‘THE MOST CONFUSING PARABLE’ – Luke 16:1-13 – The Parable of the Unjust Steward

A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, and Sandleheath Uniting Church on Trinity 14, Sunday, September 22nd, 2019.

I Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Trying to explain Parables is rather like trying to explain jokes – the risk is of ruination, rather than elucidation.

And that’s particularly so when we come to a Parable as tricky and as difficult to understand as the one we’ve heard this morning – the so-called ‘Parable of the Unjust Steward’ from Luke 16.

If you search on the internet for this Parable, you’ll find articles like ‘Oh no! Is it really time for ‘The Parable of the Dishonest Servant’’; or ‘The Strangest of them All’; or ‘The Most Confusing Parable’.

So, if you’re puzzled about what Jesus is trying to say in this Parable, you’re in good company.  And if you’re not puzzled, you may just possibly have missed something!

I wrote a dissertation on Parables some years ago, called ‘Imagination and the Parables’, thinking about Jesus’ imagination in creating them, the imagination of the first hearers, and our imagination in listening to them many times.  And one of my recommendations was that we need to try to illuminate the Parables, without trying to explain them.  We need to discuss Parables in a way which enlarges the imagination, rather than dampening it down – that’s my challenge for this morning.

And one of the chapters, a really fascinating one to research, reflected on the titles of the Parables, and where they came from – not from Jesus, of course – they started to be used once Bibles started being printed at the time of the Reformation, initially as a sort of index, at the top of the page or in the margin, and then rather more polemically; and I also looked at what effect the titles of the Parables have on the listener.

This Parable is generally called ‘The Dishonest Steward’, or ‘The Unjust Steward’.  But is that what it’s really about? What effect would it have on us if we thought of it as ‘The Parable of the Thoughtful Master’? Or ‘The Parable of the Right Use of Money’?  Or something else – you could have a go at thinking of new titles for this Parable, and see what effect it has on your imagination and understanding.

The next thing to understand is that very few of the Parables are allegories.  That is, there aren’t many when you can say that something or someone equals something or someone else.  In this case, thinking that the ‘rich man’ [v. 1] = God, or the ‘master’ [v. 8] = Jesus.  Allegories work by tying the imagination down, by explaining what is going on in a story, and there are examples of allegories and allegorical explanations in both the Old and New Testaments.

But Parables generally work differently – they are about expanding the imagination, about helping us to think about God and ourselves in a different way, in a new way.

One or two background details about this Parable.

Firstly, Jesus tends to use everyday objects – yeast, wheat, seeds – and everyday stories – the lost sheep, the sower going out to sow, and, quite possibly, in this case, an item from the Galilee Journal about a dishonest manager.  He’s chosen a story from the everyday lives of his hearers – at this point, his Disciples.  I wonder whether they’d heard such a piece of news, and been arguing amongst themselves – which we know they did – about the ethical issues involved.

The rich man is very rich!  The amounts of produce mentioned, the olive oil and the wheat, indicate a large enterprise.  The man is very rich, and he can afford to carry large debts.

The Manager, the Steward, is an important man.  He is in effect the Chief Operating Officer of the Estate, dealing with large amounts of money and produce, and in a position of considerable trust and patronage.  All his worries, expressed in verses 3 & 4, are genuine ones for a man in his exalted position.  He is worried that he would be reduced to manual labour, for which he is not constitutionally suited, and he’s worried about where he’ll live – he’s living in tied accommodation, of course.  And so he decides to use his patronage, and his authority over his master’s assets, to buy himself friends, so that someone will take him in when he’s turfed out of this job.

We might want to pause for a moment to reflect on the likely success of this scheme.  There may be someone who is grateful enough at having his large debt reduced substantially, who might be happy to welcome the Manager into his home; but I wonder how that might affect his relationship with the Master, the rich man – to whom he still owes debts, even if they are now much smaller.  And I also wonder how many others would think it a good idea to employ the Manager in a similar position, given that he seems rather free with his master’s wealth.

The twist in the Parable, and there is often a twist – the twist comes when the Master, in verse 8, commends the Manager, not for his dishonesty, but for the shrewdness of his actions.

