UPWARDS AND OUTWARDS – A Sermon preached on Trinity 10

Canon Gary Philbrick

St Mary the Virgin, Fordingbridge, 31/VII/16 Trinity 10  9.30a.m.

 Col 3:1-11, Lk 12:13-21

Lord, open your Word to our hearts and transform them, and our hearts to your Word to receive your generosity and love, and to share them with others.  AMEN.

+Tim Winton, 11/V/13 (adapted)

When Paul and those close to him were writing letters to the Churches of Asia Minor, such as that to the Colossians, they were clearly living in difficult times.

From disastrous beginnings – the death on the Cross of its founder and Messiah – and seemingly unpropitious leaders – the Twelve Apostles – the Church grew rapidly from the day of Pentecost, and is still growing rapidly today – more so than ever, we are told.

And we can sometimes look back to the days of the Early Church, really remarkable times, as if those were the days of perfection, and that, somehow, nothing has ever been quite as good since.

But when we read the Epistles of Paul, and those writing under his name, we get a different picture.  Yes, of course the Church was growing, and Paul was founding new Churches rapidly, and the theological reflection of the Church, the Doctrine, was developing.  All of these things were happening – and yet, they were clearly living in difficult times.

There were divisions in the Church – different groups were thinking in different ways.  We can see this in I Corinthians, or in Galatians.  And there were others who were finding it difficult to grow in Christ, to put their old lives behind them, to understand what this new Christian Faith meant.

They seem to be the people the writer to the Church at Colossae has in mind in the passage we heard from Colossians 3 as our first reading.

Firstly, he urges his hearers – the letters were probably read aloud in Church, just as they are today – he urges his hearers, ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’ [Col 3:2-3].  If you’re shooting an arrow, you’re told to keep your eye on the target – just in the same way, the writer is telling us to keep our eye on the final destination.  But he then goes on to give a fairly shocking list of the things that the Christians in Colossae – and we, as well – should be avoiding:

‘Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient’ [Col 3:5-6]…  But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another’ [Col 3:8-9], and so on.

Look upwards to God, he seems to be saying, and look outwards to those around you: ‘There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! [Col 3:11].

Upwards and outwards – just like the rich man in the Gospel Reading, who had done well economically, stored up all his goods in his barns, and was now going to ‘eat, drink and be merry’ [Lk 12:19], there is always the temptation to settle down into a comfortable life, forget about the rest of the world, shut our eyes and ears to the terrible suffering around us, near and far, and just get on with our own quiet existence.

Upwards and outwards – we’re always being urged in the Scriptures to lift our eyes from our own daily concerns, to think more widely, to look for the signs of the times, to see where God is at work in the world, and to add our efforts to cooperate with God’s coming Kingdom of justice and peace.

Upwards to God, outwards to our neighbour – ‘If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God’ [Col 3:1].

Now, there are lots of different ways we could run with this, but there are just two which I want to think about briefly.  One is near, and one is further away.

Firstly, as the Deanery of Christchurch, we’ve been looking at how we allocate the eleven stipendiary posts we have in the Deanery.  Stipendiary clergy are a very valuable – or expensive resource – depends on which way you look at it.  Amazingly, it costs about £65,000 a year to train, house, pay, support and pension each priest.

I’ve written about this in the insert to Partners this week – I’m sorry it is a bit small – I was expecting it to be on A4 paper, but didn’t explain that clearly.

Basically, what we’ve realised in our research is that the smaller rural parishes, mainly here in the North of the Deanery, are much better staffed than the larger urban parishes of the South.  The example I’ve given is the difference between a parish of 1,900 people with one priest, and another on 25,000, also with one priest.

As part of our looking upwards and outwards as a Deanery, and as I’ve written in Partners

Christ was always concerned for those on the margins – for the poor, the outcast, the excluded.  We feel that as a Deanery we can better express that concern in our own day by making sure that the more challenging and more populous areas of the Deanery are at least as well served by the Church as the more comfortable areas.

