Sermon Preached by The Reverend Neil Bramble Chapman for 15 February 2004
Have you been watching the BBC TV programme about the best sitcom ever? The Top 10 sitcoms, in no particular order are: Blackadder, Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life, One Foot in the Grave, Only Fools and Horses, Open All Hours, Porridge, The Vicar of Dibley and Yes Minister. Which one would you vote for? I guess that my favourite would have to be Blackadder, which is characterised by the extended simile. One of my favourite examples comes from the second series, where Blackadder says to Queenie “Life without you is like a broken pencil, pointless.” A close second would have to be Fawlty Towers.
One sitcom I remember from my childhood is “The Good Life”, with Tom and Barbara and their neighbours, Jerry and Margo, and isn’t Margo a wonderful snob! It is a really good sitcom, full of humour and fun, based on the premise that Tom has had enough of the Rat Race and wants to become self-sufficient. So he and Barbara set about creating a small holding in their back garden in the middle of middle-class Surbiton. Today we call this “down sizing” and is becoming increasingly popular, but back in the ‘70’s it must have been seen as an extraordinary lifestyle choice. Just not the sort of choice Margo could ever make!
Tom and Barbara attempt to become self-sufficient and self-reliant and the episodes reflect their struggles to achieve their aim. They want to live a life free from the demands and expectations of others. They want to work for themselves and reclaim their life from the dehumanising, production line of life being lived to work. They wish to be able to find their own meaning in life.
Of course this kind of self-sufficiency is quite harmless and it is even commendable, being environmentally friendly and at least you will know what you are eating when your food comes from your own garden.
But there is another kind of self-sufficiency which Jeremiah warns us about in today’s Old Testament reading. It is a self-sufficiency which stems from the belief that an individual is an island and needs no support of help from others, or even from God. It leads to a selfish individualism where the needs of self are placed first and well before the consideration of the needs of others, if others are considered at all. This kind of self-sufficiency can be destructive of self, society and of relationships with others.
Jeremiah says, “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on the flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord.” Jer. 17:5.
When people live their lives in this manner, when our hearts are turned away from God, we fail to recognise our sense of connectedness with others and with God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. In the Old Testament, God’s demand in the Covenant Relationship is to rely on Him and Him alone, rather than in any worldly relationships and alliances.
In the Hebrew understanding of the human body, the heart was more than just an organ pumping blood around the body, indeed the understanding of the function of the heart in terms of the cardiovascular system was not yet known. The heart was understood to be the centre and originator of emotions, feelings, moods and passions. An understanding which still has popular credibility today when we speak about being led by our hearts rather than our minds. But they also considered the heart to be the focus of will, decision-making and the focus of thought and reflection. Our obedience, devotion and faithfulness to God spring from the heart. It is the place of meeting with God and so plays a vital role in our relationship with God.
Of course we cannot simply take this Hebrew understanding of the heart and apply it to our lives, but it does give us some insight into the thinking and meaning in the Jeremiah passage. It provides us with some insights which can inform our understanding of our relationship with God, which Jeremiah indicates must be based upon reliance upon God and having our heart, our conscience and our will in tune with God.
In Psalm 51 vs 10, when the Psalmist cries out, “Create in me a pure heart O God and Renew a steadfast spirit within me”, he was seeking far more than having his arteries unclogged or having a triple bye-pass operation. He was seeking a new and perfect conscience, a centre of reflection and decision making that was in tune with God. What we might in Christian terms describe as the renewal of life through the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ. So that the Mind of Christ is in our lives, transforming our thinking, our feeling, our acting and our responding.
So let us then not follow a path of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, but realise that we all need the Mind of Christ within us to be true and faithful disciples of Christ. Amen.