Now verse 8 is a particularly interesting verse [See Green, Gospel of Luke, p.593f.].  As I read it, think about who is speaking: ‘And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light’.  In the first half of the sentence, it is the master who is speaking; in the second half, there is a very swift sideways step, and it is Jesus who is commenting on the story.  The master applauds the manager, not for his dishonesty, but for his acuity.  Jesus the goes on to reflect on why he told the story.  He seems to be saying, ‘[the] Children of this age…understand how the world works and use it to their benefit; why do [the] ‘Children of Light’ not understand the ways of the Kingdom of God?’ [Ibid, adapted].

Jesus is drawing on the image of time being divided into two ages – this age, and, as we say at the end of the Creed, the age ‘of the world to come’.

‘That Jesus can speak of the manager as one who is commended by one of his own generation for his having prudently taken advantage of the systems of this world and as [dishonest] is…not surprising.  [The] wisdom on the part of

[the]

‘Children of Light’, on the other hand, would take its directives from the new [age], the age [of the world] to come’ [Ibid, adapted].

That leaves us with the question, what sort of wisdom should we, as children of light, the children of the new age, be using?  If the ‘children of this age’ use money to buy influence, to save themselves, how should the ‘children of light’ use their money and possessions?

Verse 13, the famous verse which used to be translated as ‘You cannot serve God and Mammon’, makes it clear that we cannot have two masters – it’s not saying that we can’t have money and be a Christian.  It is saying that we need to choose which of the two will be the master, and which will be the servant.  Is our money to be used in the service of God, or are we going to try to use God in service of our wealth?

Verse 9, not an easy verse to interpret, seems to be suggesting that we use what we have in ways which lead to eternal life.  And verses 10-12 reflect on faithful service – being faithful in small things, so that we can be trusted with great things, the things of the Kingdom of Heaven, the wisdom of the children of Light.

What might we take from this Parable?

All of us, especially those in the rich West, need to reflect on our relationship with our money and possessions.  What’s in charge of what?  How do we use what we have in service of the present and coming Kingdom of God?

And what does it mean to be faithful and honest in the small things of life, so that we develop habits of faithfulness and trust for the large things in life?

And there is much else to be mined from this, the strangest and most confusing of all Parables – which is why you have it in Partners to take away with you and mull over during the coming week.  AMEN.

THE GOOD SAMARITAN – WHO IS MY NEIGHBOUR?

A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick on Trinity 4, Sunday, July 14th, at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge and Sandleheath Uniting Church, on ‘Rural Mission Sunday’ and ‘Sea Sunday’

Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

If you were in a really, really difficult situation, who would be the last person you’d expect to help you?  Just ponder for a moment.  Who would be the last person you’d expect to help you?  [Pause].

That person, Jesus says, is your neighbour!

And that about sums up the parable we call ‘The Good Samaritan’.

This is such a familiar parable, one we’ve probably all known since primary school, that it’s very difficult for us to imagine the impact it would have had on its first hearers.

But we don’t always take note of the context, the topping and tailing of the parable.  Why did Jesus tell it on this occasion?   Because, I bet he told his stories more than once, even though they are usually only recorded once in the Gospels.  Why did he tell it on this particular occasion?

Firstly, the lawyer wanted to ‘test Jesus’.  He’s already in an adversarial situation.  ‘‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’  He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’’ [Lk 10:25f.].  The lawyer, of course, knows the law, so he can reply, using the formula derived from the Shema in Deuteronomy 6 [:5] and the law of neighbour love in Leviticus 19 [:18, See Green, ‘The Gospel of Luke’, p. 428], using what Jesus himself in Matthew 22 [:34-40] describes as the Great Commandments: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself’ [Lk 10:27].  Had the lawyer simply accepted that, perhaps Jesus would have told the Parable of the Good Samaritan!  But the lawyer didn’t want to lose face, he wanted to justify himself – so he asked ‘And who is my neighbour?’ [V. 29], and so the parable is told.  ‘And who is my neighbour?’

But note the question Jesus asks at the end of the parable: ‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? [V. 36].

