Sermon preached St James’s Church, South Wraxall at United Benefice Eucharist on Sunday 29th August 2015
Readings for the 13th Sunday after Trinity: James 1: 17-end: Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I was asked after the service if I had a copy of what I said for inclusion on the Benefice Blog. Unfortunately I only had a few headings so the following is an approximation of what I said at the service. In writing it up I have added one or two points that I wished I had said at the time – so you could say there is ‘bonus material’. If it jogs any thoughts and serves to encourage any one on their faith journey then I should be delighted. But as with other sermons I was talking to myself. PB
‘Behold I stand at the door and knock, if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into them and will sup with them and they with me.’ Revelation 3:20
These familiar words are associated with Holman Hunt’s famous picture of Jesus as ‘The Light of the World’, a copy of which hangs at the back of this church. The poignancy of the painting is that the door has no handle on the outside where Jesus stands – the message is clear then that God knocks on the door of our lives but He does not force Himself on us – it is up to us to be prepared to listen and to open the door and invite Him in – not just once, but as an ongoing and deepening relationship.
The original painting by Holman Hunt hangs in a little side chapel in Keble College Chapel in Oxford. This chapel incidentally was funded by William Gibb of Tyntsfield. Some years ago I was staying at the college overnight as I was leading a Training Day next morning for some Psychologists on the Value of Play as a Therapeutic Tool. This was in my days as a Drama Therapist.
I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to sit, all alone, in the little chapel and gaze on the original painting to my heart’s content. This I did until quite late in the evening and then returned to my room, somewhat aglow from the experience. My mood quickly changed when I went to open my window, which was an old-fashioned sash window – the sash had broken and the window slammed shut on my finger. I managed to somehow drive myself to A&E where I faced a 4-hour wait for attention, returning in the wee hours of the morning with a somewhat challenging day ahead of me and a very sore finger! I mention this mishap not because I am looking for sympathy but rather because it reminds me that we may have wonderful religious experiences from time to time, but we can’t live on the mountain top and life can often bring us down to earth with a jolt – it was a painful and inconvenient ‘jolt’ at the time but I look back now with some amusement – it was all just a part of life’s rich tapestry.
To return to the Light of the World picture, with Jesus knocking on the door, I have been increasingly aware of this happening to me over the past year which has led me to today in seeking a new role within the Benefice. When our lives take a new direction we should not be surprised because that seems to me to be the way things are in the Christian life no matter what our age or circumstances.
We only have to remember Abraham and Sarah who, in their autumn years, were called by God to leave the security of their own home and country to found a new people in a new land. The Bible is full of stories of people called to step up and sometimes to step down from responsibilities in serving God – Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, Mary and Joseph, and the disciples, who in most cases, if not all, felt inadequate for the task ahead.
Turning attitudes upside down was a hallmark of the life of Jesus. He knocked on the door of the minds of people in his day, especially the religious leaders, trying to get them to put aside their fixed ideas about God and understand the nature of Yahweh afresh.
Jesus spoke about the last being first (Matthew 20:16; Mark 10:31); that unless adults become like little children they cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17); that the tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom first before the religious leaders of his day (Matthew 21:31); that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:24). All shocking views to the Scribes and Pharisees.
Yet possibly most shocking of all, comes in his teaching in today’s gospel reading about ritual washing and what foods one might eat. Jesus declares that there is nothing intrinsically holy or unholy, good or bad, about what we eat – what matters is not what goes into a person food-wise but what comes out of the person in terms of attitude and behaviour towards others. A view that James underlines in the New Testament reading we also heard earlier, we must be doers of the word as well as hearers. The doing he refers to is acts of compassion and care for the most vulnerable in society. Jesus broadens this teaching in his parable of the Sheep and the Goats when he tells his listeners that ‘what you do for the least of these my brethren you do for me’.
Following Jesus was never straight forward then and it’s not now – with Jesus life is never quite what it seems. Here’s a light hearted story to remind us.
