First Sermon back after Compassionate Leave

Ephesians 3:14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

 

John 6; 1-21

Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

 

This is a bit of a personal sermon.  I hope it isn’t self-indulgent – although it may be.  I feel I should be preaching on the Olympics or the grand opening ceremony with its inclusive view of what it means to be British.  There’s a sermon in there (several, in fact) but it is not this morning’s sermon…

When I was about to be ordained, immediately before the service when the Bishop was to put his hands on my head and convey the magic powers of the clergy, we had a talk that is called the ‘Bishops’ Charge.’  This is the ‘pep talk’ before beginning ministry that is to set the young priests up for their future life and work.  My Bishop gave a talk about how a Catholic Priest was visiting his dying mother, she said to him with her last words “don’t cry my son, because if the people see a priest cry they will not believe the Gospel.”

This has not been my view of either priesthood or the Gospel.  A more light-hearted, but equally true story:

Not long after my ordination, when I was a young brash curate, I attended a meeting with all the young brash young Curates of the London Diocese.  (I’m sorry, but I did begin my ministry in that other universe located across the Thames!)

Also in attendance at this meeting was the Bishop of Edmonton, and the Bishop of London.

We were discussing doubts, and in particular weather if we had doubts about the faith we should share them with our congregations.  A few curates had spoken on how we should make the faith appear solid and unassailable, and keep our questioning to ourselves.

At which point I said “I think in the right context it may be appropriate to expose ourselves in front of our congregations.”  At which point I realised I had just advocated “exposing myself” in conversation with the third most senior cleric in the Church of England.

Some clergy at this point would move on quickly and hope that no one noticed.  Other clergy would have apologised and chosen more appropriate words.

I looked around and the sea of serious faces and got the giggles.

No one else found it funny, which, I am sorry to say, made me laugh all the harder.

The point of this story is not that you have a foolish vicar, but that I do think that as a priest part of my job in sermons and conversation is to reflect on the faith and on life, and to make the reflections real and meaningful sometimes that means looking at doubts and sorrows as well joys and inspiration

As most of you will be aware it had been a rough year in the Donnelly household.  Juliet’s father died suddenly in January and my parents have both been diagnosed with terminal illness.

There are many things I have learned in this difficult time.  When you have a baby everyone who has gone through that experience tells you their stories of childbirth and parenthood.  When you have a dying parent something similar happens, you hear the stories of others who have been through or are going through the same pain.  I must confess when Juliet was pregnant hearing horror-stories of seventy-two hour labours was quite off-putting.  I’m not sure whether I have matured or the circumstances are very different, but I have found the stories that people have shared of their experiences moving and have felt privileged to hear them.

There are communities of grief as well as communities of childbirth, and one of the roles of the church is to bring together and cherish all our stories and experiences.

But this time of reflection on dying and death has focused my thinking.

One of my favourite quotes – I have used it before in sermons is “no one ever looked back on their life from their death bed and said ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’”

It’s a quote that I have reflected on often – but now, when visiting a death bed of someone I love it is more real than ever.

I have wondered what I would want to do if I was given six months to live.  Up to now I have thought I’d make a list:

I would want to go bungee jumping, visit Iceland, learn to hang glide, go on a cruise on the River Nile, try some things I’d probably best not mention in a sermon…

My father is currently in that position.  He has a few months to live, and his wife of almost fifty years is also dying.

I have offered to take him everywhere from where he grew up in the countryside of Dungannon, to Paris (he has never been), here to London, to Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant…  But all that he wants is to spend time with his family.

I am not belittling those who make a ‘bucket list’ of things they want to do before they die, but I have been very moved by my father’s perspective.  There is nothing better in his world than spending time with this family.

What defines us as human beings is not where we have traveled, or how much money we earned, or how far we rose in our chosen profession, what defines us is our relationships.  Our relationships to the people around us, our family, our church family, our neighbours, and especially our neighbours who are in need.

I have a bit of a struggle with a line in our first reading “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.”  Not every family has a father, not every father does a good or ‘good enough’ job.  To fetishise fatherhood or the fatherhood of God is not healthy for family life or for religion.  However, there is a profound truth here, a truth that I have never felt so deeply:  That truth is that it is in our relationships is where we find God.

Reading 1 John 4.20 we find: “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates their sister or brother, they are a liar.  For anyone who does not love their sister or brother, who they have seen, cannot love God, who they have not seen.”

Some Churches focus entirely on our love for God, sometimes characterised by ‘happy clappy’ worship and ecstatic prayers.  (I don’t have a problem with emotion in worship, in fact I think it may be better to err on the side of being too emotional than too cold.)  But we are falling short of our Christian calling if all our love is for God and we have none left for each other.  I don’t think that is where we are at the Ascension.

I think a more real danger for us is that we are so busy reaching out to the needs of our local community and to the poorest people in the world and campaigning for inclusion that we forget the centrality of loving each other.  Our community work and fundraising for the Majority World and campaigning for inclusion is what defines us as a church, it’s why I chose to come here (and why I want to stay as long as I can get away with…).  But our love must start here…  Not just the people we like and get on with easily, but with everyone in our community.  Jesus was clear that those who follow him are family.  God’s family and family with each other.

Matthew 5: “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”

How we relate to each other matters, and perhaps it matters most of all – it’s how we learn to truly love God and learn to love those in need.

