November 22, 2009
Sermon for Christ the King Sunday Yr B (2 Samuel 23, 1-7; John 18, 33b-37)
I wonder what image comes into your mind when you think of a king?
Henry V ( or Laurence Olivier as Henry V!) all done up in his shining armour, leading the English into battle at Agincourt? Or Henry VIII, grotesque and cruel, disposing of wives at will? Or Charles I, going to the scaffold to maintain the divine right of Kings? Or George IV or Edward VII, living lives of pleasure and debauchery?
I suspect we tend to think of kings in historical terms, because it is difficult for most of us in the United Kingdom to have a contemporary image, since we haven’t been ruled by a king for nearly 58 years. We are becoming like the late Victorians, whose female monarch lasted so long that her image defined monarchy for them.
Our readings today are both about kings.
The first, from 2 Samuel purports to be a psalm written by King David at the end of his reign ( though it probably came from a later period). In it the eternal covenant between God and the house of David is affirmed. David is defined not just as ‘the son of Jesse’ ( his earthly lineage) but as “the man whom God exalted, the anointed ( messiah) of the God of Jacob, the favourite of the Strong One of Israel” affirming that his authority and legitimacy come from the divine. David claims that ‘The Spirit of God speaks through me’ (a claim echoed by Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry) and that God’s support of his descendants will last for ever.
But the passage also informs us that God’s support for this king and his line is not unconditional. The one who rules with God’s authority must rule ‘in the fear of the Lord’, justly, and, as the other covenants of the Old Testament repeatedly emphasise, with a special care for the disadvantaged – children, women and the poor.
The second reading, from John’s account of the trial before Pilate, might seem a strange one for this time of year. Next week, we will be into Advent, and heading full pelt towards Christmas, with our minds full of the baby Jesus, cuddly lambs, exotic wise men or kings from the East, and all the rest of that rather escapist sort of religious celebration. But this week, the last Sunday before Advent, the Gospel pulls us firmly back into reality, makes us look on to the end of the story, and forces us to look clearly at the manner of king whose birth we are preparing to celebrate.
In our church, we have an picture of that king to help us to get our thoughts straight. On the wooden screen behind the Lady Chapel altar, we have an image of Christ the King. He is dressed as an earthly king, wearing a crown and a robe and girdle of gold; but the lining of the cloak is blue, hinting at a heavenly dimension to his kingship. His arms are stretched wide: to receive acclaim? Or because they are fixed to the cross on which he is suspended? His kingship is clearly not from this world.
The Gospel reading describes a confrontation between two concepts of kingship. Pilate, who has the power of the Roman Empire behind him faces Jesus, who, even more than David, has the power of God behind him. Who is actually in charge of what is happening? Who is really king? Who has the real and lasting power?
From the perspective of the 21st century, we know the answer. We know that the power, authority and influence of the Roman Empire crumbled, in the same way as the houses of many monarchs since have fallen. As Shelley’s poem reminds us:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
But the kingdom of Christ, to whom we now give the title of ‘King of Kings’ has endured: as the lines from that favourite evening hymn tell us:
So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all thy creatures own thy sway.
John’s Passion narrative is full of irony. Pilate seems to hold the power of life and death over Jesus, who is apparently a helpless captive. Yet it is Pilate who is terrified. He does everything he can think of to try to avoid exercising his power and putting Jesus to death. He blames the Jewish authorities; he tries to get Jesus to condemn himself out of his own mouth by claiming to be the King of the Jews; he tries to get the crowd to shout for Jesus to be freed; and finally, he washes his hands of responsibility.
In earthly terms, Jesus should be the one who is terrified. But he is calm, because he knows he is obeying the One who decides about eternal life or death. So he controls the conversation. Pilate wants to talk about power, conspiracy and politics. Jesus talks about ‘truth’ – a concept that Pilate simply doesn’t understand, asking in frustration “And what is truth?”
Jesus distinguishes quite clearly between the concept of kingship with which the secular world operates – the one in which the king’s will is enforced by fighting with iron bar and shaft of spear (images that come into both readings) and the concept of divine kingship, based on justice and truth and the word of God. HIs words give the lie to the notion that the divine right of kings is something that can be imposed by force; it has to be demonstrated by sacrifice and service. That is the only concept of kingship with which the Church should operate.
At the moment we are without a parish priest in this church. One way of referring to our situation is that we are in an interregnum (that is, ‘between kings’). It’s a rather old-fashioned way of describing the way a parish is run; one which fits best with a parish headed by a ‘rector’ a word which comes from the Latin for ruler (although technically in C of E terms it means a priest who has the right to the tithes). We didn’t have a ‘rector’ we had a ‘vicar’, a word which comes from the Latin for ‘substitute’ or ‘in place of’ (because in Church of England terms, he did the work in the parish in place of the person who took the tithes!). But it can also be interpreted as being a substitute for Christ – ensuring that the kingship of Christ is what holds sway in the life of the parish.
