St Bride's: Sermons

The Call

Luke 14: 25-43

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25 And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them,

26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

27 And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.

28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?

29 Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him,

30 Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

31 Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?

32 Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.

33 So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.

34 Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned?

35 It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill; but men cast it out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

It was exactly 350 years ago today that this church, or more accurately, the mediaeval church of St Bride that stood on this site, was razed to the ground during the Great Fire of London.  It is very important that we both mark and honour that event - so if you do have a chance to go and see the special digital display in our crypt, or join one of the special tours this afternoon, please do so.  But I am not in fact going to speak about that particular event this morning, because it will be one of the major themes I shall be addressing at our special service here on 25th September - so I hope very much that you will be able to come along then.

Instead, this morning I would like us to think about today's very challenging Gospel reading.  And to begin, I would like to share with you the following reflection.

One of the more interesting responsibilities entrusted to me over recent years by the national Church, involves the assessment of potential candidates for the ordained ministry.  Selection for ordination training can be a long and rigorous process, and rightly so: clergy hold positions of great trust, and often have to deal with very vulnerable people.  So, those of us charged with their selection have to be sure that those whom we recommend for ordination training are deserving of that trust.  The Church has not always got that one right of course - as the spate of high-profile child abuse scandals involving clergy has made painfully apparent in recent years.  So it is essential that we do everything we can to try and ensure that such appalling crimes cannot happen again in the future.

But there is another reason, too, why the assessment needs to be very rigorous, which is this: the hard realities of ministerial life are such that unless you have a vocation to it, you are unlikely to survive it.  Clergy are paid very little, work ludicrously long hours, struggle to get any time off, and the vast majority live 'over the shop', which can compromise the boundary between their personal and professional lives.  And some of the most difficult and challenging of human situations are woven into the fabric of our ordinary working lives: tragic death; terminal illness, domestic abuse; child abuse; people struggling with issues of mental health, and much more besides.

Over the years I have taken a number of funeral services of individuals who, tragically, have taken their own lives.  And, if at all possible, it is always my practice before such a funeral to go and spend some time with the body of the deceased.  And I do this for two reasons: firstly, because most of those who die in that way die alone, and somehow the simple act of going and being with them after death cuts through that terrible loneliness, if only at a symbolic level. 

And secondly, because if their family members can't face seeing them (which, understandably, most can't), then I can do that for them, and on their behalf.  And I cannot tell you how much difference that simple bit of ministry can make to the bereaved.  I do not find it an easy thing to do, but it is a profoundly priestly thing to do.

All of which will make Christian ministry sound unimaginably bleak and difficult and gloomy - except that it isn't.  Quite the opposite.  I have now been ordained for twenty-eight years, and not once during all that time have I had a moment's doubt that I am doing what I am called to do; nor have I for a moment ceased to believe in the importance of what I do.  Because for all of its challenges - and sometimes because of its challenges - I love it; I could never countenance doing anything else.  And I wake up each morning feeling good and optimistic about the day ahead, even when I know that it will require things of me that I will find personally difficult. 

In 2014, the Cabinet Office did some research into levels of job satisfaction amongst a range of different professions, and interestingly enough clergy came out top.   But that is only the case because those of us called to this ministry are both ready and able to deal with the darkness as well as to rejoice in the light.

I would like you just to hold that thought for a moment as we turn to this morning's rather perplexing Gospel reading, in which Jesus comes out with that string of bizarre sayings:

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Which at face value seems about as inappropriate a Biblical passage as we could possibly have on the morning when we are celebrating Penelope's baptism, and rejoicing in her family life.  But bear with me - let's see what is really going on here.

The first thing to note is the setting.  Jesus is being pursued by a huge crowd of people.  Why are they following him?  Probably for a whole range of different reasons.  But it is undoubtedly the case that there would be many who were there, either because they expected Jesus to provide them with an instant solution to all of life's problems, or because they were there to gawp at the miracle worker; to be amazed; to see the spectacle that everyone was talking about.  But Jesus was not remotely interested in building up a personal cult following.  What he wanted was for people to open their hearts and lives to the transforming power of God's love - which is why, particularly in the first three Gospels, he consistently points away from himself to God.

Many of those who pursued Jesus had not the first idea of what discipleship entailed - and so, in characteristic fashion, Jesus shocks them into realising it, driving home the point with a series of sayings that are so startling and so provocative his hearers would have stopped in their tracks.  But that was precisely why he did it - to challenge the crowds to understand and to recognise what following him really meant.  Otherwise there was no point in their being there.  The place where he was leading them was a hard road, not an easy way out; a way of life that needed to be embraced wholeheartedly, and regardless of the cost - not a cosy set of solutions to life's problems. 

Does Jesus really require us to hate those who are closest to us as a condition of discipleship?  No, I don't believe for a moment he does - that is just his very powerful, and deliberately startling rhetoric.  What he is doing is shocking his hearers into recognising that there are some things in life that transcend even our closest relationships; and also that our closest relationships, if dysfunctional, can sometimes stand in the way of them.  So be aware!  Keep alert!  Look carefully at the dynamics of your life and see what is life-giving and of God, and what is not. 

Unlike the vocation to the ordained ministry, the call to discipleship is a call to all of us, regardless of who and what we are.  It is a call to life in all its fullness.  But 'life in all its fullness' is the precise opposite of a life that is easy and stress free - because 'life in all its fullness' is a life of love - which is the life to which Penelope is being called today.  It is a life that is full of blessings; but because it is a life of love it is also costly; it renders us vulnerable; and it entails risk. 

Which is why I would like to leave you with that remarkable and memorable poem by Janet Rand called simply 'Risks':

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk being called sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk showing your true self.
To place your ideas and your dreams before the crowd is to risk being called naïve.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken, because the greatest risk in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing,
and becomes nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn, feel, change,
grow or love.
Chained by his certitude, he is a slave; he has forfeited his freedom.
Only the person who risks is truly free. 

 Amen.

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