A young and earnest curate was approached by a lady in the congregation who was extremely anxious about the traffic passing her high rise flat. She told him that the whole building start to shake at times and she was fearful that one day the building would collapse and she was on the top floor. Her efforts to get the local council to take her concerns seriously had fallen on deaf ears and the curate was her last hope.
The young curate wondered what he could do but felt perhaps a visit to ascertain the problem and reassure the good lady would probably be all that was needed. He duly visited the lady, only to find the lift out of order; arriving at her flat on the top floor and somewhat exhausted he was met by the distraught lady who told him that it was the buses passing that particularly caused the building to shake and, as it faced the road, her bedroom was the room worst affected.
“Just imagine Vicar,” she said (most curates often get called Vicar) “waking up in bed of a morning and feeling the whole building shaking as if it’s about to collapse. The 99 Bus is the worst one and it’s due any moment, you lie on the bed and wait, you’ll soon see what I mean.” It was just at this moment that the lady’s husband arrived home unexpectedly and walked in to the bedroom to find the curate lying on the bed. “What’s going on here then?” he demanded. To which the Curate replied, “You are not going to believe this but I’m waiting for a 99 bus to come along!” Life is not always what it seems.
Certainly anyone coming into contact with Jesus found that their perceptions of how things should be, or should not be, were constantly being challenged. Jesus reached out and conversed with people whom he should never have spoken to – men and especially women who were deemed unclean, sinners, barred from Temple Worship and whom the religious leaders avoided for fear of becoming unclean themselves.
We may be amazed at the importance that the Jewish Laws of Purification had at the time but we should not underestimate their significance. The Laws were not essentially about health and safety but were considered to be a requirement if one was to approach the almighty. Cleanliness was indeed next to Godliness! Or rather it was The Way to Godliness.
To challenge and turn upside down the understanding of Jewish Purification Laws makes rethinking our views on marriage and gay marriage a minor issue by comparison. Jesus goes to the heart of the matter in our gospel reading in Mark 7: 8 when he says to some of the Pharisees and scribes, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And here men meant men. It’s easy to look back and chuckle at this passage from Mark as he lists a few of the many practices that had to be observed including, “the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles”. As for ‘the washing of hands’ this involved an amazing rigmarole that you would never believe if I had time to read it to you.
But perhaps we would do well to consider what we hold on to as if it were God-ordained. Our liturgies? This service today is one that we have only used once before – it’s from the Iona Community. The words and style might jar or you may find them poetical or both. What I hope is that by using a different liturgy from time to time we can think afresh about what the words mean. So that when we use more familiar material our thinking and awareness is sharpened.
Similarly we can hold on to only wanting the old hymns we are familiar with as if they are somehow more reverent. I love many old hymns, but sometimes I realise that the tune is fine but the theology of the words has had its day. It is, I find, an easy trap to fall into to singing along and enjoying a familiar tune but not really taking in the words. New hymns help us to think again and sing afresh what our faith means to us.
The hymns I have chosen for today’s service (Christ Triumphant; Longing for Light; Will you come and follow me; during HC Be Still for the presence of the Lord; Dear Lord and Father of mankind; Lord for the Years) are mainly more recent hymns which I hope you also find refreshing and renewing our worship of God.
This sense of God knocking on the door of our lives and calling us throughout our lives to serve Him, is nowhere better expressed for me than in the hymn we shall shortly be singing – Will you come and follow me if I but call your name.
What else do we hold on to as if it were God-ordained rather than something that has evolved from society? What you wear in church is one to consider. It’s nice to dress up at times but it would seem to me that what we wear when we gather to worship God doesn’t matter to Him; what is in our hearts and minds does.
And what about the blessed pews! They may have been blessed when the church was consecrated but Oh dear! we sometimes think they were put there by the Lord himself and not by the Victorians. Their fixed nature prevents us from making more imaginative ways of worshipping and of using our church buildings creatively.
