Inspire! Sunday - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Inspire! Sunday

Luke 16: 1-13

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1 And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.

And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.

Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.

I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.

So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?

And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty.

Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

10 He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.

11 If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?

12 And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own?

13 No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

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On Friday I returned home from my first ever visit to Armenia.  And last Sunday morning, I was worshipping with the Armenian Apostolic Church at Etchmiadzin, near the capital, Yerevan.

As you might expect, there were many features of that act of worship that felt strange: aside from the fact that Armenian is a completely impenetrable language with an utterly incomprehensible script, it was a service in which curtains played a curiously pivotal role; it included processions led by strangely clad men brandishing strange implements with bells on the end.  And yet, despite all of that, and in spite of the fact that I didn't understand a word of it, I emerged from that service surprised at how much of it was completely familiar.

We heard a reading of the epistle and the Gospel for the day.  The congregation recited together the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, and exchanged the Peace.  There was a sermon; bread was blessed, broken and shared - and, by the way, there was a wonderful choir of adult male and female voices, just as we have here at St Bride's.  There was a stand where congregation members could light candles and offer prayers, just as our visitors do over there, by our Journalists' altar.  The whole experience managed to be utterly alien, and completely familiar, at the same time.

In the year AD 301, Armenia became the first country to embrace the Christian faith as its national religion - this was before the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, who was to make Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire.  Armenian church traditions are incredibly ancient, and their spirituality has deep and distinctive roots.  So how very interesting that, despite our profound cultural and historical differences, what the Armenians have been doing since the dawn of the fourth century, and continue to do today, so closely resembles what we do in our worship here at St Bride's, Fleet Street, and have been doing here on this site, probably since the sixth century.

It never fails to amaze me that there is so much that is timeless and changeless about the Christian faith; there is so much that has spoken, in a powerful and life-changing way, to individuals from different centuries, and vastly different cultures.  And all for the most unlikely of reasons: namely, that two thousand years ago, a charismatic Galilean peasant died a criminal's death on a bit of wood, in an obscure backwater of the Roman Empire - as a result of which, Sunday by Sunday, we do strange things with bread and wine here in Fleet Street - as they do in churches out in Yerevan, and Nairobi, and Chicago, and Hong Kong, and Buenos Aires, week after week, century after century.  What is it that is so powerful about the Christian faith that it transcends both time and culture?

Some of you will have heard me describe before now how, many years ago, when I was an entirely secular and rather arrogant nineteen year old, who genuinely thought that religion was basically there as a prop for sad and inadequate people, I found myself hanging around in a beautiful country churchyard, following a family wedding.  In a corner of the churchyard were some mouldering Victorian tombs - the burial places of individuals who had evidently been people of wealth and affluence in their day, but whose names were now totally forgotten.  And I suddenly had a powerful sense of my own mortality, as it dawned on me that you get one shot at this life, and one shot only.  And I found myself reflecting what a terrible thing it would be if there were, after all, a spiritual dimension to life, but I missed it, simply because I had never got around to checking it out.  So I began my own adult Christian journey, as a total sceptic - just needing to satisfy myself that there really was nothing in it.  And look what happened to me.

In Armenia we met a wonderful man who had grown up during the era of Soviet domination, the child of two atheists.  The devastating Armenian earthquake of 1988, which killed around 50,000 people, coupled with the disintegration of the Soviet system, left him with huge questions about the meaning and purpose of life.  He, too, ended up as a priest in the Armenian church.

As I was reflecting the other day, I always find it strange when non-churchgoers dismiss the Christian faith as a kind of distraction from the harsh realities of life.  Because for me it has always been the exact opposite.  Far from shielding us from the most difficult and challenging and perplexing things that take place, the Christian faith, properly understood, compels us into their very heart.

The reredos painting behind me, by the artist Glyn Jones, does not merely depict the crucifixion of Christ - it presents us with the very moment of his death: the sky is black; in the far distance a bolt of lightning strikes the Jerusalem temple.  The face of the dead Jesus, eyes lifeless, jaw slack, stares down at me every time I say the words of the Eucharistic prayer.  It is a painting that captures the devastating moment when all hope died: when the one whom his followers believed to be the Messiah; the one who promised to bring new life and peace to this earth was tortured to death, and for what?  It depicts a moment that sums up all the meaninglessness and desolation in human life across every century, and in every culture upon earth.

How very strange - indeed, how very perverse, that an image of utter devastation should be the main focal point of this beautiful building.  But it is precisely the fact that the Christian faith engages unflinchingly with that reality, that gives it its lasting power.  Because the huge paradox is that far from being an end, what we see before us in that painting is in fact the start of something far more extraordinary and far more immense - driven by the astonishing and boundless love of God.  But you can only discover the full and abiding truth of that reality, if you have been to that place of despair, devastation and hopelessness, and discovered that truth for yourself.

At the Last Supper that he shared with his disciples, before he surrendered himself to arrest and torture and execution, Jesus did something extremely shocking and very bizarre.  He took bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it with them, saying 'Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you - do this in remembrance of me.'  To appreciate the full perversity of that symbolic act, we need to remember that for Jews the consumption of blood of any kind - let alone human blood - was anathema.

But it was also utterly memorable.  Words alone can swiftly become distorted, and garbled.  But an action like that was something that the disciples could never ever forget.  Because in pointing them towards his forthcoming death, he said to them, in actions rather than words - I am doing this for you, and you need to make it part of yourself.  Take me into yourself - physically, viscerally, humanly - and then you will finally begin to make sense of everything else that I have said and done.

The Christian faith does not duck the complexities and challenges of human life - on the contrary it engages with them directly.  Even a Gospel parable as apparently perverse as the one we heard a few moments ago reflects this.  As usual, Jesus shocks and perplexes his hearers by telling them a story that overturns all their expectations: I mean, is a man really to be rewarded for trying to save his own skin at his master's expense?  There is a lot of stuff within that parable that needs unpacking.  But to cut to the chase, it certainly shines a very bright light on the human reality of our motivation.  It may be something incredibly selfish or self-serving that initially launches us onto a journey that ends up taking us somewhere else altogether.  'Whoever is faithful in a very little, will also be faithful in much.'  Just as, when I began my own exploration of the Christian faith, it was for entirely selfish reasons - I just wanted to check that I wasn't missing out on something important.

God can take, and transform, and use, whatever crumbs we offer him, however paltry; if we open our hearts to him just a fraction, God's love and grace will find their way in, because they always do.  I shall leave you with some words from a tenth century Armenian mystic, St Gregory of Narek:

Heavenly Father,
In the face of my evil you are good.
In the face of my indebtedness you are forgiving.
In the face of my sinfulness you are indulgent.
In the face of my darkness you are light.
In the face of my mortality you are life.

And thanks be to God for that.


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