Rev Ellie Charman: Sermon – October 14th, 2018

Sermon given at  St. John the Evangelist,  Wick, 14th October 2018

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

I wonder if you’ve heard that the ‘eye of the needle’ refers to a gate in Jerusalem? Or that camels could not pass through it when loaded?

There’s no evidence that this gate ever existed, so where does this saying originate? Like other sayings, such as taking the tree out of one’s own eye before removing the speck in someone else’s, it’s a figure of speech that implies the impossible.

So the eye of the needle and a camel are simply to create an outrageous contrast in juxtaposition to the passage, or the process we think of, in entering the kingdom of God. Of course, we have a God for whom the impossible, as rationally thought of in human terms, is possible.

Wealth and prosperity in the eyes of the Jews at the time of Jesus was a sign of great blessing by God on the rich. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Both the rich man left grieving when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, and the disciples themselves did not understand why Jesus would say this. In their eyes, Jesus was in effect turning this belief upside down.

But like many stories from the Hebrew and Aramaic, which are then translated into Greek, some of the nuances are lost in translation. We’ve already had presented to us one idiom – that of the eye of the needle and the camel. We are then left to wonder about whether we’re to sell everything we own and give it to the poor. That would be a very literal interpretation, granted, but I don’t think that’s where we’re being led.

Like any person who has many possessions, there is always a temptation to pride oneself on what one has. A way of amassing friends, followers, self-righteousness, and self-justification. In many of the Bible stories we know, this wealth might be illustrated through grain stored in many barns, or great flocks of sheep, goats and cattle.

If it’s impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle and it’s impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, then who goes to heaven? Perhaps it is those for whom pride is not their stumbling block? Or maybe it is those who are comfortable enough with what they have that they feel able and free to give away the rest? Or those who realise that the commandments are not a rigid set of laws but are a set of guidelines given by a wise and discerning God?

What then did the rich man lack? Humility? Compassion? Even if he had sold his belongings and given the money to the poor, would he have been able to enter the kingdom of heaven? Decades of Christian teaching have turned this story into what might be thought of as a nugget of gold. A piece of wisdom to take away and cherish. But unfortunately, I think it’s a piece of fool’s gold. It’s not real gold.

“If you sell everything, and give it to the poor, you will enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s very formulaic, isn’t it? Black and white. If you do this, you will inherit eternal life. But if that rich man sells all he has, while gritting his teeth and grieving that all his possessions are being sold, then he’s no better off than when he had all his possessions, to begin with. He might find joy and compassion on the way, thus able to follow Jesus, or he might end up bitter and sad.

I think that the real gold in this story is to understand that it’s the attitude to one’s belongings that will make the difference between how a rich person might conceive that they might enter the kingdom of God. By being humble, and being generous enough to regularly give away to those less well off, there is less temptation to be self-righteous or to withhold alms for the poor.

This is what the prophet Amos refers to in our first reading. “Seek the Lord and live. Seek good, that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you.” The passage from Hebrews describes the word of God as being sharper than any two-edged sword. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

By seeking God, our focus is not on our wealth, our possessions or money. By approaching him with humility we open our hearts just a crack to the possibility of who God is. And that is all that God requires. A crack the size of the eye of a needle, and all of who God is, and all of what God represents will pour into our lives. Through that miniscule opening, we should enter into the holiness of God’s presence. We receive salvation not through our own means, or by selling anything we own, but through faith and humility, and allowing God to enter our lives.

Therefore, the impossibility illustrated in this story becomes possible, when we realise that there is nothing that we can physically do to save ourselves. If we turn our understanding upside down, by allowing God that moment of acquiescence or submission, that recognition that our very being depends on Him, we open ourselves to his grace. Here we have the contrast of ourselves as being so ludicrously small in comparison to God being infinitesimally big.

It is by the grace of God that we enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, as we think of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and as we move into the next part of our worship, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

 

Rev Ellie Charman: Finnbar of Caithness, Bishop c. 610

Sermon given at  St. Peter and the  Holy  Rood,  Thurso, 9th October 2018

Surprisingly, while many saints in the Scottish Episcopal Church appear to have a reasonable biography, Finnbar doesn’t appear to have the same weight tome proffered on him. In fact, there is very little it seems.

I find it slightly ironic that I get to deliver reserved sacrament when we celebrate this feast day of Finnbar of Caithness, as in all likelihood I have the least knowledge of Caithness and subsequently also of Finnbar. Even on the Scottish Episcopal Church’s ‘Calendar of Saints’ there are only eight named individuals who do not appear to have anything written about them. Finnbar is one of this elite.

The information in the next three paragraphs are from the web. Several saints are commemorated under the names Finnbar and Finian. They include two Irish abbots, Finian of Clonard and Finian of Movilla, Fin Barre of Cork, and the early sixth-century churchman Vinniau, who was also known as  the Welsh scholar Gildas. Gildas, who lived in the sixth century, originally came from north Britain, possibly Strathclyde, and may well have been the Scottish Finnbar.

According to another website, Saint Finbar was the son of an artisan and a lady of the Irish royal court. Born in Connaught, Ireland, and baptized Lochan, he was educated at Kilmacahil, Kilkenny, where the monks named him Fionnbharr (white head) because of his light hair.

On a visit to Rome the Pope wanted to consecrate him a bishop but Saint Finbar was deterred by a vision. He notified the pope that God had reserved that honor to Himself and Saint Finbar was consecrated from heaven. He preached in southern Ireland and lived as a hermit on a small island at Lough Eiroe on the river Lee. Saint Finbar founded a monastery that developed into the city of Cork and he was its first bishop. His monastery became famous in southern Ireland and attracted numerous disciples.

I’m not convinced this is the same Finnbar of Caithness, even though they share the same feast day. However, what might be common to all these people is their call. The Gospel reading is one we have all heard before. It speaks of knowing Jesus’ voice when he calls. This might be audible. It might be heard by others, for example, sounding like thunder. It might be audible only to us. It could occur at any time, regardless of whether we’re asleep or awake. But, like all these things we need to discern whether or not we are actually hearing from God. I find that personally, I receive a quiet nudge, that is sometimes like a ‘gut feeling’. Go and do something. Phone someone. Go to a certain place, or connect with a particular person. Do it now. These are the God encounters. These are the times when, some people will describe it as a thin place between heaven and earth, or others will describe it as your spirit coming into alignment with God’s.

But when nudges are received like this, it is an act of obedience to follow and trust what you think you are being called to do. If we think back to the passage from Jeremiah:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;

for you shall go to all to whom I send you,

and you shall speak whatever I command you.

Do not be afraid of them,

for I am with you to deliver you,

says the Lord.”

Quiet obedience and sensitivity of spirit allows us to listen for God’s voice. We learn what his voice is like beyond all the others clamouring for our attention. Yes, we still need to discern whether it is from God or not. The passage from Acts states that we need to keep watch over ourselves. And that means we all need to watch out over each other. This isn’t a job for a select few, but for all of us when we pray, when we wait on God be it here or at home or work. To remain alert to those who might distort the truth.

If I speak of the ‘gut instinct,’ then, you have probably experienced times when you know something is not right, or someone is not being sincere. Something in your body senses there is an issue. Likewise, when God calls, our bodies respond positively. I have been known, and I only know this from other who I have shared a room with, that I have woken them up, and I have sung a couple of praises in my sleep. You will know when your shepherd calls. You will know when God calls.

Both Chris and I want to explore with the communities different ways of listening for God. This is something we will work on over the next few months and working out different ways and means to allow for a meaningful exploration. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, nor is there a directive saying that you must and can only do X. This is a journey that we do together and we would like to know if there are things that you too would like to explore.

Rev Ellie Charman: Sermon – October 7th, 2018

Sermon given at  St. Peter and the  Holy  Rood,  Thurso, 7th October 2018

Today I want to delve a little into what is meant by the turn of phrase ‘hardness of heart.’ Jesus answers the Pharisees by describing their hearts as having this hardness, and yet not just their hearts, but also the hearts of those that Moses journeyed with, in the wilderness.

