However it will take a few weeks to make arrangements for Lay Readers or covering Clergy so please bear with us until this beds in. The next Service at 4.00pm is not until 20th August. Other church life events will continue to take place as normal. Coffee mornings every Tuesday from from 10.00 am in the church narthex, and the Summer Fayre will take place from 10.00am at St Andrews Community Centre. All are most welcome to any of the above.
The next Communion Service will be on Sunday 6th August at 9.30am. After that we will be initially moving to Sundays at 4.00pm. This new time was trialled on 23rd July and was felt to be successful by all who attended. We will have at least 2 Communion Services each month at this time with the remaining Sundays hopefully being covered by a Service of the Word. It is hoped therefore that the Church will be open every Sunday at 4.00pm for worship in some form or another and of course tea and biscuits.
However it will take a few weeks to make arrangements for Lay Readers or covering Clergy so please bear with us until this beds in. The next Service at 4.00pm is not until 20th August. Other church life events will continue to take place as normal. Coffee mornings every Tuesday from from 10.00 am in the church narthex, and the Summer Fayre will take place from 10.00am at St Andrews Community Centre. All are most welcome to any of the above.
As most people are probably now aware Father Richards last Service prior to retirement was on 9th July 2023. His last sermon is shown below followed by his reflections on his time at St Andrews. A presentation was made at the coffee morning on 4th July 2023. We thank all who contributed to his leaving gift of a Communion Set.
Some photos from this are also shown below.
Our Service times will now be subject to change or cancellation depending upon the availability of stand-in clergy. It is envisaged that it will be some time before the Diocese appoints a new Vicar to the Mission Area.
The Coffee mornings will continue to take place each Tuesday.
Fr Richards Last Sermon
I suppose we could say that it is holiday season now. People will be packing bags and preparing to go away. I don’t know about you, but I am not good at travelling light. I am a bit better than I used to be, but still take too much stuff – more than I really need. It makes for a heavy case. It is always a relief to plonk that case down at the other end and take a rest. Carrying a heavy load might be all right if we have some end in sight and something to look forward to, but carrying it all the time would be no fun at all. Sometimes we can carry our burdens for far too long without respite.
At this point I should probably make clear that this is not a metaphor for my experience in Hoyland. The past fifteen years has been a time of many blessings. It’s always a real privilege as a priest to walk alongside people in their daily lives and to share something of their joys and sorrows. I hope that in some small way I might have been able to remind people that we don’t have to carry all these things alone. Jesus, in today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel, invites us:
“Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest.”
Our burdens are sometimes ones that are impossible to avoid, such as illness, or grief, or the loss of financial security. Such things can certainly weigh us down in spirit. But there are other burdens that are self-imposed. St Paul speaks in the letter to the Romans about the difference between living spiritual and unspiritual lives. When we are slaves to the kind of things that distance us from God and damage our relationships, then we are held back and oppressed in spirit. When we refuse to forgive other people or to release ourselves from the burden of guilt then we are carrying a weight around that prevents us from moving forward freely. Our sins and the burden of our guilt keep us from being transformed by the presence of Christ among us.
A rousing hymn by Charles Wesley – “And can it be” – echoes some of the words from the writings of St Paul about freedom of spirit. It rejoices in freedom from the burden of guilt and oppression:
“My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee.”
Paul discovered this kind of freedom even when he was still in chains or facing the hostility of the world around him. It wasn’t an easy time to be a follower of Christ. Our struggles today, in this part of the world, are very different. We don’t face persecution but we live with other challenges. It’s hard to be part of a minority of people who sincerely try to walk in the way that Jesus invites us to go. Sometimes it can seem easier to buy into the values of the world around us. But Paul, in the letter to the Romans, reminds us that to obey our unspiritual impulses leads us away from life. When we live by the Spirit that has been poured into our hearts, then we find life, not only for a season but for eternity.
My relationship with Hoyland in fact goes back further than the fifteen years that I’ve been incumbent here. I think back to how things were twenty five years ago when I was curate. Society and church had already changed quite a lot from what people were saying to me back then. Now, a quarter of a century later, I can see for myself how far we have come. But we can’t wish ourselves back to a golden age. Financial difficulties and trends in our society have meant some sweeping changes for the Church. We might not always agree with the solutions, but we have to reckon with them all the same. Administration can seem more burdensome than ever before and it can feel as if more and more is being asked of us.