The lawyer asked ‘And who is my neighbour?’  Jesus asked ‘Which of these …was a neighbour?’  Jesus turns the question around, and gives it a significantly different meaning for the lawyer and for us.

The lawyer was wanting to know whom he should regard as a neighbour; what sorts of people should he regard as a neighbour?  To whom did he have an obligation under the law?  Who were the ‘in’ people to whom he had a duty, and who were the ‘out’ people, whom he could ignore?  Jesus reply turns that around: to whom should the lawyer be a neighbour?  ‘Don’t worry who your neighbour is,’ Jesus seems to be saying.  ‘Just learn how to be a neighbour and you’ll discover who your neighbours are’ [For some thoughts on this, see ‘Reconciliation’, Muthuraj Swamy, pp. 93ff].

If we could learn to be neighbours to those around, the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, would fall away.

Or to put it another way: if you were in a really, really difficult situation, who would be the last person you’d expect to help youThat person, Jesus says, is your neighbour!

It’s Rural Mission Sunday, a day of prayer and reflection on the particular ministry and gifts of the Rural Church.  How do we become neighbours to all of those living in our small towns and villages?  Who are the people we ignore in our communities, often the ones who are in most need of a neighbour?

And today is Sea Sunday?  How do we become neighbours to all of those whose work is on the seas, providing us with many of the things we need and want as they are imported by sea?

I thought one way of reflecting on these issues would be through some images, which are on the sheet sheet HERE.  You might like to have a look at them, and either think about them on your own, or chat with a neighbour – what do you see in the images?  Which appeal to you, or don’t appeal?  What do they have to say about being a neighbour?

I’ll end with an anonymous poem, which you can also read on the sheet with the link above:

Good Samaritan Poem: On the Road to Jericho

We invested in goods to sell in the trade city of Jericho

and I walked the long journey with my loaded donkey.

I stopped that last night at an inn

poised on the edge of Jericho’s wilderness valley.

The neighbours at my table did not look promising;

holy men who carried scrolls not knives,

shabby companions on this last stretch

where you need someone who will stand firm beside you,

someone good for a fight.

That next morning I left the inn alone,

the dawn just crowning;

leaving the door open in my haste,

the innkeeper slammed it as she hissed after me,

“Born in a barn, were you?”

In half-darkness I led my donkey down the steep road.

 

It was mid-morning when it happened.

I heard them before I saw them,

the six bandits clattering down the rocks.

Enough time for me to assess the situation, ‘grim’,

to muster my courage and grab my knife.

‘Give us what you have’, they yelled,

which only made me smile,

picturing my sons, and me telling them,

‘They asked for your inheritance, so I gave it to them’.

And so I fought, but the odds were against me.

They broke my arms, and beat me

and took everything, even my clothes,

and left me on the side of the road,

listening to the sound of our savings being led away.

 

I drifted in and out as the pain overpowered me,

but I knew that help was on its way.

Those holy men were on the road behind me,

an hour or two at most and I would be saved.

I woke to see that priest’s heels walking away.

My voice also deserted me, too dry to call for help.

The vultures arrived at the same time as the levite,

I was watching them trace lazy circles in the cloudless blue

as he circled wide around me,

the blood and flies too unclean for his hands, no doubt.

I lay baking in the hot son, waiting for death.

 

A man on a donkey appeared on the road from Jericho.

A foreigner, he greeted me with the words, ‘Friend, I’ll help you’.

He put me on his donkey, no mean feat with my broken arms,

and took me to the inn I’d left that morning.

The innkeeper shook her head as she looked from my wounds to my face,

‘Ah, the man born in a barn’.

They tended to me day and night,

and now weeks later I still sit here mending, on the Samaritan’s tab.

 

Last night the holy men, the priest and levite,

were neighbours at my table as they took their homeward journey.

They would not meet my eye, which is not surprising.

I do not know whether they noticed that I could not meet theirs.

I have no bitterness at what they did not do,

instead my mind is haunted by what might have been.

Had they set out first, and I came upon one of them, broken and bleeding,

would I have unloaded my donkey, left my fortune by the road

and carried them to safety?

Or would I have minded my own business?

I received mercy, but would I have given it?

Each day, I am forever on that wilderness road.

