“The Greatest Lack” – Sunday, January 6th, 2019

It was as if today, Epiphany Sunday, saw the most perfect confluence of themes and opportunities to talk and think about Worship, considered by some to be the greatest lack and the greatest need of the Christian and the Church.

The 8am service, the Adult Study (Worship #1) and the “All Age Gather Together” gave me glorious opportunities to preach and teach about worship. It was inspiring to hear and see Trinity Church filled with the shouts of “Wow” as we considered an expression for worship.

The basic text of the 8am sermon is below the audio; I regret we have no record of the “Worship & Wow” talk at 10am!

 

 

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday January 6th, 2019 – Epiphany
The Reverend Alan Neale
“The Greatest Lack”

Matthew 2:11 “We have come to worship him, to pay him homage.”

Never before have I been so conscious of the presence of worship throughout the Christmas story –
angelic choruses sing in heavenly places “Glory to God in the Highest”;
tired shepherds, inspired by the angels, trek to Bethlehem and there… they worship;
wise men (maybe three) journey across foreign lands all that they may kneel and worship and, of course,
we cannot forget the animals that evocatively kneel before the One who has made them all and with animal voice worship.

And all our Christmas carols enjoin and charge us to come and worship… Christ, the new-born King.

All of my resolutions for 2019 this is, I think, my primary resolve… to worship the Lord as often as possible, wherever possible, in as many ways as possible.

A.W.Tozer was a tremendously powerful Bible teacher and preacher in the 20th century; as his ministry grew so he becomes ever more conscious of the greatest lack of the church… worship. He wrote many books on worship including this one “Worship – The Reason We Were Created”.

On page 13 he writes, “I can safely say, on the authority of all that is revealed in the Word of God, that any man or woman on this earth who is bored and turned off by worship is not ready for heaven.”

Do I, do you, want to get ready for heaven… worship, worship, worship the Lord?

Matthew 2:11 “We have come to worship him, to pay him homage.”

As we move more deeply, more constantly, more intentionally into worship so a new alertness, sensitivity and awareness grows within our souls.

We learn what is significant in and around our lives; we accept the reality of the world in which we live and we deepen in our understanding of God’s nature and God’s relation to us.

Worship & Significance. Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 tell of the arduous and long journey embarked upon by the wise men; some have reckoned it to be about 400 miles, maybe two to three weeks by camel or a month on foot. At some point, as their hearts were turned to worship, so they saw their studies, their books, their astrological plans… all as having an absolutely new significance and they responded.

Friends, as you and I surrender afresh to worship this year we will discover a new significance in so much that we have taken for granted, almost tended to overlook and ignore. Ideas and words, plans and friends will suddenly carry a new potential as we repeat these words, “We have come to worship Him, to pay Him homage.

Worship & Realism. You and I know that the pleasant story of the birth of Jesus is ravaged by the anger and jealously of Herod; so beside himself with fury and rage that he orders a massacre of babies. It’s all there in black and white though we would rather put it aside and be done with such horror. The worship of the magi does not blind them to the austere realities of this world and so they respond to the call not to return to Herod.

Friends, as you and I surrender to worship this year we will not therefore be shielded from harm and horror, pain and grief but our worship makes us strong so all this, and more is put into the context of our God who is King.

Worship & Divine Understanding. As the erudite and learned and magical friends set out on their journey I suspect they have little sense of the One to whom they journey to worship. I suspect their packing was done in a fairly inclusive and comprehensive manner; that potential gifts were not limited to gold and frankincense and myrrh. I hope that in the existential moment of connection with the baby they felt they could do no other than offer these bizarre gifts at a stable crib. Yet we know the significance of these gifts… gold for the King, frankincense for the Priest and myrrh for the Savior.

Friends, as you and I surrender to worship this year I promise you that we will gain a deeper understanding of the One we worship, an understanding that will make an impact on our deepest being. Our worship will lead to that sure knowledge that we are children of the King, we are prayed for by the Priest and we are rescued by the Savior.

Yesterday was the Memorial Service for Beth Graham, a loving and gracious light in this Trinity community. Rather an unusual passage was chosen for the second reading… a passage from Revelation, chapter 4 (1-11)… a passage that attempts to describe the unbelievable, constant, varied worship in heaven.

