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I THIRST

Sermon for Advent Sunday

(1 Corinthians 1.3-9, Psalm 80.1-8, Mark 13.2-end, Year B)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We’re familiar with the idea that Advent is a time of waiting.  That’s why we have Advent calendars and crowns to help us count down the remaining time.  But if we are waiting, we must be waiting for something.

The obvious and immediate answer is Christmas.  And yes, the season of Advent ends with the first Mass of Christ’s birth, which is where Christmas gets its name from.  We celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, that moment when heaven came down and touched the earth – something which we also celebrate at every Eucharist, the touching of heaven and earth at the altar as earthly bread and wine is blessed by God as the priest recites the words of Jesus at the Last Supper.  

And certainly Christmas is not whole if we only think of Christ’s birth.  We also have to think of why Jesus came.  You can’t have the CRIB without the CROSS.

However, even with all that in mind, we’re not actually waiting for Jesus’ birth.  That has already happened, over 2000 years ago.  So is Advent an empty, pointless waiting, just a show? Are we just prying open cardboard windows until we can unwrap random presents and scoff more food than you can shake a stick at?

As St Paul was fond of saying – By no means!

So, what are we waiting for?

Our readings today tell us: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory.” (Mark 13.26)

The answer is, we are waiting for the Second Coming.  

In Advent we focus on the final part of the Memorial Acclamation, the words we often say during the Eucharist Prayer:  Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.

Every year, on Advent Sunday we enter a new Lectionary Year.  We are now in Year B, which is focused on the Gospel of St Mark, and it begins Advent with this passage of Christ’s glorious return.  

And it really is glorious – it’s why we sing about how wonderful it will be when people from all over the world will gather together to worship Christ – ‘Hills of the north rejoice…’  There is this sense of the enormity of what it will mean for us to see Christ in all his glory.

However, apart from the global scale, what does that feel like for each of us?

It can feel a little overwhelming, even scary.  It’s why when we hear the parables of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, or the slaves awaiting their masters return, we hope fervently that we will be wise, we will be found at work, not sleeping on the job.  Keep awake! (Mark 13.37)

And Jesus made it abundantly clear, there would be hints that the time was coming (earthquakes, war and so on), but equally he will come like a thief in the night, unknown and without warning.  

So it is on us to be vigilant.

That’s part of the purpose of Advent – to remind us to keep waiting, keep watching; to be ready.

Christmas isn’t about presents, nice though they are.  St Paul tells us that we have already been given the best gift.  It began at the dawn of time, bore fruit at the Incarnation and Resurrection, and was delivered to all who believe at Pentecost.  St Paul explains: “The grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1.4)

We didn’t earn it, or pay for it.  God gives it to us freely.

So if Jesus were to return today; if he were to walk through your door, right now, how would you feel? 

You might be ecstatic – this is Jesus, after all, our Lord and Master.

You might feel overwhelmed – this is God, who gives us life, and makes us tremble with love and awe.

You might feel panicky – I know He loves me, but have I responded enough, been kind and loving to those around me enough, have I tried to live a Christ-like life?

Probably we’d feel a bit of each.  But here’s the thing – we have the opportunity, right now, to do something about the third emotion.  

We can repent, turn our hearts back to God, and each day invite the Holy Spirit to enter into our hearts and lives a little more, “so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1.7)

Amen.

(Artwork: Greek Icon of the Second Coming, dated 1700)

Sermon for Christ the King

Ephesians 1.15-23, Psalm 95.1-7, Matthew 25.31-46 (Year A, 2020)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We reach the end of our Church calendar year, and what a year it has been.  We’ve been challenged in so many ways – in our day to day lives, but also in our faith.  We were unable to celebrate Easter together, the most important Christian festival of the year.  We’ve been unable to gather together for much of the year.  No singing.  No sharing of the Cup as Jesus himself commanded us to do.  

But what we have been able to do is pray, no matter where we are.  And the prayer which every Christian knows, the one which comes readily to our mouths in time of need is the Lord’s Prayer.  Thy kingdom come, we pray; please, Lord, please come.

