Evensong sermon – Sunday 20th July 2014
Trinity 5 (Proper 11)
The passage we heard just now from Mark’s gospel begins with the disciples gathering around Jesus, telling him all that they had done and taught. At the beginning of the chapter though, before we get to this reading, we hear how Jesus had gathered the twelve together and sent them out in pairs to go and heal those with unclean spirits. The twelve disciples had been given very clear rules of engagement by Jesus – they were to take nothing with them for their journey except a staff; no bread if they got hungry; they were not to take a bag or any money; and they were to wear sandals and a single tunic.
Then there were the instructions as to what they should do when they entered a house, and that if they were not welcomed anywhere, they were to shake off the dust from their feet. The gospel writer then says simply that they ‘went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.’
Then the gospel writer changes scenes, and tells the story of the death of John the Baptist. This scene change in the middle of the chapter acts as a kind of mechanism to illustrate the passing of time, during which the disciples are out working hard, proclaiming repentance and healing the sick.
So when the gospel reading we heard this evening begins with the apostles gathering around Jesus, we lose something of the back story; we need to remember that they have been out with no provisions, with no emergency rations to keep them going; they have been travelling as light as it is possible to travel, and they have been working hard, sometimes in the face of hostility. They return to Jesus exhausted, but excited too, and keen to share with him all that they have done and taught.
Jesus immediately recognises what the disciples need most – quiet and rest. His first concern is to try to give them the space and the time to rest, to recover from their travels, to escape the pressures and demands of all those gathered around them, demanding of their time and their energies. So they get in a boat and head for a deserted place to be alone together, to escape the needs and the demands of all the people for a while; to rest and to recuperate.
In these few, simple lines in the gospel then, we have mirrored for us the model for an effective Christian life. In the sending out of the disciples to do their work, and in their coming back and seeking rest and peace, we are shown how we as Christians are to order our lives.
It’s what the commentator, William Barclay, refers to as the ‘Rhythm of the Christian life’. He explains that the Christian life is a continuous process of going into the presence of God from the presence of the people around us, and coming out into the presence of those around us from the presence of God. It is like the rhythm of sleep and work – we cannot work unless we have our time of rest and sleep, and sleep only comes easily if we have worked until we are tired.
I remember when I was at school being taught in economics how over the coming two decades we in this country would enjoy more leisure time than any previous generation had ever experienced. We were told that the value of the so called ‘leisure pound’ would increase exponentially as people began to spend significantly more of their disposable income on leisure activities. Well that was just over 25 years ago, and how wrong they were!
Instead of having more leisure time than ever before, people seem to be working just as long hours as they ever did, if not more in some cases. And the time that we do have seems to be filled with so many frantic activities. We have electronic devices that are supposed to make our lives more convenient, but I know that I for one am guilty sometimes of being a slave to the likes of email and Facebook, rather than allowing them to serve me.
It is all too easy in this day and age to fill our lives with constant activity. To fill all our waking hours full of business, with lists of things we need to do, people we need to phone or pop round to see. We live in a society that hardly knows what silence is or how to find it.
Leading up to my ordination three weeks ago, I and the others to be ordained deacon spent three days in silence at a retreat house near Horsham, where we had times of structured prayer interspersed with talks from the retreat leader. The rest of the time was free to us to sit, to walk, to be still and to wait on the voice of God. It was a time to enter fully and deeply into prayer with God, and to listen to what he was saying to us. After the business and stresses of moving house two weeks earlier, it was the perfect preparation as we approached ordination.
Now I realise not all of us have the luxury of taking ourselves off for three days retreat whenever we feel like it, but the model is nonetheless one to embrace. We cannot sustain our spiritual lives unless we give time to be with God in prayer, whether that be in the stillness and silence of a retreat, or in the shorter times at home or in the garden, or when we are out for a walk.
One person I know even says that their most precious time with God is when they are tending their allotment. The important thing though isn’t the time or the place, but to establish that effective pattern, that rhythm of going into the presence of God from the presence of the people around us, and coming out into the presence of those around us from the presence of God. Finding and tending to the rhythm of the Christian life is a vital discipline for each one of us as we seek to deepen our relationship with God.
As Jesus and the disciples arrived on the other shore, their hopes of the peace and rest they so badly need are dashed as they are met by crowds of people who have spotted them and recognised Jesus, and who are desperate to receive the healing that they knew Jesus could offer them. And instead of getting annoyed or returning to the boat to try to escape the crowds, Jesus looked on them with compassion.
He saw the crowds and likened them to sheep without a shepherd; in those people he saw the intense need of each one, and had compassion on them, reaching out to them to protect, guide and heal them as a shepherd tends his flock.
And Jesus continues to do that for us today. He knows when we are in need; he understands our need for healing, for guidance, for protection, and he yearns for us to come to him, to rest with him a while, not with clever words or careful prayers, but just to be. He wants us to stop our constant ‘doing’ and to spend time with him ‘being’.
In the business of our 21st Century lives, we mustn’t let our ‘doing’ crowd out the need for ‘being’. Let us instead follow the example of Jesus and his disciples. It’s a salutary lesson for me too as I begin my ministry here – that well known phrase ‘practise what you preach’ is one that was ringing in my ears as I prepared this sermon. I too need to work on establishing and practising that effective rhythm of the Christian life.
Everyone who is ordained is expected to say the daily office of morning and evening prayer, and for me it provides a foundation, a bedrock on which to build that rhythm of the Christian life.
But whatever you find useful, whether it is a regular time of Bible study, or using Bible reading notes, or simply a regular time of quiet prayer, the important thing is to establish that rhythm of the Christian life that Jesus models for us. We can only sustain our spiritual lives through an effective pattern or rhythm of time to come into God’s presence in prayer.
Morning and Evening prayer is said every weekday, either here or in one of the other churches, and is open to anyone to join us. Why not come along and join us sometimes if you can, as you too seek to establish that effective rhythm of the Christian life?
Let us pray:
Loving God, help us as we seek to establish that effective rhythm of the Christian life, of coming into your presence from the presence of others, and as we do so, may we grow in knowledge and understanding of you, that we might be better disciples of the gospel, and serve you more fully. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Sermon – 6th July 2014 – Third Sunday after Trinity
Last week as I was standing outside the Cathedral after the ordination service, a close family friend said to me, “…so does this mean you’ve got to be good all the time now then?” My heart sank for a brief moment – how could I possibly be good all the time? Is that even possible? I’m not even sure I want to be good all the time!
But I do know how I feel when I behave in a way I don’t want to, or I say something unkind that I don’t mean. I don’t want to be unkind or set out to do or say the wrong thing, but I still do it much to my shame.
I think that’s a bit like how Paul feels in that reading we heard just now from his letter to the Romans, where he says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” You get the sense that Paul is almost powerless against his own actions. He seems to be saying, “I want to be good, I know what I should do, but how ever hard I try, I still seem to mess up and make mistakes.”
Paul’s experience lies at the heart of the human condition - he knew what was right and wanted to do it, yet somehow he just couldn’t. He knew what was wrong, and the last thing he wanted was to do it, but still he did.
It reminds me of how difficult I found it, particularly at work, when I became a committed Christian. It was as if I was two different people – the person who wanted to behave differently from the others, but when it came to the crunch I just joined in with everyone else; the person who wanted to stand up to some of the injustices and poor working practices, but who all too often took the path of least resistance and went with the flow. It’s really hard to be good.
Then Paul gives us one of those wonderful tongue-twister passages of the bible where he tries to explain what he means. He says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” I think the Plain English campaign would have had a field day with that one!
It reminded me of that tortuous explanation that Donald Rumsfeld gave when he was American Secretary of Defence. It went something along the lines of, “there are known knowns - there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns - that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.”
Well it’s all rather baffling and confusing. But I think Mr. Rumsfeld missed out one crucial ‘known’ to his list. The ‘Unknown known’ – Now what am I talking about here, the ‘Unknown known’? Well the ‘Unknown known’ is the stuff that we deliberately refuse to acknowledge that we know. The ‘Unknown known’ is the stuff we know, deep down, to be true, but either through cowardice, or unwillingness to change, or through a hardness of heart, we refuse to acknowledge. It’s the things we deny any responsibility for, the things we turn a blind eye to, the bad practices we know that go on but refuse to do anything about. It’s the truths that stare us in the face but we choose to ignore and to carry on regardless.
In the gospel reading we heard, Jesus is surrounded by people who also seem to be finding it hard to be good. Their ‘unknown known’ is the truth of who Jesus really is. Faced with the reality of God in human form, their hearts are hardened, and they behave like spoilt children in the market place.
In the passage immediately before today’s gospel, we hear that Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is in prison. The crowds who used to follow John seem to have lost interest in him now, and have turned to Jesus for their entertainment instead. Like fickle children, they are bored with following John, and ready for the next new thing to grab their attention.
Jesus seems irritated by their boredom and grumpiness, and challenges them, pointing out to them their childish behaviour. Like cross little children they have dismissed John the Baptist on the one hand as being mad for living in isolation and refusing to eat and drink; and yet they criticise Jesus on the other hand, who lived in the hustle and bustle of daily life, because he mixed with all the wrong people, and befriended the tax collectors and the outcasts.
Jesus’ response to the baying crowds is to thank God, his Father, for revealing the truth not to the so called wise and the proud, but to the humble, to the infants who delight in the world around them, who see it unencumbered by their own prejudices or stubbornness.
When we don’t want to listen to the truth, it’s all too easy for us to find an excuse not to listen to it. I wonder what our ‘Unknown knowns’ are; I wonder what things we refuse to acknowledge and pretend we don’t know about.
It’s hard to be good. It’s hard to live unselfish lives; lives that put the needs of others before our own; lives that are centred on God. And yet that is what we, as Christians, are called to do. We are called to put God at the centre of our lives; we are called to fix our gaze on Him and not our own thoughts and needs.
