Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 2 Samuel 5:1–5, 9–10; 2 Corinthians 12:2–10 & Mark 6:1–13
My preparation as a candidate for ordination in the Diocese of Melbourne included participating in the Ministry Formation Program at Trinity College Theological School while I was studying for my degree in theology. A requirement of the Formation Program was to complete placements in several different parishes as a theological student. If you think of the study I did at Trinity College as ‘theoretical’ training, then the placements as a theological student were the ‘practical’ training.
My very first placement was what is considered a ‘minor’ placement, that is, it was only 4 hours per week on Sunday mornings. Basically it entailed performing an array of tasks assigned to me by the vicar, usually within, but not excluded to, the morning services of Eucharist. The parish where I did my first placement was Christ Church South Yarra, which had actually been my home parish, and the place where I worshipped weekly, for almost 10 years.
To say I was nervous about this experience is an understatement. I was extremely worried about how the people of Christ Church South Yarra, who I had been a fellow parishioner of for many years, would see me now as someone who had begun the process towards ordination as an Anglican priest. My anxiety reached new limits on the morning the Vicar rostered me on to preach for the very first time. What will they make of me and my sermon, I remember thinking to myself beforehand. What right does he have to be addressing us from the pulpit, and by whose authority is he speaking on, are just two of the questions I asked myself at the time.
These are similar to the questions that Jesus found himself facing when he went to his home town of Nazareth and began to teach in the synagogue. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2–3 NRSV) This is what the people of Nazareth, the neighbours of Jesus, were asking one another. And Mark tells us that “they took offence at him”, which was what I had been worried about when I gave my first sermon at Christ Church South Yarra – that the people I worshipped alongside for 10 years would take offence at me preaching to them from the pulpit.
A comment that I read in relation to the reaction of the people of Nazareth to Jesus teaching in the synagogue is that “the greatest enemy to faith can simply be ‘familiarity’: a refusal to believe that God’s presence – and the prophetic agents of that presence – could come to us in so familiar a form as the person next door”. The people of Nazareth, like most Jewish people in the time of Jesus, were no doubt expecting the Messiah to be a warrior king, certainly not the son of a carpenter they had known, and who had lived among them, for most of their lives.
I wonder if the same is true of us today? I don’t mean in terms of how we think about the Messiah or Jesus, but rather in terms of the people through whom God speaks today. Perhaps we think that God would only use people whom we might describe as “saintly” or “holy”, whether they be clergy and/or lay people? I know that I’m certainly not “holy” or “saintly”, and I often think that I’m not “worthy” to have been “called” to this vocation of priesthood, however it’s not something that I chose to do, but rather something that God chose me to do.
I’m sure that many people who have been called by God, and through whom God has spoken, have been people that could be described as “holy” or “saintly”, however that doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite. We need look no further than the figure of the Apostle Paul for an example of this. Prior to his call from God, which he experienced in a vision of Jesus while travelling on the road to Damascus, Paul had actually been a violent opponent of the church, physically persecuting many who were followers of Jesus.
In today’s reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes a spiritual experience he had in which he had been in the company of God. Rather than boasting about his experience, Paul instead states that God had given him a “thorn in the flesh”, which was to prevent him from becoming arrogant or feeling self-important as a result of his experience. Many theories have been proposed over the centuries for just what this form of physical pain and suffering that Paul endured might have been. William Barclay believes the most likely thing is that Paul suffered from a certain virulent malarial fever that was prevalent on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.
Paul says that when prayed to God for relief from whatever the condition was, God’s response was to tell Paul that the grace he had already received from God, when God called him to proclaim the gospel of Jesus, was more than enough for him. In other words, God did not take away the condition from him, but gave him the strength to bear it. “That is how God works. He does not spare us things, but makes us able to conquer them.”
The Apostles are also examples of how God chooses what is ordinary in order to fulfil his purpose. Andrew, Peter, James and John – the first of those called to be disciples of Jesus – were ordinary fishermen. They were not scholars, or wealthy, powerful people, nor were they religious leaders, or other forms of influential people. They were humble, simple men, as was King David when he was called as a young boy to serve God.
In today’s gospel reading, the Apostles are sent out in pairs by Jesus to announce the good news of the gospel and to proclaim that all people should repent. Jesus instructs them to travel lightly, taking no bread, bag, nor money, which means they are to trust in God to provide for them. The mission of the Apostles foreshadows the mission of the church. How the modern day church is to replicate the “lightness” of the Apostles travel is problematic, given how large, wealthy and institutionalised it has become. However, given the situation the church finds itself in today in many countries of the world, the church might need to rediscover that lightness of travel.
The Anglican Diocesan of Melbourne is facing this challenge now, especially in the “post-COVID” world we now find ourselves in. Many parishes in the Diocese are struggling to survive, and the Diocese is challenged with how to provide ministry to the people of these parishes now, and how to provide ministry to other parishes in the future.
The Archbishop of Melbourne has planned a series of “Archdeaconry Roadshows” where he will visit each of the Archdeaconries in Melbourne and discuss with clergy and lay people alike a document titled “Reimagining the Future”.
“Reimagining the future in the light of COVID-19” is a resource and guide for discerning what the church and our diocese might look like going into the future. This guide will help parishes across the whole of the diocese prepare for the future beyond the COVID- 19 pandemic, taking into consideration the possibility of contextual changes.
The Essendon Archdeaconry, which St Andrew’s is part of, is due to meet with the Archbishop on Tuesday 17 August at St Michael’s North Carlton. There are two sessions, one between 2.30 and 4.30pm, and the other between 7 and 9pm, that people are encouraged to attend.
The Parish Council of St Andrew’s is holding a planning meeting on Saturday 17 July to discuss the document and to complete a self-assessment of the operational, missional, financial and strategic health of the parish. This meeting will play an important role in determining both the short and long term future of the parish, and our ministry and mission in the local community.