On this feast of Christ the King we reflect on what it means to pray for Christ’s kingdom to come.   How different it looks to worldly kingdoms.  Just take a moment to reflect on the behaviour, the morals and ethics of the leaders we see in the news every day.  Which ones do you respect, and why?  Are they the leaders who dominate and wield power like a weapon?  Who demand fealty?  Who cling to control rather than serve? 

Or the ones who care for their people?  Those for whom politics is a chance to bring justice and equality to the forgotten and marginalised?  Who work to build up the common good?

Which kingdom would you rather live in?

When the end of days come, we will all stand in front of God and have to give an account of our lives.  Leaders bear a heavy burden for they will need to explain their earthy rule to the King of kings, and so they need our prayers.  This isn’t about party politics, but about something so much larger.  This is about life, and love and justice.

And although their responsibility is greater, what is required of them, goes for us too.

Jesus could not be clearer about what he expects of people, not just his followers, but all people.  You do not have to be a Christian to know that the right thing to do is to care for those who are in desperate need, or to be kind and welcoming to a stranger.  No-one needs to be told about how to be a decent human being.  

And yet so often apparently we do.

So Jesus laid it out in Matthew 25.  This is a parable of the Last Judgement.  We can be a bit squeamish about this side of Jesus.  We prefer our Jesus non-challenging, preferably made in our own image.  That’s why this year our Advent Reflections will focus on the Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven.  They might not sound very Christmassy, but actually they are the traditional themes for Advent reflection.  They help us to focus on why Jesus came at Christmas at all, and in understanding the Second Coming, we might live more faithful and loving Christian lives, and Christmas will have a deeper, more impactful meaning.

Jesus, our Lord and God, our Judge and Redeemer, will look to our behaviour to see our faith in action.  As we approach Advent, this is a good time to look at the words of Scripture we have heard today, and think back over the last year.  Have I helped to feed the hungry?  Have I welcomed those who are far from home?  Clothed the poor and needy?  Cared for the sick?

Be more specific. 

Have you thought consciously about giving to the food bank, or do you pass by the basket and think ‘next time’? 

When you read the papers about refugees or immigrants, what language was used to describe them – and if it was negative, how did that impact how you felt about the people? 

If you’ve cleared out your closet in the long lockdown period, what did you do with all the clothing you no longer needed? 

And maybe you are front line NHS staff and working long hours caring for the sick, or maybe the only thing you have been asked to do is wear a mask and stay at home, and did you do it with grace, or have you complained at every opportunity?

This passage should shake us all to think about what we will say in front of Christ the King, and to think that when we pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ what we are asking for?

Amen.

(Artwork: a 6th century mosaic of the Last Judgement from Ravenna)

Sermon for the Second Sunday before Advent

1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Psalm 90.1-8, Matthew 25.14-30 (Yr A)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

You may be wondering why today image’s is of Leonardo da Vinci’s great work, The Last Supper. This is clearly a Eucharistic painting, so what has it to do with the Parable of the Talents as told by St Matthew?

Well, because the Parable of the Talents can feel, to be put it bluntly, harsh, even a little frightening, I’m going to use this piece of art to explore its themes.

If you are ever in Milan, I seriously encourage you to go and see this painting for yourselves. It’s much bigger than you think – just under 9m long and 5 metres high, taking up the whole end of the refectory of the monastery in which it is situated. It’s such a famous image that like, many passages of the Gospels, we skip over the surface of it, thinking we already know what it has to tell us.

So yes, this is the Last Supper of Jesus, however da Vinci has captured one fleeting moment of the night. And it is this: Jesus has just told the disciples that one of them will betray him, and every other figure present is showing different responses of shock, anger and fear.

If we think about the Parable of the Talents, imagine the group of slaves all standing about waiting to tell their master what they’ve done in his absence, and what their faces would have been like when he started to rage against the last slave.

This is where the Parable becomes extremely challenging. As Christians we believe that we will stand before Jesus and give an account of ourselves, of the way we have lived our lives. In the Creed, which we will say together in a few moments, we say ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.’ What will I say to my Master, when he asks me, ‘What have you done with the talents, the gifts, the treasures that I entrusted to you?’

