Sermon, 28th July 2019
Today, I am going to invite you into a wonderful conspiracy, a conspiracy that is at the heart of what it means to be Christian. It is something that has been seen as so dangerous by numerous dictators and despots over the centuries that they have tried to stamp it out, thankfully without much success, because it is the very bedrock on which our faith is built... but before Andrew vaults out of his seat, hurdling the pews to bound up these steps and drag me out of the pulpit, I should really clarify what I mean.
Over the last few weeks we have spent time focussing on the Gospel readings that get to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. Firstly we had the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story telling us that what matters to God is not our social standing, its not about where we come from or whether we are from a, for want of a better word, distinguished family but he cares about how we react to the people around us, especially those people that we encounter who are in genuine need. It tells us about the things that we are doing that help to build God’s kingdom.
Last week we had the story of Mary and Martha, illustrating the importance of being able to recognise just who Jesus is and seeing that he wants us to take time to get to know him. At this point you may be wondering what on earth has this got to do with conspiracies? We generally associate the word “Conspire” with it’s political meaning: to plot to overthrow some public power, person, or nation. Or perhaps it brings to mind conspiracy theories about moon landings and such like that a vocal minority of people seem desperate to buy into.
But I am talking, thankfully, about a different sort of conspiracy, something that unlike the other definitions, does have the potential to feed and nurture us. Something that has been seen by the persecutors of Christians over the centuries as a deeply rebellious act and has been punished as such. You see, the word, “conspiracy” is rooted in much deeper soil than the context in which it is now used.
This conspiracy means literally to breathe together, con-spiritus. To conspire is to join your breathe in with others, as we say in the liturgy “With the whole company of heaven”. If we pause to think what that means, that really is profound. To be of one breath means to pray as one. No matter where we are when we pray we are not alone, far from it. We are with the many millions of people who have gone before, uncountable in their vast number. We are with those others that walk alongside us in the present and of course those of us who are yet to come.
Praying has strong parallels with breathing. Breathing maintains life, it is necessary for growth to happen, when we try to hold our breath our bodies tell us in a matter of seconds just what a seriously bad idea that is. And so it is also with prayer, without it our faith fails to reach the heights that it could, our relationship with God remains shallow and superficial, it fails to grow, it lacks depth. The God-given potential that is inside all of us, that little divine spark is missed, it passes us by. Prayer is vital to growth, we need it. I think it is notable in the Gospel reading that it wasn’t Jesus who instigated the exchange, it was an unnamed disciple, seeking the tools from Jesus. He saw Jesus praying and he wanted some of that!
What Jesus told him was not complicated, there wasn’t anything esoteric or lots of doctrine, he said simply that talking to God is like a family conversation where you get to talk unselfconciously knowing that you will be heard and understood. It is a life of prayer, of communion with God that liberates us, although it isn’t a way of getting something but a way of developing a relationship with God. A healthy prayer life gives us strength, it gives us clarity, it gives us the space to discern what is the best course to try and bring God’s Kingdom to bear down here on earth. Our Father in heaven, like Jesus, wants to give us through prayer so much more than we know how to ask. To pray is to be willing to trust that, through prayer, God is giving us the riches of His life-changing grace. And it comes down to the fact, are we willing to trust God enough to pray?
So if you are willing to be a rebel and conspire, just as countless others have done before you, and no matter where you currently find yourself, whether you have been doing it for years or think that you are just no good at it, this really is the best place to start or start over.
Fourth Sunday of Trinity: Colossians 1, 1-14 & Luke 10, 25-37
It’s good to back here in Winslow. As some of you may know, last weekend I was away at General Synod. Some of you have asked ‘what is General Synod like?’ Well, I suppose the best answer I can give is that is like a five day rolling PCC meeting! Last Sunday I worshipped alongside many members of General Synod at York Minster. The Archbishop of Canterbury preached and he preached for an awfully long time. I promise to be much shorter as I am aware that the cricket world cup final is about to start; as I say, its good to be back in Winslow, back in my spiritual home.
The reading we have heard from Paul’s letter to the Colossians starts with the phrase ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’ and then moves on to say ‘grace to you and peace from God our Father.’ These, of course, are akin to the opening words of the liturgy and are suggestive of the fact that right at the core of our Christian life must be both an acceptance of grace and a sense of peace, where peace means the willingness and ability to live as people committed to the whole of human flourishing and good and godly relationships between all people. We are to live as people of peace, cultivating that sense of peace through our prayer life which leads to what Paul describes as ‘the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom.’
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is often, and rightly, considered as an exemplar of the Christian virtue of charity, but I think that I would want to argue that the Samaritan is only able to act as he does because he understands, and has appropriated for himself, grace – the idea that all goodness is essentially a gift, or divine gift, and peace, the imperative to live a life characterised by good and godly relationships between all people.
The tragedy in the parable is that the Priest and Levite are more concerned with protocol than peace and that they are therefore incapable of enacting the greatest of all virtues - charity, or love. With all their religious and legal training they are unable to answer the most basic of all questions: ‘who is my neighbour?’ I have no doubt that they would both claim to be people who feel that they ‘love the Lord their God, with all their heart, soul, mind and strength,’ but have failed to realise that the way that this is worked out in the here and now is through the way that they relate to their neighbour, and especially their neighbour in distress.