If ever there was a time to remind ourselves of the invitation of Jesus in the gospel, that time is now. We are invited to put aside any unnecessary burdens. When he says: “Shoulder my yoke and learn from me”, he is not inviting us to take on an even greater load. This is because the task he sets us is simple: to become our true selves. He wants us to be the person God intends us to be and to be formed by our baptismal life as disciples of Jesus. We have him as our teacher and he shows us how to be gentle, both with ourselves and with others. When we or other people are in need, it is not the burden of rules and of judgment that helps us out. When people find it hard to connect with God or with the Church, they don’t respond to being assaulted with theology or moral judgments. Instead they need to know the one who brings Good News and new life.
This is a time of new beginnings. At every new beginning, it’s good to take stock of what has gone before: to repent of past wrongs and to remind ourselves of the promises we made to God in baptism. Jesus shows us that the most important place of all to begin is in prayer. In the gospel, he enters into communion with his Father, praising him for revealing the mysteries of the kingdom of God to people like you and me. We can never understand all of those mysteries here on earth, but in the Scriptures and through the sacraments, we come to see more clearly that we are loved and that God is leading us through rough times and smooth alike.
I finish with a prayer from the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen:
“Dear Lord, show me your kindness and your gentleness, you who are meek and humble of heart. So often I say to myself, ‘The Lord loves me,’ but very often this truth does not enter into the centre of my heart. Let these weeks be an opportunity for me to let go of all my resistances to your love and an occasion for you to call me closer to you.” Amen.
Reflections on Fifteen Years as Vicar of Hoyland
When Bishop Jack Nicholls asked me to come to Hoyland in 2008 I hesitated slightly. This was not because I didn’t like the sound of it, but because I had been here previously as Curate (1998 – 2000). It is easy to underestimate how different those two roles are. Curates are usually popular, because they do not have overall responsibility and can usually avoid having to make tricky decisions. They get most of the nice things to do! Still, I have no regrets about the decision to return. I found lots of goodwill in the two churches where I have served, and a community that I already knew and loved.
I had to adjust to living in a different vicarage from the one I had lived in as curate. Being in the centre of Hoyland back then meant that there was lots going on around me and there was quite a buzz on Market Street. Now I was living further away from the centre, but still managed to pop into Hoyland quite often.
There has been plenty of change with the redesigning of the town centre. This contributed to the decision to sell the parish hall. Although it was sad to see it go, it meant a greater degree of financial security at a difficult time. Things did not get easier, especially with the effects Covid lockdowns and we have had to face various challenges over the recent years.
Throughout all this, the worship at St Andrew’s and the pastoral work with the congregation and community have sustained me. The difficulty came with trying to adapt to a changed model of church and ministry, which has inevitably consumed more time and energy in the past couple of years. It was this, above all, that brought me to the decision that I could no longer remain in the same role.
Leaving is sad after so many years, especially as I had envisaged staying to a more “normal” retirement age! There have been so many blessings though and I shall always be grateful for the friendship of the people here at St Andrew’s, at the coffee morning, and in the wider community. Hoyland will always be a special place for me. I remain a priest and as a sign of that I have received a wonderful gift of a communion set from the people here. My thanks and prayers are with the people of St Andrew’s and the community of Hoyland at this time and in the time to come.
Services and Events
Services will continue in the short term as usual, that is Parish Mass at 9.30am every Sunday and Said Mass at 10.00am each Thursday. However in a few weeks changes will have to be made to either the frequency or times of services, any new information will be posted here and on the church noticeboard as soon as it is known.
The Coffee Mornings will continue to take place each Tuesday from 10.00am. Come along for a drink and a chat. Every-one welcome.
Thoughts from the Vicar
The month of June is a month that is consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On Friday, the Church kept the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and then yesterday, of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In our culture, the heart is a symbol of love. Often this is seen in terms of sentimental or romantic love. The Sacred Heart of Jesus reminds us that there is something much deeper than this; a love that is practical and that knows no limits. This is the compassion in which Jesus looked upon the crowds in Matthew’s gospel. Although it says he “felt sorry” for them, this is quite a mild version of the feeling of pity or compassion that moved him deep within.
Jesus was moved by the sight of a people who seemed lost and confused. He saw that they had many different needs, but apparently no one to turn to in their need. Matthew’s gospel says that they were “harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.” This was first century Palestine, but it could just as easily apply to our own time and place. Our part of the world is, thankfully, a much more peaceful and less dangerous place then the Middle East back then or even today. We are also fortunate to live in a time when scientific advances have made life much more liveable. But people still have to reckon with stress, loneliness and suffering. The world can often be a confusing place and the future can seem unclear.
