|Published on Mon, 29 Feb 2016 15:23|
|Lent 2016 Congregational Sermons|
May I speak in the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
As many of you know I have recently undergone my own “wilderness experience” as I was confined to lying on my side for three weeks to support my recovery following an emergency operation for a detached and torn retina at Moorfields hospital! If it’s not too self-indulgent can I take this opportunity to thank you for all for your prayers, love and support over the last month. It was all a bit of a shock and maybe a wake-up call too.
As Giles said last week Christmas is over and suddenly the season of Lent has arrived when the mood shifts in our worship, prayers and actions, as the church provides this time when we are invited to make both our own individual journeys and a collective church family journey towards Easter. In some small way we will be mirroring the period of 40 days and nights, when as we just heard in the Gospel, Jesus went voluntarily into the wilderness to prepare for his public ministry. It gives us a chance to take stock of our spiritual health if you like, as we listen more carefully to God’s call to us: firstly to get to know him better and secondly hear how we are to renew our vocations to better manifest his love in the world today.
I don’t know about you, but I actually quite like Lent. I like the challenge and discipline it offers and I usually find I start off quite well trying to set aside more time for prayer, following a course or set of readings each day and trying to attend an additional service. However I’m afraid my good intentions often peter out quickly and I find I run out of real sustained commitment. Interestingly this period of time also symbolically represents the 40 years when the Israelites journeyed through the desert in search of the Promised Land and they fouled up many times before finally getting there! So maybe that can be a small comfort for us?!
My recent enforced rest has enabled me to have a “mini retreat” and perhaps has provided for me a useful foretaste to Lent this year. It has taught me some important lessons about “patience” and “being still” and if I’m honest it has been good for me to have to really stop, reflect on my life and its priorities and to prepare for this reflection that Giles gave me on “what raises me up”. So what I have found out in this journey of self-discovery?
Firstly, stopping itself has been significant. My job as an education consultant for children with SEN and disabilities and an OFSTED inspector is very busy: visits to schools mostly in Surrey but to different parts of the country, delivering training, running conferences, writing reports and attending endless meetings are all the stuff of the job. I really enjoy my job, being on the go and feeling that I am making a difference to the equalities agenda by standing up for the disadvantaged pupils in our schools. When I’m in full flow each day is pretty packed and I’m “busy” from getting up to going to bed. However, what I’ve realised is that my life isn’t in balance. My prayer life is really pretty poor and patchy and if I’m honest I need to ask “have I left any room for God to be part of it?”
But taking time to be still and be in God’s presence is risky because it involves allowing space and silence to listen and hear what it is that God wants of me. There is a danger that I might not like what I find out! The “wilderness” or “desert space” takes us away from distractions, desires and daily comforts and exposes us for who we are and we have to face up to those things that challenge and tempt us.
Even Jesus himself, although God’s son, experienced “temptations” as we just heard in today’s Gospel from St Luke. At his weakest moment at the end of his 40 day fast, the devil approached him three times: firstly at ground level to turn the desert stones into bread and give in to the temptation of bodily desire in the form of food; secondly he was taken up higher to the mountain top where Jesus was shown “all the kingdoms of the world” and therefore the lure of power and wealth if he turned away from God to worship the devil and then finally high up again to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus was enticed into throwing himself off the pinnacle on the grounds that God would send his angels to catch and protect Him from any harm, ie putting God to the test. Each time the devil is strongly rebuked by Jesus who does not give in or relent.
We too, each have our own demons and our modern lives are full of things which either distract us or to which we can become addicted such as food, drink, Facebook, work, promotion, success. We get caught up in what we think we want or possibly escape from. So I guess I really need to ask myself what drives and motivates my work: is filling each day with work serving my desire to be successful and needed or fulfilling the vocation God has given me?
So how does this help me approach Lent this year. For me I know that I have to take time to be still, find an inner rhythm through prayer and opportunities maybe such as those provided by St John’s and St Andrew’s eg a weekday Mass, Tuesday Vespers, the Parish Retreat or maybe through an On Line App I have discovered called “Sacred Space” which helps me to contemplate for a few precious minutes each day and when I open a window a little to let Jesus in. In that space I know that I need to have the courage to confront my own brokenness and weaknesses and hear afresh the way “he” wants me to use my personal vocation. In that way I hope it will become less about me and more about Him. What I know is that the wilderness experience is not an easy one, but what is reassuring is that Jesus knows what it was like to be tempted and therefore understands our human condition.
So what is it that “raises me up”? For me it is the weekly encounter with Jesus at communion in the sacrifice of the Eucharist. For me it is the most profound and humbling experience whether in the simplicity of a quiet said Mass with two or three others or within a full sung parish celebration on a Sunday. You could say it has been a part of my DNA from early on in my life when I became an altar server at 8 years of age. I grew up as a Roman Catholic and my mother taught me the words of the Mass in Latin so that I could serve at the daily Mass before school.
And now nearly 50 years on it is still a privilege to support our worship alongside our priests here at St John’s, as a member of the serving team. As I stand at the altar I am struck afresh at each celebration the fact that Jesus offered up his own life for us voluntarily - not as a trick turning stones into bread. His body in the form of bread and His blood as wine, everyday earthly products, transformed at the Last Supper are his gift of himself to our brokenness and frailty as individuals, our community and our World. I find the moment of receiving communion incredibly emotional and have indeed been moved to tears at profound moments in my life. It is amazing to think that each hour of each and every day the Eucharist is offered somewhere around the world as our daily bread when we have an opportunity to meet Jesus in our different states of need, hurt and pain with the promise of His healing, love and mercy. I love that prayer of invitation just before communion when the priest says:
“Come to this table not because you must, but because you may
Not because you are strong but because you are weak
Come not because any goodness of your own gives you the right to come
But because you need mercy and help
Come because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more
Come because he loved you and gave himself for you
Come and meet the risen Christ for we are his Body”
Jesus gives us this special nourishment to restore us as individuals and as communities. In accepting His forgiveness for our weaknesses and failings, as we approach His table he asks us in turn to offer the sacrificial love he demonstrated for us at the Last Supper, by washing one another’s feet.
I have been reading “The Broken Body: Journey to Wholeness” by Jean Vanier who founded the L’Arche communities for those with disabilities. His vocation has been to live and work alongside some of the most broken and needy. His book speaks movingly of what he has learnt from them. I recommend it as a possible and very accessible Lenten read. I was inspired by much of what he has to say, but I particularly liked this reminder of how we should live in community:
“And in the Body of the Church
There are many different members.
We are joined together in a gentle covenant and communion:
No one is better than the other.
But each one is there for the others,
Shedding light one on another
Each one in need of the other”.
It made me appreciate even more why I love and value being a member of the community of St John’s and St Andrew’s. This really is a loving and supportive place which includes all: black/white, straight/gay, able bodied and disabled. Yes sometimes we get it wrong and people fall out with one another, but the starting point is that we value and respect our diversity and I hope that this is the type of community Jesus wants us to be. However, as we know, sadly there is still much division within and between our churches. The final word again from Jean Vanier:
“Unity will come
Not only around the treasure of the body of Jesus,
His broken, risen body
Hidden in the Eucharist
But also through the treasure of the broken body of Jesus in the poor.”
May we all experience the renewed love and mercy of Jesus once again as we walk with him on our individual and collective journeys this Lent and share the joy of His Resurrection at Easter.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.