Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity

Hebrews 4.1-10, Psalm 91.9-end & Mark 10.35-45 (Proper 24, 2021)

The author of the letter to the Hebrews says about Jesus, “You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 5.6 and 5.10)

If you don’t know who Melchizedek was, then you might be wondering why this is so important that it gets mentioned not once, but twice.  To find out more we have to go all the way back to Genesis 14, where we discover that Melchizedek was the king of Salem and priest of El Elyon (or ‘most high God’).  When Abram returned from defeating king Chedorlaomer, he met Melchizedek who came out to greet him carrying bread and wine.  

Melchizedek went on to say, “‘Blessed be Abram by God most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand’.  And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.” (Genesis 14.18-20)

So, next question: why does the author of Hebrews frame Jesus in this order of priesthood?

Well, during the Exodus, the priesthood was given solely into the hands of one tribe, that of Levi, beginning with Moses’ older brother, Aaron (Exodus 28).  But from the genealogies found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we know Jesus was not a Levite.  Both Gospels trace the line of Joseph to Judah (Luke 3.23-38 & Matthew 1.1-16).

So not a levitical priest. But given that Melchizedek was not a Levite either, being earlier in history than the Exodus, and yet was able to bless Abram, we are shown a different path to being a priest.

Again, you might say, ‘why does any of this matter?!’

And I answer that question with another question: what did a priest do in the Old Testament?

If you look at the role of the levitical priests, they were in the Temple serving God in the Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle.  Only the High Priest could enter behind the Temple curtain once a year on the Day of Atonement, and there he would offer sacrifices for all the people, including himself.  

At the feast of Pesach or Passover, the Paschal Lambs were slaughtered to remember the Exodus when the Angel of Death killed the first born of every family in Egypt, but passed over the houses of the Israelites who had smeared the blood of a sacrificed lamb on the door lintels (Exodus 12.1-28).

And it kept having to be done because the atoning sacrifices couldn’t make up for the failings of the people.

However you don’t see me splashing blood on the altar or asking you to bring a lamb to be sacrificed.  And that’s because everything changes with Jesus, our great High Priest.

Despite not being a levitical priest, Jesus, the Son of God, did what no-one else could do.  He died on the cross and made there “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of of the whole world.” (BCP Holy Communion service)

Jesus gathered up all the strands and brought them together.  He is both priest, offering the sacrifice, and the sacrifice, the Lamb of God.

This is why our Holy Communion service is so important.  Jesus commanded us to do this (and that carries weight in its own right) because the words that are said here are vitally important.  We are reminded of what Jesus has done for us, but it is more than just a memory.  Through anamnesis, rather than a passive memory, we enter into the Paschal mystery as Christ’s sacrifice is made present here and now.  It is not a repeat or an echo, because Jesus’ sacrifice is complete and eternal.

So we gather around the Lord’s table, with bread and wine, where our great High Priest, Jesus Christ confirmed the sacrifice of his body and blood, which was given for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

And we are shown afresh how Jesus was not a random person who popped up by chance.  No, the threads which weave through scripture, liturgy and history come together in Jesus, and in him we receive the Good News of freedom from sin and death.  Thanks be to God that Jesus ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10.45)     

(Artwork: ‘Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek’ by Dieric Bouts the Elder, 1464–1467)

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Hebrews 4.12-end, Psalm 90.12-end & Mark 10.17-31 (Year B, 2021)

The letter to the Hebrews tells us, upfront and with no fudging of the issue, that if we listen to the word of God we will be challenged.  “The word of God is living and active”, meaning it is at work in the present.  It is not something confined to the past or to the pages of a book; it is moving in and around you right now.  Furthermore, it is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4.12); it is going to get into your mind, your heart, and your bones, and it knows everything about you.

This passage helps us to understand why the encounter in the Gospel between Jesus and the rich man is so uncomfortable, for the rich man and for ourselves.  Because the word of God is going to confront us with the truth about ourselves.

When the rich man approached Jesus, let’s assume he was genuine in his desire to search for eternal life.  However, note how he asks how to “inherit” eternal life – his choice of language makes it very possible he inherited all his worldly wealth and power, and was looking for eternal life as something which he will be given by right.

He even asks “what MUST I do?”  What’s the least, the minimum, that is needed?

Despite this, Jesus’ response is initially comforting – he asked the rich man if he had lived by the law, of which Jesus gave a a representation of the wider Jewish Law by reciting from the Ten Commandments. And the man replied that he had lived by the Law.  So to hear those words would have been very comforting to him, to be told that he was on the right track.  

But just as he thought he had done enough, Jesus did what he so often does, he called the man to take the next step.  