The book of Exodus shows us Moses, who has climbed a steep mountain to be alone with God. Moses was the one who was called to lead the people of Israel through the desert. The release from slavery in Egypt was a wonderful thing. The Israelites also had the promise before them of a land flowing with milk and honey. But right now, it was tough. It was a long journey; the terrain was arid, and the people were rebellious. On the mountain, Moses found reassurance. He was reminded of God’s faithfulness and the wonders that were done as the people were liberated from Egypt. There is that wonderful imagery about the people being carried on eagles’ wings and brought into God’s presence. They could come to experience consolation once more. All they had to do was to live by God’s commandments and to remain faithful.
When the burden of leadership seemed too much, Moses knew where to turn. Our human strength and ingenuity have their limits, but what we offer in response to God’s love for us will always reach beyond those limits. Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said in an interview that he felt personally responsible for the numerical decline in the Church of England over the past decade. I’m sure that this is a welcome example of honesty in a culture where it is not unusual for public figures to lie or to pass the blame onto others. No doubt we might have our own thoughts about the current direction of the Church of England, but is success or failure all down to one person? I get the feeling that both Moses and Jesus are reminding us that we are not God. In the end it is our faithfulness that makes the difference. God is bigger than any of our strategies.
Jesus sometimes needed to remind his disciples of this. In the gospel today he seems to have a big task for them, to say the least: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out devils.” But he also tells them earlier on: The harvest is rich, but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest.” If those few disciples went out there and relied only on their own strength, they would not have got very far. But Jesus points them back to God and reminds them to begin with prayer and to continue in faith. God would work through their failures as well as through their success. This is how faith works.
Above all, they, like we, are moved to respond to the love that has been poured into our lives by God. St Paul, in the letter to the Romans, tells us that this is a love that does not have to be earned: “… but what proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners.” The sacrifice that was made for us on the Cross is for us a pledge of God’s commitment to us even when all else seems to fail. From the Sacred Heart of Jesus flows an unconditional love. It pours life into the sacraments of the Church, from which we receive life-changing grace. We can only respond to that love by the compassion we show towards the people around us. But in the end, what makes the greatest difference is not what we do for God, but what God has done for us.
So, as Jesus has opened his heart to us, let us allow God’s love to flow through our own hearts and into our world.
Thursday 13th April Said Mass at 10.00am.
There will be no service on Sunday 16th April, the next Holy Communion will be on Sunday 23rd April 2023.
Annual Parochial Church Meeting Wednesday 26th April at 10.30am.
The Coffee Mornings continue to be held each Tuesday from 10.00am - all are welcome.
It’s Easter and the good news for chocolate lovers is that it will soon be time to break into those eggs. As we know, Easter eggs have contents, whether it is gooey cream, maltesers or some other treat. But if we can just park that chocolate craving for a bit longer, we can see that there is even more cause for rejoicing than Easter eggs. For Christians, eggs are symbolic of the tomb and of the new life that emerges from the darkness. This is the real good news of the season.
The surprising thing is that when we read in John’s gospel about the first encounter with the tomb, there wasn’t much in there at all. Like an egg without a filling, there were just the grave clothes folded up. The main contents were missing and the disciples were in a state of confusion. For all that, we are told that they believed. For the first time they understood what Jesus had meant when he said that he must rise from the dead.
So what could have convinced them? After all, someone could have taken the body away, as Mary Magdalene had feared, a bit further on in the gospel account. Something must have enabled them to see the scene through different eyes. Some special kind of insight must have convinced them that what they were witnessing meant more than just an empty space.
Our first instinct is to see an absence as just that – the absence of whatever it is we are looking for. A bereavement, for instance, can just seem to leave an empty space. Then there is the absence of peace and security that can afflict our world. There is conflict once again in Europe. There is violence between Hamas and the security forces in Israel, the very homeland of Our Lord. Stability in Northern Ireland is once again thrown into question, with the breakdown of power sharing. Our society has changed over the past couple of years in ways that have caused loss and pain, with Covid and the cost -of-living crisis. Then there are whatever losses we might have to face in our own lives, with health, finances and more besides. Perhaps it is often easier for us to identify with Good Friday than with Easter Day.