What I do long for in each of our four churches is for the creation of an attractive Quiet Space. What I mean by this is an area in the church that draws people to want to go and sit there and just be. I am sure there are people within our communities who don’t usually attend church but who have skills in interior design who might help. I am not talking about anything expensive or that couldn’t be moved when necessary.
In this day and age when people are increasingly stressed and anxious wouldn’t it be marvellous if people felt that the church offered them a space that was peaceful and welcoming, to drink in the atmosphere of a place that is soaked in prayer? Somewhere with a few comfortable chairs, perhaps occasionally gentle reflective music; art work; flowers; candles; a prayer board; the use of fabric draped to give colour – but everything arranged in an uncluttered and ‘unchurchy’ way. Imagine what one could create in the Long Chapel in this church.
Jesus said, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
These words are a salutary reminder that we can so easily think that our cherished traditions have been ordained by God and are how things have always been since our Lord’s Day and must remain so or the church will collapse.
Church buildings and church worship are not the only things that we can get in a rut about and want to hold on to and never change. What about attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, that we can hold and claim they are of God? All the furore over women priests over the last 20 years or so are an example of what I mean.
On a personal level we can hold on to anger, past hurts and resentments, even our ignorance that we fear to reveal rather than attend a church study group. Our very mind set can become fossilised and we cease to grow and develop in our faith because we hold on to the past and how we have always been. If the first disciples had taken that view where would we be now I wonder?
If any of you saw the musical Fiddler on the Roof, you may recall the father in the story made ‘tradition’ his God and was blind to the importance of love. Consequently he disowns his daughter for marrying a man who is not of his faith. It is a tragic example of holding on to the things of men and not of God who is love. (1 John 4: 8)
Trying to be open and listening to the gentle sound of the Holy Spirit who nudges and knocks away at us is not easy. There are three meditative prayers that have become very important to me in recent years that I find very helpful on my journey and which I would like to share with you. They are thoughts adapted by Jim Cotter, the first priest who openly acknowledged his gay orientation back in the 1970s, and based on words of earlier spiritual writers.
The first one helps me to remember I am always on a journey of discovery, of becoming:
Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the deeps of my being. Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts. Take me down to the spring of my life and tell me my nature and my name. Give me the freedom to grow, so that I may become that self, the seed of which you planted in me at my making. Out of the deeps I cry to you, O God.
The second prayer reassures me to be patient and reminds me of the wisdom of God’s timing. There are many things that we long for but it is only when we stop and think deeply do we realise that many other things need to happen first and their time has not yet arrived.
Be patient to all that is unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.
The last prayer is one that dear Sue Wyper, a much loved member of this church family and village of South Wraxall and a greatly respected and loved member of staff at Dorothy House, used in the last months of her life; which gave her strength and hope in letting go into God’s hands.
Abba, I abandon myself into your hands. In your love for me do as you will; whatever that may prove to be I am thankful. I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, as in all your creatures, and I will ask nothing else. Into your hands I commend my whole being. I give you my self with the love of my heart. For I love you, my God, so I need to give, to surrender myself into your hands with a trust beyond measure. For you are my faithful Creator, Abba, Friend.
Whenever I say this prayer I always amend the underlined sentence and say ‘help me to be ready for all and to accept all’. I don’t know that I am ‘ready’ for anything or confident that I can accept ‘all’.
These three prayers continue to mean a great deal to me and help to remind me that the faith journey is always a matter of trust as we face an unknown future. This is true for us as individuals and as members of our respective parishes. Life can feel very lonely at times, as individuals, as we face the trials and tribulations of life and also as parishes, as we struggle with ageing congregations and falling numbers.
Being supportive of one another as individuals is, I’m sure. something we know to be essential in church life. But I wonder if we realise how important it is that we take seriously our commitment to one another as a United Benefice. Ever since we became a partnership of four parishes in 2010 I have seen a positive growing together and sharing of ideas, resources, friendship and faith that I hope you find as encouraging as I do. Our occasional United Benefice services are an example of this and I hope and pray that more church members who are able to, will recognise their importance and come along.
