Fr Bosco Peters presided and Margaret Maclagan preached at the 11am mass. Our Gospel reading was taken from Luke 15: 1-10.
Read on for the sermon and a video of the service.
This last week we’ve had really variable weather – last weekend, there was practically no snow left on the mountains – now they’re covered again. The temperature almost halved from one day to the next... So at the beginning of the week, when it was really cold, we could have cuddled up in a favourite warm rug or blanket while drinking hot chocolate. You’re just getting comfortable, settling down nicely when suddenly something sharp sticks into you – maybe it’s a pin or maybe you didn’t remove that little tag that dry cleaners have a nasty habit of leaving in your clothes. Whatever it is, it gives you a nasty shock!
That happened to Rob and me at 5.30 am on Friday morning. Rob was listening to First Up on his earphones and I was trying to go back to sleep when he suddenly said – ‘turn the radio on – the Queen’s died’. A real sharp shock with the equivalent of a very large pin. And whatever you think of the monarchy and the positives or negatives of NZ becoming a republic, you’ve got to admire the Queen for her sense of duty, her persistence and her deep faith.
It happened to me on a much smaller scale when I really looked at today’s gospel reading. I’d asumed Jesus was talking to his disciples and reassuring them abaout how much God loved them. I even had a mental picture of the shepherd coming back with the sheep over his shoulders (though I did hope it wasn’t a fully grown fat NZ one...) when I read the start of the passage and realised that Jesus wasn’t talking to his disciples but to the Scribes and the Pharisees. They were upset because Jesus was actually welcoming tax collectors and sinners and eating with them – and Fr Bosco pointed out how important sharing meals was in Jesus’ society.
Tax collectors were despised because they worked for the Romans, and could easily skim a bit off the top for themselves. But this wasn’t the main reason why they, and other groups like shepherds, were capital letter SINNERS to the scribes and pharisees – not because they’d done something as dramatic as breaking all the ten commandments, but because they didn’t follow all the religious rules dictated by the rabbis – they weren’t righteous.
The pharisees were big on righteousness – they tried to keep every last detail of the law and valued it so much that they added a whole lot of extra rules so that they didn’t accidentally break one of the central laws – they ‘built a fence around the law’. And the tax collectors didn’t keep all the central laws let alone keeping the extra ones.
The pharisees knew they were righteous; they knew God rejoiced over them – after all, they fulfilled all of God’s laws. They knew they had nothing of which they needed to repent. I imagine they were horrified when Jesus said God rejoiced over 1 sinner who repents. I’m sure there are times when each of us feels that, this week, we don’t have anything to repent of– when we’ve actually managed to keep, not the Pharisees’ extra commandments, but Jesus’ law of loving your neighbour. But we say the general confession each week because when we’re honest, we know we have things to repent of and it’s part of making ourselves right again with God.
And the key to our gospel passage as we try to move towards Jesus’ ideal of loving your neighbour as yourself is repentence – ‘there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous who need no repentance’. Last week Fr Bosco reminded us that love and hate aren’t feelings but actions. Similarly repentance isn’t just saying and feeling sorry. The Greek is metanoia — to turn around, to change your whole orientation. Like love and hate, it’s an action, not a feeling.
And I went back to one of my favourite poets, T.S.Eliot, and his poem Ash Wednesday. The whole poem is totally steeped in Christian imagery. It starts:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn
And I cringed at all the rubbish we wrote on it as interpretation at school – Eliot is clearly talking about repentance – turning again to God.
And then I started to wonder where do I need to turn again, where do we at St Michael’s need to turn again? What do we need to repent of, individually and collectively – individually, obviously, what we each need to repent of is just that, individual and up to each one of us. But I started to think about the Pharisees and their ideas of righteousness. And I started to think about our status as the only really Anglo-Catholic parish in our diocese, and one of the few in the whole Province – and how much we (me included!) want to hold tightly to our traditions.
And I started to wonder if there are things we need to let go of – things where we secretly think we’re better, more righteous, than other non-catholic parishes. Things where we’re getting perilously like the Pharisees. And of course, this time when we’re waiting for a new vicar, is an ideal time to think about what we may be holding onto too tightly. About things that perhaps no longer bring joy to God. About places where our comfortable, familiar blanket of ritual actually needs to have a pin in it so that it jolts us out of our sense of self-righteous certainty and heads us towards areas where we need to repent. Not where we need to feel sorry for our ways of doing things, but where we need to actually change direction, where we need to turn again.
Eliot ends Ash Wednesday ‘Suffer me not to be separated/And let my cry come unto thee’ – as we reflect on our practices here, perhaps that can be our prayer too – may we come back to you and to the essence of what we are trying to do as we worship through our beloved AngloCatholic ritual.