He invited him to sell all that he owned and follow him.  Comfort turned to challenge, and the rich man struggled with the idea of letting go of his everyday life, the materials things that tie so many of us to the world.  We can do nothing but feel for the man as he left the scene, sorrowful at what he had to face, the challenge of letting go of all those ‘things’.

Jesus goes on to describe wealth as being a hurdle to heaven, because when the chips are down, money and possessions seem to actually be rather sticky.  We might think we are happy to get rid of them in theory but the practice is another matter.  There are very few of us who hear the challenge given to the rich man and respond as St Francis of Assisi did, who took this as a literal challenge, and sold all he had to embrace a life of poverty and prayer.  

So how do we each know, here and now, that money hasn’t become an idol to us?  Timothy Keller gives us some helpful pointers: if you can’t give large sums of it away, if you get jealous at how well other people are doing and feel you should have their rewards, if deep down you are fearful of having less than you have right now.  Basically when money, wealth and status become the core of your identity, then you are in real danger.

We all, at some point, have to examine our approach to money and giving.  This isn’t something which should only be preached about at harvest time.  The only thing Jesus talked about more than our attitudes to money is Heaven and Hell and the Kingdom of God.  Eleven of the thirty-nine parables are about money.

And I’m going to bring this home to this church.  Starting at a Diocesan level, Chichester is the 6th wealthiest Diocese in England.  In the 2018 Parish Finance Statistics report it stated that in this Diocese the weekly planned giving per giver was £14.40.  That works out at £748 per year.  If that was a tithe (10%), it means that person is living on a net income of £7480.  The average income in the South East in 2021 is £34,664 – a tithe would be £2750 per year, or £1375 if split equally between the church and other charities.

The Church Urban Fund takes census information, and works out the deprivation of every parish in England.  This Benefice is currently ranked 9447 out of 12832, where 1 is the most deprived parish.  There is 4% child poverty in this Benefice, compared to the most deprived in England, which has 57%; 4.4% pensioner poverty compared to 72.7%.  This Benefice is relatively wealthy.

And yet we, as a church, are struggling.  We are currently on track to pay the lowest parish share in the whole of the deanery, less than parishes that only have a half time priest.   Every time we need to do something, whether it is to buy Bibles for the school leavers or do necessary tree works, I have to stand here and ask for money.  Now I’m telling you about the church’s state of affairs because you need to know, because this is the church to which you belong, and how we fulfil the mission God has give us in this place is in your hands.  Our giving reflects our attitude to God, to mission and to discipleship.

Remember what I said at the beginning about the word of God being a two-edged sword.  This is hard to hear.  It may make you feel uncomfortable, even want to push back.  But whilst we may not have as much wealth as the rich young man, there is no doubt we all need to spend time reflecting and recognising on where money and possessions can be a preoccupation that becomes a stumbling block.  What could you change in the way you use your money?  You can give your money away, increase your giving or decrease it, depending on your circumstances – that’s for you to decide, but we are called to give generously, sacrificially, and cheerfully. 

Finally, and I hope this will explain why we are called to give in such a fashion, did you notice that there was more than one rich ruler in the Gospel reading?

When Jesus looked upon the rich man, he loved him (Mark 10.21).  That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it?  I mean, Jesus loves everyone, but why is it specifically mentioned here?  Because Jesus understood deeply the man’s position, perhaps even recognised himself in the rich young man.  Jesus is the wealthiest king of all, and yet he gave it all up to be born in a humble stable and die upon the cross.  As St Paul explained in his letter, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8.9)

Don’t think ‘what MUST I give?’, but let what Jesus gave up for us, be your inspiration.

Artwork: “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” by Heinrich Hofmann

Sermon for Harvest Festival

1 Timothy 6.6-10 & Matthew 6.25-33 (Year B, 2021)

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

At Harvest time we gather together to give thanks for the good gifts that we have received, and to share what we have with those less fortunate.   Of course, it’s wonderful to see food of all descriptions being offered with open hearts to those in need, and it is a Christian imperative to look after anyone who is weak, vulnerable and poor.

However, the purpose of our worship is not just one big food bank drive.  If we do only that, then a yawning chasm of temptation opens at our heart as we imagine ourselves as successful and self-sufficient.  The next step is then to imagine that we don’t need help, we don’t need salvation, we don’t need God.  We can do it all ourselves.

And if the past 18 months has taught us anything, it is that life is much less in our control than we might think.  We have all experienced the reality of going to the supermarket and seeing the shelves stripped of food and toilet paper, and now the fuel pumps are empty.

