(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Preacher: Mother Janet Yabsley
Ezekiel 17:22-24 | Mark 4:26- 34
‘Such a large crowd gathered around Jesus that he got into a boat and began to teach them, using many parables.’ (Mark. 4:26)
In recent years - and more particularly in the last few months - there have been many occasions on which people have gathered together in large crowds for the specific purpose of demanding change. The nature of these gatherings, and the kinds of change looked for, are variable - yet increasing in frequency. They are happening around the globe. They are usually a plea, in essence, for a more equal, just and participatory society for all, in one way or another.
More than five years ago people gathered in great numbers to hear Malala Yousafzai deliver her now-famous speech, ‘One child, one teacher, one book, one pen - can change the world!’ a demand for education for girls in her own region, and in many other countries.* Just a few days ago the ‘silent march’ of people affected by the Grenfell fire tragedy focussed on very many different needs that require urgent attention - all highlighted in a single incident; but one with such far-reaching consequences. Without protest, radical change rarely happens.
The prophets recorded in Bible history were the protesters of their day. Everywhere they looked they witnessed injustice and oppression weighing heavily upon the people. In visions and in divine revelations they received warning messages from God. These were their mandate to seek change at the highest level. The word of the Lord - delivered by the prophets to the king - should result in positive action. In today’s Old Testament reading we heard one of Ezekiel’s earliest prophesies. He found it hard to believe that he had been chosen to proclaim the word of God, but through him God’s plans to bring messages of hope to the people of Israel were extremely effective.
Speaking at the time of impending conflict with Babylon, Ezekiel foretold the time when all nations would come together under God’s rule of justice and mercy - a kind of looking forward in hope. He painted an imaginative picture as a way of revealing God’s plan:- All manner of birds of many different species would flock to the tallest, most majestic tree in the land - the mighty Cedar. They would all find a place to rest in its branches. Just so, God’s kingdom of truth and righteousness is stronger than anything else in existence. All nations of peoples would find a home within this kingdom and live together in peace.
In contrast, Jesus’ parable of the Mustard Tree proclaims a crisis of the first magnitude!
God’s kingdom, heralded most recently by John the Baptist, is now actually here! It has come with the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. The tree, which began life as a tiny seed, has been growing since the beginning of the age, largely unnoticed. It has come to full stature whilst we have been blind to its presence. Out of something small and insignificant, something truly great has emerged. The message about it is urgent! It concerns the here and now. It cannot wait. For in the Kingdom, God’s sovereign power is effective in all human experience. When it pleases God to establish his kingly rule there will be judgment upon all the wrong that is in the world; victory over all the powers of evil; and (for those who have accepted God’s sovereignty) deliverance, and life in communion with Him. To seek the Kingdom of God is to make the doing of God’s will the supreme aim. And all this has echoes in the prayer, ‘Thy Kingdom come…’
Again in contrast to Ezekiel, Jesus does not use the mighty Cedar as his symbol for the Kingdom, but a small shrub, the Mustard. A member of the Brassica family, the Black Mustard flourished profusely in the wild around the shores of the Sea of Galilee, but was cultivated on a large scale for the oil from its tiny seeds. This was used mainly for medication and healing. Whilst fruiting the plant was quite succulent, low to the ground, and not strong enough to support birds in its branches. But at the end of the season after harvesting, the branches dried out in the fierce heat of the climate, and became brittle - rigid enough to support the many and diverse birds feeding on the multitude of insects to which it was host.
Just so, Jesus’ power was in his weakness, reflected here in a parable that uses the symbolism of a tiny seed. He was not afraid to speak of his own vulnerability. But that is not an attractive idea to many who would prefer to see power in images of towering strength. The king of the heavenly Kingdom, however, is the Prince of Peace; full of mercy and loving-kindness; seeking the lost; friend of the outcast; servant of all. Within this framework, previously unquestioned popular notions of the ways of God are turned upside-down… ‘whoever does not receive the Kingdom as a little child will never enter it.’
One thing is clear - both Jesus and the prophets-of-old understood God’s Kingdom not as ‘Utopia’ - something unattainable, but as present reality. They also understood that it cannot come to fulfilment without the determination of those who seek it to draw closer to God in prayer. That is why Jesus made the crowds sit down and rest… ‘“Come away to a lonely place, and rest a while” …for they had no time, even to eat!’
Contemplation, adoration, thanksgiving; these things are the path towards trust in the true and living God; the only foundation upon which we can grow and continue to grow; and take our place in a more just, equal and participatory society for all**.
* Malala Yousafzai - speech at her award ceremony Nobel Prize for Peace.
** A participatory society includes every person within the availability of its freedoms, rights, opportunities and protections, under a just system of law.
1Timothy 6:6-11, 17-19
Christians ‘are to do good, and be rich in good works
…generous, and willing to share.’ (1Tim 6:18)
This week, I spent some time with a group of students from All Saints’ Academy helping them to compose a prayer for the whole school. In our conversation we discussed the nature of hope because it features quite prominently in the school vision. We also looked at how hope differs from wishful thinking; and, in the end, we reached the conclusion that hope must relate somehow to the way we live in order to be different from simple wishful thinking.
