Life and Dignity

Sermon 22 Sept 19

Today’s Gospel about the dishonest manager is such a puzzle. When I sat down to write this sermon, nothing seemed to jump out of it to preach about today, so I am going to concentrate on the other two readings, which are connected in a way that is helpful to understanding them, and for us today.

First, we hear from the prophet Jeremiah. He is crying for his people, that they are hurt, and abandoned. Where is their king? The prophet asks. Where is their leadership? Who is in charge here?

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’

Have you ever been in the situation when things are going wrong, but there is a change coming along. You say to yourself, I’ll just hang on till I get to that point. Then everything will be okay.

It was like that for me after my first marriage ended. Things weren’t going very well with my new relationship, but we had bought a house together, and I said to myself, everything will be ok once we’ve moved in. The tension will be over and we will be able to relax. But, guess what. Everything wasn’t okay. The same strains were still underlying the situation. More importantly, we were still the same people.

Jeremiah sounds like he had been in that situation with his people too – they were holding out for the end of the growing season, the end of the harvest, when everyone could relax, the barns would be full, the excess sold for money, and they could relax for a few months over the winter. But it wasn’t to be.

In the Christian walk, we can be lulled into relying on our own efforts in this way. We can trust that by pushing ahead with a superhuman effort, a martyr mentality, we will be vindicated and we will triumph over adversity.

But it’s only with God’s strength that we can triumph in the end. If we try to use our own strength it will run out. That’s why after a particularly busy time, when the pressure comes off, that’s when you get a cold. On the way home from the holiday, or after the exams. God who has the power to make the sun and all the other planets has plenty of strength for us, if we trust God for it.

Jeremiah was lamenting that there was no king in charge of Jerusalem. No one to lead the people through the time of struggle, and to remind them that God is in charge.

When we look to our reading from the New Testament, Timothy urges the people to pray for the king and for leadership of the nation. He’s not talking only about the church hierarchy, but those who are in high positions. Why? So ‘that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.’ That sounds good doesn’t it? In a well-run country people should be able to live like this. A quiet and peaceable life might sound boring to the young but oh how restful! An ancient Chinese curse goes: may you live in interesting times. If our country has a peaceful life in all godliness and dignity, it would be like the kingdom of heaven wouldn’t it?

Well, does it? Is New Zealand a peaceful country? Yes, on the whole. Even in the rougher neighbourhoods, you can still enjoy a lot more freedoms than in other countries. My relatives in the UK can’t let their children walk to the playground by themselves, for fear of kidnappings and other horrors. In New Zealand I have encouraged my kids to get to know their neighbourhood and go to the playground by themselves for a bit.

Is New Zealand a country of godliness and dignity? Well, on that score we have a long way to go. There are fewer and fewer people professing to worship God on their census forms. I’m using the term God in its widest form, so there are adherents of many religions, people of different faiths, but there is a substantial portion of our society who don’t even think abut whether there is a God, and what that would mean for them. Or they have decided that since you can’t see God standing in front of you that God mustn’t be real. You can’t see gravity either but that doesn’t stop you feeling its effects, just as you can feel the effects of God.

How about dignity? Our country is in the middle of two debates that are about the dignity of human life. Apparently you have no dignity at all, not even a right to be born, if you are a newly-conceived person, still floating in the womb. But what does God have to say about that? ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. It was I who knitted you together in your mother’s womb.’

In God’s world the unborn have dignity. It’s not conditional on them being perfect either. These days many people who discover on an ultrasound that their unborn baby is imperfect are offered the option of terminating that foetus. That means killing their child, and God’s child. The more this is offered, the more it is normalised, so that only those whom the parents and medical professionals deem perfect will be allowed to live. That’s not dignity.

A family in this neighbourhood last year were expecting a baby, and they heard the news that every parent fears – there are some problems with your baby’s development, and it will probably not survive till full-term, and if it does, it will not live more than a few hours. We advise a termination.

But the Mum had already felt her child alive inside her, and already loved this child. She continued to trust in God and carry the child. When the baby was born, it was obvious that he was very poorly and that he would not live long, but he got to be a part of his family for a few days. They got to hold him and love him, and when he died he was mourned as the family committed him to God’s care. There was dignity there.

Or how about at the other end of life? The Euthanasia debate has been running hot for some time, and the bill is being finnessed at the committee stage. But research from countries where euthanasia is the norm shows us that pressure comes to bear on those who are elderly, or sick, and they are made to feel that they are a burden, and that there is no point to their undignified existence. But hang on. It’s only people who tell them they have lost their dignity. You can lose the use of all your faculties and still retain your dignity, because God still holds you dear.

No one wants to see their loved ones suffer at the later stages of their life, but are we ready as a country to let ungodliness in to the point where people feel worthless and that they have no place any more?

Timothy’s prayers are as relevant today as they were nearly two thousand years ago.

Jeremiah’s pleas could be heard today too,

O that my head were a spring of water,

and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night

for the slain of my poor people!’

Today I have been very upfront about my position on the two issues of abortion and euthanasia. I know that neither issue is black and white, and that there are a wide variety of views. But it seems to me that there is a message in today’s readings that impacts on these issues. Let’s hold them up to God in our prayers in the week ahead.

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