jesus challenges him to let go of his measures and rules and launch himself into the unmeasurable totality of God’s love. God doesn’t love us when we’ve met some requirements, when we’ve changed enough to be lovable, or when we’re lucky enough to be born with the right colour or gender. God just loves. And trying to measure the love of God is like trying to control the wind. Hence, the climax of this passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. ‘This is the point of it all’, says Jesus, ‘that God’s beloved people may live with us forever, in our circle of love’.

So, the Trinity isn’t just an idea for theologians to argue about, or a mathematical puzzle. Instead, it’s the basis of who God is, our relationship with him, and our hope for the future.

Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

Good Weather

A ‘Thought for the Day’ for Black Cat Radio – 20th May 2021

I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think good weather is finally arriving! It’s been a cold spring, which has led to me having loads of plants waiting for ages on my windowsill to go out in the garden. Like a lot of people, I really notice the effect of weather on my mood. When it’s dark outside I feel down and like I can’t be bothered to do anything, while as soon as the sun comes out I perk up. I hope the better weather lasts to the bank holiday, as on the last bank holiday I went to visit a friend I hadn’t seen for ages for a walk around with her puppy and we got rained on the whole time.

It’s amazing, really, how something as small as the sun coming out can make things seem easier or more bearable, even if just for a little bit. For me as a Christian such things are a sign of God being with us and loving us. It’s hard to feel blessed when there’s political trouble, the pandemic still isn’t over, and when faced with our own personal troubles. But the promise of the Bible is that even though we will still have difficulties God is right here in them with us. And God sends us things to make life easier – a sunny day, a kind word, a helping hand out of nowhere. The knack is to notice these things and enjoy them and be thankful for them. And even if you don’t believe in God, it’s always worth noticing and being glad about the good things that happen even on bad days.

 

Take care

Mel

Fruit of the Vine

Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter/Year B/John 15.9-7

Last week we heard about the importance of abiding in Jesus like branches on a vine so that we can bear much fruit.

This week we go on to find out what that fruit is – and it turns out to be love.

Love is the fruit of the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and love is the fruit of our relationship with God.

There are different ways to respond to this.

Some of us might focus on the words, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you”, “you are my friends”, and “I have chosen you”.

These words offer rest for the weary, a promise of acceptance, healing for all of our inner wounds and insecurities, an assurance that everything will be OK.

All we need to do is accept the gift of love and abide in Jesus.

Others of us, though, might find it hard to take these words in. We might’ve been failed too often by those who claimed to love us.

We might’ve been hurt, rejected or abandoned by friends, family or partners, and if this happens too often the idea of abiding in love sounds shallow, unrealistic and unsustainable, and letting ourselves be loved becomes a heavy risk.

Here, we need patience with ourselves and courage as we try once again to open ourselves up to love.

And we need people around us who will understand and support our journey, without judgement or trying to rush us.

We might also find it helpful to remember these words of Julian of Norwich:

“Pray, even if you feel nothing, see nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to God, even though you may find little joy in it.  This is true of all believing prayer.”

Then there’s the romantic idea of love presented to us in films and books, in which love means finding the perfect person and living with them in perfect harmony forever.

In this idea there are no imperfections to irritate us, no disagreements, just constant happiness.

But this idea lasts only a very short time when faced with real life and so we can end up rolling our eyes and becoming cynical about love.

Love, though, is not some sentimental idea or constantly being blissfully happy.

Love is beautiful, but not because it’s pretty and happy.

Love is beautiful because it goes all in.

It’s willing to take on the ugliness of life, the pain and suffering, to accept others as they are and not how we wish they would be.

It stands by us when relationships end or when loved ones die.

It sticks with us through accidents and tragedies, sin, broken dreams and hurt.

It sits quietly with us when we cry, feels for us, and prays for us whether we know it or not.

Jesus shows us what love looks like throughout his life.

He kneels down and tenderly washes the dirty, worn feet of his companions.

He accepts and welcomes adulterers, oppressors, and outcasts of every kind.

He shows compassion, defends the vulnerable and offers healing.

He loves and forgives, even when betrayed by his closest friends.

He gives up his life in the most gruesome, humiliating way.

Jesus’ love is not pretty or polished.  But Jesus’ love is profound.

Sometimes we forget to go past the words of Jesus about how much he loves us to the part about being appointed to bear fruit.

The blanket of God’s love for us is guaranteed and ours for the taking, but that gift becomes fullest when it’s shared.

We practice sharing that love here in our church community, and then go out to share it with the grumpy neighbour, the family member who drives us up the wall, and all the people we meet in all their wonderful, quirky, confusing and annoying variety.

We might get hurt, we will certainly get it wrong sometimes, but being loved and loving others is what we’re made for, and we will always have the love and friendship of God to sustain us as we grow and bear fruit.