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Sermon: Harvest Festival Eucharist with Baptism

Sunday 11th October 2015
Cathedral Eucharist
Hebrews 4: 12-16
Psalm 91: 1-9
Mark 10: 17-31
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Each month The Guardian runs a column entitled 'I gave it all up to...'. A man in  his 50s gave it all up... to cycle the world with his dog. His business was unfulfilling so he sold his possessions, loaded his panniers with clothes, a tent, cooking utensils and hasn't stopped since. He feels physically and mentally lighter.

A young couple, gave it all up... to live off the land. Having quit steady jobs, they gave away their stuff. Now they look after three acres of land in west Cork rearing goats, growing vegetables and hosting a stream of B&B guests. They think they're happier facing the challenges of running a small holding. 

We might question the sustainability of the alternative lifestyles of eccentrics doing what they want.  Yet, as we gather celebrate Gabriel's baptism, we all reflect on what we give up to follow Christ. What  difference does it make to put the love of God at the centre of our lives?

Gabriel  will be baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The cross will be traced on his forehead, a mark of God's love in dying and rising for us. Today his parents and godparents speak for him; we promise to support him. In our worship, we gather to pay attention to God - to hear words of forgiveness, love, peace and blessing. Then we will be dismissed, sent out, scattered in the world. With Gabriel we learn to love and serve as members of the body of Christ, walking together in the light of Christ. 

This is the context in which we think about what we give up: not because we're bored of a conventional lifestyle but because we are called into relationship with God. Putting God at the centre shapes our lives from the major decisions to the mundane interactions. Todays readings invite us to respond to a love that is gratuitous. In creating, restoring and sustaining us, God loves lavishly, faithfully, abundantly, generously. And freely.  To place such love at the heart of our lives changes us and frees us to give.

At a human level commitment to others constrain us: loyalty to friends, faithfulness to a spouse, the demands of caring for infants or elderly relatives.  We are also freed to be ourselves. There is reciprocity in encouragement, care, joy and intimacy. Commitment is costly. We renegotiate how we spend our money and time.  We feel betrayed when that loving trust is undermined.

Peter's exclamation is typically honest: the disciples gave it all up to follow Jesus. Is he doing a cost benefit analysis of his decision?  Or is he being a little bit smug about their radical commitment?  Whatever's running through his mind, it's sparked by Jesus' exchange with the young man and comments about riches.

There is an urgency about the rich young man: his sought after God, sensing some kind of lack in his life. He longs to hear the good news. Jesus begins with a challenge about keeping the commandments - listing those relating to our dealings with others. The man's life seems to stand up to that moral scrutiny; but more is demanded of him.  Jesus looks at him with the fullness of the love of God - full of compassion and grace.  It's the sort of love that invites us into a deep relationship with God. And we know that such depth and intimacy demands our all.

Following Jesus, being a disciple, is more than following a set of religious rules. It's the risky business of letting God shape all our thoughts, actions and desires.  Placing our trust in wealth and possessions is part of creaturely condition; our desires get misdirected. Concerns about material security - from the housing ladder to our supermarket shop - reflect a deeper anxiety about our 'worth'.  It can be hard to disentangle ourselves from that web of 'stuff'. Indeed it's impossible for us, but not for God.

The God who took the risk of pouring out his love into creation knows that we get caught up in stuff. He knows our separation from him and our fragmented lives, in shorthand our sin. And he choses to reach out to us in the messiness of that.  We received the gift the law to love God and our neighbour. His prophets called us back to God's ways of justice and mercy. But the ultimate good news  is that God chose to be radically present with us in his Son.

Jesus speaks to us and holds us in his gaze. He sees us as we are; and he loves us. His word continues to be living and active amongst us. As we share in bread, wine and blessing, as we pour out water and light candles, we ask God to forgive us - to liberate us from all that prevents us from following him wholeheartedly.  The letter to the Hebrews reminds that nothing is left hidden from God - our inner thoughts and unconscious intention. The relief - and release - is not only does God know everything about us, but in Jesus there is nothing he has not faced.  He is God with us: there is no temptation, hurt or loss that he hasn't faced. God's love is made perfect in our human weakness.  It is a love that captivates us and changes us.  His holiness transforms us. We become his holy people.

Therefore we can have every confidence to that we will find grace and mercy in our time of need - for in love his Spirit is continually poured out upon us. We rejoice today that Gabriel is being drawn into the fullness of life promised by God: in his infant vulnerability and dependency; in his openness to learning, exploring and delighting in the world. He will need our encouragement as he embarks on a life of responding day by day to the good news of God's forgiving, generous, reconciling and creative love.

Perhaps as we welcome him, we can look at ourselves afresh and determine what it is that entangles us and separates us from God?  Does what we possess, possess us?  As we celebrate harvest, we have the opportunity to reflect God's generosity by giving to those in need. As a Cathedral, our giving is in the pursuit of wisdom and the fostering relationships: rooted in worship we make space for debate about liberty or for 500 sixth-formers to participate in Question Time. Might those things be signs of the Kingdom?

If so, what does our discipleship ask us to give up or our cathedral commit to? Our financial giving isn't a membership fee, it isn't solely about obedience to a discipline of tithing. It's more than that. Our giving is a freewill offering, an act of thanksgiving, a response to the vision of God's Kingdom. Giving it all away is an act of trust; reflecting our expression of God's purposes for us. We are to be a lively sacrifice.  In giving our all, we share in God's mission of blessing the world.