 

 

SEND US OUT IN THE POWER OF YOUR SPIRIT – A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity

Preached by Canon Gary Philbrick on Sunday, July 7th, 2019, at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, at a Benefice Service at which the Revd Mike Trotman presided for the first time.

Gal 6:7-16, Luke 10:1-11,16-20

Lord Jesus, stride into this mess of words and make some sense of them.  AMEN.

It’s a great privilege to have been asked by Mike to preach this morning, and it’s a moment to thank all of our wonderful Ministry Team here – most of whom offer their ministry voluntarily – and to say how much we’ve enjoyed having Mike, Heidi, Sam and Phoebe among us for the past year or so.  It’s always really sad when much-loved Curates leave us – but then God sends us the gift of someone else who is just as wonderful, but in a different way, and we find there is enough love to go around for the new Curate as well!  And it’s always a huge privilege to be accompanying those new in ministry on their journey, and learning so much from them.  So, thank you, Mike and family, for joining us in our ministry here at this significant time in the life of the Avon Valley Churches, as we shall soon be known.

Well, it’s been a remarkable week or so.

Last Saturday evening, many of us were at Mike’s Ordination as a Priest in Winchester Cathedral, which was a most impressive and moving occasion.  The eight women and men who had been ordained Deacon the previous year were now returning to the Cathedral to be ordained as Priests.  As we worshipped, and prayed for them, the evening sun was streaming in through the stunning West Window of the Cathedral, and all were bathed in the golden Light of Christ.

The next day I and Mike and others were back in the Cathedral for the Ordination of Deacons, as my son Craig, and eight others were launched on their ordained ministries.  Again, a wonderful, joyful Service, made even more poignant for me as it was the 33rd anniversary of my own Ordination as a Deacon in the same place.

And then on Wednesday, Mike, Ian Newman and I, and many others from across the country and the world, had the privilege of being in St Paul’s Cathedral for the Ordination and Consecration of Debbie Sellin, the new Bishop of Southampton.  She was Consecrated along with three others, all women on this occasion, in a magnificent Service, at which the President was the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Preacher, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, and the Archbishop of York was also there as a Presenting Bishop for one of the candidates.

It’s very unusual to be able to attend the Ordinations of Deacons, Priests and Bishops within just a few days, and they were all wonderful occasions.

In between all of that, the week has been filled with an unusual number of Benefice, Deanery and Diocesan Meetings, all of which were reflecting, in one way or another, on the worship and mission and ministry of the Church in these challenging times.

But returning to the Ordinations, one of the things which struck us was the similarities between the three Services.  They all have the same basic structure, with variations depending on the ministry to which people are being ordained.

And each begins by putting the ordained ministry into the context of the ministry of the whole Church of God, of all of the baptised, the priesthood of all believers.  Each of the Services begins:

The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit.  In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom [https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/ministry/common-worship-ordination-services#mm013].

To be baptised is to be in ministry.  Twice in today’s Gospel, to which we shall return in a moment or two – twice Jesus commands his Disciples to say to the people, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’ [Lk 10:9, 11].  All of us are in ministry – ordained, authorised, commissioned or lay – all of us are in ministry, and all of us are commanded to say, in words or by our examples, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’.

And there is an infinite number of ways in which people express that ministry.  Ordained ministry is one of those ways, but that’s a minority calling.  It would be a terrible thing if everyone felt they needed to be ordained to have a place in the ministry of the Church.  You’ll know what is said about the clergy – they’re like manure: really useful if spread around, but in a heap they stink!

People express their ministry in their daily lives and work, through doing a good job in their working lives; through caring for family; through working to change the world by supporting environmental projects, or trying to bring justice in their local communities or in the wider world.  Just yesterday I heard of a project to help those of our armed forces who have been terribly affected by the awful things they have seen in Afghanistan and other places, and who are being helped by working on archaeological digs.  Through that ministry of healing, the Kingdom of God is coming near to them.

People express their ministry as Pastoral Visitors, by caring for our Church buildings, through hospitality, by serving on the PCCs, through music or serving or reading or praying in Church.

