Trinity XIX

It is hard to find something as universally loathed as paying taxes. We just don’t like doing it. We know we have to pay them, but we would prefer not to do so. At its root, celebrations of the Harvest have their roots in taxation. They were a way to thank God for the good things of creation, but also to thank the tribe of Levi which had no ancestral land, as their inheritance was the Lord their God. 

That’s all well and good, we should be grateful to God, and we should demonstrate it openly. Saying, ‘thank you’ to God is important, just like saying, ‘please’, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’. We communicate with God because we have a relationship with Him. We recognise that everything comes from Him as gift, and so we hope that our service is pleasing to the Lord, we don’t earn our justification through our works, but we are grateful.

This morning’s Gospel presents us with two very different figures: a Pharisee, a member of a religious élite and a tax-collector, one of the most loathed people in the Roman World. He was a traitor who had sold out, he had bought the right to collect taxes on behalf of the occupying power, the Romans. He would recoup the cost by charging a premium, on top of the taxes. He extorted his costs from people who had no choice but to pay him, and that’s how life was. No one likes to pay taxes, but when you know that the tax-collector is charging you more than you should be paying, you despise him even more. It isn’t fair, but the rights to collect taxes were auctioned off to the highest bidder, who was expected to recoup their costs. 

The Pharisee is a member of the religious élite, a student of the law, the power behind the synagogues, someone who keeps the Letter of the Law. Jesus himself was much more like a Pharisee than a tax collector. Jesus was educated and articulate about the scriptures. He, too, added his own oral interpretation to the laws that were written. The apostle Paul was a Pharisee. Are we Pharisees? What does Jesus want us to see of ourselves in this parable? If we return to the text, we’ll see that Luke tells us that Jesus directed this parable at ‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’. I’m ok. I’m a fine upstanding member of the community. I’m not like this or that person who has done something wrong. Each an every one of us does this. We want to find someone to look down on, to say I’m better than them. Well, here’s a home truth, WE ARE NOT! Because in God’s eyes, we are all sinners, we all fall short, and it doesn’t matter by how much. 

So, this story, though it may at first seem straight-forward, quickly raises many questions. The text obviously indicates that the behaviour of the tax collector is preferred over the behaviour of the Pharisee. That much is clear. But the question is: why? Why, exactly, is the one right and the other wrong? Is this a story about prayer and how we should pray? Is the Pharisee wrong in thanking God for what he considers the blessings in his life? Is he wrong to be glad that he is not a thief or an adulterer? Often when we characterize this story, we think of the Pharisee as standing in the centre of the room, trying to draw attention to himself, praying loudly. Based on those assumptions, we criticize the Pharisee for his showiness, his pride, his big ego. But the text only shows that he was standing by himself, praying, and that the tax collector was standing far off, praying as well. What is it that is misguided in the Pharisee? What is it that the tax collector has struck on? 

Nothing that the Pharisee says or does is in itself wrong. But where he goes off-course is in thinking that his list of righteous acts will earn him God’s favour. But he is wrong in two important ways: First, he is wrong because he acts as if without his list of good deeds he is not good enough to receive God’s grace. And secondly, he is wrong because he acts as if he is so great as to by his own actions make himself worthy of God’s grace. This Pharisee seems to get the picture wrong from both angles. And I think we might be able relate to this. We often feel like we don’t really deserve or aren’t truly worthy of God’s love, as though we need to earn it. On the other hand, our actions, and our attitudes about our actions sometimes suggest that we become too full of pride about how good we are, or at least about how much better we’re doing than some others of whom we know! We begin to act as though we just have to do enough good things and we’ll be fine, as if we have a quota of righteous acts to fulfil before God will be forced to let us in on the grace deal.

In truth, it’s the tax collector, standing far off, beating his breast, who’s got it right. He cries, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is enough — not too little: this tax collector admits his sin and his need for God. And not too much: this man doesn’t make any claims about himself, try to puff himself up, try to act as though he could possibly manage without God. 

Can we do the same? We forget that none of us are worthy of God’s grace — as the letter to the Romans tells us, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ But we also forget that none of us are excluded from God’s grace, unworthy though we are. And that means for the Pharisee and the tax collector, that our good deeds, and our ever-present sinful behaviour — neither of these privilege us or exclude us — or privilege or exclude our neighbours — from God’s grace. God asks us to live faithfully — not as a test to see if we deserve grace, but as a path of discipleship that will give us deeper satisfaction in our relationship with God.

