16th Sunday of Trinity
The Revd Dr Susan Blackall 16 September 2018
First, may I say what a joy it is to be with you here at St Alfege this morning and to share in your worship. It’s the place where I finally recognised and accepted my calling to ordained ministry, so it has a very special place in my heart.
So it seems all the more fitting to me that our readings today speak to us of calling and response. Of challenge and risk. Of obedience and endurance. And of witness.
These were all things our Lord himself experienced. And indeed, every Christian experiences some or all of these things in their journey of faith and discipleship.
For Jesus and his first disciples, and for many Christians still today, this journey can even demand putting their life at risk.
But here, in this country, we have a much easier time of it in so many ways. We’re free to worship without fear of physical threat, and, largely, without even ridicule. Neither persecuted nor restricted. Ours is the officially recognised majority faith of the nation in the established Church of England.
The Christian faith is also embedded in our national traditions, our holidays, our civic life, our literature, our language, our aphorisms. We also have easy access to the Bible in different English translations and just about any other language we choose. We have access, too, to a huge range of spiritual and theological writings, from short and easy reads, to the most demanding academic tomes. And we can learn even more about our faith and practice it by joining Bible study groups, prayer groups and Christian social action groups. We can even study the faith formally at every level right up to postgraduate degrees. And we can find places of Christian worship wherever we live or visit. Our city and country skyscapes are everywhere punctuated with spires and church towers. Indeed, with all these blessings, anyone looking from the outside might expect the Christian faith to flourish abundantly in our homes, our streets, our places of work, our whole society, and our hearts. And yet it is not so. At every census, the proportion of professed Christians in our population is shrinking, and much faster than can be accounted for by the increasing numbers of those of other faiths.
No, in this country, the challenges to our faith and discipleship are not lack of freedom, opportunity, tradition or resource, or down to population shift. Rather, the two biggest challenges to Christianity are busyness and indifference: the pace and complication and demands of life, making it difficult to find the time to step back, to reflect, to listen and respond in faith to God. And then, the general indifference to faith – by others and by ourselves. Christianity isn’t so much ridiculed as ignored, or at best tolerated without interest. Perhaps, here in London and in other big cities, these two challenges are most pronounced: we go about so engaged with our phones and tablets and e-readers that we don’t engage or take notice of much else around us.
Earlier this year, a BBC programme made this point rather strikingly. It was about the Neanderthals, the ancient forerunners of our own species. You may have seen it too.
As part of their investigation, they padded up a short man and made up his face so that he looked like a Neanderthal. Then they put him in a suit and tie and sent him into the London Underground. They secretly filmed him making his way in and out of busy stations, on the platforms and in a crowded tube carriage.
And no one took a blind bit of notice. They were too absorbed in their thoughts and plans, and in their phones and tablets. They were busy. They were indifferent. They didn’t notice. And they couldn’t care.
In the same way, people simply don’t pay much attention to the Christian message. They just don’t notice. Especially people who haven’t had any experience of the Christian tradition. And who don’t know any Christians who live and speak of their faith. This indifference of others can sometimes make us Christians reticent or embarrassed about making our faith known. And we’re often too busy and distracted ourselves to make the effort. And so, we end up colluding with the busyness and indifference of others. And the word and the work of the Lord become increasingly less known.
If Jesus were to ask ‘Who do people say that I am?’ today in our country, the most likely answer would be: ‘they don’t say anything.’
And often, we don’t either. We don’t very often engage in active witness to our faith, partly because those two challenges of busyness and indifference affect us, too. We’re so distracted and oblivious that we don’t recognise the opportunities or the need present in our everyday lives.I’m not talking about standing on street corners in Oxford Circus with a megaphone, or loudly calling people to repentance on underground trains. That tends to be rather counterproductive. But I am talking about stepping out of our comfort zones more than we do. Not only showing the love of Christ to all his people through our actions, but through our words.
It might be a simple ‘God bless you’. It might be explaining how and why our faith motivates our actions when someone asks us why we take part in something, or support a cause, or volunteer. It might be telling someone when you see by their own actions how they are made the image of God and how you can see the work of the Holy Spirit in them.These might seem like challenging things to do in our largely indifferent society. We so easily fail to venture out of our comfort zone, to take risks and to make ourselves vulnerable in his name. Which is exactly what he asked of his first disciples to do in our Gospel reading today. And asks of us, too.
It is, as they say, ‘a big ask’.But perhaps you will be inspired, as I have been, by the example of a woman I have the privilege to know.
Her name is Yunghee. And she has come to faith and nurtured it and remained true to it in circumstances very different from ours, in spite of obstacles and challenges we’ve never had to face. And, until very recently, without all the benefits and advantages that we enjoy as Christians in this country.
Yunghee grew up in South Korea. Her parents divorced when she was very young and her father moved to Japan. Her mother worked full time and her brother was much older than she was. There was a token following of Buddhism, but she had never been deeply drawn to it.
Christians were few and far between. But when she went to university, she made a Christian friend who told Yunghee how the presence of the Lord in her life had helped her get through a very difficult time. A time which Yunghee herself didn’t think she would have had the personal strength to overcome.
So she began to explore Christianity more deeply. And came to be baptised and confirmed. During that period, she met and married her husband, Taeseok, and moved with him in his response to his own calling as a pastor. Supporting him in his ministry to the Korean people, first in Japan and then in this country.
Here, she used her gifts to learn the English language better, obtain qualifications, get a good job to support their growing family, and adjust to a culture very different from any she had previously known. And yet, she still found – and finds – time to reflect, to pray, to study the scriptures, and to listen to the Lord. And, in recent years, to hear and respond to his call to ordained ministry, and to remain committed to the truth of that calling. Even though the process of discernment in the Church of England was long and demanding, and training a real test of endurance and stamina, not just physical, but mental and emotional, too.
But she has remained true to the Lord’s calling. She has taken up and born the cross in response. And she has witnessed to me and to many others how the Lord has been specially generous to her, too, in accompanying and strengthening her in her demanding journey. Yunghee was ordained priest in the Church of England in early July. And I had the joy to be present at her ordination and her first celebration of the Eucharist the following day.
Of course, she continues to be very busy in ministry and in raising her family. And she still regularly has to step out of her own comfort zones to make the Lord known in her actions and in her words. Not just in church, but everywhere. But she’s never indifferent to the Lord’s love for her and for all people, and she’s always generous with it. Even at personal cost. And personal risk. This quiet, gentle and diffident woman, has a proven courage and grit and resilience in her faith that I, for one, hold in awe and am deeply inspired by. I hope you might be inspired by her story, too.
And I pray that in the power of the Spirit, all of us – myself very much included - may listen for and hear the Lord’s voice more attentively, respond with joy, and be his faithful disciples more fully and plainly, in deed and in word, in our everyday lives.
In his name and with his love, let us step out of our comfort zones. And may his grace be sufficient for us. Amen.