Coming or going? A sermon for 2 parishes in vacancy (Heb 11:1-16 and Luke 12:32-40)

 

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Inside St. Mary’s Herriard  (very grateful to my husband for taking the photographs as we’ve travelled the rural parishes of Odiham Deanery in recent weeks)

I was back on the road this week, at two ends of Odiham Deanery, leading worship at a BCP Holy Communion in St. Mary’s Eversley who with Derby Green are still to appoint a vicar, then crossing all the way to St. Mary’s Herriard as that part of the North Hampshire Downs Benefice anticipate the imminent arrival of their new Team Rector. My reflections dwelt on their situations in the light of the Epistle and Gospel this week.

Also included here are the intercessions I used at Herriard, which used some of the imagery of the Gospel reading.

 

I wonder. Do we know whether we’re coming or going?

We all have times in our lives when we are up to our ears in stuff, juggling different needs. There will be things related to our work or livelihood demanding our attention; some domestic issues that might inflict themselves on us, like a car breaking down just before a long-journey is required; or perhaps some difficult family situation that needs us to give up precious time that we don’t really have, to help or resolve it. Some of this muddle of circumstances will have been caused by our own mistakes, some, simply by that thing we call life. We find ourselves dashing, mentally and possibly physically, from one thing to another, without a clear a idea of where our focus needs to be, what is important rather than urgent. We don’t know whether we’re coming or going.

Our readings this morning are all about comings and goings.

In the passage from Hebrews, we start with the coming of faith into the world, people learning to recognise the relationship of faith, hope and trust in the lives and movement of people who heard what could not be seen: the power of God to move things forward.

In our Gospel passage, there are preparations for the coming of a master to his servants, at an unknown time, possibly late at night when it would be understandable and easy to be asleep.

That’s the comings, but what about the goings?

In our Hebrews passage we are reminded of some of the root stories of our faith, with Abraham “setting out into a new land, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Isaac and Jacob were to take important journeys of their own, all three of them having heard the promise of a kingdom that they were never themselves to see fulfilled: that Abraham’s children would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore.

In Luke, there is also the promise of this kingdom, but the details of the journey required are hidden in the description of what needs to be done. “Be dressed for action…” (Luke 12:35) was the advice originally given to the Israelites preparing for their Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:11). In the story of the first Passover there is a sense of urgency as they prepare to leave and go into a new land. But, this going can only be enabled by the coming of the Lord into Egypt in great power, preserving and releasing his chosen people to go into the Promised Land. We also read this passage in the light of the Christ who spoke it, he who had not only come in his earthly life to serve, but was also going through a violent death, to release all people into a new life. Goings, and comings, towards the fulfilment of a promise that will ultimately be fulfilled at Jesus’ return.

I have spent much of the last few Sundays travelling around parishes in the Odiham Deanery that are in vacancy, so it is unsurprising that as I reflect on my own comings and goings among you and other parishes, I do so with a strong sense of the goings and comings that you are yourselves experiencing. You have said goodbye to clergy who have moved on to pastures new, and you anticipate the coming, sooner (Herriard) or perhaps later (Eversley), of those freshly called to be among you. As churches, you are making preparations, either concrete plans or something a little more nebulous and ill-defined that hasn’t quite, if you’ll excuse the expression, got its clothes on yet.

But what of the promises that all these comings and goings are moving towards. Is it simply the potential/promise of a new Vicar/Rector who will take the strain off tired hands, fasten their belt, tuck in their robes, and get down to the hard work of serving their patch as Christ serves the church? Is it a promise which will take you on a journey to a new land, a fresh coming of Christ? Is it the promise of the Kingdom of God?

The opening lines of our passage in Hebrews define faith in relation to hope. Faith for the Hebrews – the people of Israel whose community is defined by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and a journey to a new kingdom – was always closely linked to hope. Their hope was in looking at the future and trusting God to sort it out from the muddle of circumstances that their lives, at times their mistakes, had got them into. Their hope was under-girded with faith, and with that they had an assurance that the promises that had been made to Abraham, would be fulfilled.

