Sermon

Ordinariness

Today in the church’s calendar, we begin a period of ordinariness, defined more exactly as Ordinary Time. The clergy will be bedecked in green right through to Allsaintside at the end of October. We can expect to get up 19 more Sundays after Trinity, today being the first.

And yet, we do not seem to be living in ordinary times in other respects, do we? Unexpected General Election results; hardly a sense of how long this government will last; an alliance with Northern Ireland’s largest party which raises questions over how the UK government can be a neutral broker in the current crisis there and how it can retain its commitment to liberalism in matters such as abortion and equal marriage when that party opposes both. The Liberal party leader resigns citing the struggle to be a Christian in politics today though many others manage it. The impending Brexit talks, a year on from the Referendum. A world meantime, engulfed in turmoil that dwarfs all such concerns. The rising tide of terror. The largest migration of people as refugees from conflict since the Second World War. The Grenfell Tower fire which has claimed more lives than several of the acts of terror and the long-standing concerns that the residents were not safe. Perhaps this is the new ordinary, the new normal. Perhaps those of us who are a little older have romanticised the seemingly halcyon days when life appeared a little simpler.

No ordinariness in our Gospel lesson either. Jesus’s astonishing ministry of proclaiming Good News with crowds following, healing the sick and teaching in the synagogues. Followers are named and sent out to do the same. No time yet for the wider world. There are the lost sheep of the house of Israel to seek out first. And still the list is not enough. The harvest is plentiful, says Jesus, but the labourers are few.

If we are disciples too, and I believe we are, how does this translate into our ordinary lives? For the answer, we need to look at the heart of Jesus’s mission. It was motivated entirely by compassion. He saw the crowds who followed him in the villages who went around as sheep without a shepherd. Unlike shepherds we are mindful of today, shepherding their flocks with their dogs from behind, those on the ancient Galilean hillside led their sheep. They had, then, in the eyes of Jesus, no valid leader, no guiding star, to pick that famous Epiphany story from the same Gospel, no guiding principles, no moral compass.

Hold that thought, if you would, because I don't want to over complicate things. Compassion does indeed mean compassion. At root, it means to 'suffer with.’ It means to put yourself out at the very least; to be present. Whilst I was on Retreat this past week, the Grenfell Tower burnt with huge loss of life, injury and appalling loss of shelter and homes. Recriminations have started. Rightly. But the compassion shown has been overwhelming with Christians along with other faith communities to the fore, opening up church halls, collecting essential items and being flooded with help from all quarters. I saw a list on Wednesday of where stuff could still be taken and where was already full. I heard one location had a whole roomful of bottled water given. All the spare bedding has gone from the Rectory and I'm so proud of my family who set out to take stuff amidst gridlocked traffic as soon as they found out where they could still go. Our elderly Queen has taken a remarkable lead, drawing I’m sure from her own experiences of tragedy through her long life and what she has learnt herself about what compassion means. There's still of course more to be done and you can contribute today in a financial way. I know from the Aeronaut fire here in Acton at New Year, when I was also away, how much small acts of kindness mean to those who suffer. Our prayers too are an action of compassion.  So is a dignified silence. At times like this, we discover that we live in a far more compassionate world than we are led to believe.  God's love, says St Paul in our epistle, has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us. It's a simple matter isn’t it that we simply allow that love to overflow out from us?

So why do we need a shepherd or a guiding star? Why is Jesus’ compassion for the crowd based not on the fact that they are humble peasants who live from hand to mouth in great uncertainty, but that they have no one to lead them? Part of the answer, I find from my own life experience living in Northern Nigeria. There I saw poverty, suffering, illness on a scale I have never seen before or since; and since I have kept in touch through long years with stories of HIV and AIDS, violent conflict and famine caused by terrorism in the very places I used to go on holiday. I even visited the village of Chibbok where the girls were taken by IS. There we buried one of our students, Musa Chibbok. And yet, I have never been with people more full of joy and faith. Someone once explained to me that the poor person has nothing, so she has nothing to worry about. The rich person lives on his guarded compound behind a heavy wall and iron gate. He is the one who lives with anxiety. I have been criticized for repeating that story. I've been carpeted by people knowledgeable about the effects of grinding poverty, to which I can only reply that it was from the authentic voice of a poor person that I had the story, and not from an expert in their misery. They were not miserable.

There are so many ways in which we are in our day like sheep without a shepherd. There is increasingly no guiding narrative by which to live our lives, few rituals to shape them as we follow the short journey from the cradle to the grave. Ritual is important. It gives our life a shape. In our Christian worship, we still follow the pattern of the old Jewish synagogue, as the first Christians did; we still break bread and drink wine as the first Christians did; we still wear vestments that hark back far into our history. These connections matter. Our worship may appear dull when compared to some churches, and perhaps we need to tend to that, but we are not in the end in the entertainment industry. We are here to plumb the depths of what it means to be human, what it means to look suffering in the eye and carry on, and what it means to relate to God. Doing that involves not only taking in the flawed words of a sermon, but entering fully into the flow of the liturgy and the silence which is at its heart.

This week I have spent mostly in silence, which I didn't find easy but it is in the silence, I believe, we find God and God finds us. Musicians among you will tell me afterwards if I am wrong, but I'm told that the heart of music is the silence. The sound of the notes simply fills the gaps between. Today we use lots of words, said and sung, but the deepest moments, the moments of divine encounter, lie in the gaps between.

Should we simply be out there doing acts of compassion rather than being confined here in our church? Why was I in a monastery when Grenfell Tower needed me? Should I not have returned? Two very simple responses. The first is that no one needed me in the tragedy that unfolded so close by to us here. Only my ego felt so. There were others there. There’s a lesson. Secondly, if we do not attend to our own inner lives, if we exist with compassion fatigue and burn out, what use are we in the end? I've been far too close in my lifetime to compassion fed by ego and anger. Neither are wrong. But compassion born of it leaves people all too often harassed and helpless like those whom Jesus saw. Sometimes, it does more harm than good. If we're to make difference ourselves, we need to look in as well as out, allowing God's love to flow through us, finding the sacred in the ordinary. Then, true compassion will follow.

 

A sermon given by The Rector of Acton, Nick Jones, on Sunday 18 June 2017 at St Mary’s Church in Acton.

 


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