Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year A (Laetare Sunday) - Mucknell Abbey
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Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year A (Laetare Sunday)

Sunday 19th March, 2023

One of the great things about being ancient but still retaining at least a shred of memory, is that one can see how some things have changed for the better, though usually not without a good deal of struggle, heartache and frustration … and, in many cases, the struggle continues to be worked out.

It’s hard to imagine now that, as a teenager, my best friend at school and I were forbidden to pray the Lord’s Prayer together. He was a Roman Catholic and his priest – a Benedictine monk – was very concerned at his friendships with Protestants and wanted him to be clear about the Church’s rules!

It’s hard to imagine now that, as a 6th former, I received a serious telling off for participating in ‘schismatic worship’ after I told him that I had been to the Methodist evening service with my then girlfriend and her parents. And as a non-confirmed Anglican, of course, she was forbidden to receive Holy Communion when she came to church with me.
Times change – all be it slowly.

It’s hard to imagine now the almost universal opprobrium heaped on divorcees. I remember the shock and horror when a ‘divorcee’ bought a house on our lane. She was regarded as an object rather than a person who had just gone through a very painful separation; someone to be shunned – and shunned she was by all the neighbours! But it wasn’t long after that that the Church of England began to re-consider its treatment of divorcees – not only re-admitting them to Communion from which they had been barred, but beginning the long process of contemplating the possibility of blessing the civil marriages of divorcees. Priests were severely disciplined if they did. But gradually things began to shift.

I remember when I was a curate we had a lovely young couple who came regularly to the Parish Communion but the woman never received Communion – why?
Because, as a 17-year-old she had become pregnant. Her parents insisted she marry the father. After 6 months she mis-carried and they divorced. Now, 10 years later, she had come to faith and fallen in love with a Christian lad and they wanted to marry in church. It was against the rules for a divorcee to be married in church. Knowing the background, my incumbent wrote to the bishop and asked for an exception to be made…though, as the bishop was known to be a stickler for rules, he didn’t hold out much hope. The reply came on a headed post card with one sentence: “Who am I to cast the first stone?” Things were shifting.

…but all hell was let loose when the Church began to debate the marriage of divorcees in church. This was the end! The denial of the Gospel. The Church would disintegrate.
Times do change, and now we even have bishops married to divorcees and divorcees ordained – though there are still hoops to be jumped through – and very few eyebrows are raised.!

WOMEN??! – as deacons, [thin end of the wedge?] – priests? -bishops???!!! Impossible! Times change, but not without heartache…some of which still lingers.

And now? Spend a few minutes on You-Tube: “Welby destroys Anglican Communion!” “House of Bishops turns its back on the Gospel!” So much ill-informed vitriol unleashed at the possibility of blessing the love and commitment of a same-sex couple — about which there is no mention in the Gospels, only the promise that the Holy Spirit will lead the Church into all truth – albeit gradually.

How do today’s readings shed light on all this? Well – ‘t was ever thus, it seems.

We see in both Samuel and in the Pharisees the same struggle – the tension between faithfulness to what has been understood to be the will of God in the past and the prophetic discernment of God’s leading on to something new.

One commentator I read says, ‘Faced with a completely new challenge, the hardest thing of all is to discern whether it is from God or not. Once the challenge has been faced and is past, and the fresh insights and understanding have been accepted and are absorbed and become part of the ‘tradition’, it’s hard to imagine the times of uncertainty and struggle.

‘We look back and see that this new ‘thing’ is absolutely in keeping with the character of the God we worship. How could we possibly have thought otherwise. And then the next ‘new thing’ comes over the horizon and we are left floundering again.’

At the moment so much of the Church is pre-occupied with sex, one way and another…but racing over the horizon to challenge our theology and practice we have ‘immigration’ and ‘climate- change’. Is our God the Creator and lover of all? Are people who are desperately seeking asylum and safety in our country merely unwelcome objects, or are they real people – our sisters and brothers, equally children of God? It’s still not clear to many people.

Today’s Gospel reading asks where we stand. Are we like the parents of the man born blind? Unwilling or afraid or not yet ready to speak up? Are we like the Pharisees who are clear about the tradition but blind to what is being revealed by the Spirit?

And when it comes to the care of our planet – how clearly do we see what is happening to it? – and that we are really inextricably part of it?

At our Office of Readings this morning we heard St Ambrose pointing out the symbolism of the mud that Jesus made to put on the eyes of the blind man – we are made of the mud of the earth – and the man was sent to bathe – the symbol of Baptism – the new life in Christ – the light of the world. We are called to see by that light, to BE that light in the world; we ARE the body of Christ.

‘Lord, help us to see and discern the truths you are leading us into and give us the courage, not to vilify others but to respond gladly and fearlessly and be the Christ-light in our generation. Amen.’

Br. Stuart

Image: Christ our Light, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54167 [retrieved March 20, 2023]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/35409814@N00/2105918430/