If we look at the reactions of the disciples in The Last Supper, perhaps we see our own thoughts about this question.

Moving from left to right, Bartholomew, James and Andrew (the 1st three figures) all look utterly surprised, hands raised in shock.

Judas is next, clutching a bag of money and knocking over a salt cellar, which means to betray one’s master; he alone knows the truth of Christ’s judgement. Leaning over Judas is an angry Peter, who holds a knife, perhaps foreshadowing his response in Gethsemene. John, the youngest, faints away from Jesus, the opposite of when he leant his head on Christ’s chest and heard the heartbeat of God.

On the other side of Christ, Thomas is clearly upset; his raised index finger foreshadows his incredulity of the Resurrection, the hand he would ask to plunge into Christ’s wounds. James the Greater looks stunned, with his arms in the air, and alongside him Philip appears to be requesting some explanation. Do I demand more proof of God?

Finally, Jude or Thaddeus and Matthew are turned away from Jesus toward Simon the Zealot, perhaps to find out if he has the answer, or to seek reassurance in their disbelief.

When we are challenged by Jesus, how do we each respond?

And today’s challenge about our use of the gifts that God gives us is a really important one, because Jesus makes it clear in the parable that God gives us talents in order for us to use them for good and for God.

If we then draw in the words of St Paul in his letter to the Church in Thessalonica, we are reminded that as the Body of Christ we are called to work together and encourage one another. Paul had been forced to leave Thessalonica in a rush, and the fledging church that he left behind had to find their way in the dark. His letter tells them not to be scared, rather to trust, “for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation” and that they should “encourage one another and build up each other.”

Just think how differently the Parable of the Talents would have been if when the master returned and asked what had gone on, together the slaves had said they had discussed what to do, and Slave C had said they were a bit unsure about investing it, but Slave A had encouraged them, so they’d been bold, and worked together, and behold – lots of talents.

Let’s not be the slave of Christ who says ‘I went and hid your talent in the ground’. Let’s be imaginative and bold, and together who knows what works to the glory of God we will make.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci)

Sermon for the Third Sunday before Advent

Wisdom of Solomon 6.12-16, Psalm 70, Matthew 25.1-13

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In both the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon and the Book of Proverbs Wisdom and Folly are described as women.  Their characters are described, and they offer different wares to those who pass by.  Which way to go?  It feels like there’s a very obvious answer, so why is Folly so popular?

I think the issue is that life isn’t so binary.  It isn’t always as clear cut as ‘truth’ or ‘lie’.  Look at the mess we are in now with the internet and social media.  It’s awash with propaganda for this cause or the other.  There is “fake news” and “alternative truths”.  In reality there are often, not always, but often good points on both sides of an argument.  However, everything seems to be much more relative these days: what do I think is truth?

This is one of the great strengths of Christianity.  It roots us in something other than ourselves.  We are connected through Scripture, Tradition and Reason to the Church and to Jesus.  Wisdom is the bridge between ourselves and God, which is why Jesus, the Logos or Word, is also associated with the Old Testament figure of Wisdom.

There is something else in wisdom, and it is to do with preparation.  In our Gospel reading, Jesus again presents two groups of women, the wise and the foolish bridesmaids.   The ten women are ready for the wedding, but only 5 took additional oil with them when they went out to party.  As night falls and the lamps grow dim, the 5 foolish bridesmaids realise their lamps are going out and have to scurry off to buy oil.  On returning they discover that they have missed the arrival of the bridegroom and are locked out.  Being foolish and unprepared has consequences.

There are 3 points in this parable which appear elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, and so I believe we should pay them especial attention:

  1. All the bridesmaids fell asleep in this parable, but at the end Jesus warns his followers to “Keep awake”.  Elsewhere Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming at an unexpected hour like a thief (Mt 24.42), and in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus chastised his disciples for being unable to stay awake for one hour to pray with him.  
  2. Jesus is clearly depicted as the Bridegroom.  In the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Mt 22.1-14) the Kingdom of God is described as the wedding banquet, and tradition links Christ as the Bridegroom with the Church as his Bride.  This is an intimate relationship of love, and one to treasure.
  3. And finally, perhaps the most challenging of all: the words to the bridesmaids: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” (Mt 25.13).  Jesus makes a similar warning in Mt 7.21.  