There can be so many reasons why we might look at these things and see a space that is empty of whatever it is that we long for. Even so, we see that in the darkest situations there can be a hope that refuses to die. In war-torn situations, in places of poverty and in the everyday losses and struggles of human lives, our faith in the Risen Christ gives us a reason to look to the future with hope. Even in sad times there also remains a deeper joy that challenges despair. Above all, there is a love that really is stronger than human wickedness and more powerful than death.
Sometimes it is in the struggles and the losses that faith can shine out most brightly. In circumstances of persecution, Christian faith can continue to grow. This doesn’t mean that we should look for adversity, but it does mean that we have examples of faith to encourage us. In the daily events of life, today is a reminder of the hope and the joy which we can cultivate through public worship and private prayer. We find the resurrection not through retaliation but through joining with Jesus in his path of forgiveness and compassion.
I find it encouraging that today we join with people throughout the world in proclaiming that Christ is risen. Some of those people live in much poorer parts of our world than our own. There is a far greater number of worshipping Christians in Africa and the Indian subcontinent than there are in our part of the world. All of them know that there is a reason for hope and for joy as we celebrate Easter today and as we follow the risen Christ throughout the rest of our year. In the empty spaces of life, they, like those first disciples, have found new life.
The reason the stone was rolled away was not to let Jesus out. The life and the love of God could not be confined in that dark place, even with a stone across the entrance. The stone was rolled away to let the disciples come in and to know for the first time what Jesus meant when he said that he would rise from the dead. Just as God created everything out of nothing, so God also enables faith to emerge from empty spaces. Love does not die and new life is all around us. Jesus is with us no matter where we are and no matter what we face. As we crack open those eggs, let’s remember the reason why we do it. Christ is risen!
If we want to know who Jesus really is, then the Beatitudes in St Matthew’s gospel would be a good place to begin. Here we get a picture of the kind of person we engage with when we encounter Jesus.
In a sense, what Jesus says was always there in the Scriptures. The prophet Zephaniah calls us to seek integrity and to seek humility so that we may then find a place of shelter in the presence of God. The Psalms also – such as Psalm 145 today – tell of God’s compassion for those in need: the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, the widow and the orphan. These were the people who were so easily overlooked, but we are reminded that they are not overlooked by God. Jesus captures the spirit of all those writings and distils it into a clear message to show us what life looks like when God is at the centre of our life.
The teachings Jesus gave here seem to turn the values of the world around. In the world it is the rich who are admired and who get what they want. The gentle are trodden upon and brushed aside. Those who mourn are pitied, but then expected to supress their sorrow and carry on just as before. Worldly compassion, it seems, has its limits. But in the face of all the cynicism and indifference the world has to offer, Jesus urges us to continue to hunger and thirst for what is right; to be merciful to others; to seek purity of heart; to make peace; and never to despair if our efforts meet with resistance and opposition.
Perhaps we might find this teaching difficult because it might seem that what Jesus is calling us to do is to become weak and ineffective. But that is far from the truth. It takes strength not just to go along with the expectations of the world around us. Not so far ahead in time we shall be observing Lent. At the beginning of that season we shall be reminded of what Jesus had to face near the beginning of his ministry – how he struggled against temptation – the temptation to hunger for worldly power, to put his own human desires first rather than what he knew to be God’s will. He was tempted to exercise control over other people and to be impressive so that he could make gains for himself. But Jesus knew that this would be a misuse of what his Father had put into his hands. With strength of spirit and with a strong desire to do the right thing, Jesus resisted and chose instead a route of humility and compassion – the way of God.
The desire to exercise power over others for its own sake is all too often seen at work in the world and also closer to home. We are reminded of the misuse of power in Putin’s war on Ukraine, or again, as we remember the terrible events of the Holocaust at this time. It was often said of Jesus that he spoke as one who had authority. But this was not the kind of authority that puts other people down. It was a deeper and quieter kind of authority, built upon a life of prayer – the knowledge of God at work in a human life. Because Jesus lived and breathed the word of God – in fact he embodied the word of God – he was able to speak with authority. But in his dealings with other people the truth he spoke went hand in had with compassion for the needs of those people. Although he was called “master”, Jesus came among us as one who serves. The humility and the desire to serve that we see in Jesus are what gave him authority, because this allowed the power of God to shine through his every word and deed.
