Sunday 20 May 2018
Managing when to take holiday is important for all of us. We have to ensure we get a good break, that we return refreshed, but also time our return to ensure a smooth transition back into normal life and work.
For clergy this usual conundrum is made more complex by the limitations on Sundays we can be away. To maximise a break, but to minimise the Sundays missed, we have found it common to start a holiday after service on a Sunday, and then return a week or two later on Friday or Saturday to avoid missing another Sunday.
This usually works well, except for one small problem: you often have to preach the day after you get back. There are usually a few ways around this problem – recycle an old sermon, get someone else to preach, or hope something comes to mind.
The first two options weren’t available to me this time, so yesterday I had planned to lock myself in my study in the afternoon and see what happened.
But first, I thought, I’d watch the Royal wedding.
I sat and watched the pomp and ceremony, I enjoyed the choir, and then I heard the sermon, and then I thought – oh great, how do I follow that!
Already Michael Curry’s address has become one of the stand-out moments of an extraordinary day. As one commentator put it: “If Pippa was the unexpected star of Kate’s wedding, Michael Curry is the star of this one.”
Elsewhere public figures and publications which usually hold religion and the Church at arm’s length were having their heads turned by the power of Curry’s preaching. Ed Miliband, former leader of the Labour Party commenting, for instance that: “Michael Curry could almost make me a believer.”
Michael Curry’s fierce and passionate call to the power of love in all things was a sensation. RS Thomas, whose pulpit I stood by in the Church in Aberdaron only a few days ago, tells us of the power of the preacher who:
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
And today of all days, on this great feast of Pentecost, there is something fitting about reflecting on the transforming power that the word proclaimed amongst can have to change the world.
After all, the story of the day of Pentecost is, in many ways, a preamble to a great sermon.
Gathering fifty days after Easter we hear with great drama that:
suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
On the day of Pentecost this is the image and the language we focus on. We wear red as we think of the flames of fire, we imagine the wind, and the cacophony of tongues, and we laugh as we think of the apostles being accused of being drunk on new wine.
But as we do that we can all too easily overlook the power of Peter’s sermon to the crowd gathered in Jerusalem that day. Our Lectionary does not help us here, cutting Peter off half way through his sermon which fills almost all of the reminder of the second chapter of the Book of Acts.
It is a sermon which powerfully and passionately places the Good News of Jesus Christ into the great story of God’s love for creation. It is a sermon which calls for us to repent and believe the Good news, and it is a sermon which calls us to change our lives.
And as the sermon comes to an end we hear of the lives that were changes as three-thousand were baptised and added to their number.
As we move through the Book of Acts we find again and again that this community filled with courage and strength by the spirit use it, as Peter did on the day of Pentecost, to proclaim the truth God reveals to us in Jesus Christ.
Again and again we hear of the apostles ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Peter to the Annas, Caiaphas and the high priests; Stephen before his trial and execution; Paul preaching on the Aereopagus; and so many more examples remind us that in the great gift of the Spirit we receive this day is that gift to bring truth and meaning to Jesus’ words from our Gospel that:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth
So on this day of Pentecost how can we respond, how can we be filled with the Spirit so that we might be guided into all truth?
Well we can return to Michael Curry’s sermon for help.
At the end of his extraordinary, spirit filled Sermon yesterday Michael Curry quoted on the words of one of his favourite American Spirituals There is a balm in Gilead which is an encouragement to us all.
If you cannot preach like Peter,
And you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
How he died to save us all
Crucially for us on this day of Pentecost the words then go on to say:
Sometimes I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my hope again.
What we discover this day is that, even if we feel discouraged or disheartened, it is the Spirit, that great gift of God’s love to us this day, which fills us, and strengthens us, and guides us as we go on with this work of the Gospel.
And so, it is true, that sometimes your preacher will worry they can’t preach like Peter – or Michael Curry for that matter – but knowing that we can all pray that the Spirit revives that hope again.
Some of us will feel anxious that we cannot pray like Paul, but we can draw encouragement from the Spirit to guide us to the places of truth we find in prayer.
And we can look at the broken world in which we live and worry that there is nothing we can do. And then we find the Spirit filling us to serve each other, to care to those most in need, to show the true and deep and transforming power of that love we saw proclaimed in word and deed in St George’s Chapel yesterday, and we know what we have to do in word and deed ourselves, because guided by the Spirit:
If we cannot preach like Peter,
And we cannot pray like Paul,
We can tell the love of Jesus,
How he died to save us all.