For some people the fragility of life has become very obvious.  This week I was reading about a family who have gone from two good jobs, with a new home at the start of lockdown, to jobs on furlough, then redundancy, which led to eviction.  Security to food bank in less than a year.

And when situations get fraught we are shown the worst of human behaviour.  People hoarding hand gel, or trying to fill empty 2 lite bottles with petrol, fighting on the forecourt.  

It is into this situation that Christ’s words come cutting through the tensions: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” (Mt 6.25)

If you’re thinking, ‘thats easy for you to say’ then remember this – Jesus was not talking to people who had oodles of food or money.  He was speaking to people who did not necessarily know where their next meal was coming from.  He was speaking to people who knew they relied on the harvest being fruitful.  If the crops failed, the people would go hungry.

So Jesus was speaking to people with very real concerns, and his words then still hit home, because they challenge us to trust.  Trust is a little word, but it often requires a huge leap of faith.  If we knew the outcome of any given situation, it wouldn’t need trust.  Instead it would be a given.  Trust and faith requires us to let go of control, and with eyes fixed on God, take that step forward into the future.

Paul’s letter to Timothy also reminds us that control is an illusion.  We can grab at all the possessions we like, but we are born with nothing, and whatever we have gathered during our life, when we die we cannot take it with us.  Far better to use the blessings we receive and share them with others, for with good works and kindness we sanctify ourselves, and bring glory to God.

Whether we have much or little, Christ’s words remind us how much we are reliant on God. 

And here is the Good News.  God is abundantly, wildly generous.  There is more than enough to go around, provided that people do not grasp at an unfair share.  Where crops fail, the rest of the world can share if they decide to.  Where people fall on hard times, food banks, homeless shelters and charities such Family Support Work are there to provide a safety net.  They shouldn’t be needed, but because of evil and the fallen state of this world, they are; so let’s play our part in supporting them to support others.

This harvest let’s take time to remind why we give these tins of beans and packets of rice. 

We give because we acknowledge we are reliant on God.  Lord, have mercy.

We give because we have received from God’s bounty.  Christ, have mercy.

We give because we are called to care for those in need. Lord, have mercy.

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6.33)

(Artwork: ‘Christ in the Wilderness – Consider the lilies’ by Sir Stanley Spencer)

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

James 5.13-end, Psalm 19.7-end & Mark 9.38-end

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

Today’s Gospel is one filled with theological challenges – we have judgement about others, the importance of motivation, victim blaming, and saltiness, the authenticity of the Christian life which packs flavour into all that we do.

When I read this passage, I was immediately reminded of the end of ‘The Last Battle’, the final book in C.S.Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. In it, and I feel I should give a spoiler alert, there is a huge battle between the land of Narnia and the cruel Calormenes, who worship a god known as Tash. (Lewis rather shows his views are of his age in all this, in both the way he depicts women and as the Calormenes are pretty obviously meant to be quasi-Muslim, people of the Islamic faith. However, let us put those two matters aside.)

At the end it becomes clear that all the characters have died, and they pass through a huge door into the new Narnia which they learn is heaven. However, Peter and Eustace are surprised to discover a young Calormene. The man, called Emeth, described to them how he had come face to face with Aslan, who had bade him welcome into heaven. Emeth asked Aslan if he and Tash are the same god. Aslan growled so that the earth shook, and said ‘It is false’, but he went on ‘if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.’

Now, this is not without challenges for us as Christians, as we do believe in the words of Jesus recorded in John’s gospel – ‘no one can come to the Father except through me’ – but Lewis raises a very interesting theological point. We very often judge other people, but it is Christ, and Christ alone, who judges, and Christ who knows the heart, and Christ who will decide if someone has come to the Father through himself.

In the Gospel reading St John was making salvation an exclusive issue, as he attempted to stop someone trying to defeat a demon by using the name of Jesus. At the time, demons were thought to cause many ailments. The cure was thought to come about by commanding the evil spirit to leave the person in the name of a yet more powerful spirit, and the demon would be powerless to resist.

It’s possible that John’s objection was simply that this healer wasn’t one of the inner circle, and had not been given permission by Jesus to do this. Equally, it could be that John felt that the man didn’t know what he was doing, not truly understanding the significance of getting involved in this cosmic spiritual battle between good and evil.

Regardless, Jesus told John not to worry about it. Jesus gives a lesson in tolerance, and sets down the great principle that ‘whosoever is not against us is for us.’ Any doctrine or belief must be judged by the kind of person it produces.

Jesus immediately directs his teaching away from the action of the exorcist-healer to focus on his followers’ own behaviour. He says: don’t be a stumbling block to others, and don’t be a stumbling block to yourself. Be honest about where your actions come from – they come from within.

