Sunday August 1st, 2021
A warm welcome to you to worship this morning
Hymn 124 Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
Prayer of Approach and Confession (Gwen)
My Lord and my God,
You are our Redeemer, our Saviour, our very present help in our life. You know our every thought before we think it; you know the number of hairs on our heads and know our lives better than we do ourselves. You know when we are sad and when we are happy and you share these times with us for you are there beside us, rejoicing when we have good occasions and mourning with us when things go wrong.
We praise you for this and for knowing that we can turn to you at anytime we need you and know that you will always hear our call to you and our prayers.
Yet we often forget about you or take you for granted. We forget to thank you for your help in our lives and how you look after us. You supply our every need with the rain and the sunshine making our surroundings beautiful and productive, from the hedgerows and flowers supplying our birds, bees and butterflies with the nectar they need to the grass for the animals to eat with enough to harvest for the winter. Even the production of our gardens with the fruit and vegetables, to the many colourful flowers bringing gladness to our soul, were created by your loving hand.
We take for granted the many resources round about us, forgetting that we need to look after these resources; that we need to share them with others equally and preserve some for our future generations.
We have failed to look after these resources properly and now see the destruction of many habitats, due to our greed, causing global warming.
We need your help Lord, to sort things out before it is too late. We need your help to look after each other the way we should, showing good examples of Christian love for all your creation, as well as our brothers and sisters, no matter their colour or creed or orientation, and no matter how difficult it may seem. Help us to show tolerance when we disagree with what others do, especially as restrictions with this virus are lifting.
These things we ask in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hymn 81 I to the hills will lift mine eyes
6 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load. 6 Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 ‘Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Hymn 497 Almighty Father of all things that be
I suppose it must have been while I was still at primary school that I first heard the old saying that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. This struck me at first as very unfair: I like cake, so why couldn’t I eat as much as I liked and still never run out? After all, wouldn’t it be nicer to live in a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland world where you could wish for completely contradictory things all at the same time?
Well, as the years went by I grew a little wiser, and I began to realise that it wasn’t only cake that confronted you with quite contradictory alternatives. I realised you could not do well at school while at the same time ignoring your studies. You could not learn to play the piano and yet never practice. You could not have money available when you needed it and yet at the same time spend everything you earned.
I suppose that most people as they go through life do eventually reach similar conclusions, at least as regards the little practical things of life, and they decide not to build their lives on the basis of aiming simultaneously for objectives that completely contradict each other. They realise that you have to choose which objective is most important and then act in a way that leads you towards it. And you do not do things that lead you in the opposite direction.
The Bible writers were well aware of this basic fact of life, and St Paul in chapter 6 of his letter to the Galatians states it directly: “people will reap exactly what they sow.” If you want to have wheat in your field tomorrow, you don’t plant weeds today.
It all seems pretty basic common sense and most people get the point. But in recent weeks I have begun to think that there is one group of people who may never have learnt that lesson, and that group seems to congregate in Downing Street and Westminster.
I see government ministers, and even the Prime Minister, proclaiming “Freedom Day” for the ending of mandatory Covid restrictions and yet at one and the same time telling everybody that they should maintain many of the restrictions on a voluntary basis. It may no longer be a legal requirement to wear face masks, but you really should continue to do so to combat the disease. You may socialise as much as you wish but you really don’t want to get too close to strangers on trains. Getting your Covid vaccination is completely voluntary, but if you don’t get it, you are endangering yourself and everybody else. And so on and so on.
When I see this sort of thing, I begin to wonder whether “Freedom Day” was actually the government’s roundabout way of assuring us that, contrary to all experience, you can, after all, actually have your cake and eat it.
I have been intrigued to see how the government hopes to reconcile this amazing contradiction. On what basis does it intend to protect the public while at the same time telling everybody they can do whatever they like without restriction?
I have waited long for an answer to that question, and believe it or not the other day I did actually see a government minister offer one: he said that everybody should---and I quote---exercise “moral responsibility”.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that from a politician, and I have to say that I could not agree with him more. He was absolutely right: it is a matter of individual moral responsibility.
Or to put it another way, it is about everybody recognising the right thing to do, and actually doing it, regardless of whether it suits them or not. It is about everybody recognising that it is right to respect the interests of others and wrong to ignore them. It is not about personal preferences or inclinations. It is about right and wrong.
And, as if to emphasise the point, one of the most senior cabinet ministers, Michael Gove, said in an interview that people who refuse to get the Covid vaccination without good reason are, and I quote, being “selfish”.
What I find so extraordinary in these statements is the fact that government ministers have suddenly discovered that after all we cannot live safely in a “Me-First” world. We cannot live safely and successfully in a society in which everybody thinks only of himself regardless of the consequences for everybody else. To use Michael Gove’s term, our “selfish” wishes cannot be the last word in the matter. There are questions of right and wrong that go beyond the desires of any individual.
I could not agree with this more, and yet with St Paul’s words ringing in my ears, I find it hard to resist the observation that what these government ministers are saying is in some ways an even bigger example of trying to have your cake and eat it than the government’s Covid policies themselves.
St Paul assured us that “people will reap exactly what they sow”, and one must ask what has been done over the years to plant the seeds of this moral responsibility which the government now suddenly expects to reap. The answer, so far as I can see, is actually very little. The result is that we find ourselves in a sort of moral vacuum, where the government has to beg people to show moral responsibility when many people don’t even understand what that means.
Governments over the years may have played some role in creating this situation, but the problem is undoubtedly much broader. Philosophers have been telling us for more than a hundred years that, as they say, “God is dead”, meaning that religion should no longer be a central part of people’s lives. And many of the philosophers actually rejoice at this precisely because the effect is to destroy all general moral systems associated with religion. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought this was a great thing because it would allow everybody to make up their own rules as it suited them, regardless of the interests or rights of anybody else.
And it is really this attitude that has created the culture we now live in. It is a culture that for over fifty years has vociferously proclaimed that nobody can tell anybody else what is right or wrong, and yet politicians and other people now suddenly expect that nevertheless everybody should somehow know what is right and what is wrong and should be willing to act accordingly.
Well, it’s a nice dream, but it rather reminds me of that Biblical verse from Psalm 2 verse 1, immortalised in Handel’s Messiah: “Why do the people imagine a vain thing?” All experience suggests that things just don’t work the way the dreamers may imagine. If you promote a society that ostentatiously rejects the idea of general moral obligations, and instead inculcate the notion that each person can make his own code of behaviour as it may suit him and that he is only bound by rules if he wants to be, then I would suggest that your chance of getting everybody to respect the interests of others is pretty slim. Why should they respect those interests, when society tells them that every individual is answerable only to himself and not to any higher authority above himself?
Of course, it is not only politicians who wish for the impossible in this area. In many areas of life we see people insisting that nothing really matters except what they want for themselves personally or for the group they belong to. They insist on this even though, logically, there is no reason for other people to give them what they want if nobody is bound by general moral obligations to anybody else.
When I see that sort of thing, I find myself thinking yet again: “You can’t have your cake and eat it.” You cannot say that other people owe you something while denying that you owe them anything.
And that I think is the practical and logical background to the Christian insistence that moral obligations are mutual obligations. That is the point Jesus made so clearly in what we like to call “The Golden Rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. The Christian life must be a life of mutuality and reciprocity that arise from a sense of community. Jesus was quite emphatic about that, and Christians have always understood that it is not merely a recommendation or an optional extra to adopt if it suits us. It is rather a requirement , and it is at the heart of Christian doctrine and the Christian life.
Christians have always recognised this, but in modern times we have too often allowed the secular, “God is dead”, tendencies in society to drown us out when we try to proclaim the teaching of Jesus on this. As secular society disintegrates into groups and individuals who claim they are more important than anybody else, and who behave, in Michael Gove’s word, “selfishly”, the last thing such people want to hear is that we are all in it together. But for Christians, that is not a reason for falling silent. It is in fact a reason for speaking out more boldly.
If nothing else, the Covid epidemic has taught us that the teaching of Jesus is as relevant today as it ever was, because the moral responsibility of each and every one of us can quite literally be a matter of life and death.
Hymn 527 Lord make us servants of your peace
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Great and Loving God
We know we are tenants of this good earth,
entrusted through Your grace and love with its abundance and harvests.
Fill the leaders of our nation, and all nations,
with a healthy respect for the dignity of human life,
the worth of the individual
and the need to consider the everyday issues
as well as the wider issues in politics and society.
Refresh the weary and the war-torn,
the oppressed and the suffering
with the sense of Your unlimited and unexpected mercies.
Motivate the hearts of compassionate men and women
to the cries of the hungry and the plight of the undernourished.
Shake the complacent out of their stupor of self-satisfaction,
and grab their attention and stimulate them to action
on behalf of those with no ‘clout', or no political weight,
and no means of being heard for themselves.
Give patience to those who labour to alter the ideas of society
and challenge the patterns of the growing gap between rich and poor.
Direct and embolden those who grapple with the problems of insufficient shelter
and inadequate clothing,
the lack of ample resources in education,
and abuse of power, oppression and injustice.
Re-ignite the passion of those who have slumped into idle lethargy
and lukewarm apathy.
Give them a boldness to correct, eradicate and transform
the wrongs which reject and isolate those
who do not fit neatly within the norms of society.
Remind the Church to tread carefully in its eagerness to be popular,
or in hastily espousing doctrines that may be popular with the world.
Challenge us when we are silent on controversial issues,
when our silence condones the destruction and rejection of goodness, truth and life.
Stir up within the councils of the Church
a passion for the Gospel and the building of God's kingdom.
Guide them in the deep waters of social and political action
so that they hold tight to spiritual truth,
and reject any seemingly expedient solutions
which are alien to the teaching of Jesus,
in whose name we pray. Amen
Hymn 352 O for a thousand tongues to sing
Go out into the world, reflect God's love on others,
be the love God is, and let the light shine.
And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with you all this day and forevermore, Amen
Closing voluntary: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?”, from Handel’s Messiah