And so this whole parable is a warning.  It tells us to not rest on our laurels.  There are some things we cannot do at the last minute without there being consequences.  I’ve used before the metaphor of prayer being like a telephone.  It’s purpose is clear, to communicate.  So when you get a new phone, you don’t leave it in its packaging.  You get it out, read the instructions and practice using it.  The more you use it, the easier it becomes.  You learn how it works.  Only a fool would wait until you need to use it in an emergency, to call for an ambulance, for example, before trying to unpack it from its box.  It’s still going to work, but my goodness what problems and stress the delay might cause.

And it’s just the same with the Christian life.  I rather like this example from the commentary of William Barclay.  At the end of 1694, aged 32, Queen Mary II, Mary of Orange, lay in her bedchamber at Kensington Palace dying of smallpox.  Mary was know as being a devout Christian, and so her chaplain came to her to prepare her for death and explain the way to salvation.  She replied “I have not left this matter to this hour.” (Barclay, Gospel of St Matthew vol 2, p374).

So let us be vigilant: keep watching and using our time wisely to prepare.

What are we waiting for?  

Jesus – we are waiting for you.  Come, O Lord, we pray.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins’ by Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow (1838-1842))

Sermon for All Saints Day

Preached at the Patronal Festival Evensong, 1st November 2020

Ecclesiasticus 44.1-15, Revelation 7.9-end

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

All Saints’ Day is one of the oldest festivals in the Church calendar, though initially it was celebrated on the Sunday after the feast of Pentecost. This made a clear link between the founding moment of the Church when the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the witnesses, especially the martyrs, who gave their lives to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the 2nd century theologian Tertullian wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” These are the heroes of the Christian faith whose lives have inspired countless generations to holiness.

Furthermore, as we celebrate and remember them today, we are reminded that the Church is so much more than just this congregation gathered here today. The Church exists throughout time and space, and we are all linked together, the Church triumphant in heaven, and the Church militant here on earth. The Church does not exist apart from each other.

Our readings today also point to that breadth of the Church. In Ecclesiasticus we are shown the ways in which people can serve God – counsellors, prophets, in law and creativity, in hospitality and patronage, some famous, some whose names are lost in the mists of time, but all known and treasured by God.

The second passage is from the Book of Revelation. Imagery from Revelation appears throughout our liturgy and underpins a lot of mainstream Christian theology, but it’s not an easy book to read or understand. However, it is easy to see why this passage is read on All Saints’ Day with its vision of huge numbers of people gathered together in front of God’s throne. It’s a beautiful image of the universal church, joining together in worship and praise.

However, at the end the passage focuses on one particular group, the saints and martyrs who have been through a great trial, and who have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. These blessed ones are in white robes, reflecting the ancient tradition of new Christians at baptism being dressed in white, symbolizing purity and new life in Christ. This is because it was traditionally understood that filthy robes would represent sinfulness – so in Exodus (19.10-14) Moses orders the people to wash their garments in preparation for receiving the Commandments from God, and in Isaiah (1.18) the prophet hears the promise that the sins which are as scarlet as crimson will be as wool.

But how does blood wash anything clean? Blood stains, in our culture it often represents death, certainly the blood of the Lamb points to Christ’s death. But in the Jewish faith, blood means life.

That is why orthodox Jews never eat anything that hasn’t been drained of blood (a law set down in Genesis 9.4: “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood”). The blood is life, and the life belongs to God. Only when a person’s blood ebbs away, so does life. When the New Testament speaks about the blood of Jesus Christ, it means not only his death, but his life and death and new life.

So in baptism, we are washed clean in the life of Christ, as well as partaking in his death. And this passage reminds us that the victory has already been won by God and the Lamb; so those who follow the Lamb are rescued from harm. John was writing to people who were facing the very real prospect of persecution and great suffering, but he is reminding them that they will then find themselves in the true reality, in God’s throne room, worshipping him day and night, with great and exuberant joy.

