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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Sunday 23 February – Next before Lent – Evensong
2 Kings 2.1-12 & Matthew 17.9-23
Discipleship seems to be a ‘buzz’ word in the Church at the moment. People like me preach sermons about how we are all disciples. We offer prayers, asking for guidance from God as we all seek to be better disciples of Jesus today. Many church’s run Discipleship Courses, designed to help members of the congregation grow and mature in their faith and to help them find ways to live their faith in worthwhile activity which helps to build God’s kingdom. All of this is excellent and valuable. As we think about discipleship, it is interesting to explore the story about the healing of the epileptic boy in this evening’s second reading. A man approaches Jesus asking him to cure his son, who is described as being epileptic. He says that he first approached the disciples for healing but says, ‘they could not cure him’. Jesus then, uncharacteristically, says something that suggests he is frustrated, if not despairing, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?’ At first it looks as though these words are directed at the poor father of the epileptic boy, but, if you think about it, they must have been directed at the disciples, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? ……’
Earlier in the gospel story the disciples had been given authority by Jesus to heal the sick and to cast out demons but this story suggests that they just weren’t very good at it! When they ask Jesus why they had failed he tells them that it was because they did not have enough faith.
In essence, what we have here, is a man and his son in desperate need and the disciples trying and failing to help, the disciples had authority to help, but they did not have enough faith. So not a terribly encouraging story for those of us who are constantly being told that we are disciples of Jesus today!
I do wonder if what happened in this little encounter in Palestine over 2,000 years ago is actually happening today? We have a society that in many ways is civilised and advanced but is also highly dysfunctional. We know that some people live in abject poverty while others have more than enough. We are constantly being told that if we keep busy, if we buy more stuff and if we ‘look after number 1’ because ‘you are worth it’ – we will be happy. But we are not. We live with stress, dissatisfaction and anger. There is healing to be done. I would argue that most people today, one way or another, are in need of God’s healing touch, to know that they are loved and held by God. There is a hunger for meaning, connection, wholeness … and what do we, today’s disciples, do? ….. We fixate on trying to fill our churches with young people by developing ever more ‘relevant’ worship and more ‘accessible’ ways of being Church and we keep banging on about how the only loving relationships that are really acceptable to God are those between a man and a woman who are married. I am not sure any of this is helping. I think we are failing, just like those first disciples. Sometimes I can almost hear Jesus saying, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? ……’ We have authority, we are baptised and some of us have licences and others are ordained, but we do what we think is the right thing to do without spending much time wondering what people are actually looking for and we don’t spend enough time in prayer tuning in to what God is calling us to do.
While an entertaining and diverting hour or so on a Sunday, or on other days of the week for those in some new church communities, may attract some people, it seems not to be what most people are looking for. Interestingly the busiest and most popular service we have here at the Minster is Choral Evensong – I often wonder why so many people come. Perhaps it is because it isn’t trying to be relevant and it isn’t particularly accessible, but it is beautiful, it is awe inspiring, it does point to something beyond us. A well-known priest and theologian, Father Ken Leech said this about liturgy,
‘I see our major problem with modern liturgy as being the collapse of awe, wonder and the capacity for amazement. To stand in awe before God is basic to the human condition.’ ‘The Sky is Red’ I think it is beyond dispute that this building and choral evensong certainly help lots of people ‘to stand in awe before God’.
Perhaps what we 21st century disciples need is what those first disciples needed, a little more faith? Perhaps if we concentrate on inviting people to share in liturgy which is beautiful and awe inspiring, perhaps if we encouraged everyone to imbue their loving relationships (married or unmarried, of different genders or of the same genders) with commitment and faithfulness and to bless, joyfully, all such relationships, perhaps if we talked a little bit more about loving God and loving our neighbours …… we would help more people.
I was talking to someone this week who wants to be baptised and confirmed, partly because of the help and care he received when his mother died from an ordinary vicar in an ordinary little church in an ordinary rural parish. My friend found that the care he received and the funeral service that was taken spoke to him of love, care and stability at a time when his life had been turned upside down by grief. My friend paid tribute not only to the vicar but also the small worshipping community of the little parish church. Perhaps the Church, today’s disciples, just needs to do what we do as well as we can, with commitment, passion and love, with more faith that God’s Holy Spirit works through liturgy and through the grace mediated through generous and unconditional kindness?
There is nothing wrong with all the new initiatives there are around to grow churches and to grow disciples, they have my full support, but I think we underestimate the power of what we do already, and whether we are a breath-taking Cathedral with 28 public services every week and a world class choir, or a little parish church with a Sunday service once a month and the occasional baptism, wedding or funeral – we should do what we do the best we can, with prayerfulness and above all with faith, that God’s Holy Spirit works through good disciples, full of faith, conducting worship and welcoming all comers with confidence in what we say and celebrate in worship, and, above all, through our welcome, kindness and love.
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