For some people, their calling to ministry will take them away from their communities, and lead them to other places, as mission partners abroad, or ordained ministers here, or as teachers, doctors, care workers, financial experts, scientists or engineers in different parts of the world.

Wherever we are, and to whatever we are called, our ministry as the people of God is to live, and to pray, and to speak as people who know that ‘The kingdom of God has come near’.

And part of the ministry is to reflect on where we are, and whether God is calling us to something new.  There are many areas of our lives in which God may be calling us – and not all of them are ‘Churchy’.  However, some may be being called to Confirmation – we have a Confirmation Service planned in Ringwood at the end of September; some may be being called to go on a ‘Bishop’s Commission for Mission Course’ – Heidi is on one at the moment, and so you can ask her about it afterwards; BCMs for Worship Leaders and Pioneers are beginning in the Autumn not too far away.  Speak to one of us if you might be interested.

Some may be wanting to explore a calling as Licensed Lay Ministers, as Preachers, as ordained ministers – if you think any of those things might be for you, talk to someone about it.

Others may be feeling a call to develop their ministries in other ways, in the community, at work, in the wider world.  Again, if you are feeling like that, talk to someone.

It is together, as the whole people of God, ‘each of us in our own vocation and ministry’, that we make up the whole Church.

In the passage from Luke which Nicky read for us, Jesus sends out the 70, in pairs, to all the places where he himself intended to go.

He had what we might call these days a ‘Mission Action Plan’.  He knew where he was planning to go, what he was planning to do; and he sent them out in pairs – all ministry is collaborative, we should never be in ministry alone.

And he sent them.  The Greek word is ἀπέστειλεν, from which we get the English word, Apostle.  He ‘apostled’ them to go out to the towns places and proclaim the Good News that the Kingdom of God has come near.  He says that twice – once when they are told to cure the sick; once when they enter a town which doesn’t welcome them.  In both cases, ‘the Kingdom of God has come near’.  Whether we accept Jesus or not, ‘the Kingdom of God has come near’.  Even before Jesus himself has visited the towns and places he intended to go to, ‘the Kingdom of God has come near’.

Sometimes we get mission wrong, and think it’s all up to us.  The fact that God always gets there first is sometimes lost on us.  Wherever we go to serve, God is already there.  It’s not all up to us; God’s presence and his grace always precedes us.

We are sent out in mission, but we are sent out to places where God is already ‘alive and at work in the world’ [Prayer of JV Taylor].  We’re sometimes tempted to get things in the wrong order, and think that the whole future of God’s mission is up to us.  But, it’s not the Church of God which has a mission in the world; it’s the God of mission who has a Church in the world.

Just as Jesus sent out the 70 in our Gospel reading, God is always sending us out into the world.  We gather for worship, so that we can be sent out in God’s name in love and service.

At his ordination last Saturday, Mike was given some particular responsibilities – if you look up the Common Worship Ordination Service on-line, you can read them all.  The terrifying Prayer of Ordination says of Priests that ‘They are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins’, which Mike has already done in the Prayers of Penitence; and ‘They are to bless the people in God’s name’ [ibid], which he will do at the end of the Service, sending us all out to fulfil our ministries in the coming week.

But before that, after having received Communion or a Blessing, we’ll pray together, ‘Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory’ [CW, Order 1].  ‘Send us out… to live and work to your praise and glory’.

Jesus sent out the 70 to announce that ‘The kingdom of God has come near’.  Each week we gather, the whole people of God, each of us with our own vocation and ministry, and we are then sent out to live and work for the Kingdom of God.  The God of Mission, the Latin word for sending – the God of Mission sends each of us out with his Blessing to fulfil our calling as his ministers in the world.

What a glorious calling for each of us.  AMEN.

 

 

WHAT IS YOUR NAME? – RETURN TO YOUR HOME!

A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge, on Sunday, June 23rd, 2019, Trinity 1

Gal 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

That Gospel Reading, sometimes known as ‘The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac’, has got lots of difficulties, both textual and interpretive.

As we look at some of the details and problems, I’d like you to keep in mind a question and a command: ‘What is your name?’ and ‘Return to your home’ [Lk 8:30,39].

