Sermon by Gwen Brignall : Readings: Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10: 2-16
May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I wonder if you have a nickname amongst your family or friends? Or maybe there are names for things you use in your family that wouldn’t make much sense to an outsider. My daughter has a totally favourite soft toy dog which has become known as Cold Finger… it’s a long story… but we all know that Cold Finger is hugely important and essential for a good night’s sleep.
In the Genesis reading, we heard of God creating and Adam naming. I can imagine the oral retelling of this story getting quite exciting, with all sorts of increasingly exotic animals taking the stage. It’s been pared back for the written version, but there is enough to realise that the naming was important. And finally, God creates a helper, a partner for man and her name is important enough to write down – woman. It has echoes of Isaiah – “I have called you by your name, you are mine.” Hold onto that thought.
The creation of woman from man in the Hebrew scriptures was always used to explain why, through marriage, husband and wife become one. By the time of Jesus, this was all tied up and complicated by legalities, and of course it is the legalities of the matter that the Pharisees are trying to trip Jesus up with. Jesus throws the question – that of whether divorce is lawful – back to the Pharisees, asking them what Moses commanded. This was entirely deliberate: the certificate of dismissal that the Pharisees refer to wasn’t just a means of divorce, it was a means of protecting the divorced woman. It freed her from her prior obligations. Jesus is actually reminding his listeners of his care and concern for the vulnerable. Whether the Pharisees understood this intent, we are none the wiser, although we could make an educated guess!
Of course, the verses we get really het up about are those in which Jesus says divorcees who remarry are committing adultery. I must say, for a first ever go at preaching, these readings have thrown me right in at the deep end! Where’s a straightforward Good Samaritan when you need one?!
So, what to say about this? Well, Jesus and the Gospel writers have form for making a point pretty boldly, and hyperbole is present throughout the Gospels as a literary device – just think of the passage about getting a camel through the eye of a needle, or the one where we’re told we must hate our parents if we are to able to love God properly… or indeed, the verses from Matthew that we heard last week telling us to pluck our eyes out and cut our arms off! If we look at how Jesus actually treats the woman caught in adultery, or the sort of people he invites into his close circle of friends, there you have your answer as to where his concerns lie, and ours should be. He’s not tied up with the legalities, he’s concerned with the marginalised and vulnerable. He knows them by their names. They are his.
The passage about Jesus blessing the little children is one we know so well, I was surprised when I realised it was “tagged on” to this section about divorce. But actually, it makes perfect sense. Jesus has just been decrying the hardness of heart of people… of the Pharisees who stick to the letter of the law but do not see the people behind it; he has reminded us of the certificate of dismissal, protecting the women and not the law-hungry men. And then the disciples illustrate that very hardness of heart themselves, speaking “sternly” to the people bringing their children, turning away the innocent and the vulnerable. Jesus once again shows through his actions that compassion and love are the be all and end all. He takes the children up in his arms and blesses them. I daresay he even got to know their names.
So, who are we going to be like? Are we going to be the Pharisees: sticklers for the law… tradition… respectability? Or are we going to embrace the vulnerable, to hold off judgement until we have the full picture, to show compassion at all times? We do, of course, say that all are welcome in this place. Let us make that true, of this place and of our lives, and let us learn the names of those we should be welcoming in.
Trinity 17: Jeremiah 11, 8-20, James 3, 13-4,3 7&8, Mark 9, 30-37
If I were to ask you if you either knew a truly holy person, or knew about a truly person, I wonder how you might respond? Holiness is a funny word, yet it is one of our three aspirations. It is a word, I suspect, that many of us are happier ascribing to others, yet holiness of life is something we are called to. You can’t really be Christian without seeking to grow in holiness. In fact each and every Sunday right at the beginning of the service we pray in the Prayer of Preparation, that we might grow in holiness. The words ‘cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we might perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord’ speak powerfully to the call to holiness.
Holiness might be thought of as the willingness to have our hearts cleansed, an openness to the work of the Holy Spirit and a deep desire that through our words and actions we might magnify God’s holy name.
