St Mark's United Church

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Sermon         Greenwich         6th August 2017 

                ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’    Ps. 34, v.8

    Isaiah 55  v. 1 – 6          Matthew  v. 13 -21

Do animals speak?

I’m sure that if I asked, most of you would admit that fantasy played a part in your life.     Where would we be without Pooh Bear, Mrs. Tiggywinkle, Captain Spock … or even a fantasy football competition?      We do need those opportunities to exercise our imaginations, because we are human and sometimes life is challenging and drear.

More than 40 years ago I did an OU course that involved a bit about children’s literature and its role in helping children to read.  I remember considering fantasy writing and being introduced to the poet Coleridge’s comment that at times we have to “willingly suspend disbelief” if we are to get the full value from it, though I know now that he was really referring to poetry.  In the adult literature and film world there have been some classic examples where much of the setting of our modern world has been abandoned in order to be able to set human relationships into a context that is uncluttered – Gulliver’s travels, Brave new world, and perhaps the whole of science fiction

They are a rich source, which we neglect at our peril, because many embody important truths that we might otherwise find it difficult to talk about.  Should we then at least be more discriminating in how we view Scripture as a whole and accept that some elements of narrative may there for a similar purpose?   The difficulty is in knowing which and where.  And we will disagree, as readers have done over hundreds of years.   So, when it comes to miracles – how do we deal with them?  In discussing the miracles of Jesus, the Revd. Jeffrey John draws the distinction between those for whom everything that happened is a fact and is beyond discussion and those who suggest that with our 21st century, more scientific understanding we can probably explain away some of the more extreme elements of events.   But either way, we fall short of the truth we seek and what the gospel writers may have been wanting to achieve for us, and there could be a spectrum of understanding between the two views described.   Simply asking what really happened may be the wrong question.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we just want to be spectators, or participants and enter into a situation.  Of course we cannot enter in as first century Jews – but we can be human beings wondering about this man Jesus.  Could we see ourself as a one of the disciples, worrying about Jesus needing time to be quiet, or feeling responsible for all these people who have nothing to eat; do we have something to eat ourself but are reluctant to enjoy it if others have nothing, and there’s too little to share;  or when suddenly there IS enough to pass round, are you suspicious of it – or are you suddenly curious and seriously determined to attend to what Jesus is saying?

And the same applies to listening to the prophet Isaiah.   We are in Exile and after years we are doubtful that life will change – but here is the voice of God through Isaiah saying that life can be different if we will take what is on offer.   We can be part of a new Exodus and enjoy manna from heaven rather than the junk food that comes from Babylon – the worshipping of false gods. 

We can see what the answer ought to be … but why is it then rejected?    Of course we can see in Jesus’ miracle the call to provide material food.   We can leave it to the work of aid agencies and foodbanks, all be it with our support.   We can decry a world which finds it hard to solve this problem and we can grieve over a society which seeks comfort in all kinds of riches that seem so unnecessary.    Talking about this aspect of the miracle in the Methodist Recorder newspaper last week the writer commented that although material poverty needs attention, what is a more important concern for the world is spiritual poverty.   I think we know what he means – and yet there seems to be a hunger for the supernatural in a whole variety of ways other than Christianity or other major faith groups.

I had time to kill in a shopping mall recently and, dangerously, found myself in the shop of a well-known bookseller.   As I browsed I found three whole tiers of books on “spirituality” … but could see nothing there or anywhere else on what would normally be labelled “religion” … nor under “health and well-being”.  So, if we as Christians are meant to be major players in the spiritual business what are we up to?

Some years ago the Methodist Church produced a report and study guide entitled “Time to talk of God” – aimed at improving the Christian ability to talk about God in the everyday – and so to make easier ordinary conversations with non-Christians about God.   If we can’t do it in church, then where can we do it?   And so how, when asked, can we talk easily about the feeding miracle?    I’m sure we’ve all heard of that quotation from the first epistle of Peter: “Always be ready to justify… the hope that is within you”  (1 Peter 3, v. 13)  It’s a very personal question … and we may not feel confident to give a fluent answer, because we know we do not have the whole truth and most of us are still learning … but we should try and be as prepared as we can.   In that same study guide a comment was highlighted: “Many long for God, yet are prevented from finding him.”   