It wasn’t a promise that rested on particular people, though they needed to be obedient to the voice of God, and encourage obedience in others. It wasn’t just a promise about some land, a place to call home, to protect and nurture so that it fed them. It was most importantly a promise that moved them toward a perfection of relationship with God, which is what the Kingdom of God is. In Jesus that promised relationship with God was extended to include us all. In the ‘now and not yet’ of the Kingdom of God, the promise has a fresh start, a new beginning that includes us in the need to be prepared for its complete fulfilment when Jesus comes again in glory.

We are the stars in the sky, the sand on the shore, part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. We are part of the Kingdom of God, the custodians of the next leg of the Kingdom’s journey toward perfection, and God works in our imperfections just as he worked with Israel’s. So, we need to understand our roles in the comings and goings that are required in that Kingdom.

As you make your preparations for the coming, sooner or later, of new clergy, how prepared are you for going forward with the next part of that promise? Are you dressed and ready for action? Have your lamps been lit?

My hope and prayer is that amid the comings and goings of a parish in vacancy, your hopes have been based on the assurance of faith in our God of journeys, and the anticipation of life in the now and not yet of the Kingdom of God, revealed in a Christ who comes among us now, and serves us at this table.

Prayers used for Herriard service:

Looking at the clothes we are wearing:

Lord Jesus, your Kingdom comes that those who have nothing are clothed not only for comfort, warmth and protection, but in the love of God our Father. As we put on the cloth of hope in new beginnings, enable us to clothe and feed others, so that they too may be know what it is to receive blessing from you.                    Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Looking at the lamps and lights around us:

Lord Jesus, your Kingdom comes that those who are in darkness see light, the light that shows the path ahead. As we look forward to a new path, a different route, enable us to shine the light of your mercy into the lives of those whose journeys have become dominated by pain, by fear or by addiction, so that they too see a new way and a new hope, in the knowledge of your presence and your promises.             Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Looking at the belts, fastenings and ties of not just our clothes but also our relationships with each other and with others:

Lord Jesus, we remember that your Kingdom comes through the relationships that we have. Help us where appropriate to use some to lift what we carry out the dirt so that it can be used for your glory. Through the power of your forgiveness, loose those relationships that bind us to places of pain and judgement, and fasten others tight, so that no-one is left behind and all are included in the journey of faith in you.             Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

As we gather at your table, and leave by the door:

Lord Jesus, we remember that your Kingdom is a place where we are fed and sent out. Help us be alert to your presence among us, from the smallest to the largest part of your creation, in our friends and in our occupations; that in all things we welcome you, but are also your obedient servants, eager and prepared to serve your Kingdom in our prayers and preparations for your coming again in glory.

Merciful Father…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lifting the Veil – the only ‘ordinary’ sermon this spring

Snowdrops against the East End of St. Mary's 2
On a different note:  The snowdrops at St. Mary’s are stunning at the moment.

My sermon last Sunday 7th Feb 2015 (using the lectionary readings Exodus 34:29-end, 2 Cor 3:12-4:2 and Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]) was the only ‘ordinary time’ sermon of this spring, since the distance between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday was a matter of 7 days. 

 

In only a third of the weddings I’ve had the privilege of taking, has the bride worn a veil that was down as she entered the church on her wedding day. Since my survey currently only covers three weddings, to extrapolate the assumption that veils aren’t very popular with brides today, is possibly a distortion of statistics, but I think it might be safe to say that there have been times in the history of western culture when the wedding veil has been more popular.

In the Roman era they were red to ward off evil spirits! At times they have been used to cover the ‘goods’, lest a bridegroom renege on the deal at the last minute!! Thankfully, arranged marriages are now illegal. At times veils have emphasized on the chastity the bride, and they weren’t lifted until the end of the ceremony, as a symbol we might suggest, of things to come. Today, a veil retains a little secrecy, keeping the beauty and hopefully happiness of the bride hidden from the gauping throng as long as possible. As the veil is now raised BEFORE the service starts, the symbolism is more about the bride freely giving of the inner beauty of her personality and reflecting the love she is receiving from the groom. All suitably romantic. It is nearly Valentine’s Day after all!

In our Old Testament story today, Moses is no blushing bride, but rather is forced into wearing a veil, almost permanently. He has been away from the people of Israel, talking, on their behalf, with God. Actually IN the presence of God, something that no human alive had experienced. He comes away radiant, shining with the joy and glory of the encounter. And, the people of Israel? They can’t bear to look.

