Sermon - Sunday, 23 July 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 23 July.

Scripture: Genesis 28: 10-19a / Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

Text: Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it’.             (Genesis 28: 16)

IN THE NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

It is the lesson every young minister needs to learn, Jacob’s lesson, the lesson God is already in this place even if at first we do not know it.

Fortunately it was a lesson Douglas learned during his student days when he went with his supervising minister to visit a couple who had requested a home communion.

The doorbell was answered by a frail and elderly man.

Wearing an apron and with his shirt sleeves rolled up, it was evident from his wet hands Jimmy had been washing the dishes.

Jimmy welcomed the minister and Douglas into his home and, apologising for the mess, showed them through to the living room where they found his wife Jessie.

Now terribly crippled with arthritis, Jessie was sitting in a high backed chair and in front of her was a coffee table with the remnants of her lunch.

As Jimmy started to clear the table, the minister stopped him and told him to pull up his chair.

Far from making everything neat and tidy, the sacrament would be celebrated with the table as it was.

Apart from the volume of the television being turned down, nothing was moved or put away as among the ordinary things of the couple’s living room, and without a white table cloth and all the ceremony and formality of a church communion service, bread was broken, a cup of wine shared, and four people encountered the living God.

As Douglas reflected on the service afterwards, the flashing pictures on the television screen could have been a distraction……… but they weren’t.

The left over lunch plates and cups and sauce bottle could have been a distraction……..but they weren’t.

The lack of the normal ritual and formality of a traditional church communion service could have been a distraction…………but it wasn’t.

Why not?

Because this was Jimmy and Jessie’s home, and these were their things, and they didn’t need to clean up and make everything tidy for God.

God was already present, and the bread and wine of communion simply celebrated God’s living presence amid the everyday circumstances of this elderly couple’s life.

And it was Jessie, the arthritic old lady sitting in her chair, who captured the depth of the experience perfectly when, in thanking the minister for the service, she said a little bit of heaven had come into her sitting room.

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said……..

Sly, duplicitous and often cowardly, Jacob is one of the least attractive characters in the Old Testament.

Living sometime between the years 2000 and 1700 BC, the Genesis narrative reveals that like his father Isaac, Jacob and his elder twin brother Esau, were born to their parents in later years.

Even in the womb the twins wrestled with one another (Genesis 25: 22) and when their mother Rebekah finally delivered them, Esau emerged first with Jacob clutching his heel.

The story of how Jacob became his mother’s favourite and cheated the first born Esau out of his birth-right, gaining his aged and blind father Isaac’s blessing is familiar, suffice to say neither mother nor her younger son emerge with any great credit from their scheming ways.

Paragons of virtue they are not and yet paradoxically it is Jacob who becomes the 3rd patriarch of ancient Israel, final proof if proof was needed, that God’s purposes are fulfilled by divine will and not by human initiative or through the merit of any particular individual.

At the point of the story in which we hear about him this morning, Isaac has died and, after a time of mourning, Esau has set off in pursuit of his brother, intent on killing him and gaining revenge for the many ways in which his twin brother has wronged him.

Having left Beersheba, Jacob has travelled as far as Haran where he has stopped to rest for the night.

Laying his head on a stone pillow (and before anyone wonders, it is not the stone of Scone because geologists have established Scone’s stone comes from local red sandstone and not come from the Holy Land)  Jacob falls fast asleep and dreams of a stairway reaching from earth to heaven.

God stands at the top of the stairway and Jacob hears God repeating the promise once made to Abraham, namely that Jacob’s descendants would be many, spreading out from east to west and from north to south, and that the people of the earth would be blessed through him and his offspring.

Awakening from his dream Jacob is moved to declare: Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.    

It is a moment of profound insight.

As he rests in a place if not exactly God-forsaken then one which does not speak loudly of God’s presence, Jacob is led to a very different understanding: the realisation God is always present and that Jacob has been, and always will be, embraced in God’s care, God’s purpose and God’s concern.

It is an insight articulated at different points in the Bible but nowhere more beautifully than by the Psalmist (Psalm 139)

Where can I go from Your Spirit?

Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend to heaven You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol You are there

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me fast

If the realisation that the Lord is indeed in this place has been a source of deep comfort and hope to God’s people down through the ages, it is one with a very contemporary resonance.

The dreadful fire which engulfed London’s Grenfell tower was shocking in its intensity and its loss of life.

The various enquiries are only starting and hopefully many lessons will be learned and proper action taken to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.

However, this much is immediately evident; that while the local council and national government failed miserably, the church stepped up to the plate as its places of worship became emergency relief and counselling centres and its people became sources of comfort and support.

As the tower blazed, Grenfell Methodist church opened its doors overnight providing emergency shelter to those who managed to escape the flames.

And in the days which followed St Clement’s Church of England, in whose parish the tower stood, with its associated charity, the Clement James Centre, helped to co-ordinate the spontaneous and almost overwhelming donations of food, clothing and volunteers and the survivors’ desperate search for information about their family and friends.

Two congregations among other faith and community groups who rose to the occasion providing refuge, people to comfort, people to sit quietly and hold a hand, people to pray with, people to cry with, people to do no more than make a cup of tea, but two congregations who were able to do so because of many years of Christian worship, witness and community building.

And it was to the church the government turned for help, with the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, receiving a telephone call from 10 Downing Street asking him to arrange a meeting between the Prime Minister and a group of survivors and local residents.

On that dreadful night, and in the days which followed, in what for the people involved must have felt the most God-forsaken of experiences, the Lord was in that place as the people of God opened not just their churches but their homes and their hearts to those whose homes and families and lives had been so devastated.

So what does it mean to believe in a God of care, compassion and love in a world where many terrible things happen?

And what is our proper response to a world which does indeed groan in pain and frustration, a world in which too many people, each one reflecting something of the image of God, struggle for survival in ways God never intended?

And drawing from the imagery of Jesus’ parable, how in all the opportunities and challenges of your life and mine, do we separate the wheat from the weeds, the good from the bad and discern what is right and what is wrong?

Holding fast to our faith that the Lord is in this place even if like Jacob we do not immediately know it, must surely be our starting point.

And anticipating that the Lord is already in this place, Rowan Williams suggests we ask ourselves a simple question;

What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?

Never mind the politics, Williams says, the hidden agenda, or anything else of that kind, just ask that question, what is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen