Sunday 22 June: First Sunday after Trinity
Priory Sung Eucharist
Canon Michael Rawson
Readings: Jeremiah 20.7-13; Matthew 10.24-39
It’s a great joy to be here with you this morning and I’m very grateful to Simon for his kind and generous invitation to preach. As part of the new diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales we are all discovering new family members and getting to know each other across the old historic diocesan borders. Looking at the new diocesan map can seem a little overwhelming when you realise the vast area that it covers, so building up relationships face to face is vital in creating a new sense of identity for our diocesan family. This morning feels like a good start and I bring love and greetings from the community at Wakefield Cathedral.
Two weeks ago around 3000 of us gathered in York Minister for the confirmation of election of Bishop Nick as our new diocesan bishop and for the inauguration of the diocese. ‘We have lift off’ proclaimed the Archbishop of York and he prayed that the wind of the Holy Spirit would drive us forward in God’s mission. It was a challenge to each one of us to work for and shape our new diocese, not as an end in itself but for the building up of God’s kingdom in this region.
Given the pomp and expectation of that service in York we might be forgiven this morning for feeling the bubble has been somewhat burst with two rather difficult scripture readings.
Our first reading from Jeremiah finds the prophet living in rapidly changing and challenging times. He has been called by God to tell the people of Jerusalem that their city will be destroyed. Not surprisingly, Jeremiah is seen as a pariah and hated by all, including his friends. But when he tries to stop speaking, the word of God burns deep within him. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He just can’t win. When he complains, God seems absent from him and he feels totally isolated. Jeremiah seems destined for a total breakdown. To whom can he turn? Jeremiah’s anger and his seeming despair though are not the opposite of faith. For most of us as followers in the way of Christ, doubt and struggle go hand in hand with faith. Faith does not promise us an easy route through life – far from it most of the time! From his bleak and beleaguered position, Jeremiah still puts his faith in God and sings praises to him.
Perhaps when we are at our lowest, at rockbottom and when everything has been taken away from us, maybe it is then that we are most receptive to God’s grace and mercy? Listening to the life stories of those living with terminal illness, or whose relationships have broken down, or hearing the stories of those staying in Wakefield who are seeking asylum in this country – that has certainly been my experience. That God is often to be found in the despair and emptiness and pain of life experiences.
If you thought that the gospel reading might offer some relief and comfort following Jeremiah’s message, then think again! I imagine that most of us would prefer a Christ who brings peace rather than the sword, for this is the gospel at its most challenging. Jesus is giving his disciples something of a pep talk as he sends them out on a preaching and healing mission. The disciples now know from first hand experience what it means to come up against opposition. For them reality is snapping at their ankles and they must have felt that they were sharing Jeremiah’s experience of discipleship.
‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’, says Jesus and he then goes on to say’ whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ These are particularly hard sayings for us to hear. What on earth can it mean? Perhaps Matthew is pointing us to bigger picture of God’s kingdom, which is of greater importance and lasting effect than our own peace, that of our families and those nearest to us. I don’t believe that he is being anti-family or saying that the only way to be a disciple is to leave all our loving relationships behind. But he does ask searching questions about our priorities in life and our goals.
At our recent Pentecost celebrations we rejoiced that the Holy Spirit is always with us, renewing the face of the earth and allowing us to shape our future through God’s lens rather than our own self-seeking eyes. The experience of the prophet Jeremiah and the testimonies of those who are persecuted for their faith in our own time is that nothing is ever wasted in God’s economy, not even our own suffering. So that even in hardship, distress and persecution nothing at all can separate us from God’s love. Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid of anything, for he will always be with us. But his reassurance is not without challenge. ‘Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’
The gospel turns our lives upside down. In the light of our discipleship all our goals, values and priorities are questioned and weighed. Life can never be quite the same after we have taken up the challenge and begun in the way of Christ. The gospel invites us to a faith which overcomes our fear in difficult and uncertain times. As we gaze on the cross of Christ we can see it as the symbol of ultimate failure and defeat or we can see it as the costly new life and freedom of God’s kingdom which we are called to live out in our daily lives and to share with those around us.
We all probably feel much more comfortable with Jesus calming the storm and feeding the crowd with loaves and fishes, than the Saviour we encounter in today’s gospel reading. But I think we can be encouraged by the countless men and women down through the centuries who have found new life and hope precisely by letting go and losing life. If it was true for them, then why not for us as well? The challenge we are given today is to work out how we can form our lives, our values and our priorities around the way of Christ and thus become signposts for God’s kingdom to those we live among. It’s not going to be a simple task but we’re not alone – we have each other’s encouragement and the abiding love and presence of God leading us forward into new life.