Rural Sunday: 14th July 2019

The sermon was given by the Revd. Dr. Anne Tomlinson, Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute. The latest newsletter for SEI is in the ‘News’ section of this website. [The first three years of my training were through SEI and my curacy is also overseen by SEI – Ellie]

Last year I sat through a preaching exercise that another member of staff at SEI had set the students. The exercise was to deliver a short sermon on the passage we’ve just heard as our Gospel. So I sat through the multiple interpretations of this well-known Parable – and because it is so well known, each student had done his or her best to find a new angle on it. Thus we heard accounts from the perspective of the lawyer, the Levite, the Samaritan, Jesus, the robber and even in one case – the gentleman in question was an ordinand from this diocese – from the perspective of the animal upon whose back the victim was placed. 

What I found surprising was that in all these renderings – 23 of them in total – no one had imagined what it was like to have been the one who was jumped upon, stripped, beaten, and left in a state of semi- consciousness, half dead by the side of the road. Nor what it must have felt like subsequently to hear the voice of your rescuer, have your wounds bathed with oil and bandaged, be placed on an animal and gently led to the safety and care of the inn. Not one of these students stood in those shoes  – and yet they are the very shoes in which each one of us stands .. as Paul reminds the Christians at Colossae:

Our lives as Christians are predicated upon that experience of being rescued from darkness and led into light. In Baptism we mark that transference.In the liturgy we say

Bring those who are baptised in this water with Christ through the waters of death, to be one with him in his resurrection.

And again, in one of the prayers for the baptised: 

God our Saviour, when your kindness and generosity dawned upon the world, you saved us in your mercy through the water of rebirth and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.

Through the kindness, generosity and mercy of God shown in Christ  we have been rescued from the power of darkness. The core of our being should thus be one of thankfulness, of gratitude to God for this act of redemption. It is from that wellspring of grace that we should live our lives.  We should live, in other words, as Eucharistic people, thankful at all times and in all places for all God’s good gifts around us, constantly cascading the grace and generosity we have received on to others. The great Christian novelist G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

You say grace before meals. All right.  But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”  

Generosity of being should be what characterises our Christian living. It should be our default position. Rowan Williams once said being a Christian was akin to being a little crevice halfway down Niagara Falls. We are saturated and soaked by grace that descends and passes on and draws us in. ‘There’s not a great deal of point in the rocky crevice halfway down saying, “Well, I think I would like to hold on to some of this water.” You really haven’t got much option. It falls on you and it bounces off, that’s what waterfalls do! It’s given to us to be givers, to pass on an intensity of outpouring.’

Being Eucharistic people means living lives of graced giving. But do we?  Or do we live by another ethic? An ethic governed by prudence and obligation, worthiness and deservingness. I remember being pulled up shortly by my spiritual director some years ago when I was explaining how I differentiated between the neediness of those begging on the streets of Edinburgh where I live. ‘But Anne’ he gently remonstrated ‘what calculus does God use at communion?’ 

At Communion rich and poor, old and young, well-educated and those without much schooling, the haves and the have-nots, those whose faith is firm and those who are unsure what they believe, kneel together with outstretched hands. All are welcome, all receive and all receive the same.  God does not discriminate or turn some away. God does not do maths with our worthiness. To each of us he says ‘You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat’.

As Christians we are called to rise from that meal, and go out into the world to love and serve the Lord in all whom we meet, sharing the generosity that we ourselves have received all unworthily. To live it as individual Christians in our homes and our neighbourhoods, at work and in family life, with colleagues and loved ones, neighbours and strangers. To live as missionary disciples.

And to do it also as congregations. Local Christian communities that live by this ethic of generosity spread a powerful message far and wide. When he wrote this letter Paul had not visited Colossae, and yet had heard of their faith in Christ Jesus and the love that they had for each other all the saints.

The great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin once asked how people might come to believe. He wrote:

I am suggesting that the only answer is a congregationof men and women who believe (the gospel) and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel – evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature (and so on). But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.”

People come to believe through meeting a congregation of men and women who believe (the gospel) and live by it. Nowadays we have to think cannily about how that first ‘meeting’ happens. Research shows that in rural areas today, the predominant way for folk to get to know a congregation is via social media. You use Facebook, twitter and the like to great effect here, I see, communicating who you are and what you are about in an attractive welcoming way to people far and wide. This is good – would that more congregations followed your lead. 

Yes, people come to believe through meeting a congregation of men and women who believe (the gospel) and live by it. It’s a useful annual audit for any AGM or Vestry to undertake. To assess just how far the congregational actions and the messages given out – by noticeboards and via social media, by the kind of interactions between members outside the church –  are in tune with an ethic of thankful generosity. I remember ministering in one church which held its coffee hour in a glass narthex, and so visible from the street. An elderly man joined the congregation because, as he put it to me, ‘I saw you all chatting to one another and embracing each other and I wanted to be part of a loving community like that because I am lonely’

So why not check that every decision you make here about worship, children’s work, outreach, budget, fabric is made with such an ethic of thankful generosity in mind? To ask yourselves, does this action communicate a message of graced generosity towards others? Does it speak of our thankfulness for what we ourselves have received? Does it mirror of our sense of having been rescued from darkness and our desire to rescue others in turn? 

Jesus said to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” As you go, dear people of St John’s, dear people of St Peter’s, 

may you indeed be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. May you lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power. And may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

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