A very long! sermon preached at Godshill and Hale for “Christ the King” about “The Rule of Life” Sunday 20th November 2016 – Mark Ward
This is the final Sunday of our Christian year, next week we begin again as we ready ourselves to welcome a baby into the world, a baby whose life ends up in the hands of a foreign official who asks him:
“Are you a king?”
As usual Jesus doesn’t answer the question, “you say that I am” he replies but he also says “my kingdom does not belong to this world” so we have to assume that he does assume kingship.
Of course we have to look at the subtlety of the answer, “my kingdom does not belong to this world” doesn’t mean, “my kingdom is only in heaven” it means “my kingdom is very different to the way you all carry on”. The kingdom of heaven exists not only in the afterlife but also on this earth, but it’s a choice we have here whether we enter that kingdom and live differently.
So what might living differently mean? I lived in the town of Grantham in my teenage years. That town is famous for two reasons although one of them less well remembered. I can say that I have been taught in the very same room as Sir Isaac Newton, a Grammar School still, although that seems to be becoming a dirty word, and in that room I was taught classics by a very old man called Gus Golding who was the brother of William Golding, author of The Spire and Lord of the Flies amongst others. The Girls Grammar School, where my wife and her five sisters and her mother attended also had a famous former pupil. Indeed my mother in law, Mary, was at school with this person. Mary seldom has a bad word to say about anyone, but I have heard her say that Margaret Hilda Roberts wasn’t much liked. In years to come she would tell us all along with Lieutenant Tebbit that we are responsible for ourselves and if necessary we should get on our bikes. I don’t want to offend anyone’s politics, I’m simply using two views of life to contrast them, Margaret Thatcher had a view that we should pursue self-determination by hard work to benefit ourselves and our family. Jesus on the other hand had a different view.
Jesus calls us to look after those around us, to reach out to them – “if you have two shirts, give one to someone with no shirt”. Two shirts, not much is it, I reckon I have at least 40 of one sort or another. Giving away your only spare shirt actually is quite an issue – what do you do when you need to wash it? So in Jesus’ world view being generous brings quite a cost. What if I was to say to you today, I know someone who is in desperate need, so desperate that today we need to raise £10,000, so as there are 10 of us here I need everyone to give me £1000, now. I guess most of us could do it or get somewhere near to it but would it hurt you, would it stop you doing something yourself or just make your life that bit more precarious? It might. But that’s the generosity Jesus talks about.
So let me ask you a question: “By what rules do you live your life?” – is it me first and then everyone else, or is it the other way around or perhaps somewhere in the middle?
Amongst all the changes brought to us by our Lord Bishop of Winchester is a suggestion that we should all ascribe to a set of rules as to how we live our lives. I bang on about the words of James, a small book towards the end of the bible, where James says this:
“if you walk from here today, and you see someone in desperate trouble and all you do is say to that person – may God bless you brother or sister – and you walk on by, then all your suppose faith is worthless”. Harsh words, maybe, but nonetheless true. “By your deeds will you be judged”.
Bishop Tim calls his approach a Rule of Life. There have been many of these down the years. We are a Benedictine Diocese, we follow the Rule of Benedict, and he wrote his rules out for his followers in a little book which you can still read to this day. So it won’t surprise you to learn that the Bishop wants us all to be part of the rule of life which is bound up into Jesus’ own approach to us living within the Kingdom of Heaven here in this place.
It also may not surprise you that it has three strands which are called “Living, Serving” and “Loving”. They are brought together in an Old Testament verse from the book of Ecclesiastes, and if you are now thinking, that’s not a book I’m familiar with, well I suggest many are. “there is a time for war and a time for peace, a time for sorrow a time for joy” – words put to music in the 60s by the Byrds and also sung by Mary Hopkin. In the following chapter there is a verse which says “a cord of three strands cannot easily be broken” mirrored of course in “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, so we are offered these three strands as Living, Serving and Loving.
So let’s have a look at them in no particular order, as Tess Daly says on “Strictly”.
Living – Do you live for yourself or do you live for others too? Firstly do you live for God? If you do how is that manifest – well I guess the first thing we might say is do we speak with him regularly? Do you find prayer hard? I do. After 30 seconds of private prayer I’m planning tomorrow, or worrying about something else. I was so pleased when Bishop Jonathan told me he had the same problem. That’s why I have taken to saying over and over the Jesus prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have Mercy one me a sinner”. Eventually I forget about the world and even if I don’t it is prayer in itself, but of course prayer should be about listening to God. Benedict also said “Lord give me the ability to listen with the ears of my heart”, or in other words let me be swayed by compassion and love, not by logic. So part of Living a Christian life is to pray, could I or could you do that more or better, maybe with the support of others if we struggle alone?
Do I live generously – there are many arguments that say “why should I do this if they do that”, but it’s not about other people is it, it’s about you and God and me and God. If we all said “I’m not going to be the first to do the right thing”, even if it seems futile, where would we be? So could you be more generous – invite people home for a meal, give more of what you have away for the benefit of those you might meet so you don’t just say “bless you sister” and walk on by.
