An uncomfortable answer

‘”what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’ What answer did the man described in the Gospel this morning expect? We sense his enthusiasm to meet Jesus. He runs. He kneels before him and asks ‘”what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’.

Here was a man who lived what looked like a good life. And yet Jesus says he lacks one thing and challenges him to sell what he has ‘and give the money to the poor’ and then to ‘follow’ him.

Perhaps the man hoped the answer would be more positive, keep doing what you are doing but no, he got an uncomfortable answer.

And here we draw together this Gospel and our first reading from the letter to the Hebrews which talks of the word of God as ‘living and active’ as something that is ‘piercing’ that ‘judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’

It’s a strange reading in a way written as if the word of scripture had a single voice. But the scriptures don’t work like that. The written words were inspired over centuries by different people at a different time within a different context and yet there is still truth in these words.

For scripture taken seriously does have this remarkable capacity to both challenge and inspire. Which brings us back to this Gospel and the man who asks what he must do to ‘inherit eternal life.’

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Small changes

The parable of the Snowflake. I promise we will come back to the Mustard Seed but for now, The Snowflake. It goes like this:

‘Please tell me the weight of a snowflake’, the Fieldmouse asked the Dove. ‘Well’, said the Dove, ‘I would guess that it weighs about nothing more than nothing’. ‘Hmm. Then I have seen a miracle’, said the Fieldmouse. ‘I was sitting here yesterday when the snow was falling and I counted the flakes as they landed on the branch of the tree. There were exactly 1,374,921. And then one more snowflake fell – nothing more than nothing, you tell me – and the branch of the tree snapped off and fell to the ground.’

Small things really can make a big difference.

It is a real pleasure to be here with you this morning as you focus your Eucharist on how we might live out our lives as Christians in the midst of both Climate and Biodiversity Emergencies. This is, without doubt, the biggest challenge that humankind has ever faced. I don’t wish to diminish in any way the real difficulties and enormous sadness that Covid has thrown in our direction, BUT unless we collectively get our act together pretty soon Climate change will make Covid seem like a very small problem.

I’m sure you are well aware of the issues. They have, thankfully, been very much in the news recently as COP26 gets closer – that crucial Climate change Summit taking place in Glasgow in November. (By the way, thank you to those of you who provided refreshments for the Young Christian Climate Network walkers as they passed through Whitkirk last week.)

Here is just a quick reminder of some of the issues that COP 26 has to deal with:

  • As we have so far failed to control emission of global warming gases like Co2 and methane, the earth is continuing to heat up at an alarming rate. It is already 1.2 degrees hotter than in pre-industrial times, and present data suggests we are heading for an average rise of 3.5 to 4 degrees. That doesn’t sound too bad, until we remind ourselves that global warming leads to dramatic changes in climate. One climate scientist estimates that unless we act, a third of the world’s population – 3 billion people – could be living in desert by the end of this century.
  • As deserts expand there will be more famine AND as parts of the world become less and less habitable, there will be mass migration of people across the globe, seeking out the ever-shrinking environments that will support life.
  • Global warming means that ice is melting rapidly in polar regions and sea levels are rising. Our most vulnerable sisters and brothers are already suffering, in Bangladesh for example, with increased flooding of coastal areas and river basins. I read recently that one very well respected climate scientist has suggested we may need to relocate our capital city to somewhere other than London as that could disappear if rising sea levels are not  dealt with.
  • And then there are the rainforests – sometimes described as the lungs of planet earth. We continue to chop them down, mostly to graze cattle, or to grow crops to feed to intensively reared animals, or to grow palm oil. And as we chop those precious trees down, we displace indigenous people, we release more global warming gasses into the air, and we destroy the biodiversity on which we depend. WWF research suggests that about 10,000 species a year become extinct, and they are confident that this massive rate is not one of the natural extinctions that have happened from time to time in earth history, but that this is being driven by human activity – by our activity. 

I truly haven’t come here this morning to fill you with gloom and doom. BUT we do need to face the truth of climate change head on. Because only then will we stir ourselves to the action that is needed. And our Christian Faith gives us a million and one reasons to get stuck in to the task of caring for creation. (I won’t mention them all!)

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Voice

Yorkshire has, according to an article I read been ‘crowned as the most trustworthy accent in the country.’
Now I’m not sure which Yorkshire accent those participating in the survey listened too.

The Yorkshire accent in Barnsley is different to that in Sheffield or here in Leeds. But nevertheless the Yorkshire accent won with the poor old Brummies coming last.

And we all know that accents do make a difference. As does the tone in which something is said.

We don’t want someone who is overly jolly giving us bad news like Dr. Hibbert in the Simpson’s cartoon series who always manages to laugh when giving a patient bad news.

Nor do we want a comedian presenting the news. The best newsreaders have a calm authority, think of Trevor Barnes or Huw Edwards or Anna Ford.

And there is something reassuring that can be conveyed through a voice. I think of Mark Carney the former governor of the Bank of England who always seemed to instil confidence, at least in me.

Then there are those actors of stage and screen think of Jean Luc-Picard, the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, also known as the actor Patrick Stewart. You always thought with him in command then things would work out. Of course Star Trek is fiction but you know what I mean. Accents, voices, the way something is said matter.

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And God waited

And God waited. Waited for Mary’s reply.

Most of us know our patron Saint’s story well. We know of the Angel Gabriel’s visit and Mary’s reply.
We know she went to see her cousin Elizabeth and the words of our Gospel for today that flowed from that encounter. We know of the birth of Jesus, his presentation and time in the temple.

These the stories in which Mary is in the foreground shape our understanding of her. We could go on to stories from Jesus’ adult life, the cross and beyond but I want today to focus in on that moment in her story when God waited.

Gabriel delivered his message and though he offered words of comfort to Mary there came and we cannot know how long it lasted a silence as God waited. Waited for these words ‘”Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”’

In other words God waited for Mary to say yes. Waited for this young unmarried girl, who was ‘much perplexed’ by what was being asked to say yes.

And her yes reverberates down the ages to us today as we give thanks today for how her story continues to speak to our own. Of how it we reflect on God’s love and God’s invitation to us.

For this love does not demand or compel obedience. It is a love that is infinitely patient that invites and waits for us to say yes in our lives.

And though Mary was caught up in the providential timing of God, something that Paul writes of in that first reading ‘when the fullness of time had come’ her initial yes was something she then repeated every day of her life.

A yes she repeated through her pregnancy, the birth, the early years of Jesus’ life – and we know how demanding that must have been. Into his adulthood, the cross and beyond. Mary kept saying yes to God.
But this ongoing song of yes grew out of that first yes, perplexed and unsure as she was no doubt was. And though the circumstances of our lives are rather different, her story speaks to ours.

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Loving through disappointment

“Oh James, I am so disappointed in you” said his father. We are eavesdropping a scene between father and son. We don’t know what James has done but we do know that his father is disappointed.

I reckon most of us whether as a child or as a parent have heard or spoken these words. Words that are usually accompanied by a heavy sigh not spoken in anger but in sadness. “I am so disappointed in you.”

It’s one of the facts of life that whether we like it or not we are to a lesser or greater extent motivated by our relationship with our parents.

Even the child who grows up separated from their parent imagines what they might be like and how they might please them.

Even the child who grows up in an unhappy home will often promise themselves that the home they fashion for their partner and family will be nothing like the experience they have had.

And those of us fortunate enough to have had nurturing family homes all pick messages often as children, spoken and unspoken for good or for bad that shape the people we are. Amongst them those words with which I began “I am so disappointed in you.”

But why take this step into the world of therapy. Well, it’s because I have been thinking of that first reading about the death of Absalom.

It’s a strange tale, at least when heard in isolation. So let me unpack it a little.

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Rewards

Prize open the purses and wallets of the faithful of St. Mary’s Whitkirk and as well as the debit and credit cards, the membership for the gym and the wadge of hard-earned pound notes there will be reward cards.

You know the sort of thing, buy 354 coffees and get one free. Those cards that reward you for shopping at a centre retailer – one not too far from here.

And we have them because we like the idea of something for free. A good reward scheme in a way motivates us to buy from one shop rather than another – “oooh, I can get my reward points there”.

I wonder if we live a bit of a reward card faith? I wonder if there is a bit of us that thinks if we store up enough good deeds we’ll be ok. So that when we come to the pearly gates and present our loyalty card, we can proudly say to God “look at all I have done for you” and so are ushered off to endless bliss.

Well, if so – then hear the Gospel for today. It’s a story in which James (our Saint for today) and John’s Mum – we don’t know her name wants the best for her sons, wants Jesus to promise a reward for them if they follow him.

It’s understandable enough a Mum who wants the best for her sons. Except Jesus refuses to give her what she wants. Instead, he tells her that what she asks is not his to grant.

He goes on to say to both her and the disciples who become part of the conversation that ‘whoever wishes to be great amongst you must be your servant.’

So in this Gospel Jesus makes no promise of reward. But instead offers a way of living and loving rooted in mutual service.

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How we like to kill that of which we are afraid

Russia is a country that’s always interested me. Perhaps it was because it was a land of mystery behind the iron curtain as it was then. Perhaps it was the movies or story books. Whatever it was, Russia interested me and still does, I hope to visit one day.

That interest was re-kindled recently watching and reading Jonathan Dimbleby’s BBC series of 2008 entitled ‘Russia’. It was made not long after the Communist regime came to an end, a time of openness and new possibility.

Alas things have changed since then, and I suspect the same travelogue would be much harder to make now. But gave a picture of a huge and diverse country, its people and history.

Part of that history was the Gulag’s. Those bleak places where dissident’s were sent. Where writers and poets, thinkers and priests, anyone in fact who was thought to undermine the authority of the regime.

In one-episode Dimbleby visited one of those camps, deserted but still a chilling reminder of what we can do to one another. What power will do to hold onto power. History tells us that this example is not isolated for other regimes and governments have sought to deal with dissent by locking it away or killing it.

And though we might condemn it and wonder why there is a bit of us that knows why it happens. Of how we sometimes struggle to deal with those with whom we disagree.

Of how there is a bit of us that would happily not speak or engage with those people who annoy us or make us feel uncomfortable something I think John the Baptist could do.

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Not fitting in and weakness

Not fitting in and weakness – two themes to ponder this morning from the readings, themes that are subtly connected – not fitting in and weakness.

Not fitting in – is something that most of us have some experience of. Whether it is starting a new school or new job or joining a new group, or even coming to church. We know that sense that we don’t fit in. We don’t know anyone. We don’t know the rules.

But eventually we adapt, we form new friendships and we do fit in. And generally in life we like to fit in. And what is true now was true in the time of Jesus. Jesus in the Gospel this morning is back in his hometown. He goes to the synagogue on the sabbath just as he always has.

But this time something changes. His teaching is different. He has an authenticity and wisdom that astounds those present. And from being someone who fitted in ‘they took offence at him.’

It’s interesting that this trip to the synagogue precedes the sending out of the disciples in the second half of our reading this morning. They, you recall have witnessed what happened in the synagogue.

And Jesus sends them out by two and the Gospel makes it clear that they will not fit in everywhere, that some will take offence at them.

As followers of Jesus today this experience of not quite fitting in is around for us sometimes. For though we generally want to fit in there are times when it can come into conflict with what we think Jesus would have us do.

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