This week three of our brothers and sisters in Christ were martyred in Nice, attacked simply because they were at Mass in church. They were the latest in a long line of saints who have received the crown of martyrdom and they have taken their place in the Church Triumphant, redeemed through the blood of the Lamb “and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Rev 7.17).

So today let us in our Patronal Festival celebrate the life of our church here in Highbrook, but above all let us celebrate the victory of Christ over death and sin, and the place in heaven promised to us who trust in Him. Amen.

Sermon for Bible Sunday

Colossians 3.12-17, Ps 119.9-16, Matthew 24.30-35

(For this sermon I invite you to have with you a copy of the Bible. If it was given to you, remember the person who gave it to you. If you bought it yourself, try to remember why you first wanted to pick up the Bible, where did you start (Old or New Testament). What part of the Bible has had the most impact on your life? Why does the Bible matter to you?)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

What is the Bible?  If you’re holding one in your hands, your first thought might be ‘it’s a book’.  

That’s true, but also not really the whole truth.  Initially the Hebrew Bible would, and in Synagogues still can be found in the form of scrolls.  A large proportion of the New Testaments is made up of letters.  So really the Bible is a library – it’s full of different genres (law, history, poetry, letters and so on).

If you open your Bible and look down the index, some of you will have books that don’t appear in other versions of the Bible.  If your Bible includes Baruch, Maccabees, Judith and Tobit then your version includes the apocrypha – texts that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church have broadly speaking regarded as equally authoritative as the rest of the Bible, whereas Protestant Churches have tended to omit them.  It was St Jerome back in the 5th century who sort of fixed what was included, but even then St Augustine disagreed with him – so no change there then!

Okay, its a semi-fixed library, but what it is the Bible?

I’ve heard it called Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.  But is it just an instruction manual?  There are definitely commandments – the Ten Commandments, the great Commandments to love God and our neighbour, and so on.  And yet when Jesus was teaching and preaching he didn’t simply give us a clear set of rules. Wouldn’t that have been easier?

What did he use instead?  Parables.

And that gives us an insight into what the Bible is.  It’s a story.  It’s part of God’s story, the part where he interacts with creation, with the chosen people of Israel and then the Early Church.  It’s a story of salvation, where the goal is union with God.  Yes, there’s battles and politics and law, but above all this is a story of God’s love and relationship with us.  It’s our family tree.  

In which case, who wrote it?

Well, unless you’re holding a Hebrew and Greek Bible, you’re also holding a translation, and well worth remembering that different translations will present some things the same but some things differently.  So the skill of the translator is definitely in play here.   But the core text?  The Bible is the inspired word of God, God-breathed, through the visions and thoughts of man, reflected and debated and chosen by the Church given to us to learn and reflect upon.  And as it says in Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”; the Bible is not simply to be read, it is to be lived.

This is why week by week in Church we read and hear this complex, rich and diverse body of literature, and respond by saying ‘This is the word of the Lord’ (even when it is tricky and we’re not convinced we agree with it.  And note the significance that we say ‘This is (not was) the word of the Lord.’  The Bible is much more than a historical record of the story of salvation.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit it is today the primary means by which God works in and through his people to redeem and sanctify them.  That’s why God’s words will never pass away (Mt 24.35).

And with that in mind, if you’re holding your Bible, I invite you to ask God to bless our endeavours to be immersed in and enlivened by His holy word.

Almighty God, who has sent your Son into the world as the Word made flesh, grant that we may read and meditate upon your holy word as we see it in the scriptures.  Enlighten our minds, warm our hearts to believe what you have spoken, and grant us an ever deeper love of you and your commandments, through your Word, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

(Artwork: The frontispiece from the First Edition of the King James Bible, 1611 by Cornelius Boel)

Sermon for the Feast of St Luke the Evangelist

Isaiah 35.3-6, Luke 10.1-9

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading sees Jesus sending out the Seventy disciples on an early mission.  It’s a major step for Christ’s followers.  Initially they had listened, watched Jesus teach and heal and debate.  Now, in teams, they begin to take their first tentative steps into the world as missionaries.  Later they return to Jesus, give feedback of how it went and learn from their experiences.  It’s not until Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them that they are truly ready for this work, but these early opportunities must have shaped their faith and calling. 