The Eucharist, Christ’s gift of Himself to us, is not a reward which we earn, bur neither is it to be treated lightly, ignored, or downplayed. It is the most precious thing which we have. Far more precious than the silver or gold that we use to contain it. Because it is Jesus Christ, who gives Himself to us, so that He can transform us, so that we can grow together in love, more and more into His image and likeness. Christ comes to preach the Good News of the Kingdom, to call people to repent, to turn away from their sins. He heals the sick, the blind, the lame. He raises the dead to life. This is God’s love for us. What can we give God? Our love and our thanks. Have mercy upon us sinners, and help us to live faithfully so that we might sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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30th Sunday of Year B: Mark 10:46-52

Ours is a world which is characterised by FEAR: it is everywhere. We are afraid concerning Britain’s exit from the European Union, how our climate will change in the future, at the state of global politics and whether there will be another World War, a nuclear cataclysm, or a global pandemic. In short we know that all is not right with the world. We’re not entirely sure what to do about it, but we know that something is wrong. 

This situation is not unlike that faced by the people of Israel in exile, as addressed by the prophet Jeremiah. They have turned away from the Lord, and worshipped false gods and seen their land destroyed and captured, and been driven into exile in Babylon. And yet there is hope. God has not abandoned his people, but gives them a promise of healing, and of a bright future. The people will return weeping, sorry for their sins, and looking for God’s compassion and forgiveness. As then, so now. At this time of year we give thanks to God for another harvest being safely gathered in, we give thanks for all those who work, so that we might have food to eat, and things to drink. We also need to say sorry for the way in which we treat God’s Creation, the world in which we live: that we are not always good stewards, that we pollute the world, that we live in a world which produces enough food and yet people are hungry. We need to share what we have, so that all may be fed. This is how God wants us to live, and the greatest harvest we can offer is the harvest of our souls living lives of love, kindness and generosity. 

On the way out of Jericho in the Gospel this morning we have a deeply instructive picture. Bartimaeus is sitting by the roadside, a blind beggar, unable to work, a man who has to rely upon the charity of others to live. He hears a commotion, and asks who is coming by. He is told that it is Jesus of Nazareth, so he cries out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ In his words he does two things: he recognises who Jesus is, that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who will save Israel, the one spoken of by the prophets; and he asks for mercy, for God’s forgiveness and compassion. The people around him tell him to be quiet, he’s an embarrassment, he’s making a fuss! But he cries out all the more, he won’t be silent, he is not afraid to make a scene. Jesus asks them to call him. At which point the attitude of the crowd changes, and they tell Bartimaeus, ‘Cheer up, Get up, he’s calling you.’ Jesus asks Bartimaeus, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He asks to recover his sight, so Jesus says, ‘Go on your way, your faith has made you well.’ His sight is restored, and Bartimaeus follows Jesus along the road.

The first followers of Jesus were known as followers of the Way, (Acts 9:2) and this is what Bartimaeus becomes: he follows him on the way, both literally and metaphorically. He trusts Jesus, he has faith in Him, and he follows Him. In Mark’s Gospel the story of Bartimaeus acts as a bridge between the teaching and miracles of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and his time in Jerusalem which leads up to His death. He will enter Jerusalem on a donkey, as the Messiah, and will teach the people of Jerusalem how to follow God, fulfilling the hope and expectation of the prophets. Bartimaeus has faith which allows him to see, whereas the people of Jerusalem cannot see that Jesus is the Messiah, they are blind, whereas Bartimaeus can see, and follows Jesus on the Way. 

It is a way which will lead to Jesus’ death on the Cross, where He offers Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It is through this that God’s promise of healing first made through the prophets can be put into effect. Because God has done this we can be healed and restored, and we are able to say, ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’. We are able to celebrate a harvest, knowing that the greatest harvest we can offer God is the harvest of souls, like Bartimaeus, who have faith, and who follow Jesus on the Way. 

We all long to be on the path that leads to God, a God who saves us, who loves us, who heals and restores us. As it says in John’s Gospel ‘I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ If we walk with the eyes of faith we will be on a straight path, to the one who heals and restores humanity.

All the world needs to cry, ‘Jesus, son of God have mercy on me’. We need to know our need of God, we need to be healed and restored by him, like Bartimaeus. The world needs this to be fully alive in God, to turn away from sin and the ways of the world: living for others rather than ourselves, loving God and our neighbour. We should remember what Jesus said earlier in Mark’s Gospel (Mk 2:17) ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’ Christ came on our behalf, to bind up our wounds, to call us to follow Him.