Jesus is travelling around Galilee, teaching preaching, healing, arguing.  At the beginning of chapter 8 we hear, ‘[Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God’.  So, it’s quite clear, his mission is about the Kingdom of God – he’s proclaiming it, and bringing the good news of it – interesting words to use.

And, as if to emphasise that, a great crowd gathers around him, and he tells them the Parable of the Sower, which in Luke’s version, he interprets for the disciples with the words, ‘to you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God’ [Lk 8:10].

Soon afterwards, and immediately before the passage we had read to us, Jesus calms the storm, showing his power over the forces of nature, and astonishing the disciples, who exclaim, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ [Lk 8:25].

Our passage begins: ‘They arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee’ [Lk 8:26].  Immediately, we have our first textual problem – the ancient manuscripts have different names here: Gergasa, Gadara, and Gerasa – Gergasa is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee; Gadara is about 5 miles South-east of the lake, but with lands that stretch down to the shore; and Gerasa is about 33 miles South-east of the lake [See Green, Luke, p.337].  The strongest textual reading of the manuscripts, Gerasa, is also the most difficult, and that’s the one the translation we use, the NRSV, has opted for, and it’s also the one chosen by the NIV.  Just a little insight into the difficulties that Bible translators have to face.

The critical thing, however, is that it is ‘opposite Galilee’ – opposite in the literal sense of being on the other side of the Lake; but also opposite in the significant sense that Jesus has moved from Jewish territory into largely gentile territory, a Hellenistic area.  The poor man who is possessed by demons not only lives in a gentile area, where ritually unclean pigs were reared, but is also ‘naked’ and living ‘among the tombs’ – both of which mark him out as separate from normal society.  In every way, he is an outsider.

The way the narrative is told is carefully crafted.  In v. 28, the man says, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ – but in v. 29, we’re told that Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of him – followed by a description of what the unclean spirit had been doing to him.  The story is told in dramatic order, not in chronological order.  Here we see something of Luke the Evangelist’s work in re-telling the material he had received through the tradition of the Church to express the message about Jesus he wants to convey to his hearers.

Jesus then asks the man, ‘What is your name?’ [V. 30], and he replies ‘Legion’.

This is a curious response, a Legion being a Roman military unit of around 5,000 men.  What’s happening here?

Well, clearly, it’s an indication of the severity of the man’s possession – ‘many demons had entered him’; but it’s also an indication that it’s not only Jesus’ compassion which extends to the gentiles, but also his power and authority [See Green, op cit, p. 339].

In the previous passage, Jesus’ power over the winds and the waves has been proven – and now, it is the turn of the unclean spirits, a whole legion of them, to know his authority to command them.  They recognise with whom they are dealing as they beg him not to order them to go back into the abyss, that prison reserved for the punishment of demons [See Green, op cit, p. 340], but rather negotiate a transfer into the nearby herd of swine, from whence they are driven to their deaths.

In an unusually long narrative, the swineherds then rush off to the city and tell everyone what has happened, and the people rush back to see for themselves, finding the man who had been possessed ‘clothed and in his right mind’ [V. 35].  Understandably, they are much disturbed by the presence of one who has such power, and who has saved a man by destroying a herd of swine, and presumably, disrupting the livelihoods of the swineherds.  They ask him to leave – ‘so he got into the boat and returned’ [V. 37].

But, once again, we’re told the story out of sequence.  Having got into the boat and returned, we’re then told that the man begged Jesus that he might join his band of followers, but Jesus tells him to ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you’ [V. 39] – and that’s just what he did.

Now, I’ve spent a bit of time looking at that passage in detail, partly to reflect on the difficulties of biblical translation, and the choices the translators have to make, partly to reflect on the way that the Four Evangelists consciously shape the material they have to emphasise the message they are trying to proclaim through their writings, and partly to begin to delve into the multi-layered narrative we’re reflecting on this morning.

But I’d like to go back to the question and the command I mentioned in the beginning: ‘What is your name?’ and ‘Return to your home’.

