Sermon: Third Sunday Before Advent, Year C

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Sermon: Third Sunday Before Advent, Year C
Text: Luke 20:27-38

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

Last week, I opened with a joke about heaven, and at the risk of setting the expectation of a joke each and every week, here is another:
There once was a very faithful priest, who, at the pearly gate was asked by the gatekeeper: ‘Have you ever committed a sin you truly regret?’

‘Yes,’ the priest answered. ‘When I was a young ordinand at St Stephen’s House in Oxford, we played soccer against at team from the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, and I scored a goal, which was off-side. But the referee did not see it so, and the goal won us the match. I regret that now.’

‘Well,’ said the gatekeeper. ‘That is a very minor sin. You may enter.’

‘Thank you very much, Saint Peter,’ the priest answered.

‘I’m not Saint Peter,’ said the gatekeeper. ‘He is having his lunchbreak. I am Saint Stephen.’

These jokes, whilst providing a little diversion, speak of an altogether different heaven to that which Our Lord teaches us. Do we really think, as this parade of jokes suggest that heaven is at all like earth?

The Sadducees tried to catch Jesus out with this faintly ridiculous set piece, about whose husband this all-surviving wife would be: a case of “one wife for seven brothers”, I suppose. But Jesus responds that heaven is simply not on those terms, it is simply better than all that.

The heaven which the faithful departed have gone to, is not a heaven of pearly gates, and St Peter (or even St Stephen) sitting in judgement, but a transcendent glory beyond our imagination.

Jesus Christ is, as St Paul said to the Romans, the Lord of both the living and the dead, that is why he died and rose, and through his victory on the cross, we have an entrance to real heaven; where considerations of whose wife is whose will not matter

This week we gathered to commemorate the faithful departed on All Soul’s Day, and again this afternoon at 3pm in commemoration and giving God thanks for the life and witness of Josie Grace and Reg Fosbury. None of these Requiem Masses should be seen as sombre, mournful affairs, but should be the opportunity to celebrate their life, not their departure. It would not be right for this to be mawkish or sentimental, but an opportunity to remember with thanks and look forward in hope.

This week I attended a conference on the Church’s ministry on Housing Estates. As there isn’t a parish in Gosport which does not feature an estate in some form or other, it was felt that we as a Deanery had much to learn. It was highly productive, and has given us much to think about. We looked at the experiences of urban and suburban settings from around the country, and estates both rich and poor which shared the same sense of isolation and disconnection from their spiritual heart. The Church can offer a way out of that, and can provide a focus where there previously has been none.

But it is clear that the Church cannot do that by simply saying “here it is, come on in” and expecting the multitude to descend. For the Church is not a building, fine though this particular one is, it is the living stones, the people within it. It is not the edifice; it is the faith that houses.

The Church is the church of the living faith, not the mausoleum of the past… And this means that we need to become engaged with modern society, building upon the foundation of the apostles and saints (for as an anglican catholic – that’s catholic with a small ‘c’ – I see Tradition at the heart of what we do) and looking continually towards the prize which St Paul alludes to.

If we fall prey to the temptation to look inwards then this church will die… Slowly and quite painfully and we will only have ourselves to blame. That much is obvious to anyone, and was shown plainly at the conference. But if we look outside we can plainly see what we have to achieve.

Our Lord tells us so clearly this morning that looking outside of ourselves and beyond our comfort zones is what we are called to: we should not be coming to church out of habit, but out of a burning desire to worship God and to challenge the world and society.

You cannot just sit there and think that you are too old, too tired, too wrapped up in yourself to sit by and let this happen. The apostles left their nets, left everything to follow Christ. Mission is at the heart of the Gospel, and we look at the beginnings of an opportunity, which needs to involve us all – not just your priest, or your PCC, or your junior choir, but each and every one of us.

Christ’s message today is that the kingdom of heaven is transformative: that the Holy Spirit works in individuals and in communities to make a difference. I know he calls this community to make that difference. We need to look beyond the building of the toilet at the back, beyond the changes brought about with the coming of a new Priest and see where we can meet that need. We need to move from the passive to the active – for this is what will make this community grow, both in size and more importantly in depth.

So, this church is not a slightly damp tomb, but a symbol of witness, and you are that witness. In 12 months… 2 years… 5 years time what will we see? a vibrant engaged, community who proclaims Jesus Christ to all through the sacraments, or a tired rendition of an old and comfortable favourite. Heaven is truly a wonderful promise for the future, and it probably won’t be much like the jokes suggest it is, but the Kingdom of Heaven begins here on earth: it begins here. It begins with us.

Amen

Sermon: Ordinary 29, Year C

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Sermon: 19th Sunday after Trinity (29th in Ordinary Time), Year C
Text: Luke 18:1-8

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

I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster week so far, last Tuesday’s licensing seems so far away now and in the meantime we have had the first few days of my tenure here at St. Thomas’: a couple of low-key midweek services here, the daily office of morning and evening prayer, and away from this place, a marvellous act of worship for young people on the Isle of Wight called Blesséd, with which I was involved.

But, as you can see, the building is still standing and we are all here, God’s here as well, so things can’t be too bad so far!

This marks the beginning of what I hope will be a happy, spirit-filled and Christ-centred journey alongside each other: the people of Elson and Hardway and their priest, as together we travel towards Christ, our light, our salvation and our hope.

Indeed, our Gospel this morning offers us some hints about some of our priorities and our concerns: the Scriptures bring us back to what is at the heart of the Gospel message: prayer, humility and inclusiveness.

