All Saints Margaret Street | Seventh Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 19 July 2015

Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 19 July 2015

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


“Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest awhile.”

This weekend Fr. Julian and a group of our people are away at the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in the far northern reaches of Norfolk.  While the shrine is not exactly the lonely and deserted place of which the gospel speaks, it is a far cry from the constant clamour and noise and busyness of London. 

Jesus has sent the apostles out, two by two, on their first preaching tour around the villages of Galilee.  Now they have returned both excited and exhausted by their mission; eager to tell him what they have done and taught. But they have come back to a situation which is just as busy.

Jesus’ plans a quiet retreat with his disciples but this comes to nothing.  People spot them leaving in a boat, guess where they are going, and rush to get there ahead of them, telling others as they go. The result is that: 

“As he landed, he saw a great throng, and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things

We see in this passage, one of those Markan sandwiches – two related passages punctuated by another story or stories – in this case the feeding of the five thousand and the stilling of the storm – We omit the miraculous feeding, the continuation of Jesus’ compassion for the crowds, because next Sunday we begin reading John Chapter 6 which begins with it and then continues with Jesus’ teaching on the bread of life. After that he sends the disciples back across the lake in the boat while he goes up into the hills to pray.   Battered by the winds, they are in great distress until he comes to them saying, “Take, heart, it is I, have no fear.”

The tension between activity and contemplation, proclamation and prayer, care for those in need and care for our own spiritual well-being, has remained in the life of the Church ever since.

I hope that our pilgrims are being left undisturbed during their time with Jesus: there is a good chance of this because Walsingham is a bit of a dead zone when it comes to modern means of communication and disturbance like mobile phones and the internet.

These are good servants but bad masters. They enable quick and easy contact – but they can take over our lives.  The possibility of instant contact brings with it the expectation of instant response. People complain of having to spend the first hour or more of every working day dealing with the flood of emails waiting for them when they arrive, and of never quite having enough time to get to the end of it, because, no sooner have they deleted one than two more arrive to replace it.  When we add to such work-related communications, the personal ones: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and others I’m too old to be aware of, life takes on an electronic restlessness. (Our granddaughter who is 11 months old communicates with us by WhatsApp – with some help from her mother – but in a year or two she’ll probably be doing it on her own.)  It becomes harder and harder to either concentrate or to relax.  Attention spans, already reduced by the soundbites of television, become ever shorter. Interruptions become ever more frequent.

How are we to live the Christian life effectively in the midst of this media storm or even the more old-fashioned distractions of daily life, of work and family, friends and community? 

The temptation in an activist, workaholic culture, is simply to abandon the contemplative for the active; to give up on worship and prayer, meditation and contemplation, altogether. This can even sound virtuous because there are so many needs to be met.

And yet, even Jesus must go up into the hills to pray. We certainly cannot be of much or any use to those around us who are in need, if we rely solely on our own resources. They will soon run dry.

When Jesus sees the crowd and has compassion on them, it is not just their material needs which are in his mind and on his heart: “he began to teach them many things.”  He sees and responds to a spiritual hunger, an emptiness of the soul, as well as the physical hunger assuaged by the feeding of the five thousand and the fear calmed by the stilling of the storm.

We live in a culture which operates on the assumption that all our needs can be satisfied by buying something. We don’t even need to go to Oxford Street any more.  We can simply go on line and, with a few clicks of a computer mouse, whatever we need is delivered to our door. But what happens when the cure of consumption fails, when it leaves us unsatisfied, where are we to turn?

Even we who are Christians, are ourselves more influenced by this culture than we often realize, so powerful and ever-present is its propaganda . So it is vital, both for our own spiritual well-being and for those among whom we live and work, those who come to us, those we go out amongst, that our souls are fed, that we are formed and nourished by a counter-culture.

So, our Sunday worship in which Jesus teaches us in his word and feeds us in his sacrament; our daily times for prayer, meditation and silence, our times of retreat, quiet days and the like, need to be guarded, not from the real demands of those in need, but from the countless trivial distractions of life.

