Sunday 1 July 2018
2 Cor 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you were here last week you will know that I am celebrating my 10th year of ordained ministry, and thank you very much for the champagne, it was very much appreciated.
I spent yesterday afternoon at St Martins in the Fields in London with a good number of friends that I trained with for ordination and it was good to be reminded how diverse are those called into ministry and how different are the ministries into which we are called. If you knew the number of vicars that I know you would realise that there simply is no such thing as a typical vicar, we are all as different as everyone else because, of course, vicars don’t arrive out of nowhere, each of us starts out as responding to the call of God perhaps first to become Christians and, later, to be ordained to particular roles within God’s church.
A substantial part of my call first into faith and then into ministry was focused on the Eucharist. Although I first encountered Jesus in the pages of the Bible I knew on an almost instinctive level that I wished to encounter him more deeply by receiving Holy Communion, which led me to be confirmed. But I also knew that he called me on not just to receive communion but to celebrate and distribute communion. And I can tell you, that after 9 years of priestly ministry (because I was a deacon for the first year as Nicky is now) that the celebration of the Eucharist never gets old. Well, it is always old but it is also always new. Someone wiser than me said that each celebration of communion should be as special as if it were the first time, the last time and the only time. Because, of course, Jesus our Great High Priest, only celebrated the Last Supper once and, as his priests, we enter into the place of Christ when we celebrate which means that each Eucharist is the only Eucharist, even if we might do several in one day.
So we must never be complacent, or dismissive, or mechanical or negligent about this celebration. Yes we can pray and encounter God in the woods or the hills or even in the traffic jams but here, when his church gathers together, when we are forgiven our sins, when we hear God’s word, when we sing his praises and when we encounter Jesus in bread and wine we are doing something truly special – heaven bows down to Earth in order to lift Earth up to heaven.
When I read through the lessons for today I was reminded deeply of one of the lines of the Eucharistic prayer which I say week by week:
“when your kingdom comes
and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.”
The kingdom of heaven does not mean, in this context, where we go when we die. It means the values and the rule of God on Earth. The values of the Kingdom of heaven are ‘justice and mercy across the whole earth.’ Are justice and mercy values which seem to prevail in the world at the moment? Is it just that people in the West struggle to control obesity whilst people we know in Tanzania are dependent on the rain to avoid starvation? Is it merciful that those fleeing from poverty and war should be demonized and treated as less than fully human by our governments? If feels to me at the moment that the world is going through a phase of becoming less just and less merciful. The gap between the rich and poor in our society becomes ever greater, more of the world’s wealth is controlled by ever fewer people and, somehow, racism is creeping back into our civic life, whether that is anti-Semitism or the ‘hostile immigration environment’ here and in America and even in Italy. No one can fail to have been moved by the sight of children being separated from their parents by the US authorities or by the stories of boatloads of refugees being refused entry by the new Italian government.
Justice and mercy seem to be in ever shorter supply at the moment.
It may be worthwhile thinking briefly about what justice and mercy are. When they trip off my tongue and into your ear it is easy to assume that they are merely synonyms. Actually they are quite different, although they are complementary.
Justice, to me, implies equality and equity. In a legal context it may mean that the guilty get their just desserts and the innocent go free, and that all are treated without favouritism. Those who feel innocent and are convinced of the guilt of other people are often most keen on justice.
Mercy is actually quite different. We appeal for mercy not when we feel innocent but when we feel guilty. When we look at ourselves, our actions, our motivations and our lives honestly then we ought to realise that most of us need more mercy than we need justice. The Kyrie elesion does not ask God to do justice, it asks God to have mercy on us.
The world needs justice but we need mercy.
In our first reading this morning Paul is writing to the church in Corinth and is asking them to help support the church in Jerusalem. Interestingly these churches were very different communities – the Corinthians were largely Gentile converts from Paganism and Corinth was quite a wealthy, perhaps Bacchanalian sort of place. The church in Jerusalem was largely the Jewish followers of Jesus, under Roman occupation and soon to face destruction. There was little love lost between the church leaders – we are told that they had big disagreements about whether Gentile converts to the faith had to follow Jewish customs in relation to food and circumcision and possibly a certain suspicion of Paul as a former persecutor of the fledgling church. But, and this is the important thing, despite their substantial differences in background, culture and language Paul is urging the church in Corinth to do all it can to give generously to support their brothers and sisters in Christ in Jerusalem. Rather than focussing on what made them different from one another Paul urges them to remember that what they have in common in Christ is more important and that Christ gave up everything for us, so surely we can give up something for one another. Justice and mercy. Treating each other with equity and drawing a veil over perceived shortcomings.
And our second reading was the wonderful story of the combined healing of Jairus’ 12 year old daughter and the women with the bleeding which had lasted for 12 years. I preached on this story in detail only 3 years ago, so I shan’t repeat myself now, but one of the things which I love about the scriptures is that no matter how closely you study them and no matter how many times you return to them there are always new layers of meaning to be found. The thing which really struck me on this occasion was the use of the word ‘daughter’. As we heard this morning Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, was desperate for Jesus to come to his house because his young daughter was ill and about to die. As a church leader and father of a daughter I can fully relate to him on this one. Children are precious and if they are ill there is nothing that a parent won’t do to help them, even if it means begging someone who may not be completely kosher.
On the way to help this young daughter we heard how the lady with the continual bleeding reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe and was healed. This was probably an older woman and also probably living as something of a social outcast. She had spent all her money to no avail on physicians and she was also perpetually unclean in the eyes of right thinking members of that society. But, like Jairus, she was desparate and Jesus was her only hope.
What was the first word out of Jesus’ mouth when she owned up to touching him? ‘Daughter’. Jairus’ daughter was a much loved little girl but Jesus recognises this older women as also being a daughter – much loved by God. Jesus restored her not only by healing her physically but also by restoring her in relationship with the world – she was not a nameless and elderly outcast – she should know herself and be known by others as a daughter of God. God does not define us by our age, our health or our social standing but by our relationship to him, and when we know ourselves to be his children, then we can be whole.
Although Jesus was under pressure to heal the little girl nonetheless he stopped and spoke to the older women and, in doing so, he healed her physically and restored her in relationship to God and the world. He did not show favouritism to either but he treated them equally with justice and with mercy.
The world in which we live is not, on the whole, governed by the values of the kingdom of heaven. Justice and mercy are not, yet, seen in all the world and it may even feel like the world is moving in the wrong direction. But each of us still has a choice about how we live and, most importantly, how we relate to God and to those around us. Do we horde our wealth and demonize the outcasts, as the world encourages us to do, or do we seek to live by the values of the kingdom of heaven in the here and now? This is not a once in a lifetime choice, but a moment by moment decision everytime we are faced with injustice and hard-heartedness.
Let us show the world that there is another way – there is the way of Jesus – and when we follow the way of Jesus then, surely, justice and mercy will be seen in all the world.