Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at the Service to welcome new students to Ripon College Cuddesdon on Sunday 35th September 2016.
Readings: 1 Timonthy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
In the name of the Father and for the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When Archbishop Justin came to office in 2013 he announced that there would be three priorities to his ministry. You may know what they are? One of course was Evangelism and witness, another was reconciliation which we are seeing acted out at the moment in the shared conversations project. But Justin’s first priority, the one he was going to give most of his time and energy to, was not mission or even growth, but prayer.
If that all comes as a bit of a surprise to you then you are in good company. A few months ago I attended a conference for the Diocesan Spirituality Advisers across the country and I have to say none of us knew what Justin’s priorities were. It then came as a wonderful surprise and delight that he affirmed what we all felt so strongly: mission is great, growth is essential, buildings are to be treasured, communities nurtured and well lead but the life of faith is first and foremost always grounded in prayer. It is from our relationship with God in prayer, in the crucible of our hearts, that we then are sent out as apostles and evangelists every day. But prayer, though it forms the bedrock of our beliefs, can be is as diaphanous as a thought, which is easily overwhelmed by what seems more real and pressing, especially when there is no chapel bell to call us to our knees.
In our reading today Jesus is once again directly speaking to the Pharisees about their priorities. The story of Lazarus and the rich man comes in a sequence of parables, which we know, are not always to be read literally. So for those of you who were hoping for a good old couple of hours on hell and judgement, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you. Instead, I suggest you come next week. It is quite easy though to be scorched by the brilliance of the images of this parable. Jesus paints a very vivid picture of the rich man crying out in pain from the agony of the fire, pleading for the smallest drop of relief. But the purpose of this parable is not about describing what the life to come is like, for all its sense of judgment and justification, but rather to teach the Pharisees something about this life. In the verses just before this parable Luke writes, ‘The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this (which is the parable of prodigal son and dishonest manager) and they ridiculed Jesus. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”’ This parable is directed towards those people of faith whose priorities have become distorted and are no longer living out their faith, though they wear all the outer signs of doing so. When money has become more important than people or the Lord. It seeks to awaken the prodigal son who is no longer living as the child of Abraham and call him home.
We all need to hear this call from time to time, to be reminded of our priorities as people of God and faith. It is sometimes surprising what form this reassessment can take. A few years ago now I was Chaplain to the children’s ward of a Hospital and would go in to walk round the wards once a week. On one occasion I knocked on the door of a room and asked if I could join the family who was sitting by the bed of a very sick child. I sat down and began the usually sensitive introductions to conversation. Without having said much, suddenly a barrage of abuse was hurled my way followed by intense questioning, interrogating even on the central doctrines of the Christian faith. All this came from the father of the child. I don’t remember much of it now, but what sticks in my mind were his comments about how we as Christians never seemed to pray. He went to the Mosque seven times and what did we do? Barely anything in comparison. We didn’t seem to live out our faith at all. As you can imagine, I was a little bruised by the encounter and truly humbled by his words. The following week, I approached his room with some intrepidation. Before I could speak, he apologised. He had been angry about his son who had been so ill. Then he thanked me for listening, for coming to see his boy and most of all for my prayers, which we felt had been one with his.
All of us from time to time need to be reminded that our first priority as people of God is to pray for it is here that we deepen our relationship with God, are formed into the people of God and transformed by his presence. It is only out of prayer that we may love our neighbour, nurture each other as the children of Abraham, grow our church, bring justice to the afflicted and love our Lord.
I would like to end with a quote from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. I am always reminded of these words when I happen to find myself alone in the awesome stillness of this church. I hope in the coming days and months during all the bustle and nervousness of Evening Prayer you may be reminded of them:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.