Sermon by Haydon Wilcox 18.07.2021

Sermon by Haydon Wilcox

18th July 2021

 

An elderly preacher was searching his wardrobe for a short-sleeved shirt before church one Sunday morning. In the back of the wardrobe, he found a small box containing 3 eggs and a jar of 100 £1 coins

 

He called his wife into the bedroom to ask her about the box and its contents. Embarrassed, she admitted having hidden the box for the entire 30 years of marriage. Disappointed and hurt, the preacher asked her “why?”

 

The wife replied that she hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings. He asked how the box could have hurt his feelings. She said that every time during their marriage that he delivered a poor sermon, she placed an egg into the box.

 

Her husband felt that 3 poor sermons in 30 years was certainly nothing to feel bad about, so he asked what about the jar containing 100 £1 coins.

 

She replied, “Each time I got a dozen eggs, I sold them to the neighbour for £1!

 

Today’s gospel reading evoked for me three important elements of what it means to be human. 

 

First let’s set the scene.  The disciples had been sent out as pairs as part of a mission in the region of Galilee. Though in itself a local mission, the knowledge of Jesus had already gone far beyond Galilee, for we are told that even King Herod had heard of Jesus and his teaching.

 

Herod apparently enjoyed listening to the teaching of religious people.  Initially he’d enjoyed listening to the teaching of John the Baptist, until John criticised him and then Herod imprisoned John and later had him killed.

The murder of John was recorded just before that of today’s gospel reading and its purpose infers the destiny of Jesus – one of imprisonment and death.

 

The disciples return to Jesus, and they’ve obviously had a demanding time and here is where we learn of the first insight about being human. For on hearing all that they’d done he encourages the disciples to depart to a deserted place by themselves and rest, especially because many people were coming, and they didn’t even have time to eat.  So, they went by boat to a deserted place.  Activity and work are important, but it is equally necessary that we take time out to rest, eat, and reflect.

 

With Sunday now being like every other day; people working so much from home and everyone trying to cram so much activity into a day, its not surprising that we are seeing the challenges upon our physical and mental health.  We need to build leisure, time to eat nutritious food and to practise the art of reflection. We need rest from the pressure, to find renewed strength and to learn from the activities that often dominates our life.  We are no use to anyone and especially to ourselves if we are endlessly busy. It’s important that, as a church we mirror that balance by encouraging our members to take time out to reflect and to live healthy lifestyles and not always to be on the go.  It’s something that I didn’t model well when I was a parish priest – people got exhausted just looking at my diary!  Now I am a great promoter of quiet days, retreats and space to stop, reflect and be mindful.

 

The next things that happened to Jesus and his disciples, is that despite all their good intentions, many people followed them around the lake and some even got to the place they were intending to reach, before they did.  The scriptures say that Jesus had compassion on them as they seemed like sheep without a shepherd. 

So, he started to teach them. In other words, they were lost, desperate to understand, looking for something, filled with questions and with so many needs.

 

That’s the second element of our human condition, that people are searching for meaning.  People want to understand the meaning of life and their purpose. They have so many questions but often few people that they can make themselves vulnerable to.  The human consciousness reaches out to ask, ‘Why am I here?’

 

‘What am I meant to do with my life?’ ‘Is there more than this?’ ‘Is death the end?’ ‘How do I get rid of the burdens I carry?’  ‘Will I ever find love?’  ‘Why is there so much suffering?’ ‘Is there more than this?’ Does God exist?’ These and many more are the questions that people ask and the Church was the place where people did and should find help in resolving such great questions.

 

Being like sheep without a shepherd is time when we are vulnerable.  When we don’t know who to trust. It’s potentially a time when we could get lost or make decisions that later we’d regret.  It’s a time when we can feel abandoned or uncertain whether in being alone, we can cope.  Jesus’ response is to teach about the kingdom of God and to implant a message of hope and the purposes of God in our life.

 

Traditionally the church engaged with people at the rites of passage – at birth, the coming of age, in human intimacy, in the choice of profession, in success, in failure and in death. Sacramentally we met people in baptism, confirmation, marriage, confession, communion, anointing and the administration of the last rites. But now of course how many do we as a church encounter? Where do people now go to find such help? For the vast majority in society the Church is the last place that people would seek to find answers to their deepest questions.

 

Our gospel reading today misses out the next part of the story because after the teaching that Jesus gives the crowd, now of over 5,000, he feeds them. It also omits the story of Jesus walking on the water.

 

The text resumes with people bringing the sick, as they were desperate for Jesus to heal them.

 

Here of course is the third and final expression of our human condition – the dilemma of suffering.  So much of my ministry is being with people in the desperation of their suffering.  This week I have been with the sick, the dying, those who hurt and those who are not at peace.  There is so much suffering in this world and only when we personally suffer, are we truly connected with the anguish that others endure.  Suffering leaves us so exposed and helpless.  It breaks our dreams and destroys our expectations.  Once we felt strong and in control but suffering strips us and makes us realise how fragile we are and how helpless and alone we are.  Jesus doesn’t avoid this pain but reaches out to heal and to have compassion for the afflicted.

 

One of the great vocations of the church is that we should do this – it’s called pastoral care.  Yet sadly it’s a diminishing feature of the church’s ministry.  I wonder whether we are developing the newly ordained ministers of the church to be leaders, rather than pastors.  Is their formation more about strategic thinking rather than the meeting of human need.  In my cynical times I question whether we spend more time talking about new approaches to grow the church and nurture faith, rather than being light bearers to those who are suffering. 

 

So, remember these three human conditions – the need to rest and reflect, the need to find answers to our questions, purpose for our lives, and the need to meet others in their suffering and bring them healing and hope.

 

I’m chaplain to the religious order of St. Peter’s, Woking.  It was a community at its peak of over 150 Nuns, who nursed the sick in homes of healing around the southeast of England.  They were midwives, working in the poorest areas.  They looked after abandoned girls and trained them for service. They provided safe homes for those with special learning needs, and they cared for the elderly.  The introduction of the NHS and the state ownership of welfare overtook their work.  As women found other opportunities to develop their skills and more able to provide for their security, so the religious orders declined.  Now there is only one sister remaining and as I listen to the stories she tells, I am humbled to be part of a heritage where the church was central to the addressing of human need and faithful commitment to render one’s life to serve God and others existed.

 

I’m at the end of my life and ministry but I pray for the Holy Spirit to take the Church into a new era where it is less concerned with its existence and relevance and more engaged with its selfless vocation to serve humanity as it struggles with its many needs.

 

One day, a little girl is sitting and watching her mother do the dishes at the kitchen sink. She suddenly notices that her mother has several strands of white hair sticking out in contrast to her brunette hair. She looks at her mother and inquisitively asks: “Why are some of your hairs white, Mum?”

Her mother replied: “Well, every time that you do something wrong and make me cry or unhappy, one of my hairs turns white.”
The little girl thought about this revelation for a while and then asked: “Mummy, how come all of grandma’s hairs are white?”