Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: God’s love, like the flooding rain

Sermon for Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

The Seventh Sunday of Epiphany, 20th of February 2011

Matthew 5:38-48

For years we’ve prayed for rain. The most recent Victorian drought lasted for over a decade and even the most urban of inner city dwellers was aware of it, with water restrictions limiting not only the watering of gardens but the washing of cars. I have vague recollections from my childhood of people washing down their concrete driveways; my niece and nephew, born in the past decade, just wouldn’t believe that. For country dwellers, and particularly for farmers, the effects of the drought were even more obvious.

Today we celebrate harvest, giving thanks to God for God’s good gifts of food. And the drought has broken. Driving around the Macedon Ranges I’ve seen overflowing dams that I never even realised were dams, because I’d only even seen them dry. The grass is green. It’s amazing. We could sing psalm 65 together:

You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.

You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.

You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.[1]

The only problem is that the rain that broke the drought did not come gently. We haven’t seen Victoria’s agricultural land softened with showers, as the psalm describes. Over and over during these past couple of months one phrase from Dorothea Mackellar’s poem ‘My Country’ has been running through my head: ‘droughts and flooding rains’. Dorothea wasn’t naïve in her love of Australia. She recognised that Australia is a country of ‘flood and fire and famine,’ although she describes us as paid back threefold for these environmental disasters. The drought in Victoria broke with flood.

We haven’t been much affected around here – I think the very worst thing that happened was the cancelling of a combined church barbecue because the road to the Romsey church was under water. But I know that some of you have been up in flood-affected areas as Victorian Council of Churches’ Personal Support and you’ve seen the same thing I’ve seen: the fences and roads washed away; the buildings knee-deep in mud; the piles of destroyed possessions sitting on nature strips waiting to be trucked away; the great pools of stagnant water lying over paddocks. I’ve listened to people whose homes of fifty years or more will have to be demolished; and people who don’t yet know whether their insurance will cover them for what they’ve lost. I’ve met with farmers who are facing another year without income because their crops were destroyed, whose paddocks are still under water, and who will have to replace kilometres of fences. The loss of life has been much less than that of Black Saturday, and for that we can be deeply thankful, but the other damage done by flood is as bad, if not worse, as the damage done by fire.

After saying all that, it may surprise you that I’m going to compare God’s love with the rains that brought the floods. In today’s gospel reading Jesus says of our Father in heaven that he “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” but that’s not why I want to compare God’s love to the rain. I think there Jesus is talking about the same sort of rain that Psalm 65 talks about; gentle, soft rain, not the sort of rain that makes us look around for Noah and his ark.

God’s love is like the floods because it’s not measured, not reasonable, it doesn’t stop where we might like it to. God’s love is completely excessive and over-the-top. And that’s why the commands that Jesus’ gives in today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount are themselves so excessive and over-the-top. They’re outrageous: ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.’ Seriously? Does Jesus really expect us to do these things? The temptation is to water these sayings down; find ways of making sense of them so that we don’t need to follow them.

If we read these commands individually as rules that we need to obey then they’ll seem impossible for most of us to carry out. Sure, a few very special people – Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi – might be able to live up to these demands, but for us mere mortals it’s utterly impossible. Alternatively, if seen as rules these commands might actually be used to increase evil in the world; if they’re quoted to victims of domestic violence, for example, as an argument that they need to put up with abuse.

But we’re not meant to read these commands by themselves. Jesus explains the rationale underlying them. Turning the other cheek, giving cloak as well as coat, going two miles when compelled to go one, giving to all who beg, are all examples of loving everyone, even our enemies. Jesus tells his followers to go far beyond the common human practice of loving our neighbour while hating our enemy. Anyone can do that! But Jesus’ followers are called to imitate God, and God’s love, like the rain that brings flood, is extreme. God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. God treats even his enemies with grace and mercy. We see this in Jesus, who not only preached this sermon, but lived it – walking the way of the cross; refusing to resist those who betrayed, tortured and killed him; embracing death itself in order to show us all how much God loves us. Jesus’ life and death is the measure of God’s love for us, and he calls us to imitate God’s love by loving our enemies.

Jesus ends this section with the command: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ The Greek word teleios does mean perfect, and John Wesley and the Methodist movement strove for ‘Christian perfection’. But it also means complete, whole, mature. That’s who we are called to be: the people God has created us to be, demonstrating integrity and maturity. These commands are not rules that we will, inevitably, fail to live up to. They’re examples of what we may be capable of if we live as God’s beloved children, imitating the way in which God loves.

God’s love is like flooding rain. It doesn’t just go where we want it to go. It turns things upside down. It challenges the plans we make for our lives. It may even destroy things we value and think are important. Because God does not just love us, or the people of whom we approve. God loves the people of whom we disapprove, too. In fact, God loves the people who persecute us, the people who are our enemies. When we imitate God, we love them, too.

We want God’s love to always come like the gentle rain that falls on the land as a blessing. But sometimes God’s love is like the flooding rain that washes away roads and fences and destroys life as we know it. ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven’. It’s a new way of living; it’s definitely not life as we know it. Can we really love as God loves? I’m going to end by quoting John Wesley: ‘God knew well how ready our unbelief would be to cry out, This is impossible! And therefore stakes upon it all the power, truth, and faithfulness of God, to whom all things are possible.’[2] Amen.

[1] Psalm 65:9-13.

[2] Quoted in Jason Byassee, ‘Matthew 5:38-49: Theological Perspective’ in David L. Barlett & Barbara Brown Taylor (eds.), Feasting on the Word, 2010, p. 384.


February 21, 2011 - Posted by | Ministry | , , ,

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