So what Jesus teaches us is that the desire to dominate the people around us and to put other people down has no place in the life of the Church or in the life of individual Christians. However right we may think we are, we have no mandate to speak harshly to others. Jesus introduced to us a community faith which he called the kingdom of God – at the centre of that kingdom the love of God is supreme and the one thing that cannot hurt us or hurt other people is love. We will not always get it right but as Christians we must set our hearts on that goal.
St Paul reminds us of our own status. We all have our gifts, but God has not chosen us because we are impressive. He has chosen us to serve. As he says in the first letter to the Corinthians, the human race has nothing to boast about and yet God has called and chosen us to be his people. If we are to live as the people of God then boasting and pride has no place among us. If we want to know how to be lifted up as human beings and to find a peace and joy that the world cannot give, then we ought to reflect prayerfully on the teachings Jesus gave us in the Sermon on the Mount. The more we can live by those teachings, the more our lives are filled by the presence of God.
As we live out the values of the kingdom of God here on earth, we are called towards something higher. Our lives come to their fullness in the life of heaven. It is there that we shall recognise the people who have lived lives of humility, who have hungered and thirsted for righteousness and who have striven for peace on earth. As we live out the Beatitudes, God calls us towards the Beatific vision. As St Augustine expressed it so beautifully:
“There we shall rest and see, we shall see and love, we shall love and praise. Behold what will be at the end without end. For what other end do we have, if not to reach the kingdom without end?”
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, keep us, we pray, from all false pride and from the desire to exercise control over others. Give us peace in our hearts, so that we may serve you and our fellow people with humility and grace. We ask this through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.
Last Sundays Sermon
Today’s passage from St Matthew’s gospel comes at the end of a genealogy, tracing the earthly origins of the family of Jesus. Matthew begins with Abraham, whereas Luke traces back as far as Adam and Eve and the origins of all humanity. The tracing of ancestors seems to have gained in popularity in recent times and I have done some of this with my own family. It can be intriguing to see whether we are of noble stock or whether we have a bandit in the family. But I wonder whether the reason more people seem to be doing this is because we can often feel the effects of rapid change in our society and the wider world. Sometimes it can leave us feeling a bit rootless; feeling a connection with people in times past might help us to ground ourselves.
It seems that Matthew wants to ground the story of Jesus within the story of the Jewish people. Something new was about to take place, but it wasn’t disconnected from the experience and the history of the people of Israel. All that the patriarchs had prepared and all that the prophets had proclaimed would be brought to fulfilment in Jesus. He is the human form of the Immanuel whom Isaiah wrote about, a name which means: “God-is-with-us”. Jesus has all the heritage that justifies his recognition as Messiah. He is from King David’s house and line, but we see that he is also so much more.
The thing that makes Jesus different is that he was not only chosen by God, like David was, but was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Today we are reminded of the way in which Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, as St Luke’s gospel tells us. She was the one who was deemed morally suitable to carry the divine Word in her womb and to bring him to birth. We are told that this was not the work of human flesh, but the power of God at work in human life. I am sure that God could save humanity without our help, but this is not how God chose to act. It was through human beings that we were to be saved. When Mary says yes to God, all things become possible for humanity.
Unlike Luke’s gospel, Matthew chooses to look at the scene through the eyes of Joseph. He is revealed to us as a considerate and honourable man, who wants to do the right thing both for God and for Mary, his betrothed. We see compassion in his decision not to subject Mary to public disgrace and punishment. But we see something else too. Joseph is open to God. His sensitivity to the message of God comes through in his dream, where the angel appears to him and tells him not to be afraid and to take Mary as his wife. The message of the coming birth of Jesus is revealed by the angel not only to Mary but to Joseph too. So, Joseph not only listens to God, but also responds to God. We see further examples of his obedience in the time ahead.
But the focus of the gospel is on Jesus. For all that Matthew is concerned to show the earthly line of Jesus, he is keen above all to let us know that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He is the true Messiah. The birth of Jesus took place in fulfilment of the word of the prophet. So, Matthew sheds new light on the passage from Isaiah 7:14: “The Virgin will give birth to a son and they will call him Emmanuel.” (Immanu, meaning with us and El, meaning God.). Until then, God had been seen only as the one who was “above us”. Even now, there are still many people – and perhaps we can sometimes be among them – who retain this image of a distant God – a God who only looks down on us and counts our good acts and our bad ones. What the gospel reveals to us is that our relationship with God is something much more intimate than that.
