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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Pentecost 24 (Ordinary Sunday 30), Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
October 23, 2011

Psalm 90:1-6,13-17; Matthew 22:34-46

The worshipping of God’

Over the ages, people have had many different ideas about what it means to worship God. In the Psalm, we hear a rather beautiful song about the people’s experience of the love of God for them. In the Deuteronomy passage, we learn that the great leader, Moses, never lived to experience what the people would have seen as the fruits of his love for God. Then we have the religious leaders still trying to catch Jesus out by asking what they saw as tricky questions.

In our day, some people would see the worship of God as being primarily about faithfulness to attending services of worship and conducting them in a particular style. Others would regard suicide bombing as an ultimate worship of and obedience to God. In my day, some of us radicals regarded political and social action as lying at the centre of our worship of God while worship services were relatively secondary. So often, we like to pick and choose the parts of religious life which we want to focus upon. There are many types of fundamentalism.

Jesus answers his challengers with the traditional response to the question. What is the most important commandment? It is to “Love your God with all your heart and mind and soul and your neighbour as yourself”. What could they say to that?

To reflect a little on the various dimensions to the love of God:

To love God with all our hearts

Radicals can sometimes miss this bit, in my experience. When we hear words like adore or even worship and hymns which are strongly focussed on loving God (as against our neighbour) we are sometimes uneasy. This may be because, so often, churches have sung hymns and prayed prayers of adoration for God and yet nothing changes and little action seems to follow.

However, we might like to contemplate a God who creates unutterably beautiful things and places around us, who weeps with us and for us, who sends Jesus to show us that this is not a distant God but one who walks alongside us, experiences all our struggles, pain and celebrations and dies rather than stopping loving us. Sometimes, when life is tough, it is hard to believe that we and God are living with love flowing in both directions and yet, I believe that is so.

This love from God and for God is infinitely respectful. It doesn’t force us to do things, but gives us freedom of choice. It holds us as we suffer the consequences of some of those choices and gives us a new start, rather than rejecting us.

To love our God with all our heart is to give that love as best we can and to receive it back in ways beyond our understanding.

To love our God with all our minds

This means that God expects us to ask the hard questions about life and faith, rather than just accept what we are told by some religious leader. When we feel free to do this, in my experience, the Bible comes to life.

We delve into it, looking beneath the understandings of ancient peoples and find a fascinating mix of belief and culture, some of which still ring true today and others which we can look at with interest but lay aside. You don’t have to believe that people of varying sexualities are not part of the diversity of God’s creation and yet hold onto Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters and women their husbands.

If you worship God with your mind, you really can’t pretend that every word of the Bible is true. If you try to do that, you get yourself into all manner of impossible situations. As the Uniting Church said in its Basis of Union, the truth lies “within” the Bible.

The reality is that part of God’s creation within us is an honest and enquiring mind which grows and matures as it delves into the depths of all sorts of things in the search for truth – a truth which we will never know in completeness, because we are not God.

Always as we enter the rigour of Bible study, we may honour a God who we witness in Jesus. Theology, which must underlie all Bible study, is obviously about the question “Who is God?” and everything we believe with our minds contributes to the answer to that question. So, when we feel anxious about some texts, we are always invited to ask the question “So . .Who does that make our God?”

We are to love our God with all our souls

It is interesting to contemplate about the difference between our hearts and our souls. I think, of course, that all three – our hearts and minds and souls are interconnected. If I had to separate out our souls, I would suggest that our soul has to do with the moments of connection with the “otherness” of life, the inexplicable sense of Divine company, the gifts which lie around us in the arts and the wonder of the creation itself.

When I was a three year old, I felt that I always walked with some presences around me, ones which were reassuring and loving, not saving me from challenges, but holding me in love as I went. One of my brothers felt the same.

I think to love your God with all your souls is to be open to wonder, depth, height and things which expand reality beyond your imagining. When I worked in palliative care, I always felt closest to this presence and reality when I accompanied people to their death. That is a great comfort to me now.

It is as though all manner of gifts wait for us, if we will open ourselves to receive them.

Loving our neighbour as ourselves

Of course, if you think about it, our neighbours are all people. We engage more closely with some, rather than others, but that doesn’t mean that the love we are called upon to give does not belong to those who suffer far away and beyond our sight.

When we think of loving our neighbours as ourselves, we can interpret it as loving them as much as we would like to be loved by others and there is a truth in that. However, I think it is important to recognise that, within this commandment maybe a call to actually love ourselves – not in indulgent or self-serving way, but with the same grace which God extends to us in love.

I have observed that often those who are most critical of others are also very hard on themselves and seem to imagine that they will feel better if they punish others as a sort of way of earning their own salvation.

Finally, in all this, in our loving of God, ourselves and each other, I would suggest that life is, of itself, corporate, as is the church. None of us will ever meet the perfection which lies in God and which we may long to demonstrate. We are all human and fallible and can only do our best. We do not even begin as equals as we are born into all sorts of situations and realities.

All we can hope to do, is to honestly encourage and challenge each other as we go, adding small things into the creation and discovering that, when we put all our hopes, skills and gifts together, a difference can be made.

So . . . what experience of loving God, or being loved by God, has sent your heart or mind or soul flying free in delight? I wrote the poem below after that sort of experience in facing my sexuality.

 

THE UNUTTERABLE EXPERIENCE
OF THE GRACE OF GOD

It arises within me like the fluttering of my heart -
a trembling of hope which I can’t explain or name.
Then there is the sound of singing
in a voice of tenderness
which lies deep within me
and then spreads across the heavens like a universal song.

Could I dare to believe that I am loved?
Is the song really for me?
I look down into the depths of my soul
and feel beneath my life the firm hand of God.
“Would I ever forget you?” a gentle voice says,
“You are mine and I love you.”

The skies part in breathless joy,
my soul flies free for the first time
and all of my being wheels into oneness and fullness.
The fragmented elements of my truth,
which I have always denied life,
come together in delighted integration.
I am alive and Christ is risen within me!
The grace of God surrounds me like a cloud of love
and I stand on the ground in recreation.
I am home, I am free to live!
Thanks be to God!

Dorothy McRae-McMahon