Parish Eucharist 25th June 2017
Sermon 25 June 2017 – Jeremiah 20: 7- 13; Romans 6: 1b – 11; Matthew 10: 24 – 39
I still have vivid memories of my first Sunday at Hampstead Parish Church – almost four years ago and the day after I had been ordained deacon at St Paul’s Cathedral. The readings were fairly challenging – as are today’s. The Gospel was from the end of Luke 9…To paraphrase - Those who seek to follow Christ will have no settled home, will not be allowed time off for family funerals or even have time to say goodbye their families – because – “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9: 57 – 62)
Father Stephen followed this challenging Gospel reading with a sermon in which he outlined what deacons are and all the things they are supposed to do. I’m sure he didn’t intend it, but I felt somewhat daunted. And then there was a party after the service – and so many people to meet. And someone took a photograph of me in my very new vestments – and I felt a bit like a rabbit that had been caught in the headlights!
I was reminded of all this because our Gospel passage for today – my last Sunday – is also somewhat daunting.
Today’s reading - from Matthew contains some of Jesus’ instructions and warnings to His disciples as He sends them out on their first mission to spread the good news about the kingdom of God. Earlier in Chapter 10 we read that they are to go only to the Jews, and to take no provisions for the journey, but to rely on whatever hospitality they are offered. Jesus foresees that they are likely to experience persecution and hostility. As Jesus suffered, so His followers can expect the same, but they are not to be afraid, because God cares for them and because whatever happens their eternal destiny is heaven.
There’s actually no evidence that Jesus’ disciples experienced significant persecution while He was alive. Matthew seems to be using Jesus’ words here to reflect the circumstances of a later time, after the resurrection. The time of those for whom the Gospel was written. This was a time when there was some animosity because of the new faith. Some Jewish Christians travelled between the synagogues preaching the Christian message and were not always well-received. It was also a time when Jewish families might be divided with some having adopted the new Christian faith.
So – the disciples are sent out. They have to take the risk of moving from being the inner circle of supporters and learners at Christ’s feet to being doers. Now it’s their turn to take the message about the kingdom of God to those who need to hear it. As verses 37 – 39 make clear, there is a cost to this; their priority must be Christ:
“37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Daunting words indeed! Those who give the highest priority to protecting themselves – and perhaps also their family life - will find that there is nothing left to protect, but the person who surrenders their freedom to Christ will find themselves.
I think my threshold of acceptable risk is pretty low! I’m certainly not a keen bungee-jumper and I’ve never even climbed up the ladder from my office in the Belfry Room into the tower. But it’s also true that much of what I’ve learned in the Christian life has been through taking risks. Taking on responsibilities in the church which stretched me. And certainly being a curate has been a significant exercise in risk-taking – for the Parish as well as for me of course! All of those new experiences and things I’d never done before – which might have gone horribly wrong!
A risk-taking approach to our faith applies not only to us as individuals, but to the whole church. As I move on to my next risky venture – learning to be the Vicar of Woburn Sands – I wonder how Hampstead Parish Church will balance the call to risky discipleship against the reality and responsibility of caring for the ongoing life of this wonderful church, its musical tradition and its glorious building. What might this mean for the way in which the church uses its buildings – and I mean all its buildings including the crypt rooms and two flats we own? How can we best use what we have to advance the kingdom of God?
And how might risk-taking be applied in the way we think and speak about stewardship?
Our most valuable resource may be our time. Can we let go of some of the things which make us busy, but which may not be important, in order to free up time and other resources for new things which are really central to our mission? The winter night shelter and possible sponsorship of a refugee family are examples of the kinds of new things I mean.
Some of you will know that Simon and I recently walked some more of the Camino – the pilgrim route through Northern Spain to Santiago. Every day we got up in one place and walked around 15 miles through (usually) wonderful countryside and small villages to somewhere else. 15 miles doesn’t sound much – but it’s hard on the feet if you have to do it day after day! One of the key things I learned as we walked was that I constantly needed to let go and move on. Often I wanted to linger; once I wanted to go back to a particularly beautiful high plain with a purple-flowered crop interspersed with red poppies and the sounds of bees below and skylarks overhead. I didn’t, because by then I had learned that the way ahead was just as important as what I was leaving behind. There were new and different things to be discovered in the next stage of the journey.
I know that this will be the case for me in Woburn Sands, and I believe and pray that it will also be the case for Hampstead Parish Church. It’s been my privilege to journey with you for a while. As we said when we met fellow-walkers on the Camino, walked with them for a while and then parted – Buen Camino – have a good journey!