MADPRIEST’S "FAREWELL IS A LONELY SOUND"SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.

" Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
(Luke 13: 31-35)
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I conduct a lot of funerals. 99% of them are for men and women who I have never met. People often say to me, “That must be the most difficult part of your job, surely it’s very distressing?” The truth is though, that it is rarely upsetting. In fact, quite often I enjoy doing a funeral. It is usually a great honour to come alongside people in their time of bereavement and surprisingly there is often joy involved as well as sadness. Of course, there are times when funerals are very distressing. If somebody dies tragically or too young then there is a lot of distress and anger, but such occasions are thankfully quite rare. Usually the person who has died has reached a good age and their family and friends are already prepared for their death. In these cases there seems to be one thing that makes the difference between the subsequent funeral being an upsetting time or a time of celebration of life. The difference is whether the person lived a fulfilled life or an apparently wasted life. I did a funeral once where the person who had died was such a difficult person that even her neighbour who looked after her during her final years could not find a good word to say about her. On top of this this lady never left her home, she had no friends and no interests in life other than her cigarettes. In cases like this life can come across as seemingly pointless and the funeral can be very depressing. However, on many other occasions, I have conducted the funerals of people who have lived full and active lives, lives full of love and happiness. These are people who are missed by their friends, these are people who have given more to life than they have taken out. In these cases their lives and their deaths do not seem pointless and with the mourners I am able to celebrate their lives.

Life is a precious commodity. We are only here for a short time in the overall scheme of things and all of us, deep down, know that life is not to be wasted. So quite often we find ourselves wondering what our life's purpose might be, or even whether our life actually has any purpose? We all do this, and never more so than when we come face to face with death, whether it is our own or someone else's. Shakespeare's Macbeth, when he was told of his wife's death, declared that life was idiotic and pointless. He said,

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
(Macbeth V iv 24-28)

According to Macbeth, our life, with all its richness of emotion, spirituality and humanity, all its years of learned wisdom and experience, means nothing.

In his circumstances within the play this may be an understandable conclusion, but there is something beyond it. Extreme situations don't have to bring despair – they can also bring recognition of the real purpose of our life. We can realise that it is not that our life is pointless, but that we are missing the point. There are times when we suddenly see that we are investing our time and energy in things that, at the end of the day, are unimportant. A young mother, diagnosed with breast cancer, once said to me, "I've learnt what really matters in life now. And it has nothing to do with keeping my house spotless and cooking perfect meals."

Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem and death, also knew what really mattered. He knew and understood exactly who he was, what he was doing and where he was going: "I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work." His mind was focused on something far greater than the immediate danger. He was so clear about his goal that nothing would sway him from it.

"But you will be killed if you go any further," protested the Pharisees, and Jesus did not deny it. His retort to Herod was not a dare: he wasn't saying, "catch me if you can! I'm not scared of you!" He was very scared: he was young – he didn't want to die, and he knew he was going to. For whatever else he was, Jesus certainly never stopped being human.

Jesus' sense of purpose was not fueled by blind fanaticism. His mind was focused, yes, but not in a way that blinded him to the other people or that left him out of touch with reality or with himself. Approaching a frightening death, hurt by Jerusalem's rejection of him, sorrowful beyond measure at their refusal to be saved, he continued to reach out to people, to listen to their needs and to heal them. And in doing so he was not denying anything of what he felt but was remaining absolutely true and open to God, to himself and to everyone around him.

Jesus was clear about the purpose of his life because he was so closely in touch with God. In Paul's words, Jesus' mind was not set on earthly things, but on heavenly ones. That is not to say that Jesus "was so heavenly minded to be no earthly use", but that his mind was fixed on God in a way that coloured his whole attitude to the things of the earth. His earthly use, if you like, was entirely defined by his heavenly-mindedness.

When I was studying for my degree at Nottingham University one of my tutors of New Testament theology was an atheist. He had no belief in the divine whatsoever. But he also, firmly believed that Jesus had lived and that much about the three years of his ministry could be discerned from the synoptic Gospels. It was his considered opinion that Jesus did know that he would be crucified in Jerusalem. Not because he had supernatural powers of prophesy but because, just with a human mind, he would have worked out exactly where his actions would take him.

Now, there is something very important that we need to bear in mind here. The terrible things that happened to Jesus at the end of his life were the result of human actions. They were not engineered by God. If we believe that God would do such a thing we end up worshipping a god who is nothing less than a heartless monster. God's part in Christ's story was to redeem the evil done to his son by raising him from the dead and through that, bringing people into his kingdom.