However, he was an ‘incumbent’ which means he held the freehold, which gave him certain rights, including the right to stay as vicar for as long as he wanted. That won’t be the case with his replacement, since the ‘living is being suspended’ which simply means that the next occupant of the office won’t be an incumbent and won’t have freehold. What we are promised, in time, is a ‘priest in charge’.
I haven’t used the term ‘interregnum’ since I heard Bishop Robin Smith, the previous Bishop of Hertford, saying it was a totally inappropriate term to use of the work of a minister in the church, since the only king we have in the Christian context is Jesus! I think that is a good comment for both clergy and laity to keep in mind.
The other term usually used for our situation is ‘vacancy’. But that, again, is not really a good description. Yes, the office of parish priest is vacant; yes, the vicarage is vacant. But the church is not ( or shouldn’t be!) vacant.
We are in a situation where no one person in the parish is the central figure of authority, the ‘king-pin’ – and some people find that situation uncomfortable. The sad truth about human beings is that many prefer to be in a situation where there is a centre of power or authority, because it means they don’t have to make decisions or take responsibility themselves.
In our present situation, there are a number of people with different forms of authority – the bishop’s authority as licensed ministers or as churchwardens, the authority that comes from being elected to serve in different offices, the authority that comes with being entrusted with a particular task in the life of the church. The parish will run most smoothly, and will most clearly reflect the kingship of Christ, if everyone, in whatever role, and with whatever authority they exercise, works together and co-operates for the good of all, as well as with a particular care for those who are most vulnerable.
And that situation won’t change after our new priest is appointed ( particularly since he or she will only be paid to work with us half-time!). Collaborative ministry is the buzz-word of the moment – and that implies not just collaboration between people in different forms of authorised ministry, but also between those in ‘official’ ministry positions and those who exercise other forms of informal ministry in administration, in music, in church maintenance and fundraising, in hospitality, in pastoral care and in prayer.
When Pilate tried to avoid exercising the authority he had to free or condemn Jesus, the crowd responded by saying “We have no King but Caesar”. When we in this parish try to work out how we can ensure that the parish thrives during the period until our new parish priest is appointed ( whatever we call that period!) we need to say to ourselves, “We have no King but Jesus Christ”.
That way we will be inspired to work together to serve the people of our parish after the model of Christ the King, with the word of God on our tongues, the Spirit of God providing our strength, the truth of God in our hearts and the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as our pattern.
November 9, 2009
Family Communion Address.
( Mark 1, 14-20)
Have any of you ever been fishing?
What sort of fishing did you do?
‘Proper’ fishing with a rod & line? With bait or flies? What were you hoping to catch?
Or fishing in rock pools with a small net like this – or in a local river for sticklebacks or crabs?
For us fishing tends to be a hobby.
But for Simon Peter & Andrew, James & John, fishing was not a hobby but the way they earned their living.
It was a very hard way to make a living. They had to work all night, and sometimes they caught nothing, so didn’t make any money out of it. They had to look after their boats and mend their nets. Sometimes it was dangerous – on the Sea of Galilee, storms blew up unexpectedly and their little boat could be overturned and they could drown. But it was one of the few ways for people to make a living at that time and in that place.
They didn’t work with bait. They threw their nets over the side of the boat and then pulled them in, hoping they were full of fish. In order to be successful, they needed a good deal of local knowledge – where the best spots were where the shoals of fish lurked – what time of day, and what type of weather was best for catching a large haul of fish.
But although their life was difficult as fishermen, it was not an easy decision to give it all up and follow Jesus to become ‘fishers for people’. They had to leave their equipment behind, and their homes and their families – and who was going to look after their families while they were away following Jesus and working to spread the Gospel? And they were going off to do something for which they had no training and no experience. It could all have been disastrous.
They went because they believed in Jesus, and they had faith in him. They learned from him how to do what he did and how to encourage people to listen to God and follow him. The ‘bait’ they used now was the teaching of Jesus, his example of love and care for everyone, and the power they were given through the Holy Spirit. They said, like our first hymn “I will come, Lord, if you call me”.
When we are baptised, we become disciples of Jesus – and he expects us to ‘fish for people’ in his name, using just the same bait as the original fishermen disciples did – love, service and the good news of the Gospel.
It may not be our full-time job – but it is more than just a hobby – it is a central part of our lives as Christians, not just on a Sunday but every day of the week.
It may be hard – lots of people don’t want to listen. Just like people who fish for trout or fresh water fish or big fish in the oceans, we have to work out what sort of bait is right for different sorts of people, and we may have to work hard for a long time, without seeing any obvious ‘catch’ Just like real fishermen we have to learn patience and persistence.