The sin which mars God’s image in us, which separates us from God, which stops us from being what we can be, is borne by Jesus on the Cross. He binds our wounds by bearing the mark of nails, he heals us with the stream of his blood which flows on Calvary. By his stripes we are healed. We are healed by him so that we may see clearly and travel along the path of faith. It is a straight path on which we should not stumble, journeying with our wounded healer, to live out our faith in our lives as those healed and called by Christ and made part of his body, the church, healed by his sacraments, fed by his word and his Body and Blood, to be strengthened on our journey of faith, it is why we are here today, to be fed by him and with him, that our wounds may be healed.

We are all of us sinners in need of the love and mercy of him who bled for us on Calvary and who rose again for us, that we might share new life in him. Let us be fed by him, restored and healed by him, to have life in all its fullness. For we follow the one who heals us not out of blind obedience or fear but through joy, the joy of being free and truly alive in Christ. So let us live that life and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Harvest (John 6:27–35)

Meddai Iesu wrthynt, ‘Myfi yw’r bara bywyd.’ 

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life.’ 

In the second chapter of the Book of Genesis we read that, ‘the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.’ Thus, to work the land is to engage in something which takes us back to the very beginnings of humanity. It is the most ancient profession and indeed an honourable one. The practice of coming together to offer our praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God for the goodness of creation and a harvest safely gathered in is, likewise, an ancient and honourable thing. Just as the Ancient Israelites gave thanks for their harvest in the promised land, so do we. We should, as part of our worship of God offer him the best of all that we have as a response to a loving and generous God. Mae popeth yn rhodd gan Dduw All things are a gift from God, it is right that we are thankful to God who created all things.

But while this is important, we need to be careful. Is what we are engaged in a bit of cosy folk religion, a matter of duty, an excuse to be seen, or perhaps something more? When this church was built, its congregation, who lived on and worked the land would gather on the 1st August for Lammas, or Loaf-Mass to give thanks for a successful grain harvest. With the renewal of the Church in the mid nineteenth century the idea of a harvest celebration became popular once again. This is a good thing, the world is better when filled with grateful, loving people.

But as well as giving thanks to God, we also need to be shocked, challenged, and changed by the example and teaching of Jesus in the Gospel. Are we as a church and a society, content simply to be fed, or is God asking more of us. Our faith is not something we can simply keep safe in a box, to put on like a hat for church on Sunday – it needs to be more than that. Our faith must form all that we are, and all that we do, and say, and think. Our belief in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ needs to form the very ground of our being. This faith, like a plant, needs to be tended, watered, and protected from weeds. It needs to be nourished, encouraged, and taught, and shared with others.

The crowd in the Gospel story have not grasped the meaning and importance of their being fed. They have not understood its spiritual meaning but are rather interested in the prospect of another free meal. Jesus, however, feeds them as a sign of their heavenly food, the bread of eternal life. Rather than working for the food that perishes we too need to work for the bread of life, which is Christ himself. We need to meet at the Lord’s table to be fed by his word and his very self, his body and blood under the forms of bread and wine. We need to have our bread for the journey for our life of faith together. God is the sustenance of life itself, of our very existence, for those who trust in him, and he will fill our every need, by giving us that which we cannot work for ourselves, and for which we hunger most. That is why a celebration of Harvest is best done within the context of a Eucharist, a Thanksgiving to God for Who and What He is, and What HE does for us.

Our desire is surely for a world where none are hungry, where all are loved and cared for. This requires our co-operation with the will of God, and our trust in him. By our being fed by his word and the Eucharist our faith will strengthened and renewed. Our lives can be transfigured, enabling us to transform the world around us, conforming it to the will of God. We can only do this through being nourished body and soul by God – through our participation in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper – fed by God, with God, for God’s work in the world. When we eat normal food it becomes what we are. But here when we eat, we become what it is, we a re transformed more and more into the God who loves us and saves us. Only this can satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst, and give us true peace, and hasten the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Whilst we are thankful, we also need to be mindful that the kingdom of God is something happening right here and right now, and it has the power to transform the world around us, starting with us here today: the true harvest for the Church is the harvest of souls, of those who love Jesus Christ and are nourished by Him and with Him. We are grateful for all that we are, and are given by God, which makes us want to share it with others. It may not look it, but it is a radically different way of life. If we take Jesus seriously when He says, ‘Myfi yw’r bara bywyd’ ‘I am the bread of life’ then we eat Him so that we might share in His life, and share that life with others. This is our faith as Christians, and it provides us with the hope that we may live with Him forever.

