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.
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!