So we want to move one stipendiary post from the North to the south.  The PCC has discussed this, and is supportive of the idea, and all the other PCCs involved are also in discussion of the proposal.

As far as we are concerned, the main impact would be that the Parish of Hyde would become part of the Avon Valley Partnership, a fourth Parish in our Benefice, while the Churches of Ellingham and Harbridge would join Ringwood Parish, in a new Benefice with St Leonard’s and St Ive’s.  There would be one stipendiary priest in this Benefice, and two for the Benefice around Ringwood.

As I say, the PCC has voted to support the proposal, and we await the outcome of the other PCCs in the coming weeks.  I’m happy to discuss this further and to explain it more for anyone who would like to get a better understanding of what we are proposing, and I also have a few copies of the presentation I made to the PCCs.

Secondly, as we look upwards and outwards, and on another scale altogether, we’ve been appalled again this week by another terrible act of violence, perpetrated in the name of the utterly twisted interpretation of Islam espoused by so-called ISIS – this time of the Roman Catholic priest, Father Jacques Hamel, who, at 86, retired nearly a decade ago but continued to serve as an assistant priest at the Church in St Etienne-du-Rouvray, a suburb of Rouen.

In the wake of Nice, and the Paris bombings, and Charlie Hebdo, and now this, the people of France must be reeling.

What do we say and think in the face of such terrible violence, and how do we pray about it?

Firstly, we condemn all unjust violence, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist.  All the major world faiths are faiths of peace – Islam as much as Christianity – but all have members who misguidedly betray their faith by their use of violence to obtain their ultimately godless ends.

Secondly, if we believe in free, democratic societies, we have to be careful not to over-react; not to blame whole groups of people, the vast majority of whom do not support these acts of violence, and in fact are harmed by them – whether they be Muslims. Asylum seekers, immigrants, or whoever.

Thirdly, we cannot give in to fear – otherwise the people of violence have won.  I was surprised this week to receive a 77 page document called ‘Counter Terrorism Protective Security Advice for Places of Worship’ from The National Counter Terrorism Security Office, and I really did try to read it, but, I’m afraid, gave up about a third of the way through.  It had lots of good advice about reviewing our security measures, and risk planning, but unless we are going to install scanners at every Church door, I cannot see how we can protect ourselves from a lone madman with a gun or knife.

We cannot give in to fear.

Fourthly, we can make sure that we don’t add to the violence and hatred in the world, by our words or our actions.  And when we hear or see other people saying or doing things to stoke up violence or hatred, we can challenge those actions.

And fifthly, we can offer the whole situation to God in prayer.  God, in Christ, knows what it is like to be treated violently by those who persuade themselves that they are using violence for good ends.

In a few moments we shall share the Peace, a sign not only of our peace with each other, but also of our wish for peace for the whole world.

And then we shall share bread and wine, a sign not only of God’s presence with us here this morning, but also of his presence with all who suffer in any way.

Canon Giles Fraser, a Vicar in London, and well-known writer and broadcaster, writing this week about the murder of Father Jacques Hamel as he was celebrating the Eucharist, as we are doing this morning, says this

[https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2016/jul/28/father-jacques-hamel-died-as-a-priest-doing-what-priests-do]:

The sacrifice of the cross is the non-violent absorption of human violence.  The offer of love in return for hate, even to the point of death.  This is the horrendous price that peace is sometimes asked to pay.  This is what makes the Eucharistic sacrifice life-giving and not some historical death cult.  And this is the sacrifice that Father Jacques was celebrating as he died.  He died as a priest, doing what priests do.  May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Whether in our personal lives, putting away all ‘anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from our mouths’, or as we seek to minister more effectively to all of the Parishes of the Deanery, or as we work and pray for peace throughout the world, we are urged to look upwards to God and outwards to our neighbour, both near and far.  AMEN.

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