I think these words speak powerfully into our world today. If a woman is assaulted, is it her fault because of the clothes she was wearing, the route she was taking home, or the fact she was out after dark? No! Where is the cause of this violence? In the person who committed the act, in their heart.

If a refugee is crossing the Med or the Channel or the border into another country, where do you lay the blame? With the person who has lost everything they own and now is willing to risk their very lives to reach a place of safety? Or is the cause elsewhere?

How we react and behave when faced with these situations is what we will be judged on ourselves. Remember that Jesus was not afraid to put the work of salvation into the hands of people of another faith – in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite, both people solid in the Jewish faith, showed by their actions to have lost their saltiness, to have become a stumbling-block. It was the actions of the Samaritan that showed grace and mercy.

So it goes for Christians too. As Thomas Chalmers, leader of the Church of Scotland in the C19th once asked “Who cares about any Church but as an instrument of Christian good?”

And so the biggest lesson to take away from today’s Gospel is to ask ourselves as we go through our daily lives, interacting with others, in real life and on social media, ‘have I truly served Christ or if I chose to participate, in any way, an act of cruelty, even if I try to justify it in the name of Christ, it is the Enemy that has been served?’

In the long run all I, all any of us, can do is focus on our own serving of God, and make sure that with all our heart we are for Christ and not against him.

(Artwork: ‘Emeth’ from ‘The Last Battle’ by C.S.Lewis, illustration by Pauline Baynes)

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Evensong)

Readings: Psalm 119.49-56, Exodus 14.5-end & Matthew 6.1-18

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

This week I caught the end of the film ‘Deepwater Horizon’.  It tells the story of the events in the run up to the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which took place in April 2010.  The blowout, an uncontrolled release of oil after the pressure control systems failed, led to an explosion and a fire that engulfed the platform at about 10pm at night.  Eleven people were killed, and it resulted in the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.  

At the end of the film, the survivors, battered and bruised, stood on the deck of a nearby supply boat that had rescued them.  They watched the fire raging violently, the rig collapsing into the sea, which was itself on fire.   In the face of such awesome and overwhelming power, they knelt on the deck and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

And as I watched this incredibly moving scene, it struck me afresh that Jesus gave us something uniquely wonderful and powerful in the Lord’s Prayer.  Because we know it off by heart and say it often, sometimes we rattle through the Lord’s Prayer without thinking too much about the words.  

But when the world is falling apart around you, and words cannot begin to express how you feel, the words of the Lord’s Prayer give voice to our greatest needs.  It got me thinking about the power of prayer in the darkest times, so here are just a couple of other examples.

Fr Thomas Byles was an English Catholic priest aboard the Titanic.  He twice refused a place in a lifeboat, but stayed with the trapped passengers.  Towards the end, survivors witnessed him praying the rosary, hearing people’s confessions and giving absolution to more than a hundred passengers.  His body  was never identified.

And as we come up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, on that terrible morning, on Flight 93, Todd Beamer, unable to get through to his family, spoke to an Airfone supervisor called Lisa Jefferson.  He asked Lisa to say the Lord’s Prayer with him, and then recited Psalm 23: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

Six minutes later another passenger, Tom Burnett, told his wife that the passengers were going to take back the plane.  It crashed into a field, killing on board, but preventing the hijackers’ aim of the plane striking the White House or Capitol.

This prayer gave people solace and strength.  

When Jesus started to teach, people already knew how to pray, but Jesus stripped away a number of distractions, and we can learn from this.

Firstly, he told the disciples to let the prayer come from the heart.  Never let your prayer be for show.  That’s pointless.  Pray alone, pray with others, but always pray with humility, integrity and authenticity.

Secondly, do not worry about telling God every detail.   If you forget something, that’s okay.   He already knows.  And a short but heartfelt prayer is as worthy as if you spend hours preparing what to say.  

And thirdly, look at how Jesus structures his prayer: praise of the Father, submission to his will, then supplication (asking for things – basic necessities and mercy), and finally dependency on God for protection and salvation.

Not only does the Lord’s Prayer sum up so much of what we want to say anyway, but it does so in a way that can shape all our other prayers as well.  Furthermore, it can entirely shape our lives.  

The truth is, like all prayers, saying the Lord’s Prayer won’t stop us from going hungry, or facing temptation, or even truly dreadful situations like the explosion on Deepwater Horizon, or 9/11, or the sinking of the Titanic.  But a life shaped by prayer means that when faced with those times, we will do so knowing with absolute trust that we are not alone.  God is with us, God cares for us, God will save our souls.

