This is the text of the first sermon I have preached at Croydon Minster as Priest-in-Charge. It was preached during the Parish Eucharist on Sunday 9 September, 2018. The readings were Isaiah 35.4-7a and Mark 7.24-37.
"Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the man, ‘Ephaphtha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’."
So, I have been parish priest here for some six days now. God may have created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, but I cannot claim that I have achieved anything like the same impact! But that is not what I am here to do.
Those of you who were able to share the Eucharist for my licensing will have heard Bishop Jonathan remind us that the task of the parish priest is not to try to be a superhero, or a lone ranger or a prima donna, but someone who looks to tend a community of faith in which the love of Jesus Christ is reflected and made real in preaching, teaching, the administration of the sacraments and in pastoral care.
So let us turn to our scriptures for this morning and see where they take us.
“Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the man, ‘Ephaphtha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’.”
The scriptures today speak of refreshment and renewal and revival – through God’s creative power and grace, not through any strategies and bright ideas of a new incumbent: that would be the early heresy known as Pelagianism, when we fool ourselves into thinking that we achieve without God’s grace. That grace, flowing like water in a desert, is what the Prophet Isaiah describes.
The scriptures today challenge us to consider how we dismantle the barriers we place in the way of people accessing God’s grace: whether that is by spoken, or unspoken, rules, or in ways of doing things that just need busting; like the dominance of the ‘in crowd’ and the exclusion of those who just don’t seem to fit. That’s what Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician women highlights.
The scriptures today invite us to ponder how open our ears are to the Good News and how we listen attentively to the proclamation of the scriptures and God’s Living Word, Jesus Christ. That’s what the encounter with the Deaf man with a speech impairment points us to.
There’s an interesting little verse in that gospel: “Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the man, ‘Ephaphtha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’.” What did he want opened: heaven or the man’s ears? Perhaps it is both. ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened’!
We need our ears opened: first, to hear and then carefully to listen. Once we’ve listened then we can speak so we know what we are proclaiming. That’s because the heavens are open too!
The message: be open to God; be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit; be open to the possibility that God can touch you afresh so that your tongue is released and you can speak. It means we open up to God, to one another and to the community on our doorstep.
Part of what I am about at the moment is a time of careful, discerning listening – I need to keep my ears open! After my Licensing on Monday I was asked if I have a ‘plan’. Well, I don’t have a blueprint of what I want for this place tucked in my cassock pocket.
It’s not about personal preference, mine or anyone else’s, to be enacted like the swipe of a smartphone.
Rather, it is about the Body of Christ in this place listening carefully together with open hearts and ears. A great role model in this is Our Lady, Mary. She heard, she listened and she pondered God’s call. And then she sang of it, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour’. We see it in her life: she listened to God’s call, responded and sang God’s praises.
So I don’t have a ‘plan’, but I do have guiding principles and markers, and the example of our Patron Saint, John the Baptist helps frame them for me.
Baptism. The first call of the Christian is to be faithful to Christ through our baptism. John the Baptist embodied the words from the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water’. (Isaiah 35.7a) That is about renewal, refreshment, revival. Baptism gives birth to life in the Church. I want to see each person here to take hold of what that all means for you: ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’; ‘drink deeply from the wellsprings of salvation’.
Eucharist. When seeing Jesus, John the Baptist proclaimed, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world’, a text we use in the Eucharist, of course, which invites us to the banquet of the Lamb, a banquet anticipating heaven and feeding us now on earth. We respond by saying ‘I am not worthy’ - how can we be? – but the Good Shepherd sets that aside, spreads a table in our sight, and doesn’t just leave us with the crumbs but feeds us with his very self.
Confession and reconciliation. John went into the wilderness calling for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
To be healed, to be reconciled, to be forgiven means we need to be aware of where we fall short because only then can we begin to be restored and renewed. We have already used words of confession and have heard words of forgiveness: do we believe it?! Do you really believe you have been forgiven? So many of us carry burdens of guilt and self-doubt such that we can only assume we’re guilty in God’s sight, and our self-doubt leads to doubting God’s capacity to love and forgive and our own capacity to do the same. I’m speaking to myself at the very least, if no one else: the Sacrament of Confession, sometimes known as Reconciliation, enables that deep searching self-examination that opens up God’s assurance, forgiveness and healing.
Holiness and prayer. Holiness is an unfashionable word today; it smacks of being ‘holier than thou’ or so other worldly that we are of no earthly use. But the journey of holiness is the journey deep into the love of God. Baptism, Eucharist and Confession all advance us along that journey. This journey is undergirded by prayer. For us to be a praying church means that we root ourselves, in the way that John the Baptist points us, which is back to Christ then out to our neighbour.
Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the man, ‘Ephaphtha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’. Let’s not sigh in a dispirited way, but sigh by breathing out that which is not of God and then draw in our collective breath, fill our lungs with the Spirit of God, and allow our hearts, minds and bodies to be open to God: may our souls magnify the Lord, and our spirits rejoice in God, our Saviour. Amen.