A sermon preached at St James’ Cherhill
8 July 2018, Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Ezekiel 2.1-5 & Mark 6.1-13
If we’re absolutely honest, I don’t think it’s hard to imagine the scene of today’s Gospel reading happening. For a moment, think back to the place where you have grown up. For some of you that may be this village, or nearby. For others it may be further away. Many of the children we went to school with, we probably haven’t seen for a while. Maybe we can think of one or two of them, who we would be surprised to see speak and teach in public with authority. So, yes, in some ways, we would probably be like one of the people in the synagogue, surprised to see someone come back and teach.
And again, if we’re honest, sometimes we also judge people by their families. Well-educated people are often able to offer their children a good education, and we can also think of families where education is not a priority, and children quickly fall behind in school, and their opportunities in later life become more limited.
In this morning’s reading, we see how Jesus both acknowledges and challenges our stereotypes. He acknowledges our lack of faith and imagination in the potential of others, and thereby our own potential and what God can do. So that is the first question I’d like to briefly explore this morning: when have we underestimated what we can do, what others can do and thereby what God can do? And to push it a little further, it is not just about what we can do, but who we can be when we believe.
For some reason or other – and if you would know me a little better, it’s probably clear why – when I was growing up, I thought that I wasn’t very good in relating to other people. Maybe that was one of the reasons I chose to study physics in the first place: because as a physicist you can potentially just work on your own, and your lack of social skills are attributed to your intelligence!
However, over the last few years, I have come to realise that there are times in which I can relate to people. I can listen rather well, and sometimes even say the right thing, or not say the wrong thing. This is not so much about what I can or cannot do, but it is about a belief in who I can be. And at the very root of it is that I have come to trust that I am a beloved child of God, and the knowledge that I am deeply loved means that I can love others too.
I think it’s true for many if not all of us, that as we grow older, we learn things about ourselves that we didn’t know before. And I believe that as we grow in our faith, in our relationship with God, our understanding of ourselves as children of God grows too. With that growth in faith comes a confidence, that no matter what, we have been created in God’s image, and that is what makes us who we are. That is our beginning and our end, and it is from there that we find our being and our strength.
But for that, we need to believe. We need to continue to challenge our perception of ourselves and others as limited by our environment, upbringing and the mistakes we make. That’s why it is so important that every time we come to worship, we first confess our sins. First we acknowledge that we have gone wrong and fallen short, but at the same time the belief that we can do better, strengthened and guided by God.
This then brings us to the second main theme in today’s reading, and that is the one of prophethood, which also links to the reading from the prophet Ezekiel. Both in that reading and in the Gospel reading, we hear how people do not want to listen to what is spoken by the prophet. In other words, people are reluctant to hear the truth.
This also is true today as much as it was at any time: often the truth is hard to hear. And one can wonder, is it easier to accept a hard truth from someone you know well or from a complete stranger? Those of you who are parents will probably have come across situations where your children were much better behaved when there were other adults around.
However, on the other hand, there are some things we will only accept from good friends or family; from people we trust. But it can be much harder to speak the truth if you trust and love people, because you know far better what the impact will be; because you know they may be hurt by hearing the truth. In that sense, it’s easier for a stranger to say something, than for a person whom you know well.
A good example is the practice of confession, which is still mainstrain in the Roman Catholic tradition, and offered in many Anglican churches. I have found it a helpful practice to not just confess my sins in prayer, directly to God, but in the presence of another person. One of the things why it is so helpful, I think, is precisely because it is very hard: it is not easy to articulate the worst things you have done or thought in front of another person, especially when it is someone you know.
But I have found it extremely liberating to do so, because it forces you to be truthful about yourself. And then you realise that whatever you have done can be redeemed, although you may have to live with the consequences. If we really want to be truthful people, the first step is to be truthful about and to ourselves.
In a way, it brings us back to the earlier point about having confidence in who we are. If this is going to be a confidence without an arrogance, at the heart of our self-knowledge is the ability to truthfully admit we have gone wrong and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. When we do this, we realise that whatever we have done, God’s forgiveness and love are everlasting, and accessible for ‘all those who truly repent’.
I would like to suggest that the more we become rooted in this pattern of faith and forgiveness, we are able to speak truthfully, not only about ourselves, but also to others, both in personal relationships as well as having a voice in society at large. This is true both for us as individuals, but maybe even more pertinent for the Church at large.
Coming back to the Gospel reading, we do read that Jesus cured a few sick people: there were some whose faith and imagination were big enough to see who Jesus was, to accept the truth that was in front of them.
Maybe we can be or become like them. Ready to listen, confident in who we are; not afraid to see both our gifts and our flaws. And so also confident to not only hear the truth when we need to, but also to speak when we have to. Not out of self-righteousness, but out of a trust that we are part of God’s story, and have our role to play.