And then I saw it… it wasn’t unusual at all for the words of John reminded me that I have opportunity, even today, to get ready for heaven… let’s get ready even now. AMEN

“Congress and/or Cathedral” – Sunday, December 23, 2018

Maybe it’s the time of the year, maybe it’s the roiling of political waves, maybe it’s having endured over ten days of weakness but today’s sermon is definitely different style with different emphasis and yet… it focus is on two very powerful women (Mary and Elizabeth).

The sermon text is below the sermon audio.

 

 

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday December 23 2018 
The Reverend Alan Neale
“Congress and/or Cathedral”

Perhaps some of you will be surprised (but I think not) that often clergy are adversely criticized because their sermons are too… political. Though the cynic in me suspects this translates as, “You don’t agree with me.”
In light of the avalanche of political happenings this week, I have been so tempted to look for some sandy burrow where I may hide my head (and if it’s spiritual, all the better).
There is a fear (a reasonable, rational fear) that the gospel will be distorted by secular values and ideologies. There is a fear (a reasonable, rational fear) that the eternal will be dissipated by the temporal, that our passports to heavenly places will be replaced by earthly visas that will fade and decay.
But the demarcation of a realm called “politics”, which is to be kept separate from another realm, “religion”, is itself the fruit of an ideology that is alien to scripture. I am so often reminded of Lord George McLeod’s pithy comment that to God… “matter matters.” To believe that what happens in our DC Congress is separate from, should by untouched by, what happens in our DC Cathedral makes no sense to the readers of Scripture and the followers of Jesus.
The readings for this last Sunday of Advent (2018), as we teeter on the very brink of Christmas… the readings remind us, the “politicisation” of religion is present in the Bible, and particularly in Luke’s Gospel. For the Blessed Virgin Mary, as for the Hebrew prophets, the spiritual is not something wholly separate from the physical. The work of the Spirit transfigures, transforms our material relationships so that they embody the justice and compassion of God.
We cannot avoid this truth… the Magnificat speaks of this transfiguration: of the poor being “lifted up and filled with good things”, and the rich “sent away empty”. As Pope John Paul II wrote “From Mary, who in her Magnificat proclaims that salvation has to do with justice, there flows authentic commitment to the rest of humanity, our brothers and sisters, especially for the poorest and most needy, and to the transformation of society”.
The message of Micah and his fellow prophets has a political dimension: he denounces the faithlessness and injustice of the rulers of his day, and, like Mary, looks forward to their dethroning. The verses we heard this morning proclaiming that “Bethlehem of Ephrathah, one of the little clans of Judah”, will bring forth “one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days”, locates God’s decisive act of redemption in those whom the world disregards and despises.
Actually the amazing vision, the startling promise of Micah is that God will restore a remnant… a remnant composed of the marginalized (Carol Dempsey, New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk). This is fulfilled as God raises up his “lowly handmaiden” to bear his Word made flesh; the marginalized Mary (and Elizabeth) carelessly ditched to the edges of society (for no fault of their own)… these marginalized ones are carriers of life and hope to the world.
The poor are often talked about: sometimes to stigmatize, sometimes to support… but their own voices are rarely heard. But in Luke’s Gospel, these are the ones through whom God speaks and acts. The Magnificat declares the power of the poorest in history, both by its content and by the identity of its proclaimer.
I am relieved, encouraged to note that while the voice and vocation of the poorest is central to Luke’s account, it is God, always God who is the ultimate initiator. The Blessed Mary is the supreme example of discipleship. She shows each generation of Christians what it means to be receptive to God’s word and to mediate his grace; Mary speaks to me and you this morning and says… “Your vocation is to respond, to allow, to submit”. The Magnificat is not a call to work for justice in our own power, but a celebration of God’s saving work.
This does not render us passive spectators. In Mary, we see that receptivity to God involves courage and tenacity. In John Paul II’s words, “she is also a model, the faithful accomplisher of God’s will, for those who do not accept passively the adverse circumstances of personal and social life.”
Mary’s song is the fruit of a deep contemplation of the events in her life and the life of her aged cousin, and of the Hebrew scriptures. It draws heavily on the song of Hannah, who, like Elizabeth, was without child for many years (1 Samuel 2). But it is also full of phrases from the Psalms and the prophets. As St Bonaventure writes, the canticle “shows that the fulfilment of all promised blessings has come about, and therefore brings about the fulfilment of all praise and canticles”.
The Magnificat is both a song of rejoicing and a summons to struggle.
And just a little Advent starkness before the panoply of Christmas… our epistle reminds us, the body that is being nurtured in Mary’s womb will be nailed to the cross – a song of rejoicing and a summons to struggle .
Just as John the Baptist leaps to herald Jesus in the womb, so his execution will prefigure Jesus’s treatment at the hands of the religious and political authorities – a song of rejoicing and a summons to struggle.
The joy of the visitation will, in time, give way, not only to the pain of childbirth, but to the far greater pain — for Son and mother alike — of Calvary – a song of rejoicing and a summons to struggle
In the Easter victory, this world’s death-dealing powers are cast down, and the crucified one is exalted.
As Advent draws to a close, we look forward to the day when the whole creation is drawn into the fullness of that victory, we promise (as best we can) not to surrender nor dilute that hope and we resolve to look for the ways in which God calls us to work with Him.
AMEN (so be it).

“All Will Be Well” – Sunday, December 9th, 2018

It’s often said that the Church of God is called to an Eucharistic/Thanksgiving Community; but also it is called to be an Advent Community carrying a strong and resilient hope into the world. The sermon text is below the sermon audio. I cannot help but note that President Bush (#41) speaks of accepting Jesus as His Savior… what a blessing!

 

 

 

 

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport; Sunday December 9th 2018; The Reverend Alan Neale; “All will be well”

In 1907 composer Victor Herbert and lyricist Henry Blossom produced a two act operetta entitled Mlle. Modiste. One of its songs contained this phrase repeated over… and over… and over again… “I want what I want when I want it.”

It seems to me that if ever there was to be a collection of Advent Antithetical Hymnody this would be #1 – it is immodestly self-centered, it is unapologetically narrow and it is unashamedly impatient.

“I want what I want when I want it.”

Compare and contrast Paul’s Letter to the Christians in Philippi chapter 1, verse 6: “6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

Here the focus is not on self, not on wants and definitely not on immediacy.

Listen to the same verse but this time in the Message Translation: “There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.”

The four weeks of Advent (so inconveniently but of necessity) just before Christmas charge us to cultivate patience… whether that cultivation be in the primal soil of personal relationships, the perennial soil of unfulfilled dreams or the petty soil of daily inconveniences too myriad to name.

St. Paul helps the Philippian Christians to nurture patience as they reflect:

1. “that God began a good work”
2. “that God will bring it to completion” and
3. God is working to a schedule… “the day of Jesus Christ”

“God began a good work”. There is a great solemnity about this work “began” (enarchomai) which only appears in one other place in the New Testament. In Galatians 3:3 Paul is beside himself as he writes to the Galatian Christians, “3 Are you so foolish? Having started (enarchomai) with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” Perhaps their impatience to harvest the fruit of the Spirit led them to forsake God and rely on self… how very foolish.

Our lives begin as God breathes life into them, even our apparent decision to follow Christ is pre-empted by God’s decision to choose and love us. How foolish to allow our impatience to ignore God and rely on self. John Stott comments, “The human will blows hot and cold, is firm and unstable by fits and starts; it offers no security of tenure. But it is the will of God that is the ground of salvation.”

“God will bring it to completion”. The verb here has a continuous sense and may be better translated as “God will evermore put his finishing touches to work, long ago inaugurated – oh my lament with so many projects is “oh, that’ll do” but not so with Ms. Wendy and not so with God. This is no theistic deity who having launched the creation as some heavenly jape leaves it to its own devices while she/he lounges on the verandah of eternity. No this God is constantly at work with the created order and Advent is a liturgical jolt to our system… urging us to wait, to see where God is at work and then happily to work in cooperation with Him. The Advent question to be asked constantly of ourselves, our community is… “Where is God in this? What is God doing?” To quote Stott again, “The assurance that God gives us not only guarantees the outcome; it guarantees every experience of every day, for “in all things God is putting the finished touches”. Good news, bad news, difficulty, blessing, unexpected happiness, unexpected trouble…” in all things God is at work. Advent pleads with us to slow down, take note, be changed and give thanks.