If we are shaped by the Lord’s Prayer, it might also give us the courage to be the type of people who help others through those incredibly difficult situations.  We truly have nothing to fear if God is with us.  So pray the Lord’s Prayer with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and carry the gift of this prayer with you wherever you go.

(Artwork: ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ by James Tissot)

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Deuteronomy 4.1-2,6-9, Ps 451.-7, Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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

‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!’

Those words, by Sir Walter Scott, sum up what a mess we make of things when the desires of our hearts lead us into poor decisions, one thing piling on top on another.  At the centre there is always some form of lying or deception, from ourselves, others and God.

This tendency is part of the human condition.  A few years ago the BBC showed a programme by Horizon, called ‘A Week without Lying’.  A teenage blogger, an advertising consultant and a parish priest all put themselves through a social experiment, wearing sensors, whilst going about their daily lives.  

Just imagine this for yourself – could you go a day without even the smallest white lie? 
And be truthful with yourself about it!

It was fascinating, thought-provoking television.  Ruth, the priest in Leeds, admitted she has a habit of lying by omission. “If it’s a choice between truth and love,” she said, “I always want to go with love.”  

In one section she was asked by a parishioner if the prayer of intercessions he’d just led were okay.  “Fine”, “very clear”, “followed the brief” – she said, whilst shaking her head. Oh dear.  What was the truth?  Her words or the involuntary action of her head?

Perhaps it was kinder than saying she thought they weren’t great, but equally was there another way of helping him to improve his prayers?  Perhaps it was just a difference of style preference? 

I began to think how lying might smooth the road of social interactions, but it doesn’t actually help people.  And if, like me and clearly Ruth, you’re a rubbish liar, then you might actually do more harm.  People don’t know if you they can trust your words, and opportunities which might lead to improvement are missed.

Compare this with the start of the Prayer of Preparation:
“Almighty God, to whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid:”

No matter what we do, there is no deceiving God.  

We can tell ourselves we are doing things for the right reasons, but God will know the absolute truth of our motives.  

In today’s Gospel, we have a group of Pharisees criticising Jesus for eating with unclean hands.  What they disapproved of was that he wasn’t keeping to the rules, what they called the ‘tradition of the elders’.  

In our reading from Deuteronomy we have Israel being given the statues and ordinances, that is the Law, to keep.  They are “to observe them diligently”, and not to add or take away from them.  But of course, over time it’s easy for the reason we do things to become a bit lost, or can become the rod against which we judge other people.

For example, some churches use incense.  It’s a Biblical practice – it’s described in Exodus, Leviticus and Chronicles, and in the New Testament in Hebrews and Revelation.  It’s a sacrifice, something beautiful and sweet-smelling, which we offer to God.  By linking it to Revelation, and the description of worship in heaven, we make the point that in the Mass we are entering into that same worship, and we walk into its hallowing cloud.  And in the Psalms it’s a visual description of the prayers of the believers rising to heaven.

On the other hand, some churches don’t have incense but during singing, members raise their hands.  They are moved by the Spirit, praising God by physically and publically reaching out to him, a whole body prayer.  And there’s plenty of Biblical references for that too: the Psalms, Nehemiah 8.6, 1 Timothy 8.10, and Lamentations.

Neither the incense nor the raising of hands makes the people involved more holy than the other.  They are simply two ways in which to express our faith and worship.  Criticising the action of the other suggests the ritual is being used as a spiritual marker against which to measure people.  But Jesus makes it clear that it is the heart which matters.

So it’s helpful from time to time to step back and think ‘why do I do that?’  

Our actions during services should draw us further into the worship of God.  If they don’t, perhaps find out what the purpose is meant to be, and then either retain it or let it go.

The Pharisees wanted to criticise Jesus for not ritually washing his hands.  Jesus’ response strikes directly at the root problem of deception of motive.

The Pharisees are not worried about Christ’s spiritual well-being.  They simply want something they can criticise him for.  He points out that these outward actions are not what make us holier.  

As Christians we hope for sanctification, that by modelling our lives ever more closely on Jesus we will become more like him, but only by a change of heart will this happen. The Law remains important (after all we wouldn’t look at the Ten Commandments and think ‘actually we can get rid of ‘Thy shalt not kill’ would we?). But Jesus’ death and resurrection free us from unnecessary rules and laws that distract us from God, the Spirit of the Law.  

There are plenty of people who like the simplicity of what the Pharisees were focused on.  It would be much easier to go through a day focused on getting rituals right than to spend the day without lying in thought, word or deed.  Do this, that and the other – then you’re holy, now you’re worthy.   

