Beloved, Let Us Love One Another

A prayer for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, on St. Patrick’s Day, 2013.
Text for the Day: 1 John 4:7-12, 17-21

God of love, we thank you for these words of challenge and encouragement from 1 John today, and for all that you have been teaching us through this epistle over the past few weeks.  We thank you for the fortuitous timing of these messages as we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of your Son.  We have been exhorted over and over to “love one another” and, if we might be tempted to let familiarity breed contempt, to let the exhortation flatten into a platitude, we come, at the end of this series to Good Friday and Easter, when the true nature of love is on display: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  Lord, give us love such as this!  Or perhaps, Lord, some of us may have been tempted to be overwhelmed by John’s uncompromising exhortations to love our brothers and sisters, realizing how poorly we love.  As we look toward Good Friday and Easter, then, give us the peace and confidence that we are able to love, because he has loved us first.

Father, for the love you show to us in the beautiful gifts of creation, we give you thanks.  For the love you show us in the material blessings that sustain and enrich our lives, we give you thanks.  For the love you show us in the gifts of friends and family, a church to call home, we give you thanks.  But above all, for the love you showed us in the gift of your Son, for the love that is stronger than death and sin, we thank you with overflowing hearts.  Lord, send your Spirit and your Word throughout this world that people of every tribe and nation may hear and experience this love.

Lord, help us to love, as you have loved us first.  Strengthen our ministers with the self-giving love to teach and lead and pray and work on behalf of the community here at Ps and Gs, and give to each of those who serves here on the staff, or in volunteer leadership, the love to serve faithfully and patiently in their calling, not out of mere duty but care for one another.  Give those leading the Alpha Courses love for those they are teaching, a passionate desire to bring new hearts to Christ, and as the church considers new ways to minister to the homeless here in Edinburgh, give us prudence, but let it always be formed and directed by love.  Give to our missionaries, who have in love followed the call to serve you to the ends of the earth, fresh strength of love to sustain them in their demanding tasks; enable them to show the love of Christ to the lost, that your kingdom may be filled to overflowing.

Give parents among us love for their children, a love that expresses itself in dedicated concern and discipline, and patience amidst every provocation.  Give children among us love for their parents, a willingness to serve and obey, to honour and respect.  Give to husbands the faithfulness to love their wives as Christ loved the church, giving themselves sacrificially, caring for their every need, and to wives the faithfulness to love their husbands in turn, supporting, encouraging, enriching.   Help us to love all of the saints within our congregation at Ps and Gs; may our fellowship be constituted by sacrificial self-giving rather than the selfishness and competition that lies at the root of so many social relationships.  To the sick, the elderly, and the lonely in our congregation, help us to particularly show love, and may you pour out your own love upon them in their hour of need and despair.  Help us to love our neighbors, whom we may rarely meet or speak to, finding ways of shedding Christ’s light in our communities.  Help us to love our co-workers and employers, putting them before our own pride and our own interests, displaying the heart of Christ in settings where few may have seen what that looks like.  Help us to love the poor and needy whom we see and whom we do not see; do not let us deceive ourselves into thinking that love is something we need show only within our narrow circle of relationships, only to those with whom we feel comfortable, but even as you, O God, so loved the world, and Christ gave himself for all, give us the strength, in our own poor way, to love all whose needs you put before our path.

Knit your church together, so divided now in every place, in love for one another, and love for your truth.

Lord, we are oppressed on every side with fears—fears of violence, of material want, of insecurity and loneliness, of rejection and betrayal, of pain and loss, fears of inadequacy, and of being unloved.  Give us, O Lord, the perfect love which drives out all fear: fill us with the confidence of your love towards us, and in experiencing your love, may that love overflow within us so we have no room anymore to be preoccupied with ourselves.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is Love Incarnate, we pray.  Amen.

 


Rivers in the Desert—A Homily

Given at the New College Communion Service, Thursday, March 14th

Reading
Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Reflection

As Lent drags on into its fifth week, many of us may feel a bit like we have wandered off into a desert, and are straining our eyes toward Easter, shimmering in the distance like a mirage.  We went out here into this desert trying to be like Jesus, determined to use these forty days of Lent to fast and grow closer to God, to fight against the temptations of our flesh and hopefully grow just a bit more holy or at least self-disciplined, to take more time for God, for prayer and reading his Word.  But here we find ourselves instead, wandering aimlessly, wondering what became of the last four weeks, of our lofty aims.  If we’re still keeping our fast, perhaps it feels more out of drudgery than devotion, and how many of us can say we’ve carved out the extra time for God that we meant to; how many of us can say we feel much further at all on the path toward holiness?  Perhaps this is the reason why Lent is forty days long: it gives us plenty of time to fail.  I’ve heard people object to Lent on account of its length—fasting is all well and good, but forty days of it?  Is that really necessary?  Forty days, though, gives us long enough to realize how bad we are at fasting, how bad we are at devotion and self-denial.  By the end of it, or perhaps well before the end of it, we’re out there in the desert, gasping for living water, yearning for the new life of Easter to be poured out on us, to give us the spiritual strength we so clearly lack.

You don’t have to observe Lent to be familiar with this feeling.  How often in our lives do we find ourselves in that place—we’ve set out with our heads held high, ready to do Christian discipleship right this time, ready to follow Jesus on the hard wilderness path, but suddenly we find that we’re there on our knees, crawling instead of walking, seemingly alone, and parched with spiritual thirst, waiting on God to send rain so we can resume the journey.

 

Perhaps you’ve seen some of these amazing BBC nature documentaries, where they show these dry riverbeds of southern Africa, choked, parched ground beside which both plants and animals wait and wither; suddenly, water that fell as rain on mountains hundreds of miles away arrives in a torrent, turning the dust first into mud, then into a rich marsh in which all kinds of life thrive.  Perhaps it is something like this that the Psalmist and the Prophet have in mind—”rivers in the desert,” “the watercourses of the Negev.”  Parts of the Negev, after all, had seasonal rainfalls that would suddenly fill the watercourses and make the desert a place of life.  The Christian, too, on pilgrimage through the wilderness, can rely on such seasonal outpourings of God’s grace and faithfulness, particularly when we are parched by drought and feel we can go no further.  The song “Great is Thy Faithfulness” which we have just sung expresses the Christian hope that we will never lack God’s presence for long; he will always pour out a fresh effusion of grace to give us “strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow.”

In the liturgical year, Easter can play the role of these seasonal rains for us, bringing us rivers in the desert through which we have wandered during the weeks of Lent.  We trade our mourning for joy, our fasting for feasting, we worry less about crucifying the sin within us than rejoicing in the new life we have in Christ.  And yet Easter too will pass, after its six weeks, and after the warm summer months, another autumn and winter will come, and no doubt, somewhere in there, another spiritual dry season.  Is the repeating annual cycle of Easters, then, the only “water in the wilderness” for which we hope?

As you journey further south into the Negev, you quickly come to desert that almost never sees rain—just 3 cm a year.  The Israelites were well-acquainted with this permanent desert, this dead land, since they had wandered through it on their way out of Egypt.  It was thus no mere seasonal rainfall that the Prophet and Psalmist looked forward to, for Behold! God was going to do a new thing.  Much as they relied on God for the sustenance of mercies new every morning, they looked beyond this for the hope of the day when the deserts would be transformed, flooded with springs of living water, when the cycle of drought and rain, of need and grace, of death and life, would end, and life would triumph through all the world.

That shimmering in the distance, then, is not a mirage, nor a brief flow of water to give us just “strength for today,” but the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” and alongside it, “the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.