Advice on how to give answers about faith and miracles can also be too pat to help.   Last week I was given a Christian magazine – not one I would have automatically chosen to look at, but one article caught my eye, about both saying and doing the gospel.  Suggestions discussed included  keeping a pile of tracts at hand, ready for any visitors who might call, and having an evangelistic message on your answerphone …

 

Those would certainly be being upfront about your faith … my feeling though is that generally Jesus was much more subtle in his approach, thinking about the sensibilities of people.

 

If we take his approach on the mountainside, when the disciples posed the problem of the need for food, he said “You can do it … between you” and it was then seen that only a little was needed to solve the problem.   That ‘little’ however was first offered to God: Jesus took the bread, thanked God, broke it and then the disciples could take it back and distribute it.    In this account we had no further mention of the fish and it seems fairly clear that Matthew wanted his readers to make the link with the Eucharist – the celebration of which would probably have become quite standardised by the time he was writing.   Both Jesus’ listeners and Matthew’s readers, as Jews, would have been familiar with other accounts of miraculous feeding – manna in the desert with Moses, the oil and flour that never ran out with Elijah … and a less well-known account of Elisha, in a time of famine:

 

  A man came from Baal-shalisha, bringing the man of God some of the new season’s bread, twenty barley loaves, and fresh ripe ears of grain. Elisha said, “Give this to the people to eat.”

His attendant protested, “I cannot set this before a hundred people.”  Still he insisted, “Give it to the people to eat; for this is the word of the Lord: They will eat and there will be some left over.”

So he set it before them, and they ate, and had some left over, as the Lord had said.      (2 Kings 4, v.42 -44)

 

We can see the link – but there is more.  Twenty loaves for 100 men is not too impossible, even though each would have been more like a roll than a large sliced!   But Jesus fed 5000 plus the women and children with just five loaves – a super abundance by comparison.   So are we here being shown God’s final outcome – the messianic banquet – prepared for all, with the 12 baskets of pieces for the inclusion of the 12 tribes of Israel.

 

But should we today be too mystified.   The God we worship is He who in Christ did that much greater miracle in Jesus of giving himself up to death and rising again.   We celebrate that most especially in the Eucharist, but through God’s compassion and forgiveness we can be in a special relationship day by day.  We don’t understand it fully but perhaps we can give our neighbours a taste of it in our conversations of the spiritual, and in our trying to be the body of Christ in resolving material needs.

Today Anglicans celebrate the Transfiguration.   That was a special revelation to a few – but for all our benefit.  We here can put ourselves on another hillside, and be participants in Christ’s abundance if we so choose.  How the miracle happened then we don’t know – but the point is that it did.   Let’s get on with it. And let us taste and see that the Lord is good. 


Sue Drury



Sermon – 21 February 2016

St. Mark’s United Reformed-Methodist Church, Greenwich

Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18

Luke 13: 31-35

  

Identity – Out of Darkness Comes Destiny

  

“My father was a preacher. My grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher. My only brother was a preacher. My daddy’s brother is a preacher. So, I didn’t have much choice.”

With those words, Martin Luther King, the great American campaigner for racial equality, explained not just his career choice but his vocation, his life-long commitment.

He was clear about his identity as a Christian preacher. He understood the context in which he lived – segregation in the United States based on racist policies – and he understood God’s call to love, and Jesus’ loving ministry.

And he was brave in the face of unbelievable hostility.

At a time when he was being bombarded with death threats and battling fear and weariness, he prayed aloud telling God he could not go on.

But then he felt an inner voice saying, “Martin Luther King, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even to the end of the world.”

Talking about that experience later he said: “I tell you I’ve seen lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roar. I’ve felt sin breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone… My fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

And face it he did. Because Martin Luther King understood the mind of God, his mission and ministry was one that came to personify non-violence. He identified with the love of God - not racial hatred. 

He felt an inner voice saying, “Martin Luther King, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for the truth. And, lo, I will be with you. Even to the end of the world.”

Martin Luther King knew who he was, understood his destiny and because of that he did not give up hope.

Not after he was imprisoned many times, not when he was sentenced to 386 days of hard labour for organizing a bus boycott, not when he and his family were threatened with violence, not when the laws of the land were pitted against him. Instead he fought on and got those laws changed. The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that Alabama’s segregation laws were unconstitutional.

Martin Luther King said: “We have lived under the agony and darkness of Good Friday and with the conviction that one day the heightening glow of Easter would emerge on the horizon. We have seen truth crucified and goodness buried, but we have kept going with the conviction that truth crushed to earth will rise again. Now our faith seems to be vindicated.”

This is the second Sunday of Lent, a time to reflect on our identity as followers of Jesus, our destiny as Christians in world filled with injustices.

Today, both texts are about identity and vocation. Through the solemn and strange ritual, Abram belongs to God and his mission. So does Jesus. Whatever the powers-that-be think, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to fulfil the meaning of the ritual that Genesis 15 (our first reading) narrates.

Identity is not just a matter of biology and culture. At its root, identity grows from our relationship with God. Both Abram and Jesus encounter this in the darkness. But the darkness does not overwhelm them, because they are certain of who they are, because God has told them.

So both are able to embrace the vocations that grow from their identity, vocations that grow from their identity, vocations that will lead, through darkness and death, to the salvation of the world.

Jesus was heading to Jerusalem to his death, his destiny. It was an act of love. That’s why he likens himself in our Gospel passage to a mother hen gathering her chicks about her.  This is a picture of a God who cares intimately about his people.

He identifies himself with the God of love, the God who care for every one of us, especially the poor, the vulnerable in our communities.

His coming sacrifice in Jerusalem heralds a new kind of thinking, a new kind of Kingdom where love is supreme, love conquers. We see many prequels of this kingdom in the ministry of Jesus as he heals the sick, feeds the hungry, gives hope to the hopeless.

This is our story. This is where we get our identity. This is our destiny.  

Lent is a good time to focus on our identity – both as a church community and as individuals.

On my way to Bible Study on Ash Wednesday I saw a man emerging from the Blackheath Railway Station with ashes on his forehead, a perfectly formed cross. It surprised me a bit. He really stood out from the crowd and I give him credit for that. He knew who he was and wasn’t afraid to say it.

We don’t have that kind of tradition in our church so how do we identify ourselves?

A couple of weeks ago a young woman from Brazil came to the service with me to see what a Protestant service in a small church in Greenwich was all about. Afterwards she said how delighted she was to see a woman in the pulpit, two women reading Scripture, a woman lighting the candle at the beginning of the service. Surely that says something about who we are – open to all people sharing their gifts of ministry and service in this place.

This is certainly part of our identity at St. Mark’s.

Some of us have volunteered in the Greenwich Winter Night Shelter over the past few Thursday nights, welcoming guests who would otherwise be sleeping on the cold concrete of this very wealthy city.

Surely we are saying as a congregation, along with other churches in Greenwich, that these are God’s children, our brothers and sisters, and that they deserve shelter, warmth, food and companionship.

This too is part of our identity in this congregation.

The signs out front of the church and the Website also reflect our identity - as a small congregation wanting to be part of the community, to serve by offering our building to community groups at nominal fees.

In May we will have an opportunity to look even further still by raising awareness and funds from Christian Aid, which reaches out to communities in need around the world with emergency relief and development assistance.

All these acts on our part help illustrate who we are as a community of faith, trying to be mindful of God’s call and Jesus’ ministry of love.

Perhaps we can do even more.

Maybe we need to begin to raise questions with political leaders as to why we have homeless in this city, constant war in the Middle East, refugees streaming to Europe fleeing violence in the Middle East and Africa.

And in our personal lives we might want to look at how we treat our family and friends. Can we sing the words of the hymn – “And they will know we are Christians by our love” – with integrity?

Where does our Christian identity lead us today? What is our destiny as followers of Jesus?

Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in 1968, spoke these words the day before he was shot in Memphis, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”

He knew who he was. He identified with God, with God’s will that we love one another. He put his life on the line.

Where does our Christian identity lead us today? What is our destiny?

There is no easy or simple answer, it is something individuals and churches wrestle with all the time.  And we need not be intimidated by Martin Luther King’s grand destiny, just inspired by it to find our way.

In the Gospel reading Jesus is convinced that his destiny and calling are in Jerusalem. He will not allow Herod, or anything else, to stop him.

Whatever we feel called to do (big or small, at home, in the community or in this congregation), wherever we think we may end up, continuing, day in, day out, to work for God’s kingdom is always going to be the right thing to do.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

John P. Asling is an Elder at St. Mark’s, Greenwich.