Further on in the gospels, we see what it means that Jesus is God-With-Us. In fact he was given a fairly common name rather than one which was very different. We get all kinds of wonderful names nowadays at baptisms, but Jesus was quite a widespread name at the time – a name derived from the Hebrew name Joshua, which is a cry to the Lord for deliverance: “O God, save us!” His name proclaims his mission as the one who would save his people from their sins.
The kingdom of God, which is revealed to us in the later chapters is one that reflects the righteousness, mercy and compassion that we see in Joseph, the legal earthly father of Jesus. It is Jesus who would show God’s mercy to tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Samaritans - even to the Pharisees when they wanted to listen. No one is judged an outsider or seen as beyond redemption.
Behind the genealogy at the beginning of the gospel is the story of human beings who can be good, but can also go badly wrong. Much like the whole of humanity. By giving the world the gift of his Son, God chooses not to condemn the world but to remain faithful to the people of his own creation. There is always hope for you and me, because God has called and chosen us to follow Jesus, to proclaim his word and works and to experience for ourselves the compassion, forgiveness and peace that he came to bring. In a broken and suffering world, with so many examples of human failure, this special season reminds us that God has not forsaken us but is still with us. He is with us in Christ. Therefore we have hope.
Zacchaeus, one of the characters in today’s gospel, was used to looking up to people. People of my age and older will probably have seen the comedy sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. The three of them were standing side by side in descending or ascending order of height. It was a sketch based on the British class system, where the different characters described which person they looked up to or down upon and the reason why. It’s worth YouTubing it if you haven’t seen it.
Perhaps many people would have looked down on Zacchaeus. This was not because he was poor – far from it. As a senior tax collector he would have taken a lot of money in his time – much of it by stealth. It was really for moral reasons that people would have despised him – working for the Roman occupiers was never a popular choice. We are told that he was small of stature and perhaps this seems symbolic of how people would have viewed him.
When he heard that Jesus was in the area, he wanted to take a closer look, but he was too small to see over the heads of the people in the crowd. So he climbs a sycamore tree. I think I stopped climbing trees after my teenage years and maybe it’s not something that adults normally do. So he must have been determined to see the man who had gained such a reputation. Maybe the leaves of the tree would also have given him some privacy from the prying eyes of the crowd. But if Zacchaeus thought he could remain anonymous, he had a surprise coming when Jesus called to him and asked him to come down. Jesus even said: “Hurry, for I must stay at your house today.”
Many people, then and now, have wanted a closer look at Jesus. Years ago I did the same, in the sense of wanting to see for myself what drew people to him. After reading the Bible and after attending Mass for the first time I came to have the feeling that it wasn’t really I who was in control. Like Zacchaeus and like many others since then, I came to that sense that it was really Jesus who was seeking out me. No longer was it about taking a look from a distance, but was instead a deeply personal encounter. As Zacchaeus found, there is nothing more personal than someone inviting themselves to your home. As Christians we find that we don’t relate to Jesus at a distance. We come to know him as a friend. The relationship is not abstract or academic, but he speaks to our hearts.
We get the sense from the gospel passage that not everyone shared the obvious excitement and joy that Zacchaeus felt. Those who prided themselves on their own righteousness were looking down at him. It’s rather like the attitude of the Pharisee in the Temple in the gospel from last week, looking down upon the tax collector and judging him as a sinner. It seems that Jesus looks beyond the sin and sees instead the real person, with all their potential and all their longing. For once, Zacchaeus felt acceptance, understanding and unconditional love. His life seemed to change from that moment on and he resolved to make amends for all that he had done in the past. In fact he goes as far as repaying the people from whom he had extorted money by four times the amount. Compassion and friendship achieve so much more than judgement and condemnation.
No doubt many of the people in the crowd would have been shocked at Jesus for seeking out a man like this. They would have been appalled by his statement that salvation had come to the house of Zacchaeus and that he too was a son of Abraham. We see in Jesus someone who had come to seek out the lost and to restore their relationship with God. This may not be welcome news for the self-righteous, but for everyone else it is surely music to their ears. We need no longer be limited and defined by our past, because we have been offered a new beginning. Even if other people might sometimes look down on us, Jesus looks down upon no one. Nor does he expect us to get a crick in our neck by looking up at him, because instead of calling us servants, he calls us friends.