It’s hard to be good. And God knows that it’s hard for us to be good. But it was even harder for the Jews at the time of Jesus. Their religion consisted of an almost endless list of rules and regulations that dictated every single thing they did. For them, it must have seemed almost impossible to be good.
But at the end of today’s gospel reading, we hear those wonderful words of comfort from Jesus, words that have offered a refuge to the exhausted and desperate for centuries; words that are probably most familiar to us from the King James version of the Bible:
‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
Jesus reminds us that in him we find the peace and love of God fully revealed. In Jesus we are able to rest from the daily toil of our lives. It is the most beautiful invitation to all who carry heavy burdens – burdens of grief; burdens of guilt; burdens of work – and to place those burdens into Jesus’ hands. Jesus’ offer is like a cool spring of water on a hot day..
Jesus was saying to the Jews of the day, I know how difficult it is for you to keep the law, I know it’s hard to be good all the time. But don’t worry – in me you will find rest; in me you can be relieved of your heavy burdens.
And that is Jesus’ message to us here today as well. Through Jesus we are able to offer all our burdens to God; through Jesus, God is able to carry us through life’s difficulties, pains and problems. So as we go from here today, as we try to be good and to do the right thing, and as we inevitably stumble and make mistakes, may we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, our friend and comforter, our redeemer and Lord. Amen.
Bible Sunday October 2014
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:35)
“Let us not waste time in idle discourse!” says one of the characters in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. “Let us do something, while we have the chance!” But the two tramps do nothing. They wait, they talk incessantly, they even contemplate suicide, but they do nothing. They are waiting for Godot, convinced that when he comes they will be saved.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives two assurances: that he will return at the end of this earthly age, “with power and great glory”, and that heaven and earth will pass away, but “my words will not pass away”.
These assurances come at the heart of chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel and their context is important.
Matthew’s chapter 24 relies heavily on chapter 13 of Mark, which, in turn, is greatly influenced by the book of Daniel. The style of writing is apocalyptic – in other words it is concerned with the end of this earthly age – and it is a style that is characterised by dramatic visions and revelations, and by obscure, disturbing imagery and symbolism. The language is strange, cryptic and terrifying. Apocalyptic literature surfaces in times of disturbance and seismic changes in society.
At the beginning of chapter 24, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple, talks about the signs of “the end of the age”, warns of forthcoming persecutions and speaks of the sufferings and of the appearance of false messiahs that will precede the end. After today’s reading, Jesus tells parables that exhort the disciples to watchfulness and faithfulness. He says that God alone knows when and how the end will come, so the disciples must be ready for that moment.
The assurances of Jesus at the heart of our Gospel are important and, on this Bible Sunday, should be taken seriously – but we need to understand what they mean for us today. In our Old Testament reading we hear that the Law is read aloud “with interpretation” – and it is this interpretation that enables the people to understand the Law and to respond to it.
Jesus assures us that his words are eternal. We need to study them and allow God to interpret, to open up to us, the meaning of those words for us. Our challenge is to make scripture our own, so that we may discern what God is saying to us today. So, what might God be saying to us about the assurance that Jesus will “come again in glory”?
Beckett’s tramps are waiting passively for the arrival of Godot, waiting for salvation. Christians are not called to passive waiting. Because we live in “between times” – between the coming of Jesus celebrated each Christmas and the second coming of Jesus anticipated in Advent – we are called to live the life of the Jesus who is with us now. Part of living this life is keeping alive the assurance of his second coming. This is not easy, but it is important.
The assurance of the second coming is an antidote to cynicism and despair. It tells us that the world need not end with a bang or a whimper, or be subject to futility – it can end as and when God wills, fulfilling his loving purposes for his creation. But this assurance does not invite complacency or relieve us of responsibility to care for the world and its peoples; by our apathy or irresponsibility we could still destroy the world through our greed, ignorance, selfishness or arrogance. The assurance of the second coming gives us hope and a reason to live the “new life in Christ” to which we are called – the life of the Christ in our midst today.
In our active commitment to peace, justice and reconciliation the person of Jesus can be glimpsed and his love experienced. But it is not just in these “broad brush” issues that we are called to be faithful, for our own individual lives also should display Christ-like qualities.
Paul writes to the Colossians about the life to which all Christians are called and lists the characteristics of this “new life in Christ”. These characteristics are compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love, with hearts ruled by the peace of Christ. Above all, Paul writes, the Christian should be thankful. This is the Colossians’ new life and it is ours too. It is an active life, a life that reveals Christ and shares his love.
Last Wednesday evening we began a process of thinking about what are the priorities that God is calling us to at this time and in this place. If you were unable to attend the evening then please make sure you take away my letter and the response form as we seek to gather your thoughts about what God may saying to us through you. How do we see the ministry of the church developing? Where in our community are there areas that we may be able to help with as Christian community? How can we better share the 'good news' that we have received of new life in Christ?
So, “Let us not waste time on idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance!” Let us be a holy presence for this community, let us be compassionate, humble, patient, let us be a place which knows and brings forgiveness and true, sacrificial love to bear. Let us be Christ's body on earth today reaching every part of this town with the redeeming touch of Christ.