Keeping it real – a farewell sermon

This is my final sermon at All Saints, High Wycombe, after almost 6 years as Children’s, Youth and Families’ Minister. I am preaching on Mark 7.24-30, Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. 

For this morning’s visual aid, I did consider bringing some crumbs! But I thought 1. that could get a bit messy, and 2. this isn’t really a story about crumbs, it’s a story about tables. Specifically it’s a story about who gets to sit at the table.

So instead of crumbs, I brought some of the things that might show us we have a place at the table. Place mats, place name cards, folded napkins, cutlery…

The story we heard this morning is a strange one. What’s going on here? Is Jesus trying to catch this woman out? Is he being mean to her? Is she teaching Jesus something he didn’t already know? I don’t think so.

I think – in fact I’m quite sure – that Jesus already knew perfectly well, knew all along, that there was a place for this woman at God’s table, as there is for us all. In saying this provocative thing about “throwing the children’s food to the dogs” – seeming to compare her to a dog (which would have sounded even ruder to Jesus’ contemporaries than it does to us) Jesus is provoking the woman into realising for herself an important truth – that she is worth more than this.

When this woman, whose name we don’t even know, stands up for herself, and demands more of Jesus, he responds. He does not give her only the crumbs she asks for, but the complete healing and freedom she needs, for her child and for herself. In this strange and dramatic encounter, the point has been made far more forcefully than it would have been if Jesus had merely stated it: everyone – even those who are considered, by themselves or others, the lowest of the low – everyone is held within the scope of the extraordinary grace generosity of God. In God’s eyes, we are all worth so much more than the crumbs from somebody else’s table.

We do not earn our place at God’s table because of who we are. We are given it because of who God is. Today we celebrate two great sacraments which remind us of this. In baptism, Lauren takes her rightful place at God’s table, which she has not had to earn, for which she has no need to prove herself, but which has been prepared for her from the foundation of the world by God who created her and loves her infinitely. In communion, we are all called again to take our places at God’s table, because we too are called by the God who loves us.

I read recently that a bishop in the US describes sacraments as “making real what is already true”. It’s an interesting distinction – there can be a great gulf between knowing something to be true, and experiencing it as being real – and that distinction is one which I think speaks into our reading today, as well as the sacraments we celebrate.

In challenging the woman to claim her place at God’s table, and in affirming it through his own healing action, Jesus was not making it true that she was loved and included by God – that was already true, and always had been. But he was making it real. Real for her, real for those who heard and saw what he did, and real for all of us who have read or heard the story.

As Lauren is baptised today, the act of baptism does not make it true that she is known and loved and called by God. That is already true, as true as it could possibly be, and it always has been. What baptism does is make that truth real – real in the symbols of water and oil and fire, real in the love and prayers and support which this congregation offers to Lauren today.

In communion, we refer sometimes to the “real presence” of Jesus in the bread and wine. Sharing this bread and wine together does not make it any more true that Jesus is here – it could not be any more true than it already is – but it does make it more real, differently real, as we physically share in his body and blood in the form of bread and wine.

In communion, an inherently communal act, we also become more real to one another. At God’s table we are gathered with friends and strangers, with those we love and those we cannot bring ourselves to love, those who are close and those who are distant. Even time and space themselves are no barrier to the all-encompassing scope of God’s radical hospitality and we all, wherever and whenever we share in communion, sit together as equal siblings around God’s table.

As we draw near to God, we draw near to one another, and as we draw near to one another, we can no longer view each other in the abstract, as “those people”. We discover the truth that “those people”, whoever they may be, are imperfect, unworthy, God-beloved individuals too – just like us. Out of that nearness, that realness, flows the compassion and love which marks us out as followers of the one who is Love.

If I could leave you with one thought, it would be this: be real. In a world which craves and needs integrity, live your life in ways which make real the truth that God calls us into a life of integrity, wholeness, redemption and renewal. Be real with yourself, be real with one another, be real with God. Take your place at God’s table, take up the space God has prepared for you. Show the world what a real, authentic, God-filled, imperfect, messed-up, honest, honest-to-God, love-infused life looks like. Be really and truly the person God created and called you to be, and in that reality you will find and reveal the real, true, all-consuming love of God.






Tradition – a sermon for BCP Evensong

I wonder how you feel about traditions? Are there traditions you love and cherish? Are there traditions which drive you up the wall, and you could very happily do without? Is it important to you to be part of a particular tradition? Do you think of yourself as a traditional sort of person?

In our first reading today, we heard about the institution of the great Jewish tradition of Passover. It is, many thousands of years later, still a rite of enormous significance to Jews. It is also a rite in which our own practice of Communion has its roots. When we speak of Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, it is this Passover ritual we are recalling.

