02 May Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A
The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.
30th April, 2023
In this monastery, and in many churches, the fourth Sunday of Lent – sometimes called Laetare Sunday – is kept as a sort of blip, a bit of light relief in the middle of Lent, a relaxation of the relative rigours of penitence and abstinence. In preparing this homily, I wondered if the fourth Sunday of Easter, conversely, should this year be kept as a blip – a sort of bucket of cold water – in the middle of celebrating Eastertide.
Last week was quite demanding. Two baby snakes got into the boot-room of the abbey and both bit me while I was trying to catch them. When I was heading for the laundrette I was mugged for the sake of a bag full of dirty washing. And after I had preached a sermon the vicar of the church rescinded his invitation, telling me he wasn’t going to give me any hospitality and slamming the vicarage door in my face.
Now you may be wondering – so I’ll make it plain: these three negative experiences happened to me in my dreams, on three successive nights. They speak of anxiety, presumably, but I was not actually poisoned, bruised, bloodied or shut out in the rain. Yet what I see by night, many others are experiencing by day – and not just those hurts but much greater ones.
In this country there are many who are hungry, who live in unhealthy and dangerous accommodation, who experience discrimination and violence and hatred, who cannot access healthcare, who are bullied or abused on a regular basis. We protest – rightly! We demand help for them, we stand up for their rights and we support charities that assist them, even if we cannot help directly.
In other parts of the world the situation is very much worse. Our attention is usually grabbed by wars, internal conflicts and natural disasters but, even without these, millions of people experience malnutrition, lack of medical care or medicines, polluted water supplies, waning soil fertility and rising sea levels.
Several of these griefs are systemic, that is they are not caused directly by the ill-will – the sin – of individuals or particular social groups, yet several more are the result of human faults or failings. It may be that we go astray, through indifference, greed or fear. And there are plenty who make a living from theft, fraud or the threat of violence, even in our own society.
How are we to sustain ourselves in the face of these ills?
We could take our cue from today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Since the dawn of time, clans, cultural or religious groupings have banded together, shared out tasks and shared out benefits. Community living has many advantages, though it also has some risks. One ancient risk – discovered in the earliest years of the church – is that if I am relatively rich and sell my land or belongings to put money in the common pool, then as soon as that has been spent I am yet another poor person in need of charity along with all the rest. The delay in the Second Coming was one of the biggest challenges to the early Christians, because what was plausible – in fact, ideal and commendable – for a group in the very short term, did not prove beneficial over the long term.
Clearly, in the longest term – eternity – all these worries are irrelevant, because God is God and eternal life will come to be as He always intended.
The challenge is the medium term, and how we sustain ourselves week by week and year by year, in the face of all life’s griefs and challenges. So what do our readings offer us ?
The passage from Acts still has several positive elements. Banding together as Christians does – or should – help us grow in faith, in mutual love and care. Eating “food with glad and generous hearts” [Acts 2: 46] is certainly helpful: both as to the positive spirit of gratitude, and the generosity towards others born out of our thankfulness that we are not going hungry. Also “praising God” [Acts 2: 47] is the bedrock of life, affirming our place as creatures of a loving Creator who looked on all that He had made and found it “very good”.
In the gospel passage, the evangelist reminds us that Jesus calls himself both shepherd and gate to the sheepfold. As shepherd, he calls us in a voice we recognise: intuitively we know that we belong with him and that his word is the best guide to what we should live and say and do. As gate, he is our way to salvation but also to the reassuring sense that we are making the right choice. His warning about the thieves and bandits is also a teaching for us: no good will come if we listen to those voices that promise gain through stealing, cheating or damage to others.
The First Letter of Peter gives us the passage which perhaps addresses most directly the pain and distress of this life in the challenging medium term. The author commends endurance when we do right and suffer for it, adding:
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” [I Peter 2: 21]
Of course this presupposes that we are doing right in the first place, not suffering as a consequence of our own sin and its ramifications. The author remarks that we were indeed going astray before, but have now returned to the shepherd of our souls.
When the epistle preaches endurance, do we feel encouraged, or do we resent it ? The fact is that all life entails suffering, sometimes through our own fault but very often through causes over which we have not the slightest control or even influence. They will not ‘not happen’, so we must have some responses. I suppose I look for two kinds. First, where I do have influence, I must work on myself and take my part in standing up for the good of others and of society. Secondly, where I can do nothing about the cause, I must work just as hard on myself, maintaining my gratitude for the good things that remain in life, looking to the Good Shepherd so that I renew my goal of doing my best at what is right, accepting that changing circumstances will have to be met with new priorities and new responses, and helping others where I can so that the overall sum of suffering is reduced where possible.
Locally, as well as systemically, I believe the greatest causes of suffering are probably selfishness and apathy – and, with perseverance, we can all do something about those. Amen.
Image: Munch, Edvard, 1863-1944. Sun, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56306 [retrieved May 1, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edvard_Munch_-_The_Sun_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg