Sermon by Fr James Heard, Trinity 6, Sunday 8 July 2018, United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Trinity 6, Sunday 8 July 2018, United Benefice of Holland Park
In the name of our merciful and compassionate God. Amen.

This is the season in the church year – Petertide – when men and women are ordained as deacon/ priest. And looking at today’s readings, it’s a rather sobering prospect: OT reading has God sending his minister to people who are rebellious, impudent and stubborn! Then we have St Paul’s list of ministry highlights - insults, hardships and persecutions. And for a hat-trick, in his spell as a synagogue teacher, Jesus astounds and upsets the natives of Nazareth. Ministry can clearly be rather dispiriting and challenging. Why on earth would anyone bother if this is what it entails?

When one gets ordained there’s a real sense of excitement. First the experience of discernment which takes about 18-months; then three years at theological college; next finding a title parish where curates are let loose to conduct their first baptism, first giving of the last rites, first funeral, preach more regularly, visiting the sick, among many other things. This all lies ahead. So at ordination, we experienced real excitement and not a little nervousness about the future. One wears for the first time a deeply black clerical shirt – a shirt that will become slightly faded in the coming years by many washes. The fading is symbolic of what happens.

Because, quite simply, life happens. After 12 years of being ordained, ministry takes its toll. Quite of number of my contemporaries at theological college have describe how they are seeing psychiatrics or psychologists, some are on anti-depressants, several have got divorced, others are taking time out of ministry. Others are wrestling their vocation. Here’s a quote from friend and Cambridge contemporary.

I find ordination season a perplexing one. As someone ordained for 14 years, who’s served as curate and incumbent, in parish and in chaplaincy, I believe my calling is true. Yet, it has never been an unalloyed joy. It is, rather, something I’ve wrestled with, and even tried to throw off once or twice — never quite succeeding. It’s half a blessing, and half a curse.

It’s an invitation, in itself, to perplexity. It also contains a chilling set of temptations, to hide behind a persona, to accept the transference and projections of others. And then I notice who Jesus is always at odds with in the Gospels, the professionally religious.

Tom Stacey has written a masterful book entitled, A Dark and Stormy Night.

Without spoiling the story, it’s about a bishop, recently bereaved, who goes to a reunion with old college friends in the south of France.

He goes on a walk and gets lost in a forest. It's a metaphor to his feelings of a deeper sort of lostness that has happened over the decades of life. A must read!

The point is, priests and even bishops aren’t immune from life’s challenges. And neither was Jesus. I wonder what Jesus felt when faced with those from his own town who questioned his ministry. In the gospel reading, Jesus enters the synagogue of his boyhood, and he begins to teach. At first, things go well. He is received with astonishment and curiosity: What wisdom? What deeds of power are being done!

But then something happens. Someone questions Jesus pedigree: ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…’ And we are told they took offense at him.

One theologian (Barbara Brown Taylor) points out, the only reason to identity someone by his mother in Jesus’s day was to question his legitimacy. To highlight the fact that no one knew for certain who his father was. In other words, to refer to Jesus as “the son of Mary” (and not, "the son of Joseph") was a calculated act, using Jesus’s questionable pedigree to shame him into silence. Can a mere carpenter of questionable parentage amount to anything? In short, it was telling Jesus to ‘remember your place’.

In some mysterious and disturbing way, the people's small-mindedness kept them in spiritual poverty. They were uninterested in glimpsing the extraordinary within the ordinary. And so they missed the presence of God in their midst.

Sometimes when we think about Jesus, we forget that he was human. And I wonder whether he felt crush and humiliated at what happened to him when he returned to his home town. I wonder whether he questioned his vocation. I wonder whether he ever thought of giving up?

The crucifix we have in our churches I find very helpful because it reminds me that Jesus has been there before. He’s experienced life in all its brutality. And that, today, Jesus walks beside us. When we grabble with our vocation; when God doesn’t seem present; when we feel numb with pain; when we know too well the darkness of depression or grief. Life in all its harshness.

What life throws at us can so easily debilitate. Carl Jung wrote: ‘No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.’ He was speaking about archetypes but I wonder whether he was making the connect about the spiritual journey which involves the integrating of our shadow, of taking bad experiences and, through prayer, turning them into resources for growth. So that those difficult, dark times, don’t debilitate but are, slow, part of the transfiguration into the likeness of Christ.

Today’s gospel askes whether we limit our understanding of God’s transformative power in people’s lives and in our own life.

So when we are confronted by life challenges – vocation, illness, depression, grief, or whatever – the invitation is to grow deeper into God’s Love. The invitation is to trust in a God who, in Christ, and by his Spirit is there with us, alongside us, whatever we’re going through. That’s part of the point of spending time in meditation. We hear in our hearts that voice of God: I have called you by name, you are mine. You are my dear child in whom I delight.

It doesn’t mean that the raging storms of life will instantly be calm.

Rather, we may know in our heart of hearts the abiding and comforting presence of the divine.


Debie Thomas, Origin Stories, Sunday July 8, 2018

Revd Dr James Heard

Vicar of Holland Park

Fr James Heard