And thirdly, “God is working to a schedule to “the day of Jesus Christ.””
Advent is a complicated time and that is a gross understatement. We cannot, as our Bishop reminded us this week, we cannot pretend that Christmas distant (there is no theological frontal lobotomy that would make that possible) but here, right now, we are called to observe the way in which Jesus comes to us daily, often, momentarily, privately, loudly, sensitively, cautiously and then… we are called to put all of this into the perspective of that one great day to which all creation is steadily, surely, securely moving. There is no chaos, there is no frustration, there is no disappointment that will cause this schedule to collapse. Though our Old Testament/Hebrew Scripture prepares us for a day of gloom and doom, the day of Jesus Christ will be one of rescue, liberation and redemption… which those who have died have already tasted and of that day they know the truth.

President George Herbert Walker Bush was once asked if he had ever been “born again,” he hesitantly answered, “I think I would ask for a definition.” He later explained, “If by ‘born again’ one is asking, ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?’ then I could answer a clear-cut ‘Yes.’ No hesitancy, no awkwardness. Yet if the question was whether there had been one single moment, above any others, in which my life has been instantly changed, then I can’t say that this has happened, since there have been many moments.” The Advent Hope cultivates a visionary alertness that waits “for the many moments.”

A good friend, a mentor of mine would patiently listen to my woes and then, looking at me fiercely, would say, “Alan, it will all be well.” Out of context you might think this inane, ineffective, insipid but in the moment… it carried all I needed to hear. It truly restored my soul for I knew two things… he believed what he said, and he knew it to be true in his own life.

Paul, in prison with a death sentence hanging over him, says this to the Christians in Philippi “I am confident, I do not have the slightest doubt…” all will be well. This is our Advent Hope for which we need pray an Advent Life. AMEN

“Shocked by Sanctity” – November 4, 2018

Sermon “Shocked by Sanctity”
Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday November 4 2018
The Reverend Alan Neale

This sermon was preached at the early service (with too many digressions, sorry!); the later service was an “all-age affair” and so the talk was more participatory with visual aids. One visual aid involved asking children to come look into a case where I had a picture of a special saint… they opened the case, looked in and saw themselves in the mirror. Every child smiled… and it was as people left church and I greeted them by name prefixed by “saint”. It should cause our hearts and lives to smile that we are loved and liberated, made whole by God.

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday November 4 2018. The Reverend Alan Neale; “Stunned by Sanctity”

How many saints do you see around you this morning? Of course in some churches and other places of worship saints and saintly people are celebrated in stained glass windows, elegantly written epitaphs and sometimes gorgeously sculptured monuments.

But, putting these possibilities aside, how many saints do you see around you this morning? Well, I see as many saints as I see faces (including the couple of faces I cannot see behind the altar; oh and maybe even mine as well).

Over the centuries we have succumbed to the delusion that saints inhabited an exalted landscape and breathed a rarified atmosphere. With doubtful modesty strengthened by erroneous theology and suspect anthropology we have strayed from the Biblical (both Hebrew and Christian Scripture) truth that sainthood is not only accessible but also actual… today, right now.

When St. Paul writes to the Christians at Corinth he knows them to be a… naughty group of people. They argued, they were immoral, they compromised, they vacillated… it was to them that he needed, of all the churches, to write the glorious hymn to/of love (“though I speak…”).

And yet to these pastoral pains in the side, he begins his letter by addressing them as saints… I Corinthians 1:2 “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”; and as Eugene Petersen (who recently died) writes in his magnum opus The Message Translation” – “believers cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.”

And how Paul addresses the Corinthian Christians so he addresses all those who receive his letters… no matter the degree of malfunction, no matter the degree of waywardness, no matter the degree of rebellion… he names, nominates and declares them to be “saints”.

Friends, our problem is that we begin too much from our own perspective and far too little, far too rarely, do we consider ourselves from God’s perspective.

His is always the initiative, the preemptive strike, the first cause and so today (Isaiah 25:9) we are told that “God destroys the shroud that is set over us, that God wipes away tears from our eyes, that God saves us as we wait for him”. It is in our very passivity that God is at work and determines our status as saints!

His is always the initiative, the preemptive strike, the first cause and so today (Revelation 21:6) “Behold, I am making all things new”. It is in our very passivity that God is at work and determines our status as saints.

And in our Gospel for today (John 11) we see a saint in the making – Lazarus, he who knows full well the weakness of his flesh and the creative power of his Lord. Now, as Anne Marie reminded us in a different context last week, there is a crucial distinction between resurrection and resuscitation. Lazarus in our Gospel story is not resurrected, he is resuscitated to die again one day… and I sometimes muse whether Lazarus somehow, in some way, regretted that he had been called back but called back he is and he walks in the knowledge of two great truths – He is Loved and He is Liberated.

The first great truth… He is loved… John 11:3 “Master, the one you love so much is very sick”… the one you love so much.

He is loved… John 11:36 “The Jews said, ‘See how much he loved him.”

The defining mark of sainthood is to be loved by God; the transforming energy of sainthood is to know that we are loved.

“God so loved…” (John 3:16); “God commends his love to us…” (Romans 5:8)

The second great truth… He is liberated… John 11:38 “38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” And “43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!””

He is liberated… 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Stones/barriers to life in abundance are rolled away and the bands/the cords that hold us back from living and loving are broken, stripped away.

The defining mark of sainthood is to be liberated by God; the transforming energy of sainthood is to know that we are liberated.

“For freedom, Christ has set us free…” (Galatians 5:1), “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

This side of eternity we often relapse but our citizenship in heaven is secure, our status as saints is solid.

Of course at All Saints’ we remember those who have died… who stand on a distant shore, those whom we love but see no longer. Friends, these are those who witness and testify and affirm to us that the love of God is boundless and the liberation of God is thorough.

And so I speak to you, and to myself, as saints of God… let us thankfully receive these gifts of love and liberation today, open to radical change in ourselves, in our church, in our family, in our community.

Thanks be to God… and let all the saints say “AMEN.”

“Entitlement” – Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sermon

“Entitlement”

Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday October 21 2018

The Reverend Alan Neale

 

So… it seems I was so excited to get to the theme of the sermon that I felt entitled to miss the reading of the Gospel! Suddenly it occurred to me that something was missing and so, until I learn how to edit the recording, for this post you hear Gospel and sermon. There was quite a lot of reaction to the “entitlement” theme… interesting. I should have spent more time working on the text…

 

 

 

 

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday October 21 2018; The Reverend Alan Neale “Entitlement”

As I grow older I try to grow a little more mellow (day by day), I sometimes regress, but generally it is a positive journey. One way I try to express this newfound “mellowness” is by letting cars out into traffic. I try not to do it so much as to annoy the drivers behind me but generally… I will slow down and let cars into traffic except… (oh dear) except when a car forces itself forward as if… as if… what’s the word?… as if it is somehow entitled and this “entitlement” just sticks in my throat, causing the right leg to stiffen on the accelerator… oh sinful man that I am!
Entitlement is an attitude of “I am owed”, maybe you can hear it in this anecdote?
Martha Grover writes “I ask my father to read an article about male entitlement and emotional labor.
He says, “Can you just tell me what it says?””

Or more clearly… I am a college graduate, I am entitled to a good job; I am a senior citizen, I am entitled to the respect of younger generations; “I’ve been good to my friends, so they owe me their loyalty.… the list is endless.

It seems our culture loves to foster these notions in us. Years ago McDonald’s restaurants built an entire ad campaign around the slogan, “You deserve a break today.” And later, it was “You owe it to yourself to buy a Mercedes Benz.” Society continues to bombard us with the message that we are such fantastic people, we are entitled to an equally fantastic way of living.

To some degree, we all have entitlement feelings. We carry around a sense of being owed for something we have done or for some wonderful trait we have. When we feel entitled, we focus on what we are owed, not what we might need to give to others. It is a “one-way street” mind-set. When these feelings are strong and people don’t meet our expectations, we then find ourselves bitter, resentful, and angry. Relationships can be (and often are) destroyed by feelings of entitlement.

It’s all there in our readings today both from Hebrew Scripture (Job) and the Gospel (Mark).

Job 38… clearly Job is suffering from a serious bout of entitlement, exacerbated by his friends who feel entitled to offer gratuitous, platitudinous and grievous counsel.

The Lord takes Job to ask… “Who in the name of… Heaven do you think are? Were you engaged in the creation of the world… no! Did you get busy with measuring cosmic and global lines… no! Did I see you partying with morning stars and heavenly beings… no!”. The purpose of this vigorous engagement between Creator and Creature was not intended to belittle Job but rather to put him in right perspective, right relationship with his God.

And entitlement rears its ugly head again in Mark 10. The brothers James and John approach Jesus with a marked sense of entitlement… they’re owed for their service, their sacrifice, their loyalty. And their entitlement not only empowers them to approach Jesus privately but then to make ridiculous demands above and beyond their fellows. And look what happens… the others get angry.

I want to take a pause here and underline, stress what I believe to be one of the most challenging words of Jesus (Mark 10:43): “but it shall not be so among you” (literally, “not thus however shall it be among you”).
Beyond the church there may well be a prevalent attitude of building up endless funds of money for the proverbial “rainy day” – “but it shall not be so among you” where trust and faith and generosity are nurtured.
Beyond the church there may be petty jockeying for position and influence – “but it shall not be so among you” where humility and service characterize Christian living.
Beyond the church there may be gossip, palace intrigue and partisanship – “but it shall not be so among you” where the vocation to unity is central, and where confession, forgiveness and restoration is paramount.

Governed, dominated, shaped by a craven sense of entitlement… Jesus cries out, yearning to reach deeply into my heart and yours… “IT SHALL NOT BE SO AMONG YOU”.

Thank God for the Letter to the Hebrews… chapter 5, for here we discover a functional, healthy, gracious way to live.

The writer prepares us for the sublime as he writes first of the High Priest… a position of singular honor, a function of unique ministry, a vocation of sublime nature.

Listen Hebrews 5:4 (Message Translation) “No one elects himself to this honored position. He is called to it by God”.

And this, my friends, prepares us for the theological, Christological coup-de-grace as the writer then says of Jesus, “Neither did Christ presume to set himself up as high priest, but was set apart by the One who said to him, “You are my Son; today I celebrate you!”.

Jesus gives us the example of a beautiful life liberated from the thrall of entitlement, the corrosion of self-aggrandizement, the nastiness of self-absorption.

And what Jesus sets as divine example so he enables by divine power… the power to trust God, to surrender to God.

It is central, it is crucial, it is core to the divine nature that God though entitled to everything, demands nothing and so thus we live in a kingdom of grace, we breathe an atmosphere of grace, we labor in a workshop of grace.

And because of Jesus we gain entitlement to be able to say, “We are beloved of God, chosen and precious” – from this primal psychic entitlement healthy living, healthy relationships become possible.

Talk of stewardship of money, time, skill… all such talk challenges our sense of entitlement and urges a commitment to gratitude. “For” as Dr. Brene Brown argues, “what separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude.”

Steve Maraboli (Behavioural Scientist) writes “A sense of entitlement is a cancerous thought process… void of gratitude and deadly to relationships”.

From this deadly disease, Lord, please set us free… free to give, to serve, to love… free to be! AMEN

“Beware: Gatekeepers of the Lord” – Sunday, October 7 2018

Sermon

“Beware: Gatekeepers of the Lord”

Sunday October 7 2018

Trinity Church, Newport RI

The Reverend Alan Neale

 

So, what is it that makes Jesus irritated, frustrated… even angry? Well, today’s Gospel from Mark 10 gives us an answer because it is when the disciples try to bar people from meeting Jesus that Jesus becomes angry. So… beware, gatekeepers of the Lord. During the sermon I became deeply aware of all those I have encountered who have tried to stop people from meeting Jesus. Lord, have mercy!

The sermon text follows the sermon audio (it approximates, not equates to, the audio!).

 

 

 

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday October 7th
The Reverend Alan Neale; “Beware the Gatekeepers of the Lord”

I throw my mind back, decades ago, to when I was a schoolboy in a London Grammar School – school blazer, knee-high socks and all! Those were quaint days with, what I say, “eccentric” schoolteachers. The headmaster, Mr. King, required that upon his entrance to a room all the students stood and that the nearest to the door was ready to open the door for his exit. He would ponderously recite words from Psalm 84 (verse 10) “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Only years later did I consider this appropriate response… “well, please may I have the choice…!”

Doorkeepers/Gatekeepers of the Lord and the Lord’s house are positions of honor, respect, distinction – such positions merit our applause as well as thanks. But, sadly… pathetically, over the years “gatekeepers of the Lord” have been traitors to their cause, hypocrites in their calling.

Consider, par excellence, the disciples in today’s Gospel. Mark 10:13ff. Children are being brought to Jesus for blessing – for some unknown, ungodly, peculiar reason the disciples speak sternly, remonstrate strongly and shoo the children away. This infuriates Jesus and He immediately steps in, countermanding, rescinding the negative, the unwelcoming attitude of the disciples.

Of course all this happened long before babies and children became photo opportunities for politicians canvassing votes; we have no idea why the disciples acted in such a manner that would cause Jesus to become indignant, irate, infuriated (not words we readily associate with Jesus!). Maybe the disciples thought the mission was too important, the schedule too tight, the Master too occupied to stop and entertain children; clearly they had forgotten Hebrew teaching about the value of children. But whatever the cause… these gatekeepers were acting in a way that far exceeded their authority and greatly abrogated their purpose.

Perhaps, in a sense, Satan was acting as a sort of theological gatekeeper for God in today’s story from Job (chapter 1). The author of Job succinctly describes the nature of evil all within a few verses… it is restless, knowing nothing of serenity and stability… and it is accusatory, knowing nothing of affirmation and praise. Without demur, Satan tells God he has been “roaming to and fro on the earth, walking up and down on it” or as the Message translation reads, “going here and there, just checking things out on earth”. And as soon as he can, Satan lets rip and tears into Job… in the name of some theological adjudicator, he attacks Job and tries to demean him before God and the heavenly council. And, sadly but also inevitably, this Satanic attitude begins to affect others… including Job’s wife and soon his so-called friends and advisors.

Very recently I talked with a couple about their imminent wedding and marriage; we have come to know each other quite well, we have prayed together and we have shared quite honestly and openly. A recurring theme is the man’s sense of guilt that he is divorced. I shared with him some of my own experienced as a divorced and now exceedingly happily married man… I shared with him Biblical teaching about confession and forgiveness and absolution… but, for him, the struggle remains. Clearly he has encountered some theological gatekeepers of the Lord who have closed gates tightly and firmly at the mention of his divorce. He feels that his mother church (the Roman Catholic Church) has confronted him with a loud, resounding , emphatic “No… you are no longer welcome.” Gatekeepers have to be careful; at the very least they can be solicitous even if they feel they must bar entry! To quote Tyra Banks (!!!) “There’s no excuse for rudeness.”

To those hurt, wounded, scarred by frankly unchristian gatekeepers of the Lord… Jesus offers invitation, embrace, and blessing.

In fact to any one of us hurt today (or someone known to use)… Jesus offers invitation, embrace and blessing.

Mark 10:16 (Message Translation) “Then, gathering the children up in his arms, Jesus laid his hands of blessing on them.”

So (Mr. King, my feared headmaster of long ago)… I agree with you and the Psalmist “It is better to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of wickedness” but please, Lord, make me, make us, such gatekeepers that of us you will be proud!

AMEN

“Awesome Fear – Transformational” – Sunday, September 23 2018

Sermon

“Awesome Fear – Transformational”

Sunday September 23rd 2018

Trinity Church, Newport RI

The Reverend Alan Neale

Yet another text preached on for the first time in 41 years of parish ministry – this is all getting quite exciting!
Below the sermon audio is the sermon text – the latter is expanded a little in the former!