Hardness of heart then, is something that has persisted since Biblical times, and probably pre-Biblical times. So what makes our hearts hard? A lack of compassion perhaps? A feeling of helplessness? Or a feeling of losing some sense of control? Or that ‘I am right, and he or she is wrong.’ Perhaps there have been years of pent up frustration, and when a stopper in some form is removed, there appears to be a hardness of heart that was not there at the beginning.

How does this ‘hardness of heart’ play out in our everyday lives? Perhaps like me you’re so fed up of hearing about Donald Trump, that any news with which he’s involved, you filter out because you could just do without hearing his name all the time. So you take less notice of the Kavanaugh protests. And the question that arises of how someone who may have raped another could then sit in the highest court in the American legal system and be comfortable to take up what should be an impartial role.

Does a hardness of heart creep in to our lives when we think of the political climate and shrug our shoulders and feel apathetic about it all? Or perhaps this hardness is displayed in different ways. For example, my parents’ house is surrounded on three sides by fields. One field is good pasture, while the other two are less so. There are two farmers, brothers, and they help each other. It’s a hard life, hill sheep farming, and it’s the only way of life both of them know. One is a good farmer and checks his sheep pretty much every day, and goes through the field on a regular basis. The other has had a harder experience of life, and consequentially is more grumpy and now is far less able.

He doesn’t check his sheep all that often, and many of them limp, or worse have sores with flies buzzing round. His sheep regularly get out on to the road and my parents have given up trying to herd the sheep back in to the field, or telling this farmer that his sheep need some TLC. A hardness of heart has crept in, almost by the need to keep oneself sane and concentrating on the things that my parents know they can change, even though our minds know that such behaviour is unhelpful, and in the knowledge that these sheep suffer.

This is what it means to be human, surely? To despair when we feel we cannot do something to ensure positive outcomes for ourselves and our loved ones, now and in the future. But what happens at that point determines our part in the Gospel story. Do we let the human aspect of our lives take over? Or do we bring ourselves and our despair to God? When we approach a situation and try to solve it ourselves, we’re doing so on our own merit. We’re doing so, using our human instinct, and with the skills that we have learnt from our mothers and fathers, our teachers and our peers.

In doing so, a separation occurs. This probably isn’t obvious, but let me try and explain. We’ve separated ourselves from the love of Christ in that moment, and have decided to go it alone. If we had decided to follow Christ, to invite him into our lives, and walk with him, then in the moment that we decide to forge ahead on our own, we are in effect writing a certificate of dismissal.

Jesus uses the terminology from the conversation with the Pharisees and turns it around to apply equally to both male and female, and not just men. If we use the gendered phrase, ‘the bride of Christ’ to describe who we are in that relationship, then perhaps there is a realisation that we are committing something abhorrent to God when we decide that our relationship with him is no longer special.

How then, can we ensure that we don’t let this hardness of heart remove us from the love of Christ?

  • By continually renewing ourselves in our approach to Him, and with Him. By using the words of the liturgy as a prayer.
  • By ensuring that we have a quiet time each day when we choose to sit and wait for His voice.
  • By caring enough that our compassion doesn’t dry up. Those sheep suffered, but by voicing a concern, someone will come and tend them.

By coming to God, and I’m going to go on a little tangent here. It doesn’t have to be God, per se. Each member of the Trinity has a different association for us, and you may find it easier approaching Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

  • Through our faith in Christ we receive redemption.
  • God’s love pours out of us, and through this process, we receive mercy and restoration.
  • We go on to create new ways to pour out God’s love in our communities. Through this we can help others in their redemption and also their restoration. But we can’t do this if we decide to forge ahead on our own.

Let us return now to the Gospel story. Jesus said: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

We know he wasn’t talking about regressing back to our childhood. But he was talking about their mindset. Their attitude. As we grow and mature we tend to lose the innate trust that young children have. I have worked with children and seen for myself the trust that some of them have as they have chosen to invite Christ into their lives. By choosing to be a disciple of Christ, to allow Him to walk with us, to talk with us we are changed. By choosing to take a moment and listen for the voice of God, we might be able to make more sense of what is happening around us, and our hearts soften. By choosing to walk this road together as a church, we find confidence in ourselves and in those around us so that we can be not just a human presence in our community, but one that seeks to serve God.