We share His life with others so that they may enter into the joy of the Lord, and receive the precious gift of new life in Christ. The gift is free but it comes with the obligation to share it with others. We do this willingly because it is not a hardship, or an imposition, but rather a joy, a gift which so precious that not to share it would be selfish and wrong.

So let us share it with the world so that it may believe and give glory to God the Father God the Son of God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed this is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power now and for ever

A Harvest Sermon

It is good to celebrate Harvest because it is a celebration of what the Church is all about.
If you were about to go to a foreign country the first words you would learn would probably be ‘Please, Thank you, and I’m sorry’ ‘os gwelwch yn dda, diolch, mae’n ddrwg gen i’ along with greetings like Hello and How are you? They’re basics of conversation, they help us to be understood, they make people willing to listen to us, because to use them is polite, not to use them is impolite.
We teach them to our children and encourage them to use them. And in the same way theta they’re useful in conversation when we pray, when we talk to God, and listen to Him, as we do in Church and in our lives we need to use these words in prayer. In our prayer we ask God for things, we say thank you to God for things, and we say sorry for what we’ve done wrong or haven’t done. It is important that our prayers just like our every day conversation are appropriate and polite – it helps form our character, and helps us to live out our faith.
Harvest is mostly about saying thank you to God, for the gifts of his creation, for the food we eat, for all that the earth provides As well as recognising the gift we realise that it is also our duty to share what we are given with the hungry, the poor and the need, so that all may be fed – it is no good living in a world where people go hungry – it produces enough food so that everyone can have enough to eat, so that everyone can say thank you to God for the gifts of his creation. It is up to us as the church to ensure that we live out the generosity which we receive from God in Our Lives.
This caring sharing vision of the world is what the prophet Isaiah envisions in his vision of the Kingdom of the Messiah – That’s here and now, it’s not some future hope, but rather it’s how we’re meant to be right here and now.
The celebration of harvest is not a new thing – it goes back to the central festivals of Judaism – Jesus gave thanks for the harvest – and so should we, because in giving thanks we recognise the greatness of God’s generosity, we recognise our own dependence upon God and each other, and we help to ensure a culture of thankfulness.
        In the feeding stories in the Gospels, one of which follows our second reading, Jesus thanks God and blesses the offerings of food. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist bread and wine are taken, blessed shared and given so that we the Church can carry on doing exactly what Jesus did, not because it’s nice or fuzzy or nostalgic but because he tells us to do it, and we listen to him. Christ alone can satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst – only when we are fed by Him, the living bread which came down from heaven can we have eternal life in Him.
As the Prophet Isaiah says: ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ We see this most fully in God’s gift of His Son, to show humanity how to live and to give Himself to die and be born again, to take away our sins and to restore our relationship with God and each other. It is an act of supreme love and generosity – giving people something which they do not deserve so that they may be transformed by it into the loving generous people God longs for us to be.
The miraculous feedings and the Eucharist point to the Cross where Christ gives himself for love of us- our response should be one of generosity and service, because it matters. The Church is decorated with the fruits of the Harvest through the generosity and effort of people who want to put their faith into action – we are grateful that they have done so much to help us celebrate – to help us to say thank you to God, to recognise all that we have to be thankful for. In our saying thanks to God, let our thankfulness not be something we do here once, but rather let it form our lives so that we may be thankful at all times and in all places. May we be grateful people, loving people, sharing people, whose faith shines through all that we are or say or do, nourished by the Word of God, by the sacraments of the Church so that we may filled with God’s love and transformed by His Grace, that we too may be an offering to God, sharing our love and our faith with the world around us, putting it into practice so that it too may reap a great harvest, a harvest of souls, to the Glory of God.
Let us work to prepare for a harvest of love, of generosity, and forgiveness, sowing seeds of love in the soil of our lives, and those of others, confident in the promises of God that He may reap the harvest, that the world may be transformed to sing his praise, to rejoice in his love, and to share it with others.

 Here is the proclamation of the covenant faithfulness of God, which finds its fulfilment in Christ, As we are mindful of this we give thanks to God and let that thankfulness become a defining characteristic of our lives, overflowing into all that we are or think or do, Thus we live out our faith, we live life in all its fullness and encourage others so to do so that they may believe and give Glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.