I was talking to a fellow Chaplain at Manchester University this week and one of the things we were discussing was his teasing of a lady who helps there about her nostalgia for wonderful summers when she was a girl. Of course it is sunny days we tend to recall, not the ones trapping us indoors by rain. I also remember the past as being different. In some parts of the south Manchester suburbs I can really remember when it was all fields. When I started teaching we had to explain the internet to students; now we just use it. Meeting friends for a quiet drink used to require a day or two’s notice; now I can get a text message to say that something will happen around nine if I want to go, and I may not find out exactly where until 8.45! But I do not fall into mere nostalgia when I say society has changed.
Ideas that are leading edge in one generation are the commonplace notions of the next. They emerge in Universities and take time to get through to the general public, often in a hazy way. One such is “post-modernism”, which came about perhaps 30 years ago. It is a set of ideas which claims, at least in the social sciences, that there is no such thing as objective reality, and certainly no universal rules which work across cultures. Relationships and roles are fluid and unfixed. Everything is subjective, and it follows that any attempt to judge art or music, even conduct, as better or worse is personal inclination at best.
Of course this is nonsense; it only makes any apparent sense in a rich society. People still face real choices, there is real good and real evil in the world, but if you have no great money worries and live a life without serious health concerns then it might seem credible. The society in which we live does not always share our moral beliefs or notions of good and of evil. Modern western society seems insulated from reality. Centrally heated and artificially lit buildings even distance us from weather. When you can buy groceries at 1 a.m., even the pattern of days seems an optional extra. This lack of objective reality extends to dealing with people. Casual interactions by email and Facebook, seeing people on television, gives a false sense of intimacy, which is not the same as real shared experience, of getting through problems together.
Reality, however, is exactly what Christianity is about. Christianity has always stood in contrast to the cultures around it. The Church (sometimes uncomfortably) faces life and death full on. We are not called to shirk our responsibilities or retreat into a sort of cosy fantasy. Dealing with poverty and need is mainly seen as a job for the Government by society as a whole, but as members of the Church we are also called to help, to give our time to support those around us, to be there with people. We are called to offer our lives to Christ in service. At its simplest this means maintaining real friendships. It also means Christian parents being responsible in bringing up their children in Christian faith and life.
Church teaching is that every human being is loved by God, is unique and a special person. We are called to love each other as Christ loves us. There is no way round this. It means doing what we can to help those affected by civil war. It means being there with someone suffering illness. It means being a friend to someone held in custody without access to letters or belongings. It means helping to get a homeless migrant worker fed and sheltered and back to his own country if he cannot afford the fare. It also means quietly getting on with praying for people, making excellent prosphora, making sure the Church is cleaned properly and beautifying it with flowers. All these things are expressions of love. It means using time, talents and money to be real friends to those around about us. In today’s reading from his second letter to the Corinthians we find St. Paul teaching about giving. This followed a collection made to help other Christians to which they had responded. He says:- “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
We are to give then in response to God’s love. Our actions show God moving in many different situations. In giving we find real blessings and confirmation that we are doing right. In turn we trust God to supply our own needs. We then become channels of God’s love to those around us when we do such things. Our lives are thus enabled to reflect our true nature, our relationship with God and our being part of the Kingdom of Heaven. In Christ’s own words:- “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and mixed into about three measures of flour until it worked all through the dough.” This is found in Matthew 13 and Luke 13. The Kingdom changes the society around us as yeast changes the whole nature of flour in the dough. In St Matthew Chapter 5:14 Christ calls His followers “light” :- “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
A good example of this way of life was St John the Merciful, a Patriarch of Alexandria. Amongst the stories recorded about him is one that tells that he was on his way to the Church when he met a needy widow. She spoke to him at length about her problems. The Patriarch’s escorts became bored by the woman, and urged the bishop to hurry on to the church for the service saying that he could hear the woman’s story afterwards. St John said to them:- “And how will God listen to me, if I do not listen to her?” He would not leave until he had heard the widow’s complaint to the end. It was also said of him that a stranger decided to test him. He came three times asking for money. “Give him twelve coins,” said St John, “for he might be Christ come to test me.” The Patriarch gave what he could when asked, so also must we be available and willing to help when called upon to do so. It is Christ Himself asking for our help. I am privileged to see within this Church practical help given and I have seen it done quietly and without fuss. For these things, glory be to God! So the challenge and call is to give of ourselves, as we have promised God. In the words we hear from Deacon Emmanuel in every Litany, “let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole lives unto Christ our God.” …. to Whom be glory for ever. Amen.