Proper 23 2021

Sermon given by Bishop Geoff Annas on the 19th Sunday after Trinity

My 94 year old Dad really enjoys a game of scrabble and is very good at it – although I have a suspicion that he makes half the words up as he goes along!

Spelling has never been my strongest point but I do know that Faith is a four – letter word spelt ‘RISK’!

We hear some extraordinary stories of risks people take in life – so many now try to climb Everest there is often a log jam on the way up!  Sometimes the risk is fool – hardy but we also hear heart – warming stories about those who risk their lives to save others.

The rich young man who approached Jesus in our Gospel Reading seemed to be afraid of risks.  He was not prepared to give up everything to follow Jesus.  He was probably a good man – he knew what was important and wanted eternal life – he also had the sense to ask the one person who could tell him how to achieve it.  But Jesus’s response is a reminder that heaven is not something that comes eventually but rather something to begin living now.

To follow the way of Jesus involves risks – risks in giving up certain ways of living and expectations; risks in sharing our resources with those less fortunate than ourselves.  This is part of the challenge of allowing the teaching of our Lord to transform us.  The young man could not give his whole heart to Jesus if he was still held back by his material possessions and previous way of thinking.

Jesus was not judging this man but rather trying to show him that the Kingdom of Heaven is about re-ordering our priorities.  It is not enough to just keep the Law – true faith means living out what one believes on a daily basis and in a positive way – willingly and joyfully and without reluctance.

No doubt the young man was sincere in his request and Jesus treats him with respect.  He offered him the opportunity to take the risk and commit himself in a different way by following him.  But, at least for this moment in his life, the young man was unable to take such a risk.  We do not know whether having come face to face with the power and love of the Living God, the young man eventually decided to do as Jesus asked.  But it does seem hard to imagine that such an encounter did not have a lasting effect upon him.

Every day we too are challenged to take a risk and turn our lives over to Christ in a new and positive way which leads to the betterment of our world and to our own personal fulfilment as Christians. We are called to be the authentic human beings God intended us to be from the beginning.  We may think we do not have huge riches or any other obvious things that stand in our way of following Jesus but we do have hearts and minds that need to be more focused on him, his teaching and his example.

And we need to let go of some of the less obvious things that stand in our way: our attitudes towards those who are ‘not like us’; our tolerance of poverty and injustice; our willingness to judge others and jump to conclusions; our inability to forgive and need to nurse long-cherished grievances; our susceptibility to flattery and everything that feeds our misconception that we are ‘better’ than those around us.

All of these (and many others) are like anchors that hold us back from truly following Jesus.

It takes a radical shift in thinking and a great deal of courage to risk our security by doing things in our Lord’s Way.  It could mean losing our popularity; eroding our ‘free’ time; sapping our energy for no apparent immediate reward.  Often we might never know the true and positive impact of taking such life-changing steps.

The pop star Alice Cooper (famed for his amazing stage make up and outlandish behaviour) once said: “People think that it is ironic that Alice Cooper, this rock’ n roll rebel became a Christian.  But it is the most rebellious thing I have ever done.  Drinking beer is easy.  Trashing your hotel room is easy.  But being a Christian – that’s a tough call.  That’s real rebellion!”

The love of Jesus is for each and every one of us but is never forced upon us – we have to take the risk and accept it and welcome him into our lives – not just at our Baptism and Confirmation but daily through our interaction with the world around us.

There is much discussion in the Church of England as we emerge from the Pandemic as to what the Church is going to be like in the years to come and particularly if we can or should sustain the kind of Parish ministry that has been our focus for so many hundreds of years.

It is God who brings growth to the Church but at a time when so many people are searching for answers to issues they face in their lives or simply want to have a sense of belonging or to be valued by others, it does seem to me that a Parish Church at the heart of its community has a vital role to play.

But to fulfil this role we have to take risks and step out in faith.  We have to leave our comfort zone and reach out to those living in every part of this Parish and tell them why we come to St James and the difference following Jesus has made to our lives.  More than this, we have to let them encounter that difference for themselves as we seek to serve them and allow Jesus to love them through us, his disciples in the 21st Century.

Too big a risk to take?  Remember we are not asked to do this by ourselves.  Not only do we have the support of one another (which is why belonging to our Church Family is so important) but we have the promise of Jesus made in the Great Commission that he has given to us:

“Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”.

His Spirit is guiding, leading, empowering and strengthening us for the task.  It is at those moments when we feel that God is furthest from us that God is actually closest to us.  It is so important that at the most demanding times we listen to God through prayer.

As Winston Churchill once said:

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen”.

Together we must be prepared to listen to the promptings of the Spirit and to continue to have the courage to take risks in the name of Jesus – to live out the calling that God has given us in our daily lives, remembering that God does not want us to be ‘successful’ but rather that We are called to be faithful.