Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
26 June 2011, 10:30 (Trinity 1)
I love being a residentiary canon in this cathedral but I also love holidays. And having just returned last week, I want to say how important I think they are because they help us to see things in a different way.
I don't know what sort of holidays you have – but I do know some people for whom holidaying is a quasi-military operation in both its planning and execution. There is plan, a timetable and nothing should deviate this lest the holiday falter and a good time is failed to be had.
If that is your idea of a holiday, all well and good ...but I never want to join you!!!
Ruth and I prefer the laid back, chilled out, pragmatic break and we do nothing in a very special sort of way. This enables time to be enjoyed, squandered and indulged in – everything looks and feels different – even ourselves. We read and we go out on jaunts; we change our minds, we do almost just as we please.
For us this sort of vacation is really refreshing – and stripped of any sort of role and identity in the world around us – and in France they are all speaking different sounds which isolate and renew us even more – it is easy to forget worries and at the same time to re-visit prejudices, fears and the whole meaning of everything.
Even the books we submerge ourselves in, open us to different worlds and challenge us with questions and points of view that we would never normally have time to take in and discuss.
Now the Bible is rather like a whole array of holiday destinations that take us out of ourselves in order to see things differently.
Robbie Burns wrote in his poem, 'To a Louse':
Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursel's as others see us!
Well the Bible gives us, albeit in part, the power to see ourselves as God sees us.
So what do we look like as Christians to God and our neighbour?
Our bible readings for this Sunday ask of us a penetrating question.
Is there any difference between a disciple and a churchgoer?
It is not a catch question and it's not a GCSE or A1 exam mis-type or hiccup!
It is a question to help us see things in a different light.
We might see ourselves as both disciples and churchgoers – our faith is rooted and nourished by worship, belonging, teaching and learning from and with one another
But is that really the case?
Most people in our land might not think that there is any difference – both discipleship and church attendance being pretty incomprehensible, unattractive and for many, utterly irrelevant.
And the reason for this response would be no one else's fault except ours – as individual Christians and in our common responsibility as the Church.
We have failed to communicate, to risk and to serve. We have not put our priorities, our energy and resources at the disposal of God.
And in public life we present a fragmented and often inward looking faith, more concerned with the taboos of sex and respectable status rather than the chasm of poverty, war, tyranny, terror and prejudice that confronts the lives of millions and millions of people each day.
That is not to say that holiness, purity and integrity don't matter, because they do, but we have lost a proper sense of perspective and a sense of our frailties and real strengths.
And when the Archbishop of Canterbury dares to think aloud and even criticise – there are howls of protest and disapproval.
And yet as disciples and churchgoers, we should expect that each one of us would face such reaction if we lived out the gospel in public.
What do we think and do we ever make time to share and then proclaim some sort of moral and spiritual leadership in matters such as
- the 'Arab Spring',
- the scandal of Israel and Palestine,
- the priorities of conscience amongst the developed world in the face of the global recession,
- the crisis in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland and
- the moral imperative in our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
We may not agree in terms of policy detail with our government or those of other political parties but the debate in these and many other matters must not be left entirely to others – and as Christians we should lead – no, must lead – as well as serve.
So how might our Bible reading holiday destinations give us insights as to how God sees us and our world today?
Well first of all the three readings give us three vivid images for our minds, memories and imaginations to work on:
- in Genesis we have Abraham's precious, miraculous son laid out on an altar with kindling for a holocaust or burnt offering and a knife to spill his blood
- in Romans we have the picture of a slave and
- in St Matthew, a cup of cold water
So there are three vivid postcard pictures.
Let's start with the Genesis one.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is a very, very disturbing one.
We can do quite a lot to defuse what the story is about and make it merely an interesting scene to put in a stained glass window or painting.
We could protest in a highhanded anthropological way against the primitive practices of this near oriental sect that practised sacrifice – even to the extent of obeying a deity that required human blood.
We don't do that sort of thing today – but that is to miss the point.
The story is not a social history but an insight into what it costs to live for God and to live by faith.
It is Abraham's future, Israel's future, yet to be born, that lies on the altar – and Abraham is willing to let go of this because of his relationship with Yahweh.
And this leads to the second image evoked by St Paul in his letter to the Romans – that of a slave.
This is not to say that slavery is right but we asked to look at the same situation that Abraham was put in – the loss of past, present and future as we know them.
It is this existential leap against calculation and reason that reveals the otherwise unseeable and unknowable in our experience and understanding.
We have to learn that truly we cannot serve two masters, including ourselves, and this, St Paul tells us, is the freedom of eternal life.
For Jesus this leap of faith led him to Calvary.
And we cannot shy away from the fact that it could well result in suffering for us too if we follow him as disciples. There are many Christians this morning who are paying dearly for their faith and hope and love.
It is this extravagant and unreasonable journey that characterises discipleship – and Christ's presence in the world relies on our faithfulness and commitment in this.
And why? – because through this self-giving and abandonment, the rest of the world finds both help and judgment.
And so to the cup of cold water.
Whoever welcome you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcome the one who sent me ...and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
Does the world around us know this?
I think not.
Here is God's way of seeing the world: simple kindness matters and the disciple of Jesus is to be attended too and to be shown compassion and hospitality.
And this can only be done if we enter the arena of debate and leadership in the matters of the world which are life and death and good prevailing over evil.
Churchgoing and discipleship are full-time commitments and involve us in seven day a week work and endeavour.
It isn't necessarily an easy or attractive truth – but that is God's challenge: to wake up, grow up and find the real joy and fulfilment in struggle, courage and concern.
Holidays always have to come to an end but what they have given us in terms of refreshment and renewal can last us all our days.
The Bible is the same: here is an ever new story that catches each and every life in any and every moment to give it the momentum of change and reunion with the purpose and meaning of our very existence.
So what are we to do? Here is a difficult but amazing poem.
Please listen carefully.
R.S. Thomas, the priest-poet writes this:
This To Do
I have this that I must do
One day: overdraw on my balance
Of air, and breaking the surface
Of water go down to the green
Darkness to search for the door
To myself in dumbness and blindness
And uproar of sacred blood
At the eardrums. There are no signposts
There but bones of the dead
Conger, no light but the pale
Phosphorous, where the slow corpses
Swag. I must go down with the poor
Purse of my body and buy courage,
Paying for it with the coins of my breath.