Sermon. Ruth Martin, St Mary Magdalene Lent 4 . Choral Evensong
Numbers 21 v 4-9, and Ephesians 2 v 1-10
May what we think and feel and say always be acceptable to you oh Lord, and may we be open to the Spirit in our Lenten journeys
Is the Church of England in its own Lenten wilderness, grumbling and being bitten by poisonous snakes ?
In our Old Testament reading we have the story of the people of God journeying in the wilderness , grumbling against God through Moses about the food they are being given and having yet further difficulties come their way through poisonous snakes.
In his resignation announcement on Friday the Archbishop of Canterbury cited controversies within the church that had dogged his leadership, and went on to say that his successor had to have the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros. . A few days earlier he had challenged Christians to consider their role in what he called the religion factory. I think we can safely say from what we can read in the media, that the Archbishop must have felt bitten by poisonous snakes after he has done his best to give sustenance to the people he has been trying to lead, and there may well have been occasions when he felt very much in a hostile wilderness as he led what many people outside of the church would see as a ‘religion factory’.
If our leader has been pushed to the brink, where does it leave us in what we have to do?
Lent is the time of the Christian calendar when we try and pause, spend time reviewing our own lives, and seek to recognise our failings. The response of the people to the food they had been given in our OT reading was to grumble and moan and to call into question the providence of God. When matters worsened , through the snakes,they returned to God seeking His providence again:
‘ We sinned when we spoke against the Lord, and against you,[Moses] Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us’.
God didn’t actually take away the venomous snakes. He provided an antidote based on faith, articulated through Moses and a brass snake- if people who had been bitten looked at that snake, they would be healed.
In our own times, God doesn’t take away the snakes biting us. When we face our own wildernesses, our own difficulties, and things seem to go from bad to worse, God will not abandon us, but nor will he remove the temptations that come our way-to give up, or lose hope in the face of tragedy and trauma and change in our lives
We all grumble, some of the time. We all face wilderness times in our lives when we feel abandoned by God, when we don’t feel we have been given enough sustenance to help us through . The answer God gives is to call us to a deeper faith , . One of the features of the Old Testament story is that in the time of Moses, we know that the people of God were emerging from slavery, and from a time when the worshipped of humanly crafted physical idols was widespread.
So the provision of a brass snake met a need that could be easily grasped and understood by them all. It brought hope and reignited faith.
The movement from being enslaved in our own world to one of hope and grace in Christ, is also the theme of our reading from Ephesians. In His several letters Paul often refers to the transformation from slavery to freedom in Christ. Slavery would have been , as the brass snake in Moses’ time, easily grasped and understood .
What is offered to us in our own wilderness times , is a new covenant of faith, available freely though our own openness to God in Christ, whose death and resurrection enables us to receive faith in our hearts, through the Gift of the Holy Spirit.
It means we have Hope. As Paul says,
‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, -and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift from God – not by works, so that no one can boast’
And What symbols of faith do we have that can be grasped, understood by the many?
Nearer to home as you know Robert and I are Street Pastors, and what distinguishes us on the streets is that we are people of faith first and foremost. I was out last night as we had an extra team on following the rugby and there were some very seriously drunk people around. Last night one woman became violent after being refused a drink by staff as they judged she was too drunk to be served, and as she was ejected from the premises she had a running verbal and physical battle with the doorman, who behaved impeccably. As I was the nearest street pastor to hand, he called me over to try and help calm her down; as she continued to swear at me too, her companion immediately rebuked her and said ‘ she is only trying to help’
Why had the doorman called me over? Why had the woman’s companion rebuked her? It is because we wear a loud uniform of being a street pastor; it shouts to the world ‘faith first’, not good works, even though of course that is what we also try and do. Had I not had that uniform, the doorman would not call me over –after all he had never seen me before and it was not personal- and the friend would probably have told me to keep away in no uncertain terms had I not had that uniform on, rather than rebuke his friend.
Street Pastors is a symbol of a faith that can be easily grasped, understood by others and in its application is a visible service .
This is just one example where our Archbishop should start to take heart and lead us in hope in his remaining months of leading what he called the ‘religion factory’.
There is another symbol of faith that has been understood and grasped by millions far more extensively than Street Pastors , and that is the value of our Church of England Schools. A report will be released this Friday in which the Church of England will announce 200 more church schools. We currently educate 1 million pupils and the church has realised that its Anglican schools now bring more people into contact with Christianity than Sunday church worship. This parish of course has Christs school as its own example.
And so the education of our young, the dealing with disorder and drunkenness on our streets, these are the places in our society where our faith shows and is valued to those outside the church community.
Moreover as we continue to take up our Cross we can have hope that our Lenten journeys are not in vain, as we know we are moving towards the significance of Easter, as we can grow in our own faith and through being open to God in the Spirit . Our faith can be the foundation of our service to others, especially to those we might know in the midst of their own awful wilderness times, – also as a parish when we contemplate planning our future together when we have a chance to meet later in April- and finally on the wider world stage . We need therefore to learn to be less concerned about the bickerings of the ‘religion factory’ and look at the good we already most definitely have, so to build upon that a new view of ‘church’ can emerge which can be grasped and understood and applied in the wilderness of the secular world.