Passover is among the most long-held traditions in any human culture but, like any tradition, it has not remained unchanged. For example, some people have recently started to include fair-trade chocolate as part of their Passover meal, as a reminder that, though the Jewish people escaped slavery in Egypt, many people around the world still suffer in conditions of slavery or forced labour.

Moses describes the Passover rite as a “perpetual ordinance” – that is, a rite which will endure forever. But what does that mean? And what does it mean for us, as twenty-first century Christian worshippers, to consider the idea that God has given to us as “perpetual ordinance”?

One thing it doesn’t mean is that our worship has to stay the same forever. If Moses were to turn up here this evening, he would see very little that he would recognise as belonging to the same continuum as the worship of his time! And indeed Thomas Cranmer himself, when he wrote the beautiful BCP liturgy which we still use and cherish today, was innovating. Driven by a desire to make worship more accessible to ordinary people, he was taking the best of the tradition he had inherited, and recasting it in new ways to fit the times he lived in.

For every generation, there is a tension between handing on the traditions we have received, and finding ways to “proclaim the gospel afresh” to the generations that come after us. Interestingly, there is plenty of research to suggest that Evensong is growing in popularity among millennials, drawn by stillness, contemplation and the timeless beauty of Cranmer’s language. I sometimes wonder what Cranmer – that great liturgical reformer and advocate of contemporary language – would make of that!

The traditions we have are important, but not for their own sake. They are important because of the ways in which they point people towards God, the ways in which they draw all of us closer to God. “Let your light shine before others”, says Jesus. We need to worship, to inhabit our traditions, in ways which enable us to be salt and light in the world, transforming the world we inhabit more and more into the likeness of God’s kingdom, as we ourselves are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.

When Jesus says “I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,” he is making two things very clear. The first is that he is not turning his back on what he has inherited. What he is doing and saying in his earthly ministry is deeply steeped in the tradition he has received. Even when he criticises the religious authorities of his day, as he often does, it is not an attempt to move them away from the traditions they hold dear, but to call them back to the root from which those traditions proceed, the root from which all our traditions, all worship (and indeed all life) proceeds – the living God.

So Jesus does not come to abolish what has gone before. But the second half of the sentence is equally important – “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil.” And the implication here is that the law and the prophets have not yet been fulfilled. There is more to do. Jesus has come to do a new thing, not in opposition to the tradition he has inherited, but in fulfilment of it. He has come to live out, and to enable others to live out, more fully the faith handed down to them through the generations, from Moses and the other patriarchs and matriarchs onwards.

It would perhaps be tempting to suggest that this fulfilling of the law, this progress towards something closer to the kingdom of God, begins and ends with Jesus. That after Jesus came “not to abolish but to fulfil”, that was that – fulfilment achieved, job done. But the sweep of the Biblical narrative, of human history in the two thousand years since, and of the history of the church, make it fairly clear that is not the case.

Jesus himself speaks of “the Holy Spirit who will lead you into all truth”, and that leading into all truth, that fulfilment of the law, that drawing near to the kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven – is very much an ongoing process. Always the church is being called to re-examine ourselves, as a community and as individuals, to see what of our tradition, what of the things we have and the things we do, enables us to shine a light in the dark corners of this world, and what does not. And that continual re-examination will, and should, give us cause to recalibrate, to adjust our course, in ways that draw us ever closer into the way of Christ.

In our own diocese, we are currently in a period of re-examining, re-imagining, what it means to be church in this context. Bishop Steven has led this process by encouraging everyone in the diocese to reconsider the Beatitudes, which we heard tonight. From this very familiar passage, the Bishop along with others has come to a sense that God is calling us to be a church which is compassionate, contemplative and courageous. Contemplative: “blessed are the poor in spirit”, “blessed are the pure in heart”. Compassionate: “blessed are those who mourn”, “blessed are the meek”, “blessed are the merciful”. Courageous: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness”, “blessed are the peacemakers”, “blessed are those who are persecuted”.

In encouraging us to be more contemplative, compassionate and courageous, Bishop Steven is not, of course, suggesting that we should abandon all that has gone before, or that we need to let go of the traditions we hold dear. What he is encouraging is that we should look at what we do and what we value through this particular lens, and consider how those things enable us to be a more compassionate, contemplative courageous – in short, a more Christ-like – presence, letting our light shine in ways that enable the world to see the glory of God.

As we grow in Christ-likeness, in compassion and courage rooted in the contemplation of who God is and who God calls us to be, we too will be playing our part in Christ’s work of fulfilling the law and the prophets. As we seek to be salt and light, to make known the glory of God, we will discover and go on discovering our purpose in Christ. This is the true “perpetual ordinance” – not a set of immutable words or actions, but a faithful commitment to worship which enables us to know more of God, and to live in ways which make God known.