All in all, it’s a good description of the Christian life – we listen and learn, we work together in communities to partake in God’s mission, each called to go out into the world to share the Good News, remembering always to point to and return to Jesus, always relying on Christ our foundation stone.

Luke wasn’t one of those sent out by Jesus in the Gospel reading.  His ministry came later, a friend and companion to St Paul.  He was thought to have been a physician, and he was a Gentile.  His Gospel reflects this, particularly showing how Jesus offered salvation not only to the Jews, but also the Gentiles, and other previously excluded people; women, those considered unclean, and the poor.  Luke was deeply compassionate about those struggling in the body, in the here and now.  When Luke wrote down the Beatitudes, he heard Jesus say ‘Blessed are the poor’, rather than the ‘poor in spirit’.  

In our first reading the prophet Isaiah explained how the people would know if God was close to them, specifically mentioning healing of blindness, deafness, of being mute or physically disabled.  

Of course, there are ways anyone can be spiritually unwilling to see or listen to God, but linked to Luke’s Gospel it’s in physical healing that we hear the words echoed by Jesus as part of his charge to the disciples: “Cure those in it who are sick, and say, ‘The kingdom of God is very near to you.’”  There is a flowing out of Christ’s power to those he sends.  It’s very direct and is a real foretaste of what the kingdom will look like, hence his words which go along with it.  It is in God that we see complete renewal and redemption.  The healings are a sign of this, as foretold by Isaiah.

We probably feel that we could do with that sort of healing now.  Too many of us know people who have been affected by Covid-19, who have died, or had other treatments or operations delayed, are suffering from mental health problems or seen life spiral out of control. 

And this is where we need to pray for faith, faith to believe in the Good News of Jesus.  Because the Gospel brings healing – not necessarily of curing disease, and certainly with no suggestion that if nothing happens you aren’t praying enough.  

But the Gospel reminds us of core truths – that we are made in the image of God; that we are loved; that we are redeemed from all sin; that we are mortal but through Christ we are promised an eternal life; and that there is a resurrection of the body in which we are made perfect.  We mustn’t be shy of telling people this Good News – it may make all the difference to someone in real physical, mental and spiritual pain.  For someone who finds their life in Christ can face difficulties with renewed strength.  

In traditional iconography, the four evangelists are often by the four “living creatures”seen in the vision in Ezekiel (Chapter 1) and reflected in the Book of Revelation (4:6–9). Given the healing content of Luke’s Gospel, it’s no wonder his symbol is the winged ox or bull – a figure of sacrifice, service and strength.

And we all need to hear that call and encouragement, for each of us has a degree of brokenness within us.  Let us support one another, with prayer and friendship and practical support.  Together as a community we can hold one another in love, and love is a place of healing. Together with Christ we heal.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘St Luke the Evangelist’ by Vladimir Borovikovsky (1757–1825))

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Isaiah 25.1-9, Matthew 22.1-14

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s readings have one thing in common – they all talk about the great heavenly banquet, the promise of an eternal life where there is no more hungry or thirst, no more pain, but a joyful welcome to the Lord’s Table, a foretaste of which we receive here in this life at Holy Communion.

Isaiah passage, which is later referenced heavily in the Book of Revelation, links this “feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines” (Isa 25.6) with how God will swallow up death for ever.  In Psalm 23 the Shepherd who walks through the valley of the shadow of death brings a table and overflowing cup to the weary traveller.   And in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells the parable of the Wedding Banquet, where those who refuse to come the party are replaced with others who will come.

(It is worth mentioning that this parable comes immediately after the Parable of the Tenants, and would have been a powerful link to those listening who rejected Jesus’ teachings in his day.)

But then we get to the final part of the passage and suddenly it feels uncomfortable.  One minute everything sounds good – we are invited to the party.  Others have rejected God, but we’re okay, because now the doors are open to us.  So why is this person being bound and thrown out into the outer darkness (Mt 22.13)?  He didn’t even know he was going to a wedding, how could he expect to know to wear the right clothes?

