A sermon preached Canon Nigel Davies, Vicar of the Close
Sunday 19 September, 16,30, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
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What did you made of the two Lessons this evening? A theophany and displays of power, make for more inspiring reading, than some of the material we have been wading through at recent Evening Services – blood-thirsty deeds aplenty, with questionable morality to boot. Tonight’s offerings certainly have the capacity to spark the imagination – I wonder what pictures were conjured up, inside your head?
Using the imagination, is an important element in contemplative prayer and Bible Reading, according to Ignatius of Loyola. In his Spiritual Exercises, the ‘composition of place’ - imagining the scene - is a specific component, in contemplation. A person who follows this type of exercise, must reflect on a scriptural passage or event, firstly imagining the scene in concrete detail. Then place themselves in the scene, paying attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise from participation, in the events of the passage. To achieve this takes practise and will not suit everyone, but certainly using this approach makes a passage come to life.
Of course, we are now used to passages from books, being brought to life on the big screen at the cinema, or on TVs, Laptops and tablets, in our livingrooms, or bedrooms. The use of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery for the uninitiated) makes scenes that are two fantastical to create with live action, appear as if by magic, before our eyes. Superheroes with super-powers; strange new worlds; amazing mystical creatures; monsters from outer space; all these can be created with the aid of computers, digital artists, and animators.
Our two Bible passages tonight, would throw up some marvellous images, especially the reading from Matthew, where Jesus stills a storm and banishes evil spirits, into a herd of pigs - and if it were done by CGI, no pigs would be hurt, or killed, in making the movie!!
I wonder, however, what can we take from these readings, into the everyday, for all scripture - according to Paul, writing to his protégé Timothy:
“…is inspired by God and is useful for teaching and for showing people what is wrong in their lives. It is useful for correcting faults and teaching how to live right. Using the Scriptures, the person who serves God will be ready and will have everything he needs to do every good work.”
From the First Lesson, we learn that God is Holy, and as such cannot be approached without careful preparation, with the correct boundaries in place. Meeting with God is a daunting prospect. We are never told what God looks like, but there is usually cloud and fire about, hiding God from mere mortals. Only Moses was granted a view of God’s back, others’ view of God is mediated through visionary experiences. From this Old Testament picture of God, we get a sense that God is totally other and unknowable, in any real sense, to humanity.
By the time events of the New Testament were written down, the idea of God had developed through the experiences and writings of Judaism. There developed a belief that God would be manifest in human form, as a Messiah, a Saviour, who would make it clear what God wanted from humanity. To the disciples, Jesus was this Messiah, and in their view the miraculous acts that Jesus displayed, such as stilling the storm and healing the possessed men, were proof that Jesus was ‘God in man, made manifest’ as the hymn “Songs of thankfulness and praise” puts it.
All this emphasis on divine transcendence and power filled acts is all very well, but how do these readings help us live as faithful followers of Jesus? Do they tell us anything that is helpful in the life of faith? They do, but this is found in the detail, not the big picture. The first concerns the nature of faith.
As Jesus is roused from slumber, in the storm-tossed boat, the disciples fearing for their lives, he asks:
'Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’
The disciples lack of faith serves to remind us that even those who lived and walked with Jesus, who saw His miracles, and heard His message, still found it difficult to be 100 percent faith-filled all the time, and indeed before the end of the Gospel story, they will desert Jesus and deny him.
In that way, the disciples were a lot like us, for our faith is often rather tentative. We are beset by doubts and anxieties – we are not confident Christians, but we are Christians none-the-less, an ill-assorted motley crew just like the disciples and like the disciples, entrusted with the Good News of Jesus, to share with others.
Now we come to the second point we can take from the Second Lesson. After the possessed men were set free and the pigs went ‘swimming’, the whole town turns out to meet Jesus. They are not delighted with this new state of affairs and beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. A surprising response you might think - that they were more upset over the loss of the pigs, than they were happy for the two men who had been cured. This reminds us of another truth, that protecting incomes and other worldly interests, is seen as more important by many people, than acts of kindness to those in need.
Perhaps these two facets of the Second Lesson, give us clues as to why sharing our faith can seem so difficult and why when we do pluck up the courage speak about our faith, people are often unresponsive. I wonder.