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.
It’s worth spending some time contemplating this reading because I think all of us have mixed motives. I expect that there is a bit of us that likes to be seen as the wonderful Christian we are, doing good deeds, visiting the sick, being generous and kind and so on.
Of course, good deeds and generosity are really important – providing that is they flow from our encounter with the living God not because are building up credit on our reward card.
Perhaps too this Gospel helps us remember that our reward for following the way of Jesus is not some guarantee or certainty that if you live a good life and follow the way of the commandments and so on you will go to heaven.
Of course we hope that to be true that’s not what motivates us. Instead we try to live a life inspired by Jesus at work amongst us loving and serving as best we can content that this is reward enough. It was St. Ignatius who prayed that he might labour and not look for any reward save from doing the will of God.
And this way of living, of loving and serving sometimes looks strange, just think of King Herod whom we encounter in that first reading. He seemed to find these followers of Jesus strange. More than that he seems to have been threatened by them.
For they seemed to live out of a different and strange set of values. They served each other, they helped others in need not because they would then have a hold over those less fortunate than themselves but because it was the right thing to do.
Whatever it was that unsettled Herod it meant he laid ‘violent hands’ on some, among them James, the Saint whom we remember today and has him killed, as if that would be the end of the story.
Except it wasn’t and his example continues to inspire not least all those who undertake the Camino pilgrimage from France across Northern Spain, the country of which he is patron ending at Santiago Di Compestela where his remains are interred.
Thousands have undertaken the pilgrimage over the years, drawn perhaps by a desire to reconnect in some way in the midst of busy and complicated lives with the simplicity of the way of Jesus, a way rooted in love and service.
Perhaps one day I shall make that but for now I’ve experienced it through the lens of others, via films and books one of which was written by our Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell who undertook the pilgrimage himself a few years ago.
He writes of his experience in a book of reflections and poems entitled ‘Striking out’. I offer some of his words from near the end of his pilgrimage that I think speak to us today, as we remember St. James and consider the readings before us.
‘I am putting my best foot forward now,
not knowing where the next step lands, or how
these multiplying steps together prove
the distance each from each, deceiving love.
So many miles travelled and each stride
is an eternity. I’ve often tried
to fasten this conundrum down in words-
the long distance back to where I started,
the endless depths of each step. It is absurd.
Pilgrimage is not for the faint hearted
you walk and walk in order to be still
and emptied out of rational thought until
the road itself conspires to fill your days
and all that you have left to give is praise.’
Cottrell enigmatically captures something of the pilgrimage of faith that each of us is on. A pilgrimage we undertake daily not because of the certainty of heavenly reward, ticking off today’s good deeds on our reward card faith but as fellow pilgrims on a journey.
Putting our ‘best foot forward’ we walk into the hope of our calling, loving and serving those we are given. In some ways its ‘not for the faint hearted’ but it is where we savour the ‘endless depth’ each step even amidst these strange times we are living through.
So, friends, we remember today how each one of us is following in the footsteps of the Apostles, of St. James for whom we give thanks for today. Singing (even behind masks) our songs of praise, glad to be together and mindful that as we shall sing at the end of our service there’s ‘no discouragement’ that ‘shall make’ us ‘relent’ our ‘first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.’