And this is where being a follower of Christ becomes more challenging than sometimes people expect.  Jesus is very clear about what God expects from people – he gave us the Beatitudes, taught on money, anger, caring for the vulnerable, behaviour towards God and turning away from sin.  He was very clear about what was required from our hearts – he didn’t water down his message, and eventually it got him killed.

And that’s the problem.  Not many people want to hear that message.  What would be much more popular is a nice, comfy, Jesus-is-my-friend message, that doesn’t require any change.

I don’t think of Jesus  as being “nice”.  He was kind, he was loving and compassionate;  but he wasn’t “nice”.  Likewise Jesus was good, but loving goodness can be a frightening, for it won’t accept bad behaviour and so Jesus didn’t tone down his message, and he wasn’t afraid to challenge.  When people came to Jesus, he loved them as they were, but he expected them to change.  Because he knew that each and every person needed to change – whether it was through healing or transforming lifestyles.  As Tom Wright put it, “His love reached them where they were, but his love refused to let them stay as they were.  Love wants the best for the beloved.” (‘Matthew For Everyone, p84)

So yes, this is an uncomfortable parable, because it stops us being complacent.  It makes us ask the question, ‘Am I dressed in the right clothes for heaven?’  We know what we should be dressed in, the fruits of the spirits: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness, & Self-Control. 

We do everyone a disservice if we pretend anything different.  A person can choose to turn away from Christ, and live a life that rejects these virtues. There is always the chance that when the time comes to give to God an account of their life and actions, they can throw themselves on his mercy and he will be merciful, but that isn’t how God calls us to be.  

Instead listen to Jesus’ words, take them seriously, and live a life fit for the heavenly banquet and everlasting life.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Wedding Feast’ by Sir John Everett Millais)

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Philippians 2.1-13, Matthew 21.23-32

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last week I reflected on the difference between rights and obligations.  This week Christ’s parable moves us onto intentions.  A lot of people have written a lot of things about intentions.

From a book of English proverbs dating from 1670 : “Hell is full of good meanings and wishes.”

Aldous Huxley wrote, “Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions; it’s walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too.”

On the other hand, Neal Shusterman wrote, “But remember that good intentions pave many roads. Not all of them lead to hell.” 

Shusterman’s point is that it is our actions which will define the outcome.  And that is what Jesus is trying to get his audience to think about.

As so often happened he was being goaded by an a group of religious leaders who wanted to debate his authority – where it came from, who gave it to him, what power he had.  Their questions tell us much about what they were afraid of, where their focus was. 

Jesus refused to be drawn into the debate on their terms, and answered a question with a question, and a refusal to answer with his own refusal.  But then he gave them a parable, that of the two sons.  Both are asked by their father to work in the vineyard.  The first gives a curt refusal, but later changes his mind and goes.  The second gives a respectful affirmation, but never actually goes.

We might immediately think of ourselves in this situation.  After all, that is the power of the parables.  We see ourselves.  So we might be reminded that whatever we do to serve God, we should do it with grace and love.  Sometimes easier said than done, but a good reminder.

There is another level, the one more obvious to Jesus’ original audience.

The father represented God.  The first son represented the tax-collectors and prostitutes, the people who were considered unworthy by those in power for being lax in their keeping of the law, but who had been drawn to the ministry of John the Baptist, repented and had come to obey God.  The second son represented the people arguing with Jesus about authority, the chief priests and the elders, who despite their outward religious profession, had disobeyed God by not believing John the Baptist.  

No wonder they began to seek Jesus’ death – his words of truth were finding their target.  The options were to listen, learn and change; ignore Jesus and hope he went away; or remove him from the equation.

And compare all this to the beautiful passage from the Epistle to the Philippians.  Here we see perfection in the true son.  The one who honours the Father, who doesn’t question his authority, but is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

We are not being prompted to model ourselves not on the first son, but rather on Christ. Our good intentions are the starting point.  It is what we do and say and think that will set our feet on a path.

As St Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Parable of the Father and His Two Sons in the Vineyard, from The Story of Christ’ by Georg Pencz)

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