Last Sunday, like many churches around the world, we kept at St John’s the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s actually on the 15th August, but it’s customary to keep it on the nearest Sunday. Here’s what I said.
Given the increasing shortage of priests you’d think that the Church of England would be falling over itself to welcome anyone who was foolhardy enough to offer themselves for training for the priestly ministry.
But I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that that is not the case. I’ve known quite a few people over the years who have expressed interest. Some got put off by the pay and conditions of service. Some realized that it just wasn’t for them. Others made it as far as the selection process. Only a handful were actually chosen to go and train to be priests.
The problem is it’s not easy knowing whether someone is called to be a priest in the Church. For the Church is not like other careers. It doesn’t matter how highly qualified you are or how able you might be – the Church has to decide whether God actually wants you to be a priest regardless of what your other qualifications might be. So to help it the Church has produced a 24-page document entitled Criteria for Selection for the Ordained Ministry in the Church of England. I have a copy here.
I did, when preparing this sermon. Three years ago, when we last had this gospel reading, here’s how I began my sermon.
Well – there’s certainly no shortage of news at the moment is there! And plenty to leave us wondering – and worrying – about what the future might hold. Recent weeks have seen us gain a new Prime Minister and the inevitable questions from all sides about where we are heading over Brexit. And if that doesn’t worry you, then there is global-warming – a week last Thursday resulted in the hottest day ever recorded in the UK. What does the future hold? No wonder someone said to me, “I can’t cope with any more news!”
Well, that was three years ago. And here we are three years later, and it seems that what the future held was just more of the same. The news now isn’t much different to the news of three years ago. We are waiting to see who our new Prime Minister will be. We all know the issues with the Northern Island Protocol, and have seen the queues at the port of Dover of people trying to cross the channel, both reminding us that Brexit is still an issue. And two weeks ago, we saw the hottest day ever recorded in the UK.
Our gospel reading this morning always reminds me of a holiday we had when I was very small. We were travelling as a family on a coach for our summer holiday to Gorleston-on-sea, which is near Great Yarmouth. I must have been about five or six years old. Like most small children I wanted to know when we’d arrive. Unlike most small children I didn’t repeatedly ask, “Are we nearly there yet?” I was far too intelligent for that, since I knew that when we had only just set out on what felt a long journey, we couldn’t be “nearly there yet”!
Instead, since I knew from an early age that my Father knew everything I kept asking every few minutes, “How many miles are there still to go?” My Father, with infinite patience – he never once told me to be quiet – would tell me exactly how many miles there were still to travel – each time giving me a figure one or two miles less than the previous answer.
Who likes doing the housework when everyone else is just sitting around doing nothing and not helping?
It’s really annoying, isn’t it? After all, someone has to do the housework. Even more annoying when no-one else offers to help!
Today’s gospel is about two people – one who was busy getting things done and another who just sat around and did nothing – Martha and Mary!
Where would we be without the Marthas of this world – without those people who are always active, making sure the work gets done, so that life can go on? And yet – if today’s gospel reading is to be taken seriously – it appears that Jesus seems to prefer people to just sit, listen, and set the work aside.
I know that this gospel sometimes irritates busy people who feel that they have no time, that Jesus is being unreasonable, but before I try and deal with that question, let us consider the messages of today’s reading. For in fact, there are two.
Courtroom dramas on the TV have always been popular. And one of my all-time favourite characters is the lawyer Horace Rumpole – popularly known as Rumpole of the Bailey – and I’m sure some of you will remember the TV series in which Rumpole was portrayed so brilliantly by Leo McKern.
For those of you unfamiliar with Rumpole let me give a bit of background. Horace Rumpole is a character in a series of wonderful books by the writer and barrister John Mortimer. Rumpole is also a barrister, working from his chambers in Equity Court, and he likes nothing better than defending his clients in the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey. Indeed, his skill at defending his clients – and he only ever defends, never prosecutes, is legendary among the criminal classes. He is famed for his success in his greatest ever case, the Penge Bungalow murders, and for his forensic knowledge of typewriters.
No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
Ploughing was done with a light plough and oxen. The ploughman guided the plough with his left hand while steering the oxen with his right hand. And you had to concentrate to keep the furrows straight. Look away, and you got crooked furrows – no use at all.
Once you’ve put your hand to the plough there’s no turning back
Today I’m going to tell you the story of two men who decided to follow Jesus, two men who put their hand to the plough. We will hear how far they were willing to go, and we will hear about the hymn that links them.
The hymn is an old hymn that we used to sing on Church Army beach missions. The first verse goes like this – and I’m sorry to disappoint you but I’m going to say rather than sing it:
I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.
Last Sunday was the feast of The Holy Trinity. Many clergy worry about what to say on Trinity Sunday. How do you explain the Trinity? Well, here’s my attempt this year to deal with the great mystery of the Three-in-one God.
From time to time the BBC Songs of Praise programme holds a poll to find the nation’s favourite hymns. I had a look through the most recent list of the top 100 yesterday. Anyone know what the nation’s favourite hymn might be?
Yes – it’s Jerusalem.
I was disappointed to discover that two of my all time favourites do not appear. They never do. Mainly, I suspect, because congregations of today don’t have the stamina that people of the Victorian age had when it came to hymn singing.
The first is Lift high the cross. It’s a great hymn, coming in when sung all the way through at eleven verses and choruses, which was sung at my Church Army commissioning many years ago and which is a great Church Army anthem. And it was a delight to sing it as the processional hymn at our Diocesan Chrism Mass this year in Southwark Cathedral on Maundy Thursday. We sang it in its entirety and it went on long after all the choirs and clergy and bishops had processed in to their places.
Seventy years ago, when the Queen came to the throne, the world was such a different place. How things have changed over those seventy years. How many things that are a part of our modern world do we take for granted that were unheard of back then?
Take the mobile phone. If you want a symbol of the modern world and what is at the centre of people’s lives, look no further than the mobile phone! For so many, daily life is ruled by their mobile phone. And apparently there are more active mobile phones in the world today than there are people!
One of the most popular programmes on the TV is Channel 4’s Gogglebox. Just to explain, for those of you who don’t watch it, the idea behind the programme is that families and friends are filmed watching television, and we see their reactions. Each week a variety of different programmes are watched, and cameras inside people’s houses record their reactions to what they watch.
Some time ago there was an exchange that I found particularly memorable.
Now, I know there may be a few of you who missed it, but last night was the Champions League final. Liverpool and Real Madrid battled it out to see who could win the premier club title in European football.
Okay, I’m guessing most of you missed it. Football isn’t everybody’s thing. But I think we all know enough about team sports to know that if the players in a team don’t work together they will lose. If the team goes on to the pitch and then each player just does their own thing, then the other side will simply walk all over them! A team has to be united. To coin a phrase – There is no I in TEAM because TEAM stands for Together Everyone Achieves More. Teams, in order to win, must be united.
I think it’s fairly safe to assume, given the teaching in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, that Jesus wanted his church to be united. I think it’s also fairly safe to assume that for Jesus this wasn’t an optional extra, only to happen if the situation at any particular time demanded it.