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Title: Being in the Love of God
Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York
Date: The First Sunday of Lent, 26th February 2023 4.00pm
When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’
If you happen to listen to the Sunday programme on Radio 4 this morning, you would have heard a fascinating piece this morning about the West African religion Ifá, introduced by the BBC journalist Peter Macjob who has embraced this religion, and left behind the Christianity into which he was born.
He explained that he had been born into a very devout Roman Catholic family, and had been baptized, confirmed, had been an altar server, and had even considered going to seminary, before he got disillusioned. He talked about how his reading of some major moments of church history, such as the councils of Nicaea, Trent, and even the Second Vatican Council, had all just being ‘human beings making decision’.
Leaving Catholicism behind him, he tried a more evangelical form of Christianity, but found that to be ‘guilt-tripping’ and ‘money-grabbing’. He also related his dislike of starting to travel the world, and finding gross commercialism in some of the great centres of Christian faith. His shock at the cost of a Vatican fridge magnet was, he said, ‘not edifying’.
And so, eventually, he told Emily Buchanan, “I just stopped going to church – period.” And, on the basis of a chance encounter, he was introduced to Ifá, in which he now delights as the context in which he finds spiritual fulfilment.
All of which, I rather imagine, must have come as something of a surprise to his devout Roman Catholic parents. It might, perhaps, have been something of a challenge for them to wonder how well they had answered questions about Christianity – questions such as, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?”
Deuteronomy, along with some other parts of the Hebrew scriptures, puts emphasis on the role of the family in the transmission of faith in the one God from generation to generation. A love of God, and of God’s commandments is – very evidently – both central and vital. Keep these words… recite them to your children… talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them…on your hand, fix them…on your forehead…write them on the doorposts and…gates.
These instructions are valuable and vital, and they are couched in the religious understanding that was dominant among the Israelites of that era that obedience and what you might call ‘success’ were inextricably linked:
Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore…to give you…
It is no wonder, perhaps, that the final verse of our first reading concluded with the sentiment: If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.
Well, it is not my place to intrude in the lives and the faith journeys and experiences of the Macjob family. Nobody present here this evening, I hope, would argue with the statement that God loves those who practice West African religions no more and no less as much as God loves those who practice Christianity.
Nor is it my place to imply, let alone instruct, any or all of you that you should not follow God’s commandments. I simply need to ask the question about what you and I should talk about when we don’t manage to follow the commandments – a question which, thank God, was also a question which mattered to that very devout Jew Jesus.
For Jesus needed no persuading about the call or commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Jesus did that with every fibre of his being, and was keen that others should do the same. But Jesus also knew that sometimes, it just doesn’t actually work out like that. Sometimes human fallibility and frailty gets in the way. Which is why Jesus was such a big hit with ‘all the tax-collectors and sinners’ who, so we hear in our second reading, ‘were coming near to listen to him’ – and, to the muttered fury of the more ‘properly’ religious types, were being welcomed by him and were being sat down to share food with him.
Because Jesus knew that it was no bad thing to talk about God’s commandments and to encourage people to keep them… but Jesus also knew that a loving God has to have what you might call a Plan B up that divine sleeve. Jesus knew that you had to be able to talk about what happens when someone goofs up, when someone lets the side down, when someone does or says something that is not in accord with the commandments.
And so, as we partly heard in our second reading, Jesus explains that, in fact, when things go wrong and human fallibility and frailty wreak their usual consequences of alienation and sin, God does not give up on God’s children – even if they are no longer in the right! One sheep out of a hundred must be sought out and found. One coin in ten must be sought out and found. And, had we had time to read the whole of Luke 15 just now, not just the warm up act, we would have been reminded that one son out of two must also be sought out and found – even when that particular child of God has put as much distance as possible between himself and a loving parent as he can possibly manage.
So when your children ask you – or me – in times to come what the meaning of our own decrees, statutes and ordinances are, let’s make sure we tell them the whole story. Being in the right (as the author of Deuteronomy put it) isn’t a bad place to be. But being in the love of God is even better – even when you or I are in the wrong. So let’s make sure that when our children or any other of God’s children ask us what our faith actually means – questions which have been asked in every generation, and which always will be – then let’s make sure we speak of the depth of God’s love rather than anything else.
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