Sermons from St Faith's

The Mass: the Service for Sinners
Fr Neil Kelley, 3rd Sunday in Lent, 2009

There’s a story of a priest who visits an older people’s home to celebrate mass. Using the BCP of 1662 he begins in the same way each week. After a month or so, one of the nurses asks if he might slightly alter the service – perhaps miss out the 10 commandments.... most of the residents were bedridden and frail – they’d give anything to be able to break the 10 commandments at their time of life!

It is a story of how liturgy needs always to match context. It isn’t a story, however, about devaluing the moral code which was handed down to us.

In today’s reading we hear the story of the 10 commandments being given. The first five deal with our relationship with God, the second five our relationship with others.

Many years ago these were rehearsed at the start of the prayer book communion service – something we ought to bring back at times. But when the 1980 ASB was published it included a version of the 10 commandments, each having a corresponding verse from the New Testament.

So, for example:
You shall not commit murder.
Live peaceably with all; overcome evil with good.

You shall not be a false witness.
Let everyone speak the truth.

And so on. If you have an ASB I suggest you visit them and use them in your prayers this week.

Jesus came, he told his followers, not to abolish the law, but to fulfil, or complete it. Much as it might suit our ends to be Old Testament prophets of doom on occasions, we can’t read anything in the Old Testament without seeing it in the light of Christ and his teaching.

Remember the story in the Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. The law was very clear. She – and he – had done wrong. Jesus didn’t condone – but neither did he condemn. And that is the challenge laid down to all of us who live in, and minister to, a fallen world.

People in the church should practise what they preach – is a cry often heard. But what do we think that really means? Does it mean they should be perfect? That is certainly an ideal to aspire to – Jesus himself urged his followers to be perfect, as their Heavenly Father is perfect.  I think that saying is more to do with how we deal with sin, with faults and failing, than casting blame.

Every church in every age can cite examples of people who have fallen from grace. Often those who have failed to keep the 11th commandment – thou shalt not get caught! As far as the ministry of Jesus was concerned, he was more concerned with the consequences of sin than the sin itself. He came for the sick, not the virtuous. He was criticised for mixing with the wrong people. He would prefer to be with the prostitute, tax collector and sinner rather than with the Anglican middle class purple rinse brigade who thought they occupied the moral high ground. Who can blame him!

The other week we asked people to write things they were grateful for on to a water drop and they are pinned up at the back. Family, food, health featured quite a lot. One person only put down “forgiveness for sin”. Without that forgiveness which is at the heart of the gospel there is no gospel.

We often criticise the secular and consumerist world for taking Christ out of Christmas. But those fully paid up church members, the whiter than white brigade who revel in any opportunity to condemn others, they are taking Christ out of Christianity. It may be a form of Christianity which the perfect are happy with. But it has nothing to do with Christ.

Jesus says very little in the bible about sex. He talks far more of forgiveness and love. However, most Christians find it so much easier to judge, than to love!

Today’s Gospel reading Jesus loses his rag. The Temple has been turned into a market place – last week I visited a church which had more of the sound of the market place than a place of prayer about it before the service began. But let’s not kid ourselves that it was people 2000 ago who were defiling the temple. How much gossip and rumour takes places within this sanctuary? Some of the best gossip doing the rounds people claim to have heard in St. Faith’s! That is sacrilegious desecration of the kind described by Jesus in today’s gospel.

Jesus might have spoken little about sex. The Bible says quite a lot however, about gossip, but we conveniently forget that.  7 texts immediately spring to mind and I dare say there might be more than 7 people in this church who ought to read them!

1. Romans 1:29b-32
2. 1 Timothy 5:12-13.
3. Proverbs 20:19
4. Proverbs 11:12-13
5. Proverbs 16:28
6. Proverbs 18:7-8
7. Proverbs 21:23

Do we come to this House of God to share gossip, or share forgiveness?

In the next few weeks forgiveness and reconciliation is probably all we are singing about, praying about and reading about from the Bible as we journey through Lent.

What is the point of addressing intercessions to God about forgiveness, if it is absent in our churches? What is the point of singing most of the music that is coming up, if the words sung are not reflected in the way we treat others? What is the point of reading about God’s unconditional love in the scriptures and preaching it in sermons, if it doesn’t exist in practise?

And perhaps, most of all, how can we share that sacramental sign of God’s unconditional love in the Eucharist, if it doesn’t affect the way we treat each other.

In my experience, people who have fallen need the church more than ever. They need the church to love them back on to their feet, not show them the door!

Look at the Great Crucifix for a moment. What were the last words of Jesus dying on the cross? Condemnation? Judgement? No. Words of forgiveness.

If the one person who was entitled to condemn or judge didn’t – who are any of us, to place ourselves above God? To play God?

The only place God can meet is where we are: not where we used to be, or where we would like to be – but where we are.

Fridge magnet - You'll always be my friend - you know too much! That is what each one of us needs to say to God. Because despite our foolish behaviour, our small-minded attitude to forgiveness, our willingness to gossip rather than keep quiet, and thousands of things besides, the most amazing fact is that God does know too much about us – he knows more about us than we do ourselves – and still he doesn’t withhold his love from us.

I finish with 10 commandments. Not given by Moses, but by Jesus himself.

1. Judge not, and you shall not be judged:
2. condemn not, and you shall not be condemned:
3. forgive, and you shall be forgiven:
4. Let him – or her - who is without sin cast the first stone
5. Love one another, as I have loved you
6. Neither do I condemn you, go in peace
7. "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
8. If you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
9. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us
10. This is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me.

As you approach the Table of the Lord today, will it be as a saint, or as a sinner?

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