Fourth Sunday after Epiphany 

Service Date: 29 January, 2017

Worship was led by the Revd. Robert Beard

Hymns:

Rejoice and Sing 45  Morning has broken

Rejoice and Sing 623  Eternal ruler of the ceaseless round

Blest are the pure in heart

Rejoice and Sing 599  Christ for the world we sing

Sermon:

Don’t Stop Rocking the Boat

(Micah 6.1-8, Matthew 5.1-12)

The inauguration of President Donald Trump and the ensuing worldwide protest marches (even in Antarctica) are just the latest symptoms of the divisions that are setting nations, communities and individuals against each other: divisions that seem destined to characterise at least the first quarter of the 21st century.

The ceaseless conflicts in the Middle East and the western powers’ involvement in them, the burgeoning economic power of China and India, the military and political struggles in many African countries, the hostility shown to people fleeing war and starvation, and even the continuing tussles around the UK’s proposed secession from the EU, all betray a human race profoundly at odds with itself.

Our awareness of these events comes predominantly from the World Wide Web and our rolling news media, which enable us instantly to inform – or misinform – ourselves about situations across the globe as they develop in real time. Our unprecedented level of access to knowledge about our human sisters’ and brothers’ lives is something that earlier generations could scarcely have imagined.

In fact, while our awareness of international events may make us the best informed generation in human history, this very awareness may also be a factor in spreading what would have once been only local divisions right across the world, enabling – and sometimes encouraging – people to take sides in conflicts and struggles in other countries, of which our forebears might have remained blissfully unaware.

It is sometimes easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless to do anything about the conflicts and catastrophes we learn about from our news media; but in the face of deep divisions within the human race throughout the world, our course of action is as clear as ever. In the 21st century, however, no less than in the 7th and 8th centuries BC (the time of the prophet Micah), or in the 1st century AD (the time of Jesus Christ), the message of the Jewish and Christian traditions reminds us that there is always something we can, and must, do.

Micah came from Moresheth-Gath in the southwest part of the southern kingdom of Judah. He prophesied about 737 to 696 BC, during the reigns of the kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, and was a contemporary of the prophets First Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. Micah’s messages were directed chiefly toward Jerusalem. He prophesied the future destruction of Jerusalem and Samaria, and the destruction and then future restoration of the Judean state; he rebuked the people of Judah for dishonesty and idolatry; and it is his prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem that St Matthew cites in his gospel (Micah 5.2; Matthew 2.6. His 40-year career over, he disappeared from history and we have no information about the end of his life, but he left behind one of the best-known sayings in all of Scripture:

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does Yahweh require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6.8

I’d like to do this as an activity sometime; but for the moment imagine, if you will, a big paddling pool, as large as you like, standing on the floor in front of the Communion table, and filled with water. Anchored in the middle of the paddling pool is toy boat representing St Andrew’s church, partly filled with grains of sand and tiny pebbles. Floating on the surface of the pool are dolls representing different kinds of people, some in boats and some just lying in the water, some close by and some further away. Nearby are our city councillors in boats, and Sheffield’s rough sleepers floating. Not far beyond them are our political and business leaders in boats, and ever-growing number of homeless people floating. Further out are people on flimsy rafts representing refugee camps in southern Europe, and beyond them more refugees almost submerged beneath the water. Further out still are symbols representing, say, the cities of Mosul and Aleppo. There are figures rolling around in a thick patch of sticky oil, representing the victims of the 140,000 gallons of diesel oil that has just leaked from a broken pipeline into Iowa’s water supply. And so on…

Now, let me draw your attention back to the boat in the middle. It is, of course, a fishing boat, because St Andrew was a fisherman. Imagine that a tiny act of love is represented by one of the grains of sand being dropped over the side of the boat. The sound it makes as it hits the water is barely discernible amid the general brouhaha of Church life, but to someone who is observing very, very closely, it makes microscopic ripples that spread out and, as long as there’s not too much disturbance, just kisses one of the homeless people or very slightly rocks the boat of a city councillor. Now imagine that one of the pebbles represents our fundraising for the children in the Calais ‘Jungle’; this time the noise is louder and the ripples are bigger. Finally, imagine that there are other Church fishing boats floating on the water and that, say, a hundred of us all drop pebbles at the same time; this creates something altogether more choppy, and one of the politician dolls is has to put its head over the side of its yacht.

I said that the St Andrew’s boat was only partly filled with sand and pebbles. I also observed that St Andrew was a fisherman, but of course Jesus called him to become a fisher of men and women. So there is room in the boat for anyone who wants to be hauled out of the water to come aboard and join our crew. Fortunately for newcomers – and fortunately for us, too – there are no papers to be presented or articles to be signed; they are welcome just as they are.

Amid all the turmoil of current events, there remain little communities of people who have glimpsed the vision of a different way of relating to people whose beliefs and lifestyles are different from their own. In their worship and in their outreach, these communities continually commit and recommit themselves to seek out, welcome, shelter and aid their brothers and sisters of every background and experience. Churches – although not all Churches – understand themselves as called and equipped to be just these kinds of communities: and not only Churches, of course, but an all-but-infinite variety of compassionate communities. These communities unite around Micah’s injunction to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Of course, not all such communities use religious vocabulary to describe what they seek to do, but the evidence of their actions shows that they share the same values as those who do.

Turning to our gospel reading, it is within such communities, whether they bear religious labels or not, that those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are the pure in heart, who are peacemakers or who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, find their natural home. They may not all talk about God, but their work is characterised by the justice, kindness and humility of which Micah spoke.

All such communities are blessed, not material rewards and public adulation – the blessings that come from outside – but with a blessing that comes from God incarnate working within them, or in non-religious terms, from the love that they embody. Their actions may not be regarded as newsworthy, but to those whose lives they touch, they are revolutionary and transformative, and may ripple outwards to have far-reaching effects.

Let us pray:

God of love, amid the conflicts and catastrophes of our times, may our resolution never waver to commit ourselves continually to the justice, kindness and humility of which your prophet spoke, that we and all whose lives our lives touch may experience the blessings that you hold out to us in your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Revd Robert Beard BD

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