Is this all that church is? By that I mean do we do church the only way there is here? No we don’t. So what about opening yourself up to another way of church to see how it might challenge you. I guarantee it might be uncomfortable but is it all too easy here? Or maybe think about volunteering. Any of us could become a street pastor in Salisbury on a Friday or Saturday night – just being there for those who have lost their way.
OK, you’ve listened to me a lot already and there’s more so how about we stop and sing.
So back to our three-part Rule of Life.
I guess being a street pastor is serving but I was talking about giving of ourselves in that example, for being a street pastor will involve giving up something you like doing, or even doing something you might not enjoy, it’s about what I’m prepared to sacrifice.
I suppose serving has quite a lot of “giving up” contained within it too. The booklet makes some suggestions – here’s one I have suggested before, if you see starving people in Yemen on the TV, get so cross that you write to the paper, write to Sir Desmond, write to anyone but write – serve those people in Yemen by at least trying to do something. But it doesn’t have to be Yemen does it. Did anyone watch “I Daniel Blake” recently? Daniel is 59, has worked all his life as a carpenter – I wonder if Ken Loach picked a carpenter on purpose? Daniel has also nursed his wife on his own until she sadly died. Yet the benefits system does not look after him, he suffers all manner of indignity and the end is very sad, but very poignantly through this Daniel takes pity on a young single mum and her children and he gives more to them than she gets from anyone or anywhere else. I was so incensed by the story I used a column I have in the Salisbury Journal to fire off about it. I don’t know if it will do any good but it might, who knows.
But the leaflet also suggests we should ring-fence time for family. I’m thinking maybe that’s one I need to do, I’m seldom at home and when I am I’m often preoccupied by other stuff. Just lately I have been going to work at 7am, returning home at 6 and then spending another two or three hours immersed in spreadsheets. Should I have spent more of that time with my wife – I should. If we don’t serve those we love then we don’t deserve then do we?
Which I guess leads us on to the third one – Loving. Loving – what does that mean? Soppy rom-com? Caring for our sick neighbour? There are many definitions of a word we only have one word for. If you look at the examples in the leaflet you will find that they overlap with the other two categories – one is “Living simply and giving generously” which is where we started. Another is loving God by spending more time with him, which is about prayer. But it also talks about Loving myself, which oddly might seem contradictory to where I began, but there is a subtle difference. Loving me is about taking care of myself body and soul so that I am in a place where I can do all the other stuff. It’s not about striving to buy myself the latest sports car, it’s about striving to use my money and talents for a greater good, and to have that energy I must look after the amazing body God has blessed me with. When I say amazing body I’m not speaking about my rippling biceps or six-pack, I wish, but simply about this incredible thing we are, a creation of God. So as part of this rule, maybe I need to take myself off for a walk at least once a week, not that difficult here is it, but of course it means not doing something else. I was walking around Godshill Wood a couple of weeks ago and met a friend who said “what you need is a dog”. How right she was, for a dog would get me out at least twice a day, in serving the dog I would also serve myself. So if someone would have a word with my dearly beloved and tell her a dog is for life – mine – I’d be very grateful and you might succeed where in 34 years I have failed!
But to bring this back to the Rule of Life. To use a hackneyed phrase, this isn’t rocket science, it’s about living in God’s way, not our own. It’s not about leaving the world, it’s about being part of it but in a way that sustains ourselves and those around us and the very earth we walk on. It’s a whole load of ordinary folk making a joint intention, about being the church corporate in this place, which appears somewhere in the prayer book, it’s about living for the common good not just for my good.
You will be pleased to learn I have one of the booklets for each of you and not only that but on one page it gives you a chance to decide what you might do to life within the rule. Now it is possible none of the ideas will float your boat, but I’m sure everyone of us could come up with one thing that would make us a better follower of Jesus.
So here’s my challenge. Next week is advent. Advent is about preparation, it’s not about wishing Christmas would come quicker, Advent is as serious as Lent. Find a few minutes each week, 15 minutes maybe each week for the next four weeks and look at this leaflet, and only at the end of that fill in something you know you can do. This suggests you find 6, two in each section, but don’t worry about that, you could come up with 9 or 16 or 1. One is good if you really do it, you can always add another in time. Write that one down just before Christmas and then once all the madness has died down, do it, be intentional, have a resolution you will try to stick to.
I suppose as I’m ahead of the game I probably ought to declare mine publicly now. I am only going to start with one because otherwise I will fail and this might seem selfish but I know that I don’t look after my physical health anywhere near enough to sustain myself. So my first commitment is to walk twice a week for half an hour, intentionally.
In this way I will see more of creation around me, and I will also create some time to maybe pray, and to work out how I can be far more effective as a disciple of God. The more I can do the more those strands of my life will entwine and the stronger will become that cord, the cord which is also about Jesus, me and of course the work of the holy spirit.
And maybe we could spend some time sharing early in January! Amen.