St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 10 (20.08.2017)

Tony Dickinson

One of the things we learn about God as we study his word to us in Scripture and as we look at how he has operated in human lives down the centuries is that God has appalling taste in people. God wants to free his people from slavery in Egypt; who does he choose to do the job? A fugitive murderer with a stammer. God wants to bring his people back to their own land from exile in a far-off country; who does he choose? An Iranian fire-worshipper.

There’s another thing: God seems to get a huge kick out of breaking his own rules. Take today’s first reading, for example. Foreigners entering the house of God ? Foreigners offering acceptable sacrifices? There are all sorts of rumblings in the books that are shared by Christians and Jews – and indeed in this morning’s gospel – between those whose vision is universal and those who want God to get a grip, take control, remember who he has chosen to be his people!

But God doesn’t. God gathers in all sorts of waifs and strays, as we heard in that reading from the prophecies of Isaiah. Anyone who is prepared to behave like one of God’s people is to be counted as one of God’s people. God gathers them in. Nothing about borders and boundaries here. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Thus says the Lord. And in case we didn’t get the message first time round, he repeats it, but this time he starts off “Thus says the Lord God.” When both titles are used we know it’s serious. “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”

That, dear brothers and sisters, is how we come to be here. We are here because God gathers, not only those on the edge (the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” as Jesus called them), but people far beyond the edge. And God gathers us here because God is love – not soft, romantic, rose-petal-strewn, puppy love, but tough, mature, unconditional love, which sees us as we are, with all our faults, all our flaws, our need for healing and forgiveness, and says “you, you too, are mine, despite everything”. This is the love that, faced with people far beyond the edge, says “these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.”

This is also the love which, reduced to human scale, sustains a marriage through half a century. How long ago, I wonder, did Hazel and Mike move beyond the romance and the rose-petals? Judging by yesterday they still have space for both, but they are only the beginning. For a marriage to last, as theirs has lasted, the rose-tinted glasses have to be replaced by clear sight, honesty and constant mutual forgiveness, as well as mutual self-giving, and the romance has to morph into a story that acknowledges all the hard work which is needed if a couple are indeed to “live happily ever after”. As a wise and holy priest many years ago told two friends of mine who were thinking about marriage, “The important thing is that you have learned to suffer together.”

So today although world events make it difficult to be “happy ever after” we can indeed be “joyful in [this] house of prayer.” We can be joyful because in the love that has sustained Mike and Hazel’s marriage for the fifty years since young Miss Paulley and young Mr Noakes said “I will” to one another – in their love we can catch a tiny glimpse of that infinitely greater love which is the source of everything that there is, from galaxies to a grain of sand, and which holds together the whole of creation, the love which shares human life, from the womb to the tomb, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Then we begin to understand how biblical writings from the Song of Songs to the Book of Revelation can have the boldness to picture the relationship between God and his people in terms of marriage. It is all grace – and by that I don’t mean number one grand-daughter but the gift, constantly renewed, of hope, pardon, healing, joy and love.

And now to God the Father who first loved us...