For the Christian it is not enough to love God, it is not enough to hate injustice and inequality and prejudice.  We have to learn to love one another.

As we see in the Letter of St. John, ‘God is love, and those who live in love live in God: and God lives in them.’  When we love, we are closest to God, because God is love.

Amen.

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Mary Magdalene – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

Mary Magdalene, was one of Jesus’s most celebrated disciples, and the most important female disciple in the Jesus movement. Luke’s gospel in chapter 8 tells us: He made his way through towns and villages , preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve as well as certain women – Mary of Magdala, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Suzanna and several others who provided for them out of their own resources. Mary Magdalene became Jesus’s close friend and most prominent during his last days, at the cross and at his burial. She was the first person to see the post-Easter Jesus according to both John and Mark .

But the Mary Magdalene that lives in our memories is quite different from this wealthy woman disciple. In art, she’s often semi-naked, or wearing low-cut, voluptuous clothes. Her primary link with Jesus is as the woman washing and anointing his feet. Traditon casts her as a prostitute.

The whole story of Mary as a prostitute, who is a sinner and forgiven, is a very powerful image of redemption, a signal that no matter how low a woman has fallen, she can be redeemed.

Powerful as this image may be, it is not the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the four gospels, but not once do the writers mention that she was a prostitute. At some point Mary Magdalene became confused with two other women in the Bible: Mary, the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinner from chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel both of whom dry Jesus’ feet with their hair. In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory the Great made the prostitute story official by declaring in a sermon that these three characters were actually the same person: Mary Magdalene, repentant sinner and saint. The Catholic Church did later declare that Mary Magdalene was not the penitent sinner, but this was not until 1969. After so long the reputation was entrenched, particularly in art.

Mary the mother of Jesus is cast as demure, self-effacing, virginal, distraught witness of the death of her son, never the robust champion of justice for the poor and oppressed, the Mary of the Magnificat. In the same way Mary Magdalene has become a symbol of wanton sexuality finally brought to see the error of her ways, rather than the first person to recognise that death had not vanquished her friend and her leader. I’m not aware of any painting that shows Mary Magdalene throwing her dignity to the winds and sprinting back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that she had seen the lord.

Why has church tradition treated these women as stereotypes? Why did the church disregard the biblical record of the lives of these women? And why today in the governing hierarchy of the church are women seen as a problem? How can opponents of the consecration of women bishops talk of women as a source of taint?

We see the word ‘taint’ used quite frequently eg in reports of business dealings which have been tainted by corruption. G4S was described last week as being tainted by arrogance and incompetence. It’s a word associated with evil or immorality. To suggest that a Christian congregation should be protected from the taint of a woman is deeply shocking.

It was fortunate for the church that the news headlines two weeks ago were all about the chance that Andy Murray could win the Winbledon singles title. Otherwise, some journalist at a loose end might have unpicked the amendment clause that caused such a furore at the General Synod. The original proposal was to legislate for full female bishops, but on the understanding that they would agree to stand aside and allow a man to step in and perform duties where particular congregations objected, and thereby avoid a split or an unpleasant scene. This appeasement proposal was agreed by 42 out of 44 dioceses through their diocesan synods. But the amendment includes the right of any male bishop to declare he will not ordain women as bishops and priests, thereby keeping himself unsullied by women.

It’s this provision that introduces the idea of ‘taint’: that anyone who ordains women as priests or bishops is ‘tainted’ by those actions and therefore unacceptable to those opposed. It endorses in law the principle that for many of those opposed it’s not sufficient to have the ministry of a male rather than a female bishop, but that the only acceptable bishops are those who have kept themselves apart from their episcopal colleagues in not ordaining women as priests or bishops. This is a powerful declaration of separation.

What are we saying to the world at large about our church? And how can we proclaim the gospel to all nations, as Jesus did in the towns and villages with the Twelve and the women if we have misogny and inequality at our core?

The same specious reasons are paraded by the opponents of women bishops as have been used for decades. Jesus’s chosen Twelve were male apostles. So they were. They were also Jews. They would all have been circumsized. Several were fishermen. How many of these criteria must we apply when selecting our minsters? There was an MP once who stood up in the House of Commons and said that he was aware that everything that could conceivably be said on the subject of the debate had already been said many times, but not by him. How long are we going to hear opinions that ceased to be valid centuries ago endlessly repeated as if they were revelations of the divine will?

The debate in the Synod was adjourned a fortnight ago but there is no guarantee that the amendment, if it’s reintroduced, won’t succeed in the autumn. So we must carry on presenting our view of what is right for our church and our world, in the name of integrity and justice for women and men.

When Mary Magdalen encountered the gardener on the resurrection morning, he addressed her as ‘woman’, though he clearly knew her name. When his mother asked him for help at the wedding at Cana, Jesus called her ‘woman’. He must surely have known her name and her relationship to him. We heard the story of Jairus’s daughter a few weeks ago. When Jesus went into the bedroom of this unconscious child he addressed her as ‘little girl’. I think the gospel writers want us to realise that Jesus, a product of his own time, was nevertheless keen to assert that he saw the human dignity in women and girl children as naturally as he saw it in men. Women and little girls stood very low in the social hierarchy of Jesus’s day, below men and boys but above slaves. But Jesus defied the social conventions and when he talked to Mary Magdalen and Mary his mother and Jairus’s daughter, he did so as if they represented and affirmed the female sex.

If Jesus could do it, surely the church can do the same.