Sermon on BBC Radio 4
It was great fun doing the BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship live from St Mary’s today. There’s always a bit of an adrenalin rush about being involved with the production of 40 minutes of live radio.
If you were one of the million or so who tuned in then you’ve already heard this sermon, but the video gives you the pictures of what it looked like, including me preaching in headphones.
When we follow Jesus, we follow into a whole set of traditions that remind us that God is with us – here, right here in the world.
A few weeks ago now we were in high festival mode in this church, as in most churches. The Christmas trees are gone. The baubles are packed away. The candle-ends have been removed from the windowsills and sent off for recycling. And there is only be barest whiff of incense in the air from the feast of the Epiphany.
But the church offers us time to reflect on what we encountered. For Epiphany is a season not a one off event. It’s a time for reflecting on what it means to live in a world that God has chosen to come into and be known in.
Very often I talk about God being a God of surprises and say that when we get to know God we should expect the unexpected.
But looking through the verses of Psalm 139, perhaps the big drama of the Christmas story should never have surprised us. For they too tell us that God is with us.
Most religions have patterns of behaviour and rhythms built into them. Across many traditions, the idea of praying at the start and the end of the day is common.
The psalms were clearly part of a cycle of prayer and they still form the backbone of daily prayer for millions of people every day. It isn’t hard to hear in Psalm 139 part of that ancient rhythm of reminding oneself early in the day that God is present.
The psalmist sings “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”
Prayer is offered here in this building every day. Whether there are just a few of us gathered in the little oratory behind me as is the case on some days, or whether it is a day when the place is packed out with people celebrating a festival or a morning like this when we share our prayer with people listening on the radio, this is a place where prayer is offered every morning.
I remember when I was working in a university chaplaincy knowing one of the people in the mail room who, if he saw me going back to the chaplaincy would call after me, “Say one for me – don’t forget, say one for me”.
And we do. We pray each day here for the world around us, for people in need. We remember those who mourn and those who are sick. The rhythm of prayer means that prayers are offered not simply for the peoples of the world who need it but because some are too sick to be able to pray clearly, some a travelling, some are on the run, some are anxious and find it hard to be still.
Every time we pray, it is like a little Christmas for every time we pray we live out the truth that God is with us in the world and with us in every kind of setting that we encounter.
God is with us in the bright days when all seems well. And God is with us on the down days too. God is with us when we know it. And God is with us when we struggle to recognise it. God is with us when we pray consoling words in a holy place. But God is with us in every other time and place too.
“Where can I go from God’s spirit? Or where can I flee from God’s presence?” asks the psalmist. And the answer is that there is nowhere that is separate from God at all. Everywhere we go, God is already there.
Years ago when widespread acceptance of the internet was relatively new, I got involved in a project where a church put a webpage up asking for prayer requests. The idea was that a small congregation would pray through the requests at a lunchtime service each week.
Word got out in the press that this was available and within a few weeks the prayer requests were flooding in. Hundreds a day were coming in. Thousands. And for a time, baskets containing printouts of the prayers were being placed on the altar of the church to represent the prayers being brought before God.
The truth is though that we are already surrounded by prayer because Christians pray for the world every day. And we are already close to God – and our psalms are amongst the many promises in the bible that tell us so.
The world is troubling at the moment. Massacres happen on the streets of western capital cities, in Nigeria and in places far from the eye of the media too.
It is easy to feel unsettled and troubled.
Indeed, it is reasonable and right to feel that way.
But I believe that peace and justice will come to our world and trust that God is collaborating in our lives to help us to bring peace to pass. We must never be cheated into thinking that trouble and violence are the way the world really is.
For God is with us in the troubled, perplexing but ultimately wonderful world. And with God, love is always the last word on how things should be.
I happen to be a keen follower of “What’s in Kelvin’s Head” – the blog-site of Provost Kelvin Holdsworth, of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland. Today’s offering, featuring a sermon broadcast from St. Mary’s on Sunday, contains a great deal of wisdom – and a proper caution about how Christians deal with the exigencies of everyday life in the modern world. In fact, the words of Psalm 139, quoted by Fr. Kelvin, are living testimony as to how we can experience the ongoing reality of ‘God-with-us’, as established in the amazing story of the Incarnation of Jesus, who came to share our human existence at every level of our being.
“Lord, you have searched me out and known me….You guide me from behind and before; and cover me with your hand. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me: so high that I cannot attain to it. Where shall I go from your Spirit: Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven you are there: If I make my bed in the grave, you are there also. If I take the wings of the dawn, and alight at the uttermost parts of the sea – even there your hand will lead me: And your right hand will hold me fast” (vv Ps 139)
Fr. Kelvin draws our attention to our need of recollection of God’s presence in this way:
“We pray each day here for the world around us, for people in need. We remember those who mourn and those who are sick. The rhythm of prayer means that prayers are offered not simply for the peoples of the world who need it but because some are too sick to be able to pray clearly, some are travelling, some are on the run, some are anxious and find it hard to be still.”
In a world of religious conflict, where fundamentalist claimants to a purist way of life seek vengeance against those who are perceived to be ‘less holy or righteous’ than themselves; we Christians need to understand the example of Jesus, who did not meet violence with violence, but offered himself – in human form – as Saviour and Redeemer of ALL people. Our daily prayer to the God of Love is an extension of the Prayer of Christ: “That ALL might be one”.
Jesus’ Incarnation, his sacrificial life and death, has offered ALL humanity the promise of life in all its fullness – a life where hatred will be overcome by love, vengeance by forgiveness, and death by eternal life. We have not been given the right to judge the faith of others. Rather, we have been taught. in the Lord’s own Prayer, to ‘Forgive, as we are forgiven’. In this way, Perfect Love has the power to cast out fear in our lives – and in the lives of those we forgive.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand