Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
All of our three readings for today have a common theme that can be easily detected. All are about a holy man of faith in God – the prophet Elijah, St Paul the apostle, and in our gospel reading Jesus Christ himself. In all these readings the man of faith has his authority as coming from God completely vindicated.
In our Old Testament reading from the first book of Kings the prophet Elijah has predicted a drought. At God’s suggestion Elijah travels to Zarephath in Sidon where he is told a widow will feed him. And sure enough, despite the drought, the widow finds enough food and drink for Elijah –
“The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah”.
God’s provision is faithful. Unfortunately, however, the widow’s son becomes very ill and dies. In her grief the widow turns on Elijah in anger. But Elijah remains calm and carries the young boy upstairs. Elijah pleads with God and stretches himself out on the boy three times – an interesting example of resuscitation, Old Testament style. The boy revives, and is restored to his mother. Now the widow knows that Elijah truly is a man of God. Why? Because his words have been matched by his deeds – this is the litmus test for the true prophet.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he too is concerned about his credentials – as an apostle who spreads the good news of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. He wants to authenticate himself, and put an end to his opponents’ undermining rumours about him. Paul emphasises that he received the gospel message not through other people but rather as a direct revelation from God. Paul is clearly referring here to his Damascus Road conversion experience. All of us who can no longer describe ourselves as young have had a former life, and Paul is no exception. He had been an exemplary model of Jewish faith and practice. Furthermore, he openly admits to his former persecution of Christians. But God changed all that. The persecutor of Christians was transformed into the proclaimer of the gospel of Christ. Paul is at pains to emphasise that after his conversion he did not join the Christians in Jerusalem but went instead to Arabia. It was three years later that he went to visit the Church in Jerusalem. Paul’s fame spreads as the persecutor turned preacher – proclaimer of the faith he had once tried to destroy. Just after today’s passage from Galatians Paul states it was another fourteen years before he went to Jerusalem again. His vocation has been clearly revealed to him by God as an itinerant preacher of the gospel to the Gentiles. His three missionary journeys as outlined in the Acts of the Apostles are ample evidence of that. In another passage he explains that he earned his living, while preaching the gospel, as a tent-maker.
Yesterday I went on a training day hosted by Bishop Richard, our area bishop. The day was for non-stipendiary – unpaid – clergy. These days Paul might be described as a Minister in Secular Employment – or MSE. He prided himself on his independence – on his not always having to depend on others for supporting his way of life – hence his tent-making. He also prided himself on not being paid as an apostle or preacher. As we know, in the Church of England today some priests are paid, others not. Yesterday in our training day we discovered there are over 500 paid priests in the diocese of Southwark, and over 300 unpaid – i.e. licensed non-stipendiary priests and also those with Permission to Officiate. So over half the clergy in the Diocese are unpaid. It’s an interesting statistic, highlighting the large proportion of unpaid clergy. I don’t have a stipend, as a Religious, a Sister of a Religious Community, and therefore the Community is responsible for any necessary provision. Other unpaid priests may have another job, which is paid – the MSE model of Paul the tent-maker. Unpaid priests will often tell you that they believe to be non-stipendiary or self-supporting is part of their vocation. And of course all priests are equally priests, whether paid or not. It is their ministerial status, not their priesthood, that may differ.
Paul’s description of his former life (both pre- and post- conversion) is striking in its somewhat convoluted shape, both in terms of geographical wanderings and the sheer time it took for the unfolding of events in his life and ministry. And all this rings very true in terms of the unfolding of a vocation. There are significant moments – but the calling takes years, even a life-time, to develop. And this can be true for all of us, whatever our own particular vocation may happen to be. We all have a vocation from God. My own vocation to be both a religious and a priest I can clearly remember dates back to September 1982 when I was on holiday at Lee Abbey, a Christian holiday and conference centre in Devon, where I met an Anglican nun. I had never met a nun before, let alone an Anglican one. On my journey home I had a powerful experience of God’s stirring within. I knew that I had to give up teaching English and instead work in the Church. It was crystal clear at the time, although it took years to be worked out in reality, especially as there were no women deacons let alone women priests in the Church of England back in 1982. We would all do well from time to time to reflect on our own vocation, and re-examine where we believe God has been leading us, and to consider in what direction the path ahead might be next.
Finally, we come to our gospel reading from Luke. Just as Elijah had encountered a widow in a foreign land, so here Jesus meets a widow in the town of Nain. Her only son is being carried out on a bier. The widow weeps for her dead son. Jesus is filled with compassion. He moves forward, touches the bier, and commands the young man to arise. The dead man comes back to life, sits up, begins to speak and is restored to his mother. All the people who witness the scene are amazed and proclaim Jesus to be a great prophet. As with Elijah, so Jesus is vindicated in his claim to divine authority as the source of his words and deeds.
These biblical stories are vivid and memorable. They may seem remote from our every-day direct experience. But they are pointers to the nature of the God of love whom we claim to believe in – the God of compassion who longs to restore and make whole and reconcile and transform lives. And God can and does transform lives in ways that are often unexpected and unsought. The lives of the saints can often inspire us as examples of people who were on fire for God. Today is the feast day of St Boniface. He was born at Crediton in Devon in about the year 675. As a young man he entered a monastery in Exeter. He became a scholar and poet and was ordained. Around the age of forty Boniface left England, never to return, in order to take the gospel message to the heathen tribes of Germany. He was consecrated bishop and founded many monasteries in southern Germany. Eventually he became Archbishop of Mainz. His monastic foundations were renowned for their learning. One day while reading in his tent and waiting for some new Christians to arrive for confirmation, he was murdered – put to the sword – by a band of pagans on this day in the year 754. He was martyred a very old man. His status as martyr of the faith is better remembered in Germany than in his native England. Some regard Boniface as having had a deeper influence on European history than any other Englishman.
Boniface was one of many countless saints and martyrs whose lives were transformed by their faith in God. Let us thank God for the transformations for good that have been effected in our own lives over the years. And let us pray that God may enable us to be agents of transformation in the lives of others, that God’s kingdom on earth may grow and flourish.