Most people have periods in their life when all they can see ahead of them is darkness. It may be the terminal illness of a loved one or personal illness. It may be financial problems. It may be work related as it is with me at the moment. I have gone from asking two people, last September, to get together with me to choose the hymns for Sunday morning, although I could have insisted on choosing them all myself, to being unemployed and unsalaried in a couple of months time. In fact, I received my notice of dismissal, in writing, from the bishop, yesterday. Along the way I saw my greatest dream, to be vicar of the parish I have loved and served for the last ten years, completely dashed on the rocks. The bishop told me not to get involved directly with sorting the mess out but to leave everything up to the church wardens. The archdeacon told me not to talk to any of you about what was going on. My hands were tied. All I could do was watch my personal Jerusalem heading towards me. There was nothing I could do about it.

I do not blame God for any of this. Whatever, my life has in store for me, the nastiness of the last six months has absolutely nothing to do with God and everything to do with ordinary human beings.

However, although I do not believe for a moment that any of this was God's doing, as a Christian and as a priest, I strongly believe that God will redeem it. To put it bluntly, God will bring something good out of the unhappiness. I have to accept that this may not be for my benefit. It may be the church, you people, who receive a blessing because of what you have been through. Maybe it will be the new vicar whose life will be fulfilled by his or her appointment at this church.

I am not Jesus. I don't claim to have anywhere near the fortitude and faith that he possessed. But I do use his example to inform my attitude towards my own predicament. I have my own Jerusalem to face and it will be painful. It has been painful. However, something of God will be made possible because of it. Just as something of God was made possible through Christ's suffering.

We all need to set our minds on God, and not to keep them fixed on earthly things. One way to do that is to focus on the Jesus we find in the gospels. Perhaps for Lent we could read one of the gospels and for every episode we read about, ask three specific questions: firstly, how might I have reacted to this situation? Secondly, how did Jesus react? Thirdly, what does this tell me about Jesus and therefore about God?

We can write down our answers and use them to reflect on how we could become more like Christ, and so more aware of our life's purpose. We can be sure that our life does have a purpose purely because God has created us, and he calls everyone to live lives of real fulfilment in him.

Macbeth was wrong when he said that life is a tale told by an idiot that means nothing. However, Macbeth’s problem was that he could not see the power of love that fills the whole world. the main purpose of our lives is to love. To love God and to love our fellow human beings. Our life's author is God himself, and his meaning is always love. The funerals I conduct which are imbued with joy are the ones of people who have known love and who have given love to others. If they have achieved nothing else in life accept the love of their friends and family and of God, then they have achieved enough, because their love will carry them forward into a new life where they shall discover the reason for everything. However, those who turn their backs on love, turn their backs on God himself, because God is love, for them life is a waste of time, a tragic waste of time.

So it is very important that we encourage one another to find God’s loving purpose in our lives and to reflect God’s love in our own lives. It is so important because it is, quite literally, a matter of life or death.

Comments

MADPRIEST’S "FAREWELL IS A LONELY SOUND"SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT — 49 Comments

  1. This is very hard news. I am sure I will not be alone in holding you in my prayers now and as you move through the apparent darkness ahead. Don’t forget how much we love you.

  2. Amen. Excellent sermon.

    Jonathan, this sermon bears witness that you are rooted in Gospel. May that rooting hold you steady in the days ahead.

    You are in my prayers as things unfold.

  3. You know what i think.

    BTW – as helpful to read the sermon as it was to hear it.

    God bless

    Paul

  4. And PS: Yes, we are spiritually walking through the valley with you, never forget that.

    I just wish there was something more concrete that we could do.

  5. MP, your understanding of the heart of the gospel has helped me keep my own faith alive, when so much else about the church is disillusioning. You are loved by your virtual parish!

    wv: “suselyte” – a boy acolyte named Sue?

  6. You spoke your truth to the truth of the Gospel, the truth of the situation in the parish and the truth of “the powers that be”.

    Doesn’t get much better than that, m’dear. Bravo! Well done. And, prayers for all the hearts – including yours – that are sad and broken tonight.

  7. Prayers with you Father J.

    As usual you get to the heart of it – we all pray that the Powers That Be will one day see this as well as us.

    Blessings.

    w.v. dicars – oh dear, nuff said?

  8. Thank you for this wonderful sermon, MP. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for you, for surely it will be a new and exciting opportunity. And you remain in my prayers as the path to that new opportunity is, currently at least, rife with pain and sadness. I trust, however, it will not always be so.

  9. A wonderful sermon from an extraordinary priest. Thank you for sharing this. Prayers for your journey forward.

  10. Thank you for a marvelous sermon!

    You are loved and cherished, prayers as all moves forward into God’s unknowable future.

  11. Thank you for a marvelous sermon!

    You are loved and cherished, prayers as all moves forward into God’s unknowable future.

  12. Absolutely wonderful. Quite a lot to think about. Perhaps some day I will find it in me to let you know what I was thinking about before I read this sermon tonight. Thank you for putting this on-line. As always, you and Mrs. MP are in my prayers.

  13. My dear chap, I am so sorry. Chin up, and all that; the Lord will provide. But still. A bit of a bugger, isn’t it? Hymns, eh. Should scrap the lot of ’em and have a return to plainsong graduals if you ask me.