The book of Wisdom today reminds us of how God sees the true value in every person of his creation and that his imperishable spirit is given to us all. St Paul reminds us also in the second letter to the Thessalonians that the grace of God in us brings to completion in us all the good that we long for, and that in our lives Jesus himself is glorified. In our baptism we receive that imperishable Spirit of God and we are recognised as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. By his grace, freely given, our past is redeemed and we come to live once again in newness of life.
The gospel poses a question for us, wrapped up in a statement: are we the slaves of money or the servants of God?
Jesus is not really one for giving us half measures or grey areas. It matters what we base our lives upon. If money or material things matter to us more than anything else, then we can only deal in the currency of this world. Jesus is not naïve and his advice is practical: use money wisely, but don’t allow it to become a god. We may find comfort and security on earth in the way we use our money and possessions, but if it is eternal life that we are seeking, then our priority must be in serving God.
This is especially a challenge for those who have riches. One of the most captivating things about the late Queen Elizabeth is that despite living in palaces and castles, she did not base her life on any of those earthly riches. We saw in her a person of genuine faith, who worshipped God and set out to serve the people of God in the way that was marked out for her. It would be very easy in such a role to be seduced by money and to revel in privilege. Queen Elizabeth is loved and respected because she seemed to manage to avoid that temptation.
The prophet Amos calls out those who exploited ordinary people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. Charging excessive amounts for essential goods and making poor people into wage slaves was not acceptable in the sight of God. In times past we saw how kings and aristocrats in our own country would exploit the less fortunate. Sadly, it still happens in some parts of our world. In our own country it’s not the kings and queens who exploit ordinary people. Big business seems to have taken on that role. Thankfully, the queen we are mourning never lost sight of the people of the country she was called to serve.
When we worship the one true God, as she did, then we begin to discover something of that peace St Paul was writing about in his first letter to Timothy. When we offer prayers for those in authority, we pray that they may discover that we all belong to God, no matter how rich or poor. Our prayer deepens our compassion and our willingness to use our gifts, not only for our own good, but for the good of others too. We pray for a more just society and world, where everyone belongs and where no one is left behind.
Those who can be trusted in small things, says Jesus, can also be trusted with greater things. Our character shows through in the way we treat other people and the way we use what we have, especially our money. I give thanks that Queen Elizabeth could be trusted with greater things, because she served not herself, but Christ, our universal and eternal King. I pray that our choice may be to leave behind the slavery to material things and to find our true riches in the service of God and his people.
SUNDAY'S HOMILY TO THE QUEEN
“To the eternal King, the undying and invisible God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Those words of St Paul in the first letter to Timothy, remind us that there is only one eternal kingdom.
As Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years, many, although not all of us will have known no other English monarch. Although I know that no one lives for ever, there was a part of me that somehow couldn’t imagine her no longer being the Queen. But here we are, and now her crown passes to her son, King Charles III.
I find it heartening that not everything will change. His speech following the death of his mother revealed a faith that both of them have shared. If she was a mainstay for our country, then it seems true to say that her Christian faith was a mainstay for her. It sounds very much as though King Charles, head of the Church of England, will look to the same eternal King for wisdom and strength.
One of the wonderful things about our late Queen is that despite her unusual life and despite living in palaces, she liked to keep something of an ordinary life. There were the breakfast cereals in Tupperware and the electric heater to keep her warm. There were the endless ordinary conversations with ordinary people. Perhaps being so close to the trappings of earthly wealth, she knew that there are things of greater value than money, status and possessions.
The book of Exodus speaks of a people who had lost touch with God and who looked for value in earthly things. One of the Ten Commandments was the commandment against idolatry. Although we associate idolatry with graven images, it is above all about putting greater value on worldly things than on God. Those people would learn the hard way that earthly riches will not support us through times of change and of loss. More than that, we cannot take any of it with us when we leave this world behind. God alone is the one whose love will never let us down. This love is everlasting.
From what Queen Elizabeth has said on numerous occasions, she drew her example of service from what she saw in Jesus. Of course, it could only reflect the complete outpouring of self that is shown to us in Jesus. She was reminded, as we are, that one of the greatest forms of idolatry is when we make ourselves the centre of our lives. Only when we make God the centre of our lives and give something of ourselves away to others do we discover the love that is eternal. Only then do we find a treasure that nothing else on earth can equal.
Our readings remind us too that the kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world. None of us are measured according to the circumstances of our birth, our intellect or our achievements. We are of value because we are God’s children, and his love is unconditional for every one of us. This is a love that seeks out the lost. This love led the people of Israel away from idolatry and back to the one true God. It sought out St Paul, a persecutor or Christians and converted him to be an ardent follower of Christ. We find a portrayal of God’s love in the parables Jesus told of the lost sheep and the lost coin and also in the story of the prodigal son.
As we come to celebrate the Eucharist and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we are reminded that no matter who we are, Christ gives his life to every single one of us. Our late Queen shared in these sacraments. She would have been reminded that whether we live in a palace, or in a single room, or out on the streets, a treasure awaits every one of us who lives by the example of love and service that we see in Jesus. We are all invited to the banquet in the kingdom of heaven. I pray that Queen Elizabeth, who now goes to her rest, will rejoice in that eternal kingdom. May we too come to share those same riches so graciously given by the one eternal king.
I finish with the final verse of one of our late Queen’s favourite hymns, which gives an image of earthly kingship bowing before the King of Kings:
Finish, then, thy new creation;
true and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love and praise.
Thoughts from the pulpit
“Yes, there are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last.” (Luke13:30) With those words Jesus challenges our understanding of who belongs and who does not, of who is deserving and who is not.
We British are said to be known for our patience when queuing. Perhaps that patience might have been tested more in recent times as people join long queues for passport control. Certainly, there is a tendency to get very annoyed if people jump queues, because it just doesn’t seem fair. Those who are first in the queue are expected to be first served and those further back will have to wait their turn.
Being first is usually something that we think should be awarded on merit. What kind of outrage would it cause if the gold medal that should have been awarded to the winner of a race went instead to the third in line or to the last? What if the highest post in a company or the most responsible position in the country were to be awarded to anyone other than the most competent? Perhaps I had better not take that one any further!
So that saying of Jesus might seem a bit challenging in any of those contexts. But Jesus is speaking about something different. At the beginning of that gospel passage, Jesus is asked whether only a select few will be saved. His reply suggests that it is something difficult: “Try your best to enter by the narrow door because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed. He then goes on to suggest that some will knock on the door and will be turned away. Although they had shared in the Lord’s company, they might as well have been strangers.
The people Jesus was speaking to were those who would have understood themselves to be the chosen people. If anyone should come first, it would be them. But Jesus has strong words for them. If they thought that being saved from sin and death and belonging in God’s company for eternity was all just a birth right, they needed to have a rethink. There were many among those who saw themselves as first, who were not faithful to God’s ways and who had little regard for many of their closest kin, let alone the stranger. Even the most religious – at times, especially the most religious – saw themselves as part of an elite, but did not reflect the mercy, the compassion and the grace that we see in God. These are the people who were warned that they might just find themselves on the outside, grinding their teeth with rage as others go in before them.
Jesus warns the children of Israel that there would be people from far-off places who might just get there before them. Some of these would have been people they despised or regarded as their enemies. As we know, the gospel message of Jesus was not limited to the original chosen people, but was proclaimed throughout the Mediterranean lands and then much further afield. Coming to faith and being a faithful disciple of Jesus does not depend on where we come from or on any other accident of birth. It depends on our response to God, on the state of our hearts and on our way of living. It would not be a question of how many would be saved – this was not about numbers. The choice is open to every one of us whether to follow or not; whether to repent and to live differently.
Jesus was not necessarily speaking about who would or would not get into heaven. He was addressing a particular issue at that time about who deserved to be part of the company of God’s chosen ones. It really highlights the strange and wonderful work of God’s grace. No one is born more deserving, nor do we even earn it. It is more a question of how we respond to God’s grace. Our decisions do have lasting consequences, so as well as looking at how we live here and now, we also need to be mindful of our eternal destiny.
Jesus speaks about a narrow door and a locked door. But we also know that Jesus comes and knocks on that interior door of each one of us. If you have seen the Holman Hunt painting “The Light of the World”, you may have that image of Jesus with a lamp, knocking at night time on a door surrounded by weeds. Whether we feel worthy or not, whether we consider ourselves first or last or somewhere in between, Jesus invites us. It is his will that the prophecy of Isaiah will be fulfilled, that people from far and wide will be among those who are both called and chosen.
St Ambrose once observed: “He would never come and knock at the door unless he wanted to enter; it is our fault that He does not always enter.”
Lord Jesus, you opened the gate of heaven to us. Your saving death purchased for every person the gift of everlasting life. Protect me from being complacent or negligent in my walk with you and teach me that, although the door is narrow, your presence keeps me safe.
I am a rather old Saint.