Moses has with him a SECOND set of tablets on which are engraved The Commandments. They are, as it were a replacement set, for Moses had broken the first two in frustration when he had returned from a previous mountaintop consultation with God to find the people of Israel had made a Golden Calf. Frustrated by their endless wandering in the wilderness they had thought it might offer better guidance and protection for their journey, than the distant seeming Lord with whom Moses kept conferring.  But they had been firmly shown that the only thing keeping them from understanding God’s constant care over their travels, was their lack of trust in the one who had brought them to freedom.

Now, seeing the reflection of God’s presence on Moses’ face was more than their guilt-burdened hearts could bear. Gradually their leaders, and then the rest of the community come close enough to hear the words of guidance and protection that will really protect them: commandments to love God, respect each other, avoid idolatry and return as gift the best of everything God gives to them. Moses’ radiance confirms that what he is saying is authentically from God, but whilst they’re willing to accept the rules, they can’t live with such constant proof of God’s presence. So it is ironic perhaps, that it is not the people who take up veils to shield themselves from the glory of God, but poor Moses who is forced to hide from them the impact of his encounters with God.

St. Paul wants nothing veiled. In our second reading today, he has no truck with the idea of hiding the impact of God’s presence on people’s lives. Of course, he too had seen God’s glory – and in his case a veil, as of scales, had fallen over his eyes after his vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. For three days they had reminded him of his dependence on God as he grappled with belief in who Jesus really was. With his baptism into that faith, the glory of God which was the boldness of Paul’s ministry was given its freedom, transforming one degree of glory to another, changing the lives of those who heard him and saw for themselves a radically changed man. For him, there could be no cloak of secrecy about the Good News of Jesus that had revealed the forgiveness of God.

It is a brief revelation of the grace-filled glory that would be brought about by the cross and resurrection of Christ, that forms the start of this morning’s Gospel. Peter, John and James are witness to Jesus being gloriously soaked in the presence of his Father God. At the very moment when he is consciously turning his face toward Jerusalem, and another, more ugly hill, Jesus talks with Moses, who had carried the Law of the Lord to his people, and Elijah, the prophet who had challenged them to be faithful to that law. Jesus was of course to be the fulfilment of all that these two men had strived for: a new covenant relationship between God and his people that enables each of us to lift the veils we place between ourselves and the love of God.

So much of Jesus’ ministry was about healing wounds, injustice and prejudice caused by human idolatry, not perhaps of a Golden Calf, but of money, wealth and a craving for power and control. They are the reason His death, resurrection and, glorious ascension are the permanent lifting of the veil of slavery to things which harden people’s hearts, to reveal for each of us that we can be made a new, radiant creation through faith in him. As Christ died on the cross, the curtain or veil of the Temple in Jerusalem was torn in two, because with his death went the last barriers to the freedom of which, and with which, St. Paul later spoke.

Moses removed his veil when he went into the presence of the Lord God to take counsel. The cloud that veils Jesus’ glorious encounter that the three disciples fail to fully comprehend, is lifted by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when they are equipped with the boldness to speak about Jesus as the Son of God. Likewise Paul writes to the Corinthians, that when anyone turns to belief in Jesus and receives baptism, their veil is also removed because their faith places them in the presence of God. If we believe in Christ, there is nothing of which to be ashamed.

This Sunday, we turn from our consideration of the birth and early life of Jesus, to a greater awareness of the purpose of his death, resurrection and ascension. As we prepare for Ash Wednesday we are asked to look into our own lives, picturing ourselves perhaps as penitent Israelites or confused disciples, and consider where we may have placed a veil between us and God. Perhaps we have made an idol of something that has become a greater priority than giving time to loving God’s people and his creation. Perhaps we can’t quite bear to look closely at who he reveals himself to be in Christ, so we ignore the need to search for a better understanding of what he asks of us. Perhaps we are confused, unsure of what all this means and frightened of where it might be leading us.

We are called to lift those veils by setting aside our idols,… by study,… and by simply trusting God, even when he might seem absent. God sent Jesus into the world, so that through faith in him we could be transformed into his image, changed from one degree of glory to another, to become more like him, day by day. We need to be willing to keep our focus on the law, the love and the glory of God, and allow it to change our lives so much that we can look at ourselves and see the character of Jesus starting to be reflected in what we think and how we act. That will be our assurance that we are soaked in God’s presence as we journey on through life.