These are all ways in which, as Psalm 23 reminds us, our Lord, the Good Shepherd of his people, makes us lie down in green pastures, leads us by still waters to restore our souls, prepares a table for us in the face of all that troubles us. These are all ways in which he has compassion on us.

This is not some killjoy puritan ‘sabbatarianism’ but a matter of spiritual life and death, health and strength.

Sometimes, I think, we set up a false tension or opposition between love of God and love of neighbour, as if the two are in competition for our limited resources of time and energy.  We cannot give too much time and energy to one or the other, in case we run out of both: so we end up doing neither.

The great French 17th century priest St. Vincent de Paul – clerical careerist turned renewer of the priesthood  –  known as the “Apostle of Charity,” –   established communities of priests and religious, and associations of lay people, dedicated to the relief of poverty – both material and spiritual. He was one of the inspirations for the establishment of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, which is why he is to be found on the reredos of the Lady Altar.   He wrote:

“The service of the poor is to be preferred to all else, and to be performed without delay. If at a time set aside for prayer, medicine or help had to be brought to some poor man, go and do what had to be done with an easy mind, offering it up to God as a prayer.  Do not be put out by uneasiness or a sense of sin because of prayers interrupted by the service of the poor: for God is not neglected if prayers are put aside, if God’s work is interrupted, in order than another such work may be completed.

Therefore, when you leave prayer to help some poor man, remember this – that the work has been done for God. Charity takes precedence over any rules….”

But this does not mean that we should abandon prayer altogether. In fact: quite the opposite!  St. Vincent urged those he worked with to spend time praying together in silence at the beginning of each day, to spend times speaking to each other of what they were doing or sensed they were being called to do by God. 

He had prayed that he would not die in his bed – and this wish was granted.  He died dressed and ready for the hour of prayer – at 4.45 in the morning.  One of his great ministries was the giving of retreats for those about to be ordained. Some years ago, when I was conducting such a retreat, I commended the practice of getting up early in the morning: it’s the one time of day when other people are unlikely to interrupt your prayers and studies!

Prayer in which we bring our experiences of life and work and relationships, unites with the heart of Jesus the Good Shepherd who sees the crowd and has compassion on them. Such prayer teaches us to see them with his eyes and respond to their needs as he did.

We can depart from the rule of prayer when charity demands only because we are keeping it in the first place and will return to it when we have carried out the work of charity. It is that rule which helps us discern the needs around us and sustains us.

If we aren’t keeping it, then we will probably not even notice those who are like sheep without a shepherd. We will have nothing to say to those who come in spiritual hunger.   Time spent in prayer and worship does not distract us from good works. It does not take time and energy from them.  It frees and energizes us for them. It guides and sustains us in them.  It is not so much that we keep the rule but that the rule keeps us.

The reaction of Jesus to that intrusion on his planned retreat might have been one of annoyance and irritation: he might have told the apostles to get back in the boat and head off somewhere else. But he did not.

Some years ago, I heard a bishop confess rather shamefacedly in a sermon that he never travelled on trains in clerical dress because, if you did, people came and bothered you. If you are dressed like everyone else, they don’t. 

On Thursday morning, I was on a train to Warwickshire, in clerical dress, on my way to celebrate and preach at the funeral mass for Tom Leeman’s mum, Peggy.  I was sitting in the Quiet Zone, so as not to have to listen to one half of telephone conversations, reading and going over my sermon in my head, when a young man asked apologetically if he could talk to me. I closed my book and we had a conversation about how we remain faithful to what we believe in difficult circumstances.

The following day, I was on another train – going to another funeral – that of Nick Gralka’s father Hugo. A young man in shorts, trainers, hoody and a diamond ear stud asked, asked me where I was a minister. It turned out that he was a baptist minister, the city centre chaplain in Peterborough – so we two had a conversation about city centre ministry.

I’m not sure what our fellow-passengers made of this encounter between two very differently-dressed representatives of the Good Shepherd, but they might at least have been reminded of his existence. Of course, if I had not been in clerical dress, neither of these encounters and conversations would have happened.