Not many of us will be in the business of catching large hauls of people ( like those who fished with nets). But every one of us can fish for individual people.
Each of you has been given a small ‘fish’ with your service sheet. In a moment of quiet, I wonder whether you can think of one person – or a group of people – that you would like to catch for Christ. If there is such a person, write their name on the fish, and when you come up to communion, or when the service is over, come and place the ‘fish’ in the ‘net’. When you leave continue to pray for that person, and ask God to show you how you can ‘catch them for Christ’. And we will pray now that God’s Holy Spirit will give you the wisdom and the skill and the persistence to be good ‘fishers for people’.
Holy Spirit of God, help us to become good ‘fishers for people’. Help us to be good examples by the way we act and what we say. Help us to tell other people about you, and to welcome them into church so that they will know you and follow you.
November 3, 2009
Notes for an address at Harvest Family Service 09
Readings: Exodus 2, 15b-21, John 4, 5-15
Can you tell me all the ways you can think of that you use water at home? What have you used water to do already today? What might you use water for later on?
Any other ways you use water?
Some of you may have used water this summer to grow your sunflower from the seed I gave you in June. Anyone brought sunflower back? Reward – bottle of clean water.
We can see water extremely important to us.
Was as important, if not more so, to the people who wrote our Bible.
If we run out of something – can go to the shops and get it. But people in Bible times grew their own food, raised animals for food and milk, not as pets. If could not get water they needed because rains failed or rivers and wells ran dry – no shops to provide. Crops wouldn’t grow so went hungry – and no seeds to plant for next year’s crop, so went on being hungry. If could not get water, animals died, so no food and no wealth. If could not get water – they died.
Our Bible readings show how important water was to people of Bible times. Jethro’s daughters could not water their animals if others opposed them. Jesus was thirsty – no shop to buy bottled water; had to ask woman to help him.
Water so important to people who wrote Bible that it became a symbol for abundant life. In one of the stories written about the creation that we find in Genesis, they imagined the perfect world in the beginning of time – and one story described a garden with a river running through it. (Gen 2.10) And when they imagined the perfect world there would be at the end of time, again they imagined a river, this time flowing out of the throne of God and flowing through the heavenly city of New Jerusalem. (Rev 22,1) Because water was so essential to life, that river was called ‘the water of life’ and in our second reading, that is what Jesus says he gives us – everything that is essential for living a rich, holy and fulfilled life. Because water was so essential to life, the first Christians chose water to be the symbol of the new and eternal life that is promised to us through baptism.
If we want some water, we turn on a tap. Or we go down the road, and buy some bottled water from the supermarket. We can all afford to do that, and there is a plentiful supply of clean water. And to water our gardens, we can collect water in water butts, because we live in a country where, most of the time, it rains a lot. But for many people in the world, life is not as easy as that.
I wonder what you would feel like if you had to carry all the water you use from somewhere a long way away from your home. Average consumption of water in the UK is 150 litres per person per day. Can two small people volunteer to go and fetch water bottle from back of church. This is 5 litres. Was it heavy. You carried it a short way. How would you feel if you had to walk to the Harlequin Centre and back with it. What if you had to go to St Albans? And what if you had to do that ten times in a day. Think how many hours it would take you.
And what if it wasn’t along a road, with pavements and people and safe places to cross. What if it was along rough ground, through lonely places, where there might be wild animals or people who might want to hurt you?
What if there was nowhere to eat or drink on the way. What if the need to collect water meant you had no time to play or go to school?
And what if when you got there, the water was not clean and safe to drink, but was muddy and polluted by the droppings of animals? What if it made you ill when you drank it?
The water we get from our taps is clean, safe, reliable, always there. We don’t have to spend long hours collecting it, and we don’t get ill when we drink it. We are so lucky. It really is ‘Water of Life’ for us.
The Bishop of St Albans has asked us to think about how lucky we are this Harvest time, and to give lots of money to help those people in some parts of Africa who don’t have access to clean water. In a little while you will hear the stories of two people who have been helped by Water Action, one of the many charities that is helping people in Ethiopia to have enough clean safe water to drink, to wash and to water their animals and irrigate their crops. You can see pictures of some of those people on the leaflets you have been given and the posters around the church.
Clean water is only the beginning. It leads on to improved health, security, education and work prospects.
When we have heard those stories we will pray that God will help us to give as generously as possible to the appeal.
Jesus gives us Water of Life through our faith. And he expects that living water to flow through us to transform lives as ours have been transformed through him. We have the great privilege of sharing God’s work to transform other people’s lives so that they are are as rich and healthy as ours. We pray that many of the people we are thinking about will have Water for Life as well as the water of life after our service today.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord