Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 19th July
Now then imagine this with me... Just settling down to what you think is a free evening (your work’s all done, pastoral visits, funeral prep., upcoming services and sermons, responses to those awkward e-mails and telephone calls which you’d been putting off) and then someone arrives at the door, needing help - urgently. On one occasion for my wife Sue and I just after we’d arrived in Waunarlwydd (which is indeed God’s Meadow, let’s not forget that!) it was a chap called Marcus from Germany, who happened to have met one of my PCC members who duly sent him ‘round to us (as they tend to do – “the vicar will sort you out”). Marcus was a traveller in his 30s, a pilgrim, needing a bed for the night and his ‘minging’ clothes washed…and then a lift to get the boat to Caldey Island the following morning to spend some time with the brothers there. The realities of ministry – looking forward to a night just chilling – and it’s gone in a moment!
Well here is Jesus in our Gospel reading anticipating the wisdom of modern therapeutic approaches - taking a rest after the exhaustion of a demanding work schedule – making sure his disciples take ‘time-out’ after their own ministry. But the short boat trip is the only time he and his disciples actually get to themselves, because by the time they get to the shore everyone else has got there first. Great?!
Now I don’t want to be guilty of projection but we can probably guess what the disciples’ reaction was to this discovery that they were going to be inundated with a crowd of pushy, demanding people. Might they just have been a little tired and tetchy?! And they probably couldn’t have guessed at this stage what Jesus would say, or indeed do next – according to Mark this would still have been fairly early in his ministry. But looking back (as they were wont to do – and for which we are eternally grateful) - they would have realized that his main emotion when faced with this great seething crowd who were so eager for something to happen - even though they didn’t know what it might be - was deep human compassion. Unlike most of us with our well-made plans – and legitimate ones too, in the main – like making sure we take a break when things have been busy and demanding - Jesus’ heart went out to them (as it always does) - & Mark’s comment is that he saw them as leaderless, kingless folk: ‘sheep without a shepherd’. New Testament commentators like Tom Wright point out that this is a regular biblical way of describing the people of Israel when they have no leader, no king – and therefore no direction or purpose.
And thinking back to what the lectionary readings from Mark’s gospel have been telling us, there’s Herod off in his fine palace, carousing with his cronies, ogling the women – and beheading prophets who dare to speak out about how morally dissolute he’d become. So not surprisingly here are Herod’s poor citizens, desperate for someone to lead them; someone they can trust. And they begin to look towards this young prophet for what Herod couldn’t give them – and they literally flock to Jesus just in case he might be the king-in-waiting – the one their scriptures had promised, the one that would help them free themselves from Roman subjugation – or so they’d understood...
And it’s this context that we need to have in our minds to understand a story where Jesus feeds thousands of people.. With miracles and all the healings going on, something was happening - and it wasn’t what we would call ‘magic’, rather it’s what can happen when the power of a totally obedient human life, a life dependent on the Holy Spirit, is unleashed.
What Mark is beginning to tell us about Jesus is that he is like nothing else, before or since. When he’s around, darkness gets driven out, sick people are healed, storms are stilled, thousands of people get fed. Jesus even gets to defy the normal laws of physics – walking on water, getting through seemingly solid barriers. It’s all pointing to Mark’s conclusion that Jesus isn’t just special – or even divine – but that he is the Messiah, the One they’ve been looking for all along (the One we’ve been looking for all along). And it’s not that this truth is something esoteric - set apart from real life; set apart from hunger, thirst, fear, sorrow, violence even death itself, - but that this kingdom is found mysteriously right in the middle of the mess and the nastiness and the questions that won’t go away. What we’re seeing in this gospel is Jesus’ genuine and total human-ness, his humanity: his is the authority that human beings were supposed to have over the natural world – and then lost, forever it had seemed – with the entry of sin and death, selfishness and self-absorption – all that ‘stuff’ that so weighs us down and restricts our vision.
If the disciples didn’t know it before, this event is going to remind them that following Jesus is a vocation to serve people not on our own terms (‘writing our own ticket’ – as my DDO predecessor would often say) - or when we feel we have the inclination or energy, or when and how it suits - but according to our availability to him - 24/7 as they’d say these days. We really do people a disservice if what we present is an opportunity for a kind of ‘country club membership’, or a faith that can remain safely boxed and anodyne – harmless; that offers a bit of psychic comfort when we feel so inclined.
Having been asked last year to lead a couple of Quiet Days at Nicholaston House about the Person and ministry of the Holy Spirit (and panicking as to what I might say – just like this afternoon) I read again Bishop John Taylor’s the Go-Between God (published way back in 1972!) where he eloquently challenges the church to acknowledge that we have (now listen to this!) “turned the divine initiative into a human enterprise”, by not relying on the Holy Spirit to do his stuff in and through us. He calls it a kind of self-sufficiency that enshrines the ‘it all depends on me’ attitude’. The New Testament writers assert that the fusion of the Holy Spirit with humanity which was unique in Jesus Christ has been passed on into the fellowship of the church, so making it his body.” And in that body a new kind of person is growing within the fabric of the old. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says ‘The Church is nothing but a section of humanity in which Christ has really taken form.’
But I do wonder sometimes whether we get how radical this all is – you know – when church can become a bit of a hobby, or a past-time? A more realistic response would be to absolutely astonished by the truth that the living God is in the process of constructing a new dwelling place – a new Temple – and this time not one consisting of stones, arches, pillars and altars, but of people – human beings really alive in transformed relationships – providing a place where the Go-Between God really takes up residence by making his home in our hearts and lives – and going freely between us in our relationships as a community. Graham Tomlin says in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book of a couple of years ago that by ‘Looking through the Cross’ we’d be able to see things in a new way: we’d perceive things differently: wisdom, evil, power, identity, ambition, suffering, failure – because we’d have a new set of lenses through which we see things. (And by the way one of my favourite Christian authors, Adrian Plass has an alternative dictionary definition of ‘pillar of the church’. He says it’s “something thick; that holds everything up; and blocks people’s vision” – don’t ya love it!)
The Apostle Paul shows that the coming together of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free in the one family is all achieved through the cross of Jesus the Messiah. And this wasn’t just a method of bringing in people from far away.
Today’s church may no longer face the question of integrating Jew and non-Jew into a single family (although there are places, like Palestine where that’s still a big issue). But if our churches are still divided along racial or cultural or gender lines – if there are still cliques and clubs which exclude some and include others, that “goss’ away” destructively in the background (try being a vicar of a close-knit community?!) – that say there are no-go areas or times when we are not available to God - then the Apostle Paul would insist that our very grasp of the gospel – of the meaning of Jesus’ death – must be called into question.
I think what gets me really excited about the gospel is this: when people in our church family forget their differences and just pitch in with each other and help each other out – that’s what our Ministry Area is all about. Jesus prayed in John 17 that we’d all be “one” – and when that unity happens – you can sense God’s excitement and pleasure at it all...because that’s what he made us for.
As I close I want us to listen to what the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians (and this is deliberately taken from Chapter 2 in Eugene Peterson’s The Message – which, I have on very good authority from a Classics scholar married to one of our senior priests in the Diocese, is the closest you’re going to get to a faithful rendering of New testament Greek...so don’t be tempted to dismiss it...or say as some have done – if the King James – the authorized version was good enough for St Paul, it’s good enough for me!” – think about it): So are you sitting comfortably..? then I’ll begin! (lawks that dates some of us!). Just use your imagination and be part of one of those small congregations, possibly no more than 30 or 40 people listening to a letter being read out to all the saints in the Loughor ministry area:
It wasn't so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn't know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It's a wonder God didn't lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ.
Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It's God's gift from start to finish!
But don't take any of this for granted. It was only yesterday that you outsiders to God's ways had no idea of any of this, didn't know the first thing about the way God works, hadn't the faintest idea of Christ....Now, because of Christ—dying that death, shedding that blood—you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
The Messiah ...tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with groups of people separated by animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody. (Are you getting this? May I keep going for a moment?)
Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility.
That's plain enough, isn't it? You're no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You're no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He's using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he's using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.
now...This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God - Amen