Both the Priest and the Levite fail they apostolic test (of being sent of ‘going in peace to love and serve the Lord) because they have little or no understanding that their role is to raise up the bruised, hurting, brutalised and victimised. This lack of recognition, as the parable reminds us, is to have eternal consequences; the story begins after all with the question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
The Parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that living in grace and peace must necessarily lead to an active spirituality. From grace and peace must flow, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘all good works.’
Two more thoughts: first, the only reward we might legitimately expect from a life lived underpinned by grace, secured through peace and animated by charity, or love of neighbour, is eternal life. The fate of the Good Samaritan is to remain unnamed in this life. The story is therefore a calling to humility, a story that at the end of the day it is how God regards us that counts; true, eternal, esteem can only come from God. The eternal crown is the one worth wearing, all other crowns are mere trinkets. Secondly, the story talks to our aspiration to be an hospitable community. The injured man is taken by the Good Samaritan to a place of refuge. The church must always be a place of refuge, a hospital for the injured, excluded, rejected and distressed. How we welcome and esteem those who nobody else cares about – those who are brought to us by modern day Good Samaritans, is the only true test of our hospitality.
Can I ask that you take away with you the pew sheet and reflect this week on our readings allowing the virtues of grace and peace to embed themselves in your heart so that ‘all good works,’ may (again the words of the Book of Common Prayer) ‘proceed’ through a radical commitment to humility, inclusivity, charity and hospitality; for grace, peace, humility, inclusivity, charity and hospitality really are the very stuff of eternal life; yours and mine.
I hope I was sufficiently concise!
I know that over the last few weeks, Andrew has been talking to you about what it means to be “church”. Last Sunday, which was my first, he specifically explored the notion of what it means to be a church that is, “holy catholic and apostolic”. Something that we stand up and say every Sunday. So I am going to start off my time with you by doing something that is guaranteed to strike fear into the very heart of any self respecting Anglican. I am going to ask you a question, and please do feel free to shout out the answer. It is a question that on the surface appears blindingly obvious, but I’ll confess that it isn’t something that I knew the answer until relatively recently and the question is simply, ‘What does the word apostle mean?’
That’s right, it relates to someone being sent out. Of course we know a little bit about the 12 apostles, the book called the Acts of the Apostles is full of their exploits. But today’s gospel tells us that there were more than just the 12, many more. This gospel passage has Christ sending out either 70 or 72 depending on which translation you use, he described to them some of the difficulties that lay ahead as they travelled around, spreading their revolutionary message and he does the same to us.
The church that we are part of calls itself Apostolic, every week we all stand together and say so. This then means that we too are apostles, all of us, and THAT is something that I appreciate is daunting. We have many churches, roads, even some towns and cities are named after apostles. And yet these people that we now revere as Saints were every bit as flawed and flaky as we are now. In the last week alone we have celebrated the feasts of St Peter, St Paul and St Thomas, all of whom were human, making mistakes and messing things up, doubting, overly ambitious, insecure even with the very best of intentions. We too have all those failings, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do what we can to serve Christ. The gospel tells us about many being sent out to spread the message of God’s love and what these people did and the message that they spread changed the course of human history. Bearing witness to God coming down among us and giving of himself so that we could be saved, if we are now the apostles then we too can change the world.
However, if you are anything at all like me then it must be said that this all sounds like a bit much, after all we all have lives to live, we have loved ones, friends, relationships that require time and energy. Jesus asked people to drop what they were doing and follow him, I’m not sure that I can just go and leave everything to do that. But there is much that we can still do.
Pope John Paul I, when he was Bishop of Venice, wrote humorous letters to several of his heroes, some were fictional whilst others were historical and in a letter that he wrote to the author Mark Twain he discussed the different kinds of Bishop that were in the church. He wrote that they, “vary just as much as books. Some are like eagles, soaring high above us, bearing important messages; others are nightingales, who sing God’s praises in a marvellous way; and yet others are poor chickens, who simply squawk on the lowest branch of the tree, trying to express the odd thought on some great subject.” Now of course, what Pope John Paul wrote about Bishops also relates to the rest of God’s people. There are very few among us who, in their lifetimes, will find themselves to be eagles. Not many of us that aren’t in the choir will be ever be seen by others as nightingales, singing God’s praises in the most sublime way. So I think that it is fair that most of us will find ourselves firmly in the chicken category, and that is alright, that really is nothing to be ashamed of.
We are called to be apostles not because of who we wish we were, but because of who we actually are, in all the messiness of our lives, in the quiet hopelessness of who we are. We are not called to be apostles somewhere else but in the situation that we find ourselves in now. It is such a beautiful, joyous thing that Christ is calling us to do, to spread a little of his love back out into the world. It may be some of the smallest things that we do to serve God’s Kingdom but just like a stone that has been thrown into a pool of water, the ripples could well astonish us by how far they can go.
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