The reading from the epistle highlights the notion of willingness to have our hearts cleansed. James asks us, for instance, to ask ourselves whether we might have ‘any bitter envy or selfish ambition’ lurking in the depths of our ‘hearts.’ From a liturgical perspective this is why the confession follows on from the prayer of preparation. Growth in holiness is, I think, contingent on preparation and confession.
Growth in holiness, which is the same thing as growth in Christian maturity and wisdom, demands that we develop the ability to honestly reflect on our motives, a willingness to offer our motives back to God for cleansing, followed by confession, and of course the willing receipt of forgiveness ritually given through the act of absolution. Please can I invite you never to simply trot out the first few prayers at the beginning of the service but to instead regard them as instrumental to your growth in holiness.
In the Gospel reading we hear about the Apostles arguing about who ‘was the greatest.’ The Apostles, just like we do in the here and now, needed to learn about the art of holiness, and so Jesus teaches them. He tells them that real holiness can never be about what they might get out of it, he tells them that real holiness is about submitting our very lives to God and trusting in the power of the resurrection, and that its about service and caring above all others for the most vulnerable in society.
Jesus puts humility, service and quality of relationship right at the heart of holiness: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all……...whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ In these words of Jesus what we see is that holiness and hospitality can’t be disaggregated. In fact, authentic Christian hospitality, the kind of hospitality that is infections and evangelical, is entirely contingent on our willingness to grow in holiness.
So can I invite you, with humility, to commit to your own growth in holiness, so that with cleanliness of heart you can truly magnify his Holy Name?
Trinity 14: James 1, 17-end & Mark 7,1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Do you know anyone who has a complete blind spot about a particular issue? Well, I think Martin Luther, the great reformer, had a bit of a blind spot about the book of James. He famously referred to it as an ‘epistle of straw,’ in fact he would have preferred it if it had been excluded from the canon of scripture. Fortunately it wasn’t. The book of James is a wonderful pastoral epistle.
This week I would particularly invite you to reflect on what it might mean to ‘be doers of the word.’ Now Luther thought that the problem with James’ great exhortation was that it undermined his great theological scheme, at the centre of which was the notion that salvation can only be graced through faith. Luther thought that James was suggesting that salvation could be purchased through works. I think that Luther had a particular blind spot when it comes to James, and that what James in fact offers is a highly distinctive intentional theology modelled on the life of Christ. James, at no point, suggests that we are strong enough by ourselves, or though our own merits, to live the Christ-like life, for he says that we need to ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.’
For James being able to be doers of the word, the sort of people, who are genuinely able to keep our faith ‘undefiled’ through the uncritical acceptance of worldly philosophies, whilst exercising compassion towards the most vulnerable, flows entirely from the quality of our inner lives and our willingness to welcome and foster the ‘implanted word,’ within us, and of course the way we do this is through prayer, imaginatively reading the bible and receipt of the sacraments; these three are the nutrients for our souls.
The good news is that when we take these three seriously, when prayer and reading the bible become our daily bread, we change and ripen, we become what James describes as the ‘first fruits;’ we become Holy and observable; we become the sort of people who wear our faith. We become ‘doers of the word.’
The problem with the ‘Pharisees and some of the Scribes’ is simply this: that they haven’t ‘welcomed with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save.’ Instead they have sought to redefine their faith in human terms. In the language of James they allowed themselves to become ‘stained by the world.’ Jesus is more forthright in his criticism: he refers to them as hypocrites.
My deepest desire is that this church will increase in holiness; that each and every one of us will let the ‘implanted word’ ripen still further within us. To this end we are going to be continuing with our teaching on prayer. In October we hope to offer more Thursday evening sessions on various types of, primarily contemplative, prayer, the aim of which is to help us ‘look into the perfect law.’ In February I am hoping that we might have a one day festival of prayer led by a wonderful priest-theologian from Liverpool. In the meantime can I invite you to take the pew sheet home with you, read and meditate on the readings and use our daily prayer card. Let us together commit to ‘welcoming with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save,’
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