 

 

 

 

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday September 23rd 2018
The Reverend Alan Neale
“Awesome Fear – Transformational”

Years ago after my first degree at LSE and one year before my degree and seminary training at Oxford, I worked as a Registrar of Civil Marriages in the London Borough of Islington. That was quite a year… not least because on Saturdays, in the Register Office, we married couples every fifteen minutes… five minutes in, five minutes for the ceremony and five minutes out. Happily church weddings are a little more sedate.

One morning the telephone rang and I began to take details for a proposed wedding… I asked the date of the wedding and received an answer; I asked the name, address and details of the man and received an answer. I then asked the name, address and details of the woman… there was a silence and then the man said, “Oh but I want you to find the woman for me” – clearly a clash of cultural expectations!

Proverbs 31:10 “A capable wife… who can find?” Well, I can… I have! Hello Wendy!

It is not my task this morning to justify this passage within canonical Scripture (though a little bit of me wished the lectionary compilers had been moved to choose another passage). I sympathize (as best as I can) with the woman who feels slighted, belittled, ignored by these sacred words… the woman who is divorced, the woman in an abusive relationship, the woman who through choice or circumstance is single.

And yet in a culture in which women were to be seen but never actually heard nor really valued, in a culture in which women were invisible objects rather than people of praise… even Proverbs 31 is progressive. And in a book in which men are constantly described as cheats, liars, philanderers, idlers and wastrels… the 22 verses of Proverbs 31 (matching the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet) are enlightened.

I believe that God never urges us to feel guilty for not having gifts or for not doing good due to physical incapability; so if this chapter is making anyone here this morning feel guilty… this cannot be the way in which God designs the chapter to be read, understood, received and then acted upon.

This week I received an email from a new friend and in it he wrote:

God’s voice reassures, Satan’s voice frightens you
God’s voice encourages, Satan’s voice discourages you
God’s voice convicts, Satan’s voice condemns you

Every commentator, every essayist that I have read this week… all make one salient and convincing argument… that the whole chapter (every verb) should be read in the light of one verb (v.30) – “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”

It is this dynamic, it is this energy that I look for not only in my beloved partner, not only in all those with whom I have to deal (colleagues, parishioners and many more)… but also in my myself.

Proverbs 31:30-31 (Message Translation) “The woman to be admired and praised is the woman who lives in the Fear-of-GOD. Give her everything she deserves! Festoon her life with praises!”

Let me read a longish quotation “A woman who trusts in the Lord is finally free to be truly strong. She is not worrying about things over which she has no control. She trusts God to help and care for her and family in all the ways that she cannot… It is a loving God who is sovereign over her family’s future… She honors God, God is responsible for the rest.”

This is transformational… when I stop focusing on the check-list of virtues, gifts, abilities, attitudes that I want for myself and instead… go right to the Source, the divine Source… then in surrender I find abundant life.

Our second reading begins, as does the first, with a question “Who is wise and understanding among you?” The woman of Proverbs gives us the answer… “The one who fears the Lord”.

And even the Gospel contains a fundamental question asked by Jesus of his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They were arguing among dominance, preeminence, hierarchy… first and last… and all this would have been sweetly redundant if only they paid attention to the woman of Proverbs… “Fear the Lord”.

This “fear/awe/wonder/praise of God” is no breath or vapor (translated as beauty in the text); this is resolute stuff, foundational matter creating a psychic change in our deepest being and a desire to surrender to our Creator God.

In this place, to quote Bill Wilson, “we will comprehend the word serenity and we know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole atti¬tude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Are these extravagant promises?” – the woman of Proverbs 31 avers “I think not”.

The woman, the man who “fears the Lord” – who strives (sometimes struggles) to put God first,
The woman, the man who “fears the Lord” – who seeks to find God’s presence in their lives,
The woman, the man who “fears the Lord” – who surrenders to God… on a daily basis

This person will be a person of Strength and Dignity and Laughter… Lord work this in me, in us by the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen