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Sermon for 2 July 2017


Matthew 10:40-end

Jesus says - Anyone who gives a cup of water to one of these little ones, that person will certainly not lose their reward.

I want to tell you about three people I knew and what they taught me about this ‘reward’ that Jesus talks about. 

They all lived in a community called L’Arche.  And they all had a learning disability. Their names are Sylvia, Primrose and Doreen. 

L’Arche is a Christian community in which people with and without learning disabilities live and work alongside each other as equals. You can find out loads more about L’Arche and about learning disability on the web.

I went to L’Arche to ‘do my bit’ and to give my time to some people who needed my help. But what I discovered there was a great treasure - a great reward. I went to help, and I left transformed. Sylvia, Primrose and Doreen - and many other of my friends in L’Arche - changed my life, and taught me lessons about God that have shaped me to my very core.

And it’s those lessons - it’s that reward - that I want to share with you. 

Let me tell you first of all about Sylvia, and the reward that I received from her.

Sylvia was funny, really funny, with a wicked cackling laugh. She was amazing at noticing small details - she was always the first to comment on that new jumper you were wearing, or to notice that you’d had a haircut. She had also suffered horribly. The hospital she had lived in before L’Arche was a terrible place, and caused her long term and serious harm.

But that hadn’t defeated her. In the midst of much suffering, she was still Sylvia. Still funny. And she had faith - a real, total and complete confidence that God existed and that He was real. Sylvia never understood the creeds, and she couldn’t have told you anything about the Trinity or the doctrine of salvation - but she knew God and she prayed.

Sylvia taught me that being a Christian is not primarily a matter of knowledge about God, it’s much, much more about life with God. Sometimes we think that knowledge about the faith needs to come first - or we think we need to have all the questions answered before we can believe. We have endless discussions about the problem of suffering, or the difficult texts in the bible, and we think we can’t properly commit to God until we get the answers. But in Sylvia, it was the other way round. 

Jump into faith, she showed me, and find God from the inside. Sylvia didn’t have the answers to any of the difficult questions. But she had faith. She showed me that faith is something to live, not something to understand.  That real faith, real trust, is a matter of the heart, not the head. She wasn’t interested in the niceties of religion, she just trusted that God was there, and wanted to know whether you loved her and wanted to spend time with her. She reminded me that Jesus never told people they had to believe in the right way before they joined his community - all they had to do was to have the faith to follow him. 

The reward I received from Sylvia is that God wants us to trust Him, not to understand Him.

And I offer you that treasure, received from Sylvia. Maybe it is particularly important for one or two of you here today. The route to faith doesn’t lie in answering all the questions about Him, it lies in giving your life to Him. Of course we need to use our brains, and we need to make sense of difficult questions - but if you really want to get to know God, there comes a point when you need to move beyond the questions, and to choose to follow Jesus and to trust in Him. And if that’s you here today- jump in. Do as Sylvia did. Trust God.

The second reward I received, and it is not an easy lesson to learn, is that we may well be more likely to meet God in the messy stuff of life, than in the obvious, clear cut, nice bits. And it was Primrose who showed me this.

Primrose arrived in the Community after 40 years in a big institutional hospital. She was very smart, but was put in the hospital as a child because - as she would say of herself - she ‘wasn’t right in the head’. She arrived in L’Arche desperately damaged by her life. She still missed her mother terribly and knew how much of her life had been taken from her. She had long periods when she was deeply anxious and impossible to calm.

Sometimes we think that being a Christian is all about making the world a neat and tidy place - a place where we dress nicely for church, smile and say ‘fine thank you’ when asked how we are, keeping the tears and the difficulties behind closed doors. And we put so much energy into succeeding - into protecting ourselves from failure and suffering, and building a perfect life. 

But Primrose showed me that Jesus doesn’t say, "come to me all who have got it sorted”, nor does he say "blessed are those who are always happy and whose lives are just perfect”. No, he says that it’s those carrying terrible burdens of grief and loss, those who don’t know what to do, those who have nowhere left to go that are most likely to discover the depth of his love. 

Everything that Jesus says and does shows that suffering is a part of life, and that he is there in the very worst of times, in the messiest stuff, in the bits of our lives that we really want to avoid. That it’s in those parts that Jesus is already at work, trying always to bring out something new and something more whole. 

Prim’s life was really difficult. And I mean really difficult. There were times when it was almost impossible to be with her - her anger and suffering were so acute. But over time she changed, and in her later years, she was a peaceful and beautiful presence in the lives of many, many people, including me, Lizzie and the children - she was a very proud sponsor for Lizzie at her baptism, and a special friend to our daughter Ruth, who we named Ruth Primrose, in recognition of her importance in our lives.

So the second reward that L’Arche gave me? That the most difficult parts of our lives are the places we are most likely to meet God.

I offer that gift in turn - and again, there may be one person here for whom it is a particular treasure today. Suffering is terrible, and we know that suffering and pain are not part of God’s plan, and that He never wants us to suffer. But that’s precisely why He is so present when things are difficult. That’s why He is always at work bringing redemption and change. There is a great mystery here, but it may be that suffering, if we let Him, can be the place of greatest transformation in our lives. Maybe you are living with an impossible suffering, and you won’t let God into it. If she were here, Primrose might say - let God in, see what He can do. He changed me, maybe He can change you too.

And here’s the third reward I was given - and it was Doreen who showed me this. 

Doreen had Down’s Syndrome. She was full of laughter and joy - a proper clown, who looked to turn everything into a joke and a song.

And Doreen’s great pleasure in life was people. She just loved to be with others - especially if it was at a party or round a meal table. She was a great one for shared rituals - grace before the meal sung to the superman theme and ending with a raucous table-banging AMEN, turns taken at a birthday party, as everyone shared something they were grateful for in the persons life. Prayers together in the evening, everyone curled up on the sofa or sitting on the floor. 

Doreen taught me that we are always better off in community that we are on our own. That relationships are the priority. 

It is clear to me that God made us for relating.  And that’s not surprising since the God we worship is a community - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A community of perfect giving and sharing. A community in which each has their own identity, but in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts. And if God is community, it makes sense that we are designed for community as well. 

And community doesn’t just mean the kind of full-on intentional shared living of a place like L’Arche. The church is called to be a community too - we are a community. 

And life in community isn’t always easy. Caring about others, and allowing them to care for you, is hard work, and it demands commitment. It means sticking with it when it’s not much fun, or when it’s not really what you’d choose to do. It means getting stuck in and being part of what’s going on, not watching from the sidelines. Being a community means disagreements, arguments and troubles. And Doreen knew how that worked.  She was pretty feisty, but she was always the first to seek reconciliation with someone she had argued with - the first to tell you that she was your friend. She stuck with you, even when things weren’t going well. 

Doreen showed me that we are so much better together than we ever are alone. The third reward that I received in L’Arche is that God made us for community.

And I pass this treasure on to you too. Maybe you’re struggling with church at the moment. Maybe this isn’t always what you really want to do on a Sunday morning - but stick with it. Stick with each other. This is it, this is what we are made for - not a perfect community in which everyone always gets it right, but the messy, muddling along community of people like us. Doreen would tell us that we’re far better off together than we are apart.

I arrived in L’Arche thinking I was going there to ‘care for’ people with learning disabilities. Thirteen years later I left, completely changed by Sylvia, Primrose and Doreen - and many, many others like them.

The reward that Jesus is talking about is the paradox that lies at the heart of the gospel - if you give yourself in service to others, you will find out that you are receiving rewards you never dreamt of. He said it in another way as well - If anyone wants to come after me, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross every day and follow me. For whoever wants to preserve their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake, that person will preserve it.

This is the upside down way of the kingdom. If you take a leap and give your life to something or someone - you will discover that you have received a thousand times what you gave. We are made for service and for commitment.

Follow Jesus, get your hands dirty, commit yourself to being a full part of a community, serve those who need you. 

And if you do so, truly I tell you, you will certainly not lose your reward.

Posted: 02-07-2017 at 21:31
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