‘What is your name?’ – Jesus is literally asking him to name his demons.  Names in the ancient world, and still to some extent today, were believed to give power over the person named, in a rather ‘magical way’.  The demons name Jesus as ‘Son of the Most High God’, a largely pagan usage, recognising his power over them.  And he in turn forces them to reveal their name – Legion – using his power over them.

On the journey of faith, we also are invited to ‘name our demons’, to look honestly at ourselves, to see where the blockages are that are hindering our progression in the Christian life.  What are the things which stop us from being fully open to God and to other people?

At Bernard Warner’s Funeral Service here on Thursday, I’d asked his neighbour, Nelson, to read a passage from the end of John Bunyan’s ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’, which he did wonderfully well.

After this it was noised abroad that Mr Valiant-for-Truth was taken with a summons, and had this for token that the summons was true, that his pitcher was broken at the fountain. When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it.

Then said he, I am going to my Father’s: and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at, to arrive where I am… So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

Mr Valiant-for-Truth enters the Pilgrim’s Progress quite late on, and has to struggle single-handedly against three rogues who challenge him either to join them, or to turn back on the life of pilgrimage, or to die on the spot.  He chooses the last and fights ‘till my sword did cleave to my hand’.  Scarred in the battle he yet emerges victorious as his opponents flee.

In spite of the difficulties, he continued with his journey, and came to a glorious end, as ‘he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side’.

We need to ‘name our demons’, to look at what is holding us back, and to ponder, ‘What next?’  To what service, or ministry, or act of kindness, or challenge, or prayer is God calling me now?

And at the climax of the Gospel Reading we heard this morning, the demoniac begged Jesus that he might join his band of followers, but Jesus tells him to ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you’.

The man wanted to go with Jesus, to join with this marvellous man who had healed him; but, as on other occasions, Jesus says, ‘No, stay where you are – become ‘a kind of gentile evangelist’ [CT, 21/VI/19, p.19] where you are’.  And so he does, he ‘proclaims throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him’ [V. 39].

There are those who are called to leave their homes, their jobs, sometimes their families, to be missionaries or evangelists, or ordained ministers in other places.

But the much more customary calling is to ‘blossom where you are planted’, to stay in your family, your job, your community and to make a difference there.

If we were all able to ‘proclaim throughout the town how much Jesus has done for us’, what a difference that would make.

‘What is your name?’  ‘Return to your home’.

As we progress in the Christian life, were called continuously to look at ourselves, and see whether there are things that are holding us back.

And, for most of us, we are called to stay where we are, and to live the Good News of the Kingdom of God in our own communities, families, places of work and leisure – and to make a difference there.  AMEN.

 

NO FEAR & FEAR – A Sermon for Evensong on the 5th Sunday of Easter

Preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, fordingbridge at 6.30p.m. on Sunday, May 19th.

The two readings we’ve heard this evening could be characterised as ‘No Fear’ and ‘Fear’!

The first was a story I’m sure most of us will remember from childhood, the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.

It’s a shame we didn’t hear the first few verses of chapter 6, which set the scene.  Daniel was one of the young, noble Israelites who were taken from Jerusalem to Babylon after the defeat of King Jehoiakim of Judah by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 598BC after a siege of Jerusalem.

By command of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel, along with the other able young men, received an education in the ‘literature and language of the Chaldeans’, so that they could enter what we would call ‘the Civil Service’.

By the beginning of Chapter 6, some years later, the then King, Darius, divides his Kingdom into three, each part with a President, and under each President 40 Satraps, accountable to the President.  Daniel’s distinction in the role of President was such that Darius is planning to make him President of the whole Kingdom – which isn’t going down too well with the other Presidents and the 120 Satraps.

And this is where our story begins, as the Presidents and the Satraps conspire against him.  They know they won’t be able to find fault with his Presidency, so they decide to pick on his faith instead.  Verse 5 reads, ‘The men said, ‘We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God’’ [Dan 6:5].  So, they have a cunning plot, which is to convince Darius to sign a law – a law of the Medes and the Persians which cannot be changed – a law stating that anyone who offers worship to anybody else than Darius the King would be thrown into the lion’s den.  And they have Daniel in their grasp!

He, knowing the law has been signed, continues to pray as he always has.  He shows no fear, doesn’t change his daily pattern of prayer – praying three times a day with the windows open towards Jerusalem – and acts as if nothing has changed.