  14. I think it took a lot of courage to stand up in that pulpit & talk about the situation with such honesty and grace.

  15. Still wish you’d consider a position across the Pond. You’d fit right in here at my parish – we love a good sermon that makes you think, we (mostly) have a great sense of humor, and we’re all a bit nuts. 😉

    Prayers for you, my brother.

  16. The first provisional bishop of the Continuing Episcopal Diocese of Ft. Worth (TEC – on the side of the angels) was writing a sermon when he was called to Ft. Worth by the Presiding Bishop. The sermon was entitled, “Go to Nineveh.” Bp. Gulick served superbly for several months before returning to Kentucky to be near his father, who was in bad health. The Diocese reorganized and took on new life under his leadership, and it continues to flourish under the current Provisional Bishop, +Wallis Ohl.

    You’ll find your Nineveh, I’m sure. Prayers will continue for you and Mrs. MP.

  17. A perfect Lenten lesson. I am sorry that Ruth’s article would seem to be about episcopal machinations, and not the Gospel truth that is apparent in your sermon, but I guess the two of you are reporting on two very different things.

  18. Jonathon, may God be with you. I had a simalar thing three years ago. I thought that Easter was not comming. But it did and it is glorius. Prayer asending.

  19. Whatever people say, life is not fair, though at times when we think it most unfair, it may not be. I don’t know what brought to your current circumstances, but I am sure that there are many versions to the story. It is a common tale.

    That said, your sermon shows a very Christ-like grace in dealing with one of life’s major disappointments. I admire your avoidance both of self-pity and of pollyannaish optimism.

    I pray that your gifts will find a worthy outlet and that you will not desert your many friends and admirers on the Web.

  20. I am sorry that I am playing catchup and have only just read this entry.

    I am extremely sad that you are being treated in this way – and while I take your comments that this is about man and his actions – it does not make it any easier to accept.

    Undoubtedly, your honesty and integrity in your Ministry to your Parish and here on the internet have had a huge impacted on so many of us. At least you will be free to continue this Ministry.

    As others have said, you will be in our prayers and hope that whatever future Ministry you are called to allows you to continue to be You!

  21. I’ve been away; playing catch up, I saw the link to the Gledhill article and came here straightaway.

    Darned good sermon, Mister MP!

    May God be with you and bring you courage and strength On The Road Ahead!

  22. Being all Christ-like is one thing, but it might be a good idea to go out on the moors one day and just scream your head off. Complaining is good for you, even if it bores your friends.
    My people don’t complain, and they end up either hitting the bottle or taking out a Luby’s with an Uzi.
    This is a terrible blow and you deserve to blow off some steam and to grieve.

    I don’t know, but perhaps God has something else in mind for you.

    I will remember you in my prayers and wish you and the missus all the best in the days ahead.

    I echo the wishes of others above who hope you might consider an American tour (including Canada and Mexico).

  23. I am very, very late to this and so very sorry to hear this. You have truly changed the world with your work here; I can only imagine that it has been the same with your parish.

    Prayers for you.

  24. Listen for your new vocation.

    Here’s what I hear: I think you should have your own chat show every Saturday night, with a guest or two and a live band.

    Start small, pass the hat, create your own ministry from the streets.

    One Sunday night a month, and every Christmas Eve, say midnight mass at a Gay bar. You might be astonished at the response.

    Do not waste the gifts God gave you; use them for his glory. Maybe it’s time to be done trying to fit into the old structure; maybe it’s time to build a new one.

    Prayers from here, dude. Be the gift.

  25. I am stunned and saddened. They have really missed an opportunity and the gift that you are. You and Mrs. MP are always in my thoughts and prayers.

  26. I’m very sorry for the loss that you and your parish will suffer. I found your blog years ago when my own pastor was removed against his wishes and I was so glad to find your sympathetic report of it here.

    I am keeping you in prayer, as are so many others who have been blessed by your ministry. May God’s love surround you. Here’s the song we sing in Detroit: “In the time of trouble, He shall hide me, oh in the time of trouble, He shall hide me. In the time of trouble, He shall hide me. Whom shall I fear?’

  27. My prayers for you MP, your lovely wife, and also for your parishioners. They have no idea what a treasure they’re losing.

  28. Respect to you Father; more than that – Grace and peace to you. The parochial clergy such as yourself are Lions led by (pointy hatted) Donkeys. I once saw a Bishop on TV talk glowingly about the ‘filial’ relationship between the bishop and those he ordains. Whilst that particular bishop may have been an exception, most CofE Manager-Bishops treat their clergy not as sons/daughters, but as expendable hirelings. They care nothing for the sacramental-indelible orders and ministries they confer, and everything for their pet schemes, managerial pecadilloes, and personal favorites. Shame on them. Disestablishment, and election of bishops cannot come too soon, and when it does, there should be a Church-wide referendum on the suitability of any and every current episcopal officeholder to continue to hold such office.