1 Kings 19, 15-16,19-21. Galatians 5.1,13-25, Luke 9, 51-62
“You would have have thought I had got used to sermons by now! But when it came to it, it was surprisingly hard to know what to say on a Sunday like this. Fifty years gives much to ponder. So I have decided to take just two things, one personal, and the other about the church, and interweave them with the OT reading and the Gospel. After all, those are more important than anything I might say!”
That first reading from 2 Kings is alas, just the end of one of the most wonderful tales in the OT. Let me just fill in the story.
“Elijah is old and tired, and truthfully, fed up of being a prophet. It’s a calling that has caused him much anxiety and trouble and he wants it all to end. So he pours out his troubles to God. And God, listening, is kind to his old servant, and tells him to go to Damascus, and on his way find Elisha and call him to be his successor. I think Elijah hardly believes it. Because when he calls Elisha it’s simply to put his cloak on him and walk away. No conversation, no advice. Just the call and then off. And when Elisha, running after him, asks permission to go and say farewell to his family, he just shrugs his shoulders and more or less says “Whatever….do what you like.” If God wants Elisha as a prophet, God will have to sort that out. Besides, poor old Elijah has yet more work to do: politics to meddle in, Kings to anoint. The work of a prophet is never done. As for Elisha, he’s hooked! Nothing will put him off, not even grumpy old Elijah.”
If can remember anything about that ordination service fifty years ago it is simply that: The call, the passing over of the cloak, or it’s modern equivalent, the laying on of hands. I don’t remember the sermon, the readings or much else. But when the bishop and the surrounding clergy laid their hands on me to ordain me as a priest, what was passed over was something that has never really left me. A kind of irreducible core that has been responsible for shaping me, remaking me, and launching me into a process that will carry me beyond today. It all goes back that moment. Of course all the other things you do as a priest contribute to that. The immense privilege of standing at the altar, where it is impossible not to feel the whole, vast gathering of the people of God crowding round you. Or struggling to make scripture into a word preached. Or passing over the love of God in healing and forgiveness. All of that never ceases to be awesome. I am not at all surprised that towards the end of my first Curacy I cracked, needing time out to get sorted. I learned then that both vulnerability and resilience lie at the heart of this role.
I am profoundly grateful for that. And if it seems like one continuum in my life, it’s not really to be separated from the other, which is the person of Jesus. He is of course at the heart of everything, the one who accompanies. Just as he is always, for me, and the ever challenging figure of scripture. And today’s gospel is no exception. And it picks up the petition in the collect about the vocation and ministry of all God’s people.
My first parish was just down the road, St Luke’s, Cowley, along with St James’ and St Francis. It was a hugely successful parish. It had a paid staff of seven, plus a worker priest. There were three youth clubs, Mothers Union, Sunday schools and other things besides. Sunday Eucharist at St Luke’s was, wonderful, alive, with a large congregation. On Industrial Sunday it was packed with workers from the car factory. There was a mini car under the pulpit and car parts everywhere – like a harvest festival, only in steel and chrome. And we worked hard. Like Elijah, there was always work to get on with.
Those were the days when the church was still part of national and local life, self confident, strong for the most part. It seemed permanent. But now St Luke’s is closed to become the county archive. (I can never pass it without a pang of regret.). And in our diverse, postmodern society this once solid church has become just one faith community among many. The biggest still – but only just. And we scratch our heads about what we should do.
But listen to today’s gospel. The passage is really an echo of Elijah and Elisha. A man who wants to be a disciple asks permission to go to the funeral of his father first. Jesus doesn’t say, do what you like. He says: Leave the dead to bury the dead. It’s shocking enough now. But then It flew in the face of the most sacred obligations of Judaism – something that had to be done, even before praying. In this changed society, when so much of the status of the church has been taken from us, we need to remember that for Jesus religion and religious practice obscured the truth. The Temple, the law, even the family had become a sacred good in themselves. For Jesus that was wrong. It blinded people to the real presence of God.
Jesus longed for us to see that the whole created order, including ourselves, is embedded into the life of God. God is found, not in Churches and temples and religious rules, but in the ordinariness of life. God clothes the lilies of the field, he notes the sparrows fall. And because we so blind to this, Jesus taught a kind of self-forgetfulness which would put aside the demands of the ego self. If we do that, putting the self on our shoulders like a cross, we learn at last to open our eyes, be awake. Then we can discover our connectedness to each other, and the wonder of our own inner belonging to God. As Jesus knew, when we discover that, compassion flows from us. And the family Jesus is really concerned about in this gospel, is this family: the people who find themselves drawn into the mystery of God’s love.
If the church has lost its institutional place, then good. Perhaps that will let us see that this message of Jesus is real, and human – one we can all of us share, in simple words, with anyone who asks. Perhaps now we can discover that church matters, not because of its status or history, but because it’s the gathering place of us, brothers and sisters in God. The place where we come to share our joy at the gift of life, and be reminded that we are loved out of the very heart of the love that drives the sun and all the stars.
And not just that. Today was the day when I first presided at the Eucharist. And that has become for me utterly central to my understanding of the Christian Faith. Soon we will say: On the night before he died he had supper with his friends… On the night before he died ……… The church is a place that never allows us to forget the darkness that hovers behind the troubles of our world.
“Remember this bread and wine”, Jesus says. Fifty years have taught me that we are fed here. Fed with the love of God. And that compassion will always reach into the darkest places through us, longing to change them. My very simple prayer for the church is that we will be ready to answer to that love in ourselves. And if we did, so much would change.