Our Lord and Saviour frequently used parables to explore the nature of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. This isn’t just because we like a good story, or that we are more likely to remember the teaching (although both of these are true), but because the nature of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are actually beyond our human grasp – at another level outside our petty human existence. Only Christ, who has the benefit of the complete picture is able to give these interpretations and to bring them down, as it were, to our level.

These three parables occur in the middle of a great raft of Christ’s teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven. They are not directly linked to each other, and it is unlikely that Our Lord proclaimed them at one time or in this specific order, but the Evangelist gathered them together and edited them, shaped them for publication, much as Emma has to do to our scribbling for the parish magazine!

The first parable, of the unrighteous judge is often subject to misinterpretation; you may notice that on my wrist I wear a wristband with WWJD – what would Jesus do? on it: it was a gift from a youth group I led before I went to theological college and have worn it, or one like it ever since. Some people wear one with PUSH on it – Pray Until Something Happens, implying that if you badger God with your needs, much like the widow does in this pericope, this passage of Scripture, then God will finally get exasperated with you and grant you your deepest desires, no matter how unsuitable they are.

And the further implication of this is that if God doesn’t grant you your prayers, it must be because you must have some form of unresolved sin in your life and that you are not worthy of having God answer your prayers.

This is simply not how God works. Indeed, close inspection of the text on the notice sheet will show that Our Lord says that God is precisely not like the unrighteous judge, who only gives in, not because of the justice of the case, but because of external pressure. The one, true, righteous judge hears and responds in love, not according to how loud our prayers are: if that was the case, then the prophets of Baal would have had some satisfaction, but God responds to prayer, sincere, heartfelt and honest in his own time and with absolute justice and fairness.

God does indeed answer all prayer, but he doesn’t necessarily answer them in ways that we expect: his answers may be ‘yes’, or ‘no’, or ‘not yet’, or even ‘here’s something better’. In the recent film Bruce Almighty, the character played by Jim Carey is given a week as the Deity and when hounded by so many prayers about such trivia simply grants them all. Everyone wins the lottery, and so everyone gets a couple of pounds each.

God does not answer prayer like that. It is not dependent upon praying until something happens, but upon opening our hearts to God; by sometimes allowing stillness to creep into our prayers. Allowing the still small voice crying in the wilderness to be heard; for prayer is a two-way conversation and if we constantly pray until something happens we may be drowning out the call of God with our shopping list.

There are many ways to encounter God in prayer: in the sacraments, with ikons or beads or statues or with an open heart. Praying is at the heart of our Christian lives and I hope that together we can build this place as a place of prayer, a sacred space to encounter God.

cont.

An American rancher met up with a British farmer. The two men began talking about their land and the Englishman told the cattleman that he operated his business on 125 acres. The American scoffed at such a small parcel of land. He said, “On my ranch I can get in my truck at sunrise and I won’t reach the fence line of my property until sunset.” The British farmer nodded, “Mmmm, I used to have a truck like that.”

There is something delicious about bringing someone down to size, and the gentle, humorous humility of the British Farmer shows us its value. The second parable, that of the Pharisee and the Publican also teaches us the true value of humility. It is so easy for us, in this comfortable, (well, perhaps not in these particular pews) comfortable, familiar environment to become complacent with our faith. In doing so, we become exactly like the Pharisee.

The Publican’s humility was aimed at God, not at others around him, and although we know that he left the temple in a state of grace, we don’t know if that encounter with God (in what is in effect the sacrament of penance, of confession) changed his life or his behaviour; but to be released from sin as he was gives us the opportunity to make amends.

From humility before God can come service to others in a state of grace: service in this community, to the sidelined and marginalised, the unloved and the unlovely. I hope that we can work together for the greater good of this community, and use our faith, our humility before God as the foundation of much good in this area: proclaiming the Good News of Christ to all who need to hear it.

This is linked to the last of our three parables, which shows to us that the Kingdom of God is truly inclusive. There are no barriers to this altar, and all who have the new birthright of baptism have the right of access to Our Saviour.

In the same way, our approach to the community should be as inclusive as possible: working with other Christians and even other faiths, but not losing our unique identity as Anglicans.

The greatest threat to the Church is not another faith or denomination, but the greater threat of apathy and indifference: there are many people in this area who will not have even the most rudimentary understanding or awareness of the Church and what it can mean to them. These are not the people who have lost their faith, or even mislaid it, but who have never heard the Gospel at all.

We need therefore to become active missionaries in our own area. This is not just my job, but all of our jobs as Christians. The mission field starts at your own front door. We cannot expect the world to come flooding to the corner of Elson Road and Elson Lane.

Bishop Frank Weston, bishop of Zanzibar exhorted most famously:

“Go out into the highways and hedges. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.”

That is why Our Lord said that the children were not to be hindered in their access to faith, that is why we must place a high priority on mission and on work with young people in particular, especially those who have no contact with this church and who just hang around by the post box outside.

It is our common mission, and I hope that we can all work together to further build the Kingdom of God here in this parish, building upon all your excellent work and fellowship that I have only just begun to become aware of.

So, in one of those strange quirks of the lectionary, on my first Sunday here, we encounter a pattern which I hope will shape the Christian journey in this parish: a journey in partnership, fellowship and fun, a pilgrimage which can at times be smooth and at other times difficult and challenging, travelling alongside each other firmly rooted in prayer, in humility before God and embracing all of God’s children to proclaim the Gospel boldly here in Elson and Hardway!

Amen.