He shows no fear.

It’s not difficult to think of modern parallels.  A young man, fleeing from war in his own country, ends up in another country as a refugee, works hard, gets a good job, and is accused of ‘coming over here and stealing our jobs’, etc.

A person who dresses differently is attacked in the street.  Someone who practises a different faith from the majority – who may not practise their own faith, but resent people who are different – someone who practises a different faith from the majority, or dresses differently, or eats different foods, might be told to ‘Go back where you belong’, even if they are second or third generation immigrants, who belong here, or if they have nowhere safe to go back to.

Even though everyone who lives in this country is the descendent of an immigrant at some point in their past, we still have the tendency to be afraid of, or repulsed by, people who are different; and that difference might be colour, dress, sexuality, social class, nationality, faith, or almost anything else.

Daniel was doing a really good job as President, but was targeted because he was different.  And, in his case, he showed no fear – not an easy thing to do.

The Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, at the invitation of Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, has chaired a report on the persecution of Christians around the world – a draft of the findings was published about a week ago, and the full report is due out in the next month or so.  The findings are shocking.  They show that the persecution of Christians in some parts of the world has neared genocide levels.  The Bishop writes:

Evidence shows not only the geographic spread of anti-Christian persecution, but also its increasing severity.  In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN.

[https://www.theblaze.com/news/christians-most-widely-persecuted-religious-group-in-the-world-report-says]

It is not only Christians who are persecuted for their faith – something like 1/3 of the world’s population is so persecuted.  But Christians form about 80% of those who are persecuted.

Those who were here last week in the morning, or at Breamore, or at the Churches Together Lunch, may have heard something about the charity ‘Open Doors’ which tries to support Christians around the world who are persecuted.  Irene, who spoke to us, gave examples of their work in the Middle East, Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan.  We have their literature at the back of the Church.

Like Daniel, many Christians around the world who are persecuted, or discriminated against, because of their faith show no fear in the face of the difficulties they experience.  They continue to need our prayers and support.

The second Reading we heard earlier, from the end of St Mark’s Gospel, takes the opposite track.  What most commentators think is the original end of Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 16, verse 8, ends with the words, ‘ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ’, ‘For they were afraid’ – a rather odd ending in English, and even more so in Greek.

We heard the final events of Good Friday, when Joseph (of Arimathea) lays Jesus’ body in the tomb hewn out of the rock and rolls a stone in front of the tomb to seal it; and of early Easter morning when the women arrive at the tomb and find that same stone has been unexpectedly rolled away.

It’s always worth reading the versions from the different Gospels side by side – in this case, we have four versions to look at – and seeing the similarities and differences between the accounts.

Mark’s Gospel is all about the women.  They find the tomb is open, the body has gone, the young man – is he an angel, as in other Gospels, or is he a young man?  Is he Mark himself, as some have suggested?  The young man is sitting in the tomb, and he tells them not to be afraid, Jesus is risen, go and tell the Disciples.  And having received this amazing news, ‘They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid [Mk 16:8].

Unlike Daniel, and in different circumstances, they were full of fear.  And, we might think, quite justifiably!

Why does Mark end his Gospel like this?  What was he saying to his first readers and to us?  Think back to the beginning of the Gospel.  Mark 1:1 reads, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.  Mark sets out his stall at the very brisk start of this Gospel.

And now, at the very end of the Gospel, he seems to be saying, ‘So, that’s what I said at the beginning.  What do you make of it?  It’s over to you, now!  You’ve heard the story, you’ve got the evidence, is this ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’?

Now, clearly, the message did get out.  The other Disciples came to realise that Jesus was risen.  He appeared to them and to others, and the gift of the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and the Church was born, and people have borne witness to the risen Christ down all the ages since then, in easy places, and in the terrible places of persecution.

But Mark seems to be inviting us to make our choice. Fear or No Fear?  Will we be like the women, saying nothing about our faith because of fear; or will we be like Daniel, continuing to do what we know to be right, even in the face of difficulties?

None of us knows how we would react in the ‘time of trial’, but we can begin practising now.  Amen.