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Sermon: Choral Evensong - 30 August 2015

Sunday 30th August 2015
Choral Evensong
Exodus 12: 21-27
Matthew 4: 23-5:20
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Flicking through today's Observer Magazine, the headline Holy Rollers emblazoned across a casino table barely registered. On turning the page, it was the photo that grabbed my attention. I flipped back and read the by-line:  Could gamblers do with a little help from God? Would a rich spiritual life improve a rugby team. And does faith have a place in the theatre?

The article was about chaplains - those who offer religious and spiritual care within an organizational setting. The  photograph was of my friend and colleague, Lindsay, dressed in clericals, standing in the Apollo Theatre. Her ministry there involves supporting all of those who ensure the 'show' goes on, backstage and front of house.  She is there when actors grapple with insecurity, ambition and disappointment; she's there when a member of the audience falls ill; she was there in the aftermath of the roof collapse. 

In Lindsay'swords: we need to go out and meet people where they are, where they literally are.

Chaplains serve in hospitals, schools, rugby clubs and with the armed forces; in theatres, dockyards, prisons and cruise-ships. They were present at the Olympic Park and serve at the heart of Canary Wharf. We have town centre chaplains in Guildford and pray regularly for Canon Andrew and his colleagues in the University chaplaincy.  

Perhaps chaplaincy helps us discern more clearly the calling of the whole people of God: we are all called to pay attention to our context - at home, at work, on holiday or whilst pursuing our interests. It's not so much about bringing God into a place, but discerning him it it. It's not about having an answer to everything or occupying a moral high ground; but it is about living and acting in such a way that reflects the love of God.

It is perhaps a relief to know that we are resourced for that pattern of life by God! We are called to more than social niceness or usefulness; but this doesn't meant that we are we called to fulfil a heroic ethic in our own strength.  This evening's readings help us get to the heart of the matter; to see our calling as rooted in Christ, to appreciate the gifts of others and receive them as blessings.

Matthew gives us a snap shot of Jesus's ministry: he has been teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. The sick, afflicted and marginalized have been brought to him; and in him they have found healing, forgiveness and restoration. Unsurprisingly his fame has spread; great crowds are following him.

At this point it feels as if a pause button has been pressed.   What does all this mean?

Jesus saw the crowds. He saw their demands, longing, curiosity and admiration.  He went up a mountain. He ascends to a place associated with the awesomeness of God's presence in cloud, thunder and lightning; a place of encounter and revelation.

He sat down with his disciples. He had called them by name; they had the courage to join him.  Just as Moses taught the people of Israel, so Jesus teaches his disciples. Jesus fulfils both the law and the prophets. We are drawn into that learning community, that we might be a holy people.  That learning is rooted in God.

For Moses this is born out of personal experience - despite protesting about his hesitant speech, he has the courage to go to Pharaoh time and time again.  His assurance rests in God's solidarity with an oppressed people giving him hope and determination.  For the people of Israel, holiness is rooted in obedience to God. As they journey towards the Promised Land they receive the law and commandments.

When they reach that place, they are to keep the Passover. Remembering recalls God's nature in the present; recollection shapes the present and future. It is rooted in worship.  In times of power and periods of exile, the prophets remind them of the signs of God's kingdom: justice, mercy and compassion. This is holiness.

For us too, the call to be a holy people is rooted in the nature of God. The words of the Sermon on the Mount are so familiar to us; so familiar that there's a risk that they sound legalistic, guilt inducing or impossible. However, because they're spoken by Jesus, we are to hear them not as hard sayings or platitudes. On his lips, blessings and promise reflects our character, our community and our God. These are words of hope and encouragement because Jesus fulfils the law and prophets in all righteousness.

The one who utters the words: blessed be the poor in spirit, the peacemaker, the meek, those who thirst for righteousness...  is non-other than the Son of God. The one who promises mercy, who fulfils our longings, who brings comfort and draws us into the kingdom as God's children is the one who is God with us.   If that is not true, the words are just ideals. If that is true, then by the power of God's Spirit we are caught up in a new reality.  For in Jesus, God reconciles the world to himself; in him there is forgiveness and peace. As Christians, this conviction is as central as fellowship and belonging. Worship the hub of all that: a place of encounter with God and with other; a place where we are refined by God's holiness.

Jesus addresses a group of disciples who've had the courage to say with him and to risk taking the time to pay attention. His words address us too, within our community. We cannot live up to the demands of discipleship alone. Not only do we rely on God, but we also depend on one another. To be blessed is to share in the love of God; to be blessed is to be a blessing to others. The range of those whom Jesus calls blessed indicates that the world is in the process of being transformed. God's Kingdom embraces all people and it is breaking in upon us.

The diversity of those Jesus calls blessed also reflects the diversity of the company we keep as God's pilgrim people. To be part of this learning community, to be disciples, is to depend on others. We depend on those who reveal to us the gifts of the kingdom in their humility, gentleness, mercy or passion for justice; we depend on those who help us seek consensus, who endure hardship or have the gift of joy. These gifts are the fruit of Spirit. At Guildford Cathedral, our dedication to the Holy Spirit focuses our attention. What gifts are being ignited? Where is wisdom being pursued? What relationships are being fostered? How is the Spirit leading us  in worship and leading us into the world.

Mercy, peace and righteousness describes the nature of life lived in relation to Jesus, in the power of his Spirit.   We are to be salt and light. We are to be visible; we are to be signs of hope. It is important that we gather as God's people in praise and prayer. In worship we encounter God's loving holiness. But we are also called to put ourselves into everyday life.  The chaplain, the volunteer, the manager, the scientist, the musician, the parent, the journalist, the friend and the scholar are all called to be present. For being present is everything: in conversation and acts of care, in helping people make connections or offering assurance.  By being present with others, we bless and receive blessings. The kingdom draws near.