But Jesus says – no.  You can do all those things, but if your heart is full of deceit, then it will show in your actions.

The Good News is that we do not need to live in a tangled web of self-deceiving motives.  Jesus frees us – he shows us how to let go of the heavy burden of rules, and instead live life with hearts and minds free of envy, pride, folly and all those other snares.  Look into this perfect law of liberty, and be Christians who listen to the living Word and act on Him.

And so let us return to the final part of the Prayer of Preparation:

Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love thee,
and worthily magnify thy holy name;
through Christ our Lord.

(Artwork: ‘Pilate Washing his Hands’ by Jan Lievens)

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Joshua 24.1-2, 14-18, Psalm 34.15-end, John 6.56-69

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

To be a Christian is to be to a pilgrim.

A pilgrimage is a journey to a place of spiritual significance.  The most obvious places for Christians are to the Holy Land, Rome or to walk the Camino to Santiago de Compestela.  Here in the UK you may have been to a shrine such as St Alban’s or Walsingham, or an ancient Christian site such as Iona.  

But why do make such journeys?  The ultimate purpose is to deepen a person’s knowledge, their understanding of their faith by the pilgrim spending time reflecting upon their relationship with God, and thereby increasing their love and devotion to God.  We are also inspired by the example of Christians who have gone before us.

However, if you’ve never been to any of these places, it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve never left your home county.  

You are still a pilgrim.

Because every time you come to church, you make a pilgrimage.

You leave your home and you journey to a special, sacred place.  God is everywhere, but your parish church is a space set aside specifically for the worship of God.  And where Christians have gathered to prayer together, often we feel that spiritual depth in a way we can’t describe, perhaps best known as “thin places” where heaven and earth touch.

As you enter the church building, you pass by the font, the place of baptism.  It is a symbol of the beginning of your Christian life, the place where you moved from being a non-Christian to one who makes a statement of faith in Christ, where you are born again of water and the Spirit, and where your response to God’s call was formalised.

Every time you enter, you symbolically walk from that beginning point into the main nave of the Church, which is is where we repent of our wrong-doings, hear the word of God, and pray together.  It is fully representative of our life as part of the Body of Christ, the Church.  We live and worship in community, in relationship with one another.

This journey continues as we draw up to the Lord’s Table to be nourished with the Sacrament, and it is from there that we then return to the world.

In each service, therefore, we walk the path of being called and sent out by God.  Each Sunday we live out, in miniature, our life pilgrimage as a Christian.

Now, this all sounds very nice, but…

…a pilgrimage is not a holiday.  It is not about the number of miles we travel, or the number of services we attend that matters. It is not about the views of the pretty church buildings or the lovely hymns we sing.

Rather, to be a pilgrim is having to make a choice.  The journey is a long one, and there can be rough patches, narrow gates to pass through, forks in the road.  When we reach those points, we have to decide if we are willing to stay the course, to stay on the right path.

The Gospels are littered with examples where it just became too difficult for some of Jesus’ followers.  There is the young rich man who stumbled at the very first barrier.  The thought of having to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, simply in order to follow Christ, left him sad and confused, and he walked away.

Or there is St Peter, who after the arrest of Jesus, faced with persecution that was no longer theoretical, denied even having walked one single step with his Lord.

How different is Peter’s response in today’s Gospel.  When a number of followers were unable to get to grips with some of the more difficult teachings of Jesus, they simply left the core group of disciples.  

I hear a deep sadness in Christ’s question to the twelve remaining disciples – ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ 

When we are left by those we love there is a very real sense of grieving.  Whether it is physical death or the end of relationship, friend or lover, to be left behind is a heartbreaking experience.  

It is a wound that God knows well.  He wants us to walk with Him along the right path, but the price of the gift of free will is that we don’t always make good choices.  And when we walk away from God that pains him deeply.

It has been the same for the whole of human history.  Even in the earliest days of the people of Israel we hear the same decision having to be made.  Joshua says to the Israelites, ‘choose this day who you will serve’ (Joshua 24.15).

The options put forward by Joshua are clear – choose God, or follow the other gods, those of the Amorites or from other lands.  Faced with such a bald choice, the Israelites quickly choose God.  

Our choice, however, can seem much more murky.  

What dangers lurk to draw us from the path?  Is it difficult teachings, such as those that caused trouble for the disciples in today’s Gospel passage? 

Or is it other false and insidious gods that exist to tempt you in your journey?  If you have to choose between God and this other thing, whatever it is, then you are at the point of choosing between staying on or stepping off the path.  God will do everything to help you, and God will be there to guide you back to the path should you lose your way, but the choice remains yours.

If we deny that we all have these situations or teachings that we struggle with, then we deny the reality of what it means to be a Christian, and we do each other a disservice.  We can’t pretend that this journey, this walking of the Way of the Cross, is always an easy one.  If that is someone’s impression of Christianity, then when things are difficult it would be such a small step to start thinking that either they aren’t  a proper Christian (whatever that might mean), or that God isn’t there for them, or worst of all, that God didn’t exist at all.  

But if we are truthful about what being a Christian truly is, then we can prepare better for the journey.  We are free to decide whatever we choose.  Each day we awake, we get up and we choose to continue to walk in the Way of Christ.  That decision is the most important one you make every morning, because it will shape everything else you will do during the day.  

St Peter’s answer to Christ’s question has a deep resonance here, for his words speak the deepest truth: truly, where can we go except to the One who has the words of eternal life?

And that is the reason that we labour night and day to be a pilgrim. (John Bunyan/Percy Dearmer) 

(Artwork: ‘The Broad and Narrow Way to Heaven’ by Mary Evans)

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Trinity

Jeremiah 23.1-6, Psalm 23, Mark 6.30-34, 53-end (Year B)

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

Last Sunday saw the introduction of our ARK stickers.  Just to remind you, ARK stands for Acts of Random Kindness, and the little cards are to remind us to be alert to the opportunities to be kind to those in need.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see why this is a reflection of living a Christ-like life.

Previously, Jesus had sent out the disciples on their first solo missions.  They went out in pairs to various towns and villages, and they prayed with the sick and cast out demons.  Our passage begins with the apostles returning to Jesus and telling him how they had got on.  I can just imagine the apostles buzzing with the joy of having being sent out, and then gathering back together to share their experiences with each other.

Jesus then gives them some truly valuable advice.  He tells them to take some time out to go on a spiritual retreat.  No-one can pour themselves out in service of the Lord, day in and day out, without stopping from time to time to allow God to refill them.  That goes for every one of us in our  Christian calling – which is why keeping the Sabbath is such an important part of Christian discipleship.  As well as giving God the worship which is our joy and bounden duty to offer, as well as encouraging one another in our shared community and friendship, the Sabbath also gives us time to rest, to be refreshed and nourished in Word and Sacrament.  

So off the disciples go, to find their quiet day, only to discover their deserted place had been spotted by those yearning to hear more from Jesus, and were already there waiting for him.

And what did Jesus do?  

Did he turn away and get back in his boat?  Did he tell them to go away? 

No – “he had compassion for them.” (Mark 6.34)

Compassion: one of those hallmarks of kindness. It literally means ‘to suffer with’, to be with someone in their position.  What follows is Jesus Feeding of the Five Thousand, which for reasons known only to those who wrote the Lectionary is excluded this week.  Instead, we jump to after the bread and fish had been gathered into the baskets, and Jesus and his disciples once again attempt to depart to a quiet area to rest.  After Jesus walks on water, showing further control over the created world, they arrive on the far side of the Sea of Galilee, when – what a surprise – more people rush to greet Christ, bringing the sick people to him for healing.

And once again Jesus responds with love, compassion and kindness. 

What a loving and merciful God we have, that in the face of so much need He pours himself out for them, for us.

So yes, in reflecting on today’s Gospel reading, I am assured once more that to follow in the steps of Jesus means coming face to face with people in need, and responding to them.

Thankfully the world only needs one Saviour, and we are not Him.  However, it can revolutionise our faith if when we leave this place we walk out looking at the world through Christ’s eyes.  It can be in small ways, but the impact can be huge for someone.  

One of our congregation let me know that they had an idea for one of their ARK stickers – they were going to offer to buy a meal deal for one of the homeless people they see in the local town.  An excellent idea.  But on the day they were in town, for whatever reason, the person wasn’t there.   However, because they were intentionally thinking about kindness, instead of what they planned, God presented a completely different opportunity to do an Act of Random Kindness.  The woman at the front of the queue for the parking ticket machine didn’t have the right change, and this person was able to offer a few coins so the ticket could be purchased.  The response was a thank you for the kindness shown.  Instead of feeling stressed, instead this woman had a positive, even joyful, encounter.  

It’s just a small thing, but perhaps in these tiny Christ-like actions we shall discover that we are blessed in blessings others, and that we have found ourselves on The Way of Jesus, where ‘Surely goodness and loving mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’ (Psalm 23.6)

(Artwork: ‘Christ Healing the Blind’ by El Greco, c.1570)

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians 1.3-04, Psalm, 85.8-end, Mark 6.14-29 – Year B

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

The world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, Jane Goodall, once said, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Think about that for a moment: what you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.

Let’s look at King Herod.  He had all the power he could ask for.  He had the power to be kind or to be cruel.  But he let his human failings of lust, insecurity and fear of embarrassment, conquer him, so that when push came to shove, he murdered John the Baptist, a man he respected but feared.

Now let me tell you another story.  In the mid-1980s, Ruth Coker Burks was visiting a friend in hospital when she noticed a room that was sealed off with red biohazard signs. She heard someone inside crying ‘help, help!’ Ruth responded and inside she found a man who was dying from Aids-related complications.  Due to the lack of understanding about the disease, the nurses were too afraid to spend time in the room, but Ruth sat with the young man, who told her he wanted to see his mother before he died. She left the room and told the nurses, who said, “His mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming”. Ruth called his mother anyway, who refused to come visit her son, who she described as a “sinner” and already dead to her, and that she wouldn’t even claim his body when he died. In her book ‘All the Young Men’, Ruth explained, “I went back in his room and when I walked in, he said, “Oh, momma. I knew you’d come”, and then he lifted his hand. And what was I going to do? So I took his hand. I said, “I’m here, honey”. She pulled a chair to his bedside, talked to him, and held his hand until he died 13 hours later. After finally finding a funeral home that would cremate his body, and paying for the cremation out of her own savings, she buried his ashes on her family’s plot in Files Cemetery, Arkansas.  Ruth Coker Burks went onto help over 1,000 people and buried more than 40 on her family’s plot.

One might very well ask Christ’s question here, ‘Which of these was a neighbour to the man in trouble?’  Which one showed mercy?  

Strangely enough it is not just Covid that is infectious, it is our behaviour.  Yawning is infectious. Mood can be infectious too.  If you have seen the scenes on television of the football, you will have seen joy spreading across the crowd.  Applause is infectious.  So too can kindness spread.  When Ruth Coker Burks, a Methodist who felt this was God’s work, began to help other young men, word spread through the city of her work.  Bars began to support the work financially, and she was invited into schools and colleges to help educate children about AIDS.

You will have heard me say this before –  Jesus was not an inoffensively nice doormat, and he did not spout bland, meaningless platitudes.  But he was kind.  Kindness is underestimated.  How did Christ’s kindness shine out?  He was compassionate.  He noticed people.  He listened to them, and responded to them in times of need.  He showed God’s love through his words and actions.

Kindness is not about being ‘nice’ or doing things to be liked.  However, for Christians it is a Biblical imperative.  Being kind doesn’t earn us a place in God’s kingdom, but rather knowing how much we are in need of God’s mercy, forgiveness and love, we respond by reflecting all that into the world.  If you want to see what kindness looks like, the psalm sums it up well: “mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”  (Ps 85.8.10). 

But these aren’t just words in a book.  They are meant to be lived, so how can we live this out in our lives?

We might know that we’ll never have to make a decision like King Herod’s, and I hope we won’t ever have to be faced with a door marked with a red biohazard sign, and someone crying out ‘help’, but there are so many places where we can show kindness.

We are half way through this year, and I want us, as a church, to spread kindness through our local communities.  Each month I challenge each of you to go out and do one Act of Random Kindness.  I challenge you to be intentional about looking for opportunities to be kind, and I challenge you to be brave and follow through with that act.  It doesn’t have to be large – it could be to drop off a bunch of flowers for someone who is lonely, or give them a call.  It could be an offer to drive someone to a doctor’s appointment. 

We do these Acts of Random Kindness to bring glory to God, to help those in need, and to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We are called, as the Epistle to the Ephesians put it, to “live for the praise of his glory.” (Eph 1.12). 

At the back of the church are sticky labels.  Take some, and when you do your Act of Random Kindness, add a note and put the sticker on – so that through your good deeds you give the praise to God, and others will see the Gospel in action.  How powerful would it be if our church became well known in the community for being a beacon of kindness shaped by Christ’s love?  

If you hadn’t worked it out, and I give credit to the film ‘Evan Almighty’ here, the first letters of these Acts of Random Kindness, A-R-K, spell ‘ark’ – for by such kindness souls may be saved.  For who knows, but through these acts others may be drawn to come to Christ, who inspires such love and kindness.

And do come back to me with how you get on. Send me photos.  I’ll be updating you all with these stories, so you can be inspired by the actions of others.  So be on fire for Jesus, and ‘Go and do likewise’.  (Luke 10.37)

I started with a quote, and I want to end with one, this time by St Basil: “A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds.  A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”

(Artwork: ‘John the Baptist holds a sermon of reprimand before Herod’ by Giovanni Fattori)

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