It is not unusual to feel alone at times but the Eucharist continually reminds us that we are never alone. The One who laid down His life for us out love that was so amazing, so divine, gave us this meal to share with Him and one another so that we may remember Him not as past but through the Holy Spirit, present with us now in our hearts and minds.
It’s important, I think, to keep in mind that when Jesus said to his first disciples in the upper room, ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ he did so in the context of the Passover which Jews understood as a present experience and not just about looking back to the act of liberation from captivity, which we call the Exodus. Consequently Jesus has given us a timeless meal in which we can be renewed through His loving, forgiving and restoring sacrifice.
Sometimes it all seems to be too good to be true – yet this is the God I need who is so generous and loving – what He needs from me and all of us is our trust – sounds simple and yet. Let me remind you of the story of the Flying Rodleighs that illustrates what trusting God is all about.
Henri Nouwen, the lovely Dutch/American priest, who died a few years ago, told of his fascination and admiration of circus trapeze artists in one of his many books. And in particular of a family of trapeze artists called the Flying Rodleighs whom he got to know. One day Nouwen was talking to Rodleigh senior, whilst some of the other members of the family were practising. Nouwen said, watching one of the artists leaping from one trapeze bar through the air to be caught by another artist hanging from the other bar, “My what skill, I guess all the skill is in the one leaping through the air and having the skill to reach out and catch the other person’s arms at the right time.” But the answer that Rodleigh senior gave Nouwen surprised him. “No,” the old man said. “All the skill is with the catcher, the flyer must not try and grab the catcher as he flies through the air, that is far more risky. A flyer has to fly and a catcher has to catch, and the flyer has to trust, with outstretched arms, that the catcher will be there for him.”
In hearing this Nouwen recalled the words of Jesus, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). The Christian life is always about trust and I think that as we learn to trust God in small ways so we gain confidence for the leap of dying.
Talking of which a final story to lighten this occasion about how not to break sad news.
There was a wealthy young man who lived in a smart London flat with a butler called Carruthers. The young man had a very fine Persian cat to which he was very attached and whenever he went away he left strict instructions for Carruthers to keep a careful eye on it. The young man went off to Monte Carlo, as was his habit, for a summer’s vacation with friends but he had hardly arrived when he received a telegram from Carruthers which simply read, ‘Cat’s dead. Come home.’ The young man was deeply upset. He returned home immediately and dealt with the final requirements of the said dead cat. After some months of grieving when, at last, he felt he could talk about the matter he spoke to Carruthers, telling him that his great loss had been all the more painful because of the bluntness of the telegram. Carruthers was most apologetic but rather at a loss to know what he might have done differently and asked his employer for some advice.
The young man told him that he should have broken the sad news gently by sending a first telegram stating, ‘The cat’s on the roof and won’t come down.’ This the young man said would have raised some anxiety and a second telegram could then follow stating the ‘The cat’s fallen off the roof and is in a poor way and unlikely to recover.’ This, the young man said, would then have helped to prepare him for the worst, which would then be expressed in a third telegram stating that, with deepest regret, ‘I must inform you etc etc …’ that the cat was dead.
Carruthers was grateful for the advice and the young man relieved to have got the matter off his chest; nothing more was said on the subject and life went back to normal.The following year the young man went off for his usual holiday in Monte Carlo and had hardly had time to greet his friends when he received a telegram from Carruthers which read, ’Your mother’s on the roof and she won’t come down.’
So on we go with our life journey putting our faith and trust in the one who says :
‘Listen I am standing at the door, knocking, if you will hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me.’ (Revelation 3:20)
At such a meal I trust there will be much joy and laughter between friends.
[Paul is retiring from regular ministry and is using the next six months to explore where he is being led. He will not be disappearing and we will see him the pews between trips overseas to visit family. At this service he was presented with cards and a gift, and wife Linds with a bouquet of lilies in appreciation of her support of his service. The following shared meal in St Nicholas church hall was a lovely occasion too; many thanks to the catering team for a marvellous spread. ]