Sermon 3 Respond to Human Need with Loving Service

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent, 9th February 2014

The Third Mark of Mission – Respond to Human Need with Loving Service

(Readings: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20)

I work in Gloucester and every evening, coming towards Lower Swell I can see Stow on the Wold, and I know I’m nearly home.  It is of course the church tower which can be seen most easily, it is visible from miles around & in every direction, especially after dark when it is lit up.  So today’s Gospel reading, which speaks of the city on a hill which cannot be hidden somehow seems appropriate.

I am going to concentrate on the first few verses of the Gospel & I will read them again:

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.   No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.   In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

Today is the third in our sermon series, the Five Marks of Mission, which can be described by words beginning with ‘T’.  Week one was ‘Tell’, week two was ‘Teach’ and today is ‘Tend’, or to give it its full title the third Mark of Mission is to respond to human need with loving service.

Love is the great Christian virtue.  Our epistle today was taken from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and had we continued reading the letter we would have arrived at his great exposition of love, translated as charity in the King James version of the Bible, and in another letter to the Galatians Paul gives love as the first of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

This week we are going to celebrate romantic love on Friday, St Valentine’s Day and I am going to draw on some ideas from a book called The Five Love Languages which was written for couples to suggest how romantic love can be kept alive and use this to make some suggestions about how Christian love can be expressed, but more of that later.

Love is the hallmark of the Christian, but what does this mean in practical terms?  Our Mark of Mission today is not that we feel love but that we offer loving service or as the quote has it: ‘Love wasn’t put in your heart to stay; love isn’t love till you give it away.’

Of course throughout Christian history and today there have been and still are great saints who have dedicated their lives to helping the poor and needy in this country and overseas, including those who have chosen to live within religious communities.  But what of us, how can we express the love of God in Stow?  I return to The Five Love Languages which I am going to call gifts.

The first gift is words of encouragement, or affirmation.  We should always try to build people up rather than put them down.  One way in which we can affirm people is by letting people offer us acts of loving service and expressing gratitude, another is to listen and especially to those who are timid.  This is an especially hard lesson for those of us who are confident and assertive, it’s easy to steamroller in with our ideas and opinions rather than allowing those with a quieter voice to get a word in.  God gave us two ears and only one mouth; we should use them in that proportion.

The second gift is quality time.  We are often so busy that we resent giving people time; we get impatient if we have to wait, or if someone is slow.  It was my birthday last week and my family gave me a wonderful gift which is a portrait of my three children.  It is a beautiful painting and I know that it was expensive, but a big part of the gift was the amount of time they had to devote to sitting for the artist.  To give our time and attention to someone is to assure them of their worth in God’s eyes as well as our own.

The third gift for the Christian is perhaps best translated as generosity with our money and possessions.  There are so many good causes we could support, each of us will have favourites, we can’t lift everyone out of poverty but we are called upon to be generous, to be cheerful givers.  With so many demands on our money it is easy to suffer from charity fatigue, but this isn’t an affliction to which we should succumb.

The fourth gift is of our talents in acts of service.  What are you especially good at and how can you use your special talent to build up our Christian community and the wider community?  One small suggestion for those who are good at arts and crafts is to join our Closely Knit group which will be starting shortly on Saturday mornings, to make gifts and to share your creative talents.

The fifth gift is a welcome into the Christian family and includes offering hospitality, a shared cup of tea or a meal, and also expressions of welcome such as a smile, a squeeze of the hand, or just sitting down with someone at the same level.

There are plenty of kind-hearted, thoughtful and generous people who are committed to helping their fellow man or woman in need.  So what is the difference for the Christian?  Why are we called to provide loving service?  Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear it is not just because of our common humanity and it is certainly not so that we can earn honours or applause or a good reputation.  We are called to deeds of love so that people will recognise God in us and through us and will glorify him.  Let your light so shine – that people will give glory to the Father in heaven.  Loving service is indeed a mark of mission.

Possibly the greatest service we can provide is to introduce others to Jesus, to give them the Good News of the Gospel.  Here is one of the promises of Jesus, taken from John’s Gospel:

‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy, I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.  I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’.

Jesus understood then and understands our needs now to find meaning and direction and fulfilment in life, and self-esteem and love.  We have only to look around us to see people whose lives have been destroyed by false promises, by thieves who offer the promise of instant satisfaction: drugs, alcohol, sexual indulgence without commitment, a few minutes of pleasure, fifteen minutes of fame, easy money and so many more things.  In a few minutes as we celebrate the Eucharist, we will be invited to ‘Lift up your hearts’.  The hymn which starts with those words today describes how eloquently the mess which human beings can get into, guilt, fear, broken relationships and how through faith in God we can be lifted up to the abundant life which Jesus promises us.

Jesus left his disciples with the Great Commission to spread the Gospel and we are the current generation with the same responsibility.  We are the Body of Christ here on earth and it is what we do and how we are more than what we say which will tell other people about God.  So many people see our God in terms of the Ten Commandments: lots of ‘you shall not’ as a real killjoy who doesn’t approve of us enjoying ourselves.  But of course the first two Commandments are ‘you shall’.  The great commandments are about love, we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  If we have that sort of loving heart the way we live will be pleasing to God.  And note if we love God and our neighbour, we are also allowed to love ourselves and it is good to practice acts of loving service within our families and within our Christian fellowship. 

But of course we are talking about loving service as a Mark of Mission.  We are the salt of the earth.  To flavour a recipe we have to remember to put the salt into the dish, it’s no use leaving it in the jar.  We have to be out there in the world supporting local people and organisations and clubs and charities as an expression of our faith.

At the end of the reading today, Jesus told the disciples that they needed to be more righteous than the Pharisees who were meticulous about observing the law but who were self-righteous.  At the end of Chapter 5, Jesus also says to his disciples ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’  We are called to be holy – this means to be all of a piece, no pretence or posing, mind body and spirit directed to God.  Real holiness is an attractive thing (Psalm 96 says ‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’).  Jesus doesn’t promise his disciples and easy life: we are not immune from pain and suffering.  But the deeply satisfying life in all its fullness which Jesus promises is a life of loving service.  This is the sort of life which shines as a light to the world.

I went to see the musical Godspell when I was a student, forty years ago.  It is based on Matthew’s Gospel and one of the songs uses the words at the beginning of our Gospel reading – you are the salt of the earth.  It contained the great lyric ‘you are the light of the world but if that light is under a bushel, it’s lost something kind of crucial!’  Love wasn’t put into your heart to stay: love isn’t love till you give it away.  We are the city on the hill.  Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.