Below is the text of my sermon at St Aldhelm’s on Sunday, 17th September. The readings were Romans 14, 1-12 and Matthew 18, 21-35.
It’s all of 10 days since I became your vicar. People ask me how it’s going. ‘Well’, I reply, ‘I’m surviving, so far…’ I hope that doesn’t suggest to anyone the story of the person who in mid-fall from the top of a skyscraper receives a call on his mobile half way down, asking how it’s going: ‘No problem so far…’
We live by faith, and God’s goodness and providence are enough, poured forth as they are each day in so many and varied ways. I went for the fourth or fifth time to collect some curtains from Aga’s sewing shop and left her some more to adjust and shorten. Her eyes widened, ‘How many windows you have?’ ‘Oh, there’s quite a few more yet’, I explained, ‘It’s a big house that comes with the job,’ I thought I should explain. Another day, I went to Tesco’s to get a few items, among them refreshments for my first meeting with the Church Council. The girl at the checkout was very pleasant. She didn’t seem fazed by the boxes of beer and port I had for the PCC and for the concert this week. Instead she exclaimed, ‘Oh, it seems funny somehow, a vicar buying pizza.’ Like I say, our Lord lifts our hearts each day in many and varied ways…
This week I visited Bishop Aldhelm’s school. I introduced Fr Cornelius to the children at Busy Bodies. I met the Church Council and was delighted to encounter an impressive array of experienced and skilled people, unafraid to speak their minds and to disagree with each other (and with me) without falling out. They will make the Chairman’s job a challenging but rewarding one and I think together we can do some good. I have held the ladder while a church member cheerfully ascended to change a bulb and then dusted down our rather cobwebbed Rood. I have accompanied the choir in their cheerful weekly practice. I have seen an upstanding member of the congregation dressed as a clown signalling to the passing traffic our Saturday morning sale (his efforts may not have swollen hugely the crowds attending but gave real delight to passing bus drivers and their passengers.) I celebrated Mass with the Friends of St Aldhelm’s and discussed with them how our church building might make its wonder and beauty somehow more accessible to the community of those who live or work or pass nearby. And I have talked with many people, and prayed with several as we reflected together on the past or on current changes in their lives. It has been a tiring and exhilarating and an awesome start to a ministry that I know I am unequal to but which fortunately is in God’s hand, not mine.
Our Lord – of this I feel sure – has been equally active in your lives this past week: in ways just as obvious, or hidden, or ingenious as those I have dared to describe here. It is all because we live in a kingdom called Grace. We suppose we belong to a world where money rules and power controls and distrust is the only common language; where pleasure must be stolen and love earned; where terror and fear reign and where we must guard what we suppose belongs to us. This, we say, is the real world. But no. In truth, that world is a dream, or a nightmare. In truth we belong to what the poet and priest R S Thomas called The Kingdom:
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
I suppose you could say our challenge and our hope as a Church community is to live a little more consciously in that Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, of which Jesus so frequently spoke and to which all his teaching, his healing, his miracles, his forgiveness, and his passion and death and life renewed, testify. Typically in today’s Gospel reading he makes the point plain by means of a story. A servant who is in huge debt must fear disaster when accosted by his master but is amazingly and wondrously released by him with no payment due. In turn he does what we, fearful and defensive creatures as we are, so often do and demands full payment of all that is owed to him. We are like that servant in that we have been forgiven our debts and our faults. We must therefore live out our luck by extending grace to others. Slightly more prosaically, St Paul makes a similar point in today’s first reading from his letter to the Roman Church: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?’ We are all servants of God. We may indeed be liked and loved and lifted up into the company of Christ’s friends but we should not forget we are all still just servants and none of us is the gaffer.
In yesterday’s Mass I used the readings for Holy Cross Day, 14th September. At the end of the simple, short service we gathered beneath the Rood – newly dusted – and reflected that in the figures of Mary and John at the foot of the cross we see a template for our life as the Church. ‘Behold your son’, ‘Behold your mother’, Jesus says to each from the cross. We are entrusted one to another, within a body – Christ’s body – that shares some of his pain and all of his risen life – and forgiveness, 70 times 7 times and counting, is that body’s lifeblood. ‘We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves,’ writes Paul. ‘If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord…’
And so it is that I must ask – of myself and of us all – the question posed by Paul at the conclusion of today’s first reading: ‘Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we all stand before the judgement seat of God.’
In conclusion this prayer, provided for us to use at the end of today’s communion:
Lord God, the source of truth and love, keep us faithful to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, united in prayer and the breaking of bread, and one in joy and simplicity of heart, in Jesus Christ our Lord.’