In the Christians sense hope is a virtue; it is something that we must put in practice, not an abstract concept. Hope has to inform what we do, so that we can dedicate our efforts into realising or attaining that which is hoped for. So for example, in the case of our students, if I hope for good GCSE results, I must also work towards getting good results and not just sit there waiting for divine inspiration to hit me during exams. Or, in the case of believers, if I hope in the life of the world to come, then I must work to live here and now some of those things I will fully experience in heaven, such as justice, union with God, and peace…
But as we the students and I talked about this, our attention instinctively turned towards many of the terrible world events that would seem to work against any bright hope for the future; terrorism, hurricanes, and mass shootings to name a few. Where does practicing hope fit in all this? And can we even dare to pray for those affected by such tragedies when so many people say that our “thoughts and prayers” are just meaningless words? These are old questions, really. But, as the students were, so some of you might also be aware of the debate which flared up again this week, particularly on social media, about those who pledge their thoughts and prayers when something terrible happens. We see and hear this continually as natural disasters are followed by acts of terrorism, or other downright evil events like the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week. “Thoughts and prayers”, or “Pray for this city”, “pray for that place”; these are the the refrains many people use in such situations, but once the heat of the moment has passed they move on with their lives as if nothing actually happened. And this is really what can puzzles non-believers and turn them away from religion altogether. But, like hope, if prayer is not followed by action, then it risks remaining a sterile act; a list of proposition and requests to an omnipotent being in the sky. Instead, prayer has to inform what we do. Just as being people of hope, should inspire us to build here and now the future we hope to attain, so it is with prayer. If we pray for an end to conflicts, we should be people of peace – peacemakers, even; if we pray for an end to terrorism, we should endeavour to soothe our peoples’ fears; and if we pray for justice, we should in turn campaign for it and begin to act justly ourselves.
But what has this got to do with Harvest? Well, as it is with hope and prayer, so it is with gratitude. This morning we come together to give thanks for the bounty of food and means at our disposal every day; but if all we did today was to just sit here sending up very Anglican, half-asked, “thank yous” to God, I don’t think that would quite be enough. Gratitude, must relate to what we do; it must inform the way we live as Christians. Gratitude must inspire us to show our thankfulness to God in some meaningful, tangible way. So, if we really are grateful for what the Lord provides us, if – as St Paul says in our second reading – we are genuinely content with what we have (cf. 1Tim 6:6) then we ought to show it by offering generous gifts to God out of the plenty we have received from him: gifts that today will provide sustenance to our neighbours in need.
The First Letter to Timothy is quite clear about this. Christians, satisfied by the Lord’s divine providence, should in turn be generous and willing to share. In fact, Paul says, we should do good and be rich in good works funded by the precious gifts we have received from God. So, the food we have brought to church this morning, the food that the families of Thomas Whitehead Academy have offered, all these are our thanksgiving offerings to God, made – I hope – with a willing and generous heart.
Without action hope remains wishful thinking; without action prayer remains a shopping list we present to God; without action gratitude remains a polite nod to God for something we thought was rightfully ours anyway.
Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power,
the glory, the splendour, and the majesty;
for everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you,
and of your own do we give you. (cf. 1Chronicle 29)
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is a time dedicated to pray for vocations. There are other days set aside four times a year to pray for all those who minister within the Church, these are called Ember Days, however today the particular focus of our prayers ought to be the sacred, or ministerial, priesthood.
But prayer, as important as it is, is not the only thing we can do to help with vocations. We should also support the training of priests, and we should encourage in every possible way those who are genuinely being called to this type of ministry.
When I was discerning my vocation to the priesthood, the people of St Botolph’s, my church in London, did precisely this; they helped me to understand what God wanted me to do and what level of trust would be placed on me at ordination. I was in my mid-twenties the, but quite often a sense of vocation (not just to the priesthood) accompanies people for a very early age; and in those years the loving support of family and congregation can go a long way. I remember, when my cousin and I were only young boys, people in our local congregation were ready to spot the “early signs” of a vocation to the priesthood, and how they encouraged us both to say our yes to the Lord. Things may have changed since then; my cousin is a diocesan registrar, whilst I resisted putting myself forward for ordination for a few years, and then have become the black sheep of the family by becoming an Anglican… but even now, we both have people from our home congregation who regularly check up on sense of vocation, and support us with their prayers.
If we want to foster and encourage vocations we must remember that priests do not exist in a vacuum. We all share in the royal priesthood of the Lord Jesus by virtue of our Baptism, and it is from among our number that God calls men and women to become ordained in order to serve his Church in a specific way. Ordained ministry takes its mandate from Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who from age to age shares the pastoral care of his flock with his priests. He calls them to feed his people with his Word and with the Sacrament of the Eucharist, to administer his forgiveness to those who seek reconciliation with God, to provide leadership and focus for mission in his name. In turn, the Lord calls each one of us to work with our local priests to transform our communities; to pray for the needs of the world, and to share the love of Jesus with everyone.
Another thing worth remembering is that priests do not grow on trees. Vocations arise and increase when they praying for them. Vocations are fostered within the parish context; they take time to develop in a well-informed and realistic sense of what God is calling the candidate to do, and they can only thrive through with support. As a consequence, you and I play a fundamental role in ensuring that anyone called to the ordained ministry is able to respond to this call as generously and as selflessly as they can.
It is always a great blessing to help each-other to fulfil our individual vocations and even more so to help priests in fulfilling their call. So let us commit ourselves to pray for and encourage vocations so that Christ, the Good Shepherd may raise more and more priests formed according to his heart.
Father, you gave us Christ
as the shepherd and guardian of our souls;
may your people always have priests
to care for them with his great love.
Father, give us priests:
to establish the honour of your holy name;
to offer the holy sacrifice of the altar;
to give us Jesus in the Eucharist;
to proclaim the faith of Jesus;
to baptise and to teach;
to seek the lost;
to give pardon to the penitent sinner;
to bless our homes;
to pray for the afflicted;
to comfort mourners;
to strengthen us in our last hour;
to commend our souls;
Almighty Father, give us priests!
We make this prayer, through Jesus Christ our Lord.