Last Sunday, at the church door, someone mentioned to me that they couldn’t join in various bits of the service because they had left their glasses at home. Now, I must admit I too would struggle without my glasses. In fact last year I knew it was time for an eye test when I was struggling to read the gospel; I had to keep moving it further away and then nearer to make any sense of it. You see I need varifocals! Does anyone else wear varifocals?

The thing about varifocals is that they help us to see both into the longer distance and the shorter distance. As Christians we need to develop the ability to see as though we are wearing varifocals. We need to be able to look into the far distance whilst also seeing that which is right under our eyes. We need to hold within our mind's eye a kingdom view, an eternal perspective, whilst also seeing that which needs our immediate attention. Over the last few weeks the readings from Luke’s gospel have, in many ways, been about the art of seeing; spiritual seeing.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is all about seeing clearly that which requires our immediate attention. In many ways the Priest and the Levite in the story can be regarded as wearing the wrong sort of specs. They were so hung up on misplaced conceptions of duty and protocol that they failed to see, unlike the Samaritan, that which required their immediate attention. In the story of Martha and Mary, Martha is so fixated with getting the housework done that she forgets that any growth in Christian faith requires that we spend some time focusing on the person of Jesus. Mary, by contrast, understands that we often learn through the simple art of observation. Last week we heard the account of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. Very early in the Lord’s Prayer we hear the words: ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’  The implication is clear: if we want to be of any earthly use we need to have developed a vision of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.

In today’s readings we are given an insight into what it means to live a life devoid of all spiritual vision:

Put simply it means to live a life characterised by false distinctions and hierarchies where this is possible because we fail to see, in the words of the Taize Chant, that ‘the Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’  To see into the far distance, into eternity, into heaven, by contrast implies agreeing with Paul that ‘there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free,’ because ‘Christ is all and in all.’  But because to be Christian means to work for the breaking in of the Kingdom of God, ‘here on earth as in heaven’ or in Paul’s words to work for ‘that renewal,’ we need to develop the ability to see where people are made to feel less than fully human, less than fully loved, in the here and now and then we need to act: ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’

The Gospel reading provides us with a picture of someone who is spiritually completely and utterly blind; someone who can see no further than themselves and cares about nothing other than the satisfaction of their desires. The rich man has no vision of the Kingdom of God; that’s his basic problem. Because he can’t see beyond his own barns he's of no earthly use, less still of heavenly value.

So how do we avoid becoming the sort of people who seek to prop up our self esteem through perpetuating false hierarchies and thinking solely of ourselves?  The answer is clear: we take to heart the teaching of Luke’s gospel, allowing it to act as our varifocals. We spend time each and every day, like Mary, observing Jesus and becoming fascinated by Jesus, through reading the gospels, and we pray.

It is through fixating on the person of Jesus and praying the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we develop our spiritual vision, becoming the sort of people who are of both earthly use and heavenly value. So please do take home your pew sheets, read through the readings, or perhaps use the app we are endorsing, and pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer each and every day, for if you do you will become agents, God’s agents, of ‘that renewal,’ that St. Paul talks about, and the world so badly needs, Amen.

 

Today, I am going to invite you into a wonderful conspiracy, a conspiracy that is at the heart of what it means to be Christian.  It is something that has been seen as so dangerous by numerous dictators and despots over the centuries that they have tried to stamp it out, thankfully without much success, because it is the very bedrock on which our faith is built... but before Andrew vaults out of his seat, hurdling the pews to bound up these steps and drag me out of the pulpit, I should really clarify what I mean.

Over the last few weeks we have spent time focussing on the Gospel readings that get to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. Firstly we had the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story telling us that what matters to God is not our social standing, its not about where we come from or whether we are from a, for want of a better word, distinguished family but he cares about how we react to the people around us, especially those people that we encounter who are in genuine need.  It tells us about the things that we are doing that help to build God’s kingdom.

Last week we had the story of Mary and Martha, illustrating the importance of being able to recognise just who Jesus is and seeing that he wants us to take time to get to know him.  At this point you may be wondering what on earth has this got to do with conspiracies? We generally associate the word “Conspire” with it’s political meaning: to plot to overthrow some public power, person, or nation. Or perhaps it brings to mind conspiracy theories about moon landings and such like that a vocal minority of people seem desperate to buy into.

But I am talking, thankfully, about a different sort of conspiracy, something that unlike the other definitions, does have the potential to feed and nurture us. Something that has been seen by the persecutors of Christians over the centuries as a deeply rebellious act and has been punished as such.  You see, the word, “conspiracy” is rooted in much deeper soil than the context in which it is now used.

This conspiracy means literally to breathe together, con-spiritus. To conspire is to join your breathe in with others, as we say in the liturgy “With the whole company of heaven”. If we pause to think what that means, that really is profound. To be of one breath means to pray as one. No matter where we are when we pray we are not alone, far from it. We are with the many millions of people who have gone before, uncountable in their vast number. We are with those others that walk alongside us in the present and of course those of us who are yet to come.

Praying has strong parallels with breathing. Breathing maintains life, it is necessary for growth to happen, when we try to hold our breath our bodies tell us in a matter of seconds just what a seriously bad idea that is. And so it is also with prayer, without it our faith fails to reach the heights that it could, our relationship with God remains shallow and superficial, it fails to grow, it lacks depth. The God-given potential that is inside all of us, that little divine spark is missed, it passes us by. Prayer is vital to growth, we need it. I think it is notable in the Gospel reading that it wasn’t Jesus who instigated the exchange, it was an unnamed disciple, seeking the tools from Jesus. He saw Jesus praying and he wanted some of that!

What Jesus told him was not complicated, there wasn’t anything esoteric or lots of doctrine, he said simply that talking to God is like a family conversation where you get to talk unselfconciously knowing that you will be heard and understood.  It is a life of prayer, of communion with God that liberates us, although it isn’t a way of getting something but a way of developing a relationship with God.   A healthy prayer life gives us strength, it gives us clarity, it gives us the space to discern what is the best course to try and bring God’s Kingdom to bear down here on earth.  Our Father in heaven, like Jesus, wants to give us through prayer so much more than we know how to ask.  To pray is to be willing to trust that, through prayer, God is giving us the riches of His life-changing grace.  And it comes down to the fact, are we willing to trust God enough to pray?

So if you are willing to be a rebel and conspire, just as countless others have done before you, and no matter where you currently find yourself, whether you have been doing it for years or think that you are just no good at it, this really is the best place to start or start over.

Amen

It’s good to back here in Winslow. As some of you may know, last weekend I was away at General Synod. Some of you have asked ‘what is General Synod like?’ Well, I suppose the best answer I can give is that is like a five day rolling PCC meeting! Last Sunday I worshipped alongside many members of General Synod at York Minster. The Archbishop of Canterbury preached and he preached for an awfully long time. I promise to be much shorter as I am aware that the cricket world cup final is about to start; as I say, its good to be back in Winslow, back in my spiritual home.

The reading we have heard from Paul’s letter to the Colossians starts with the phrase ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’ and then moves on to say ‘grace to you and peace from God our Father.’  These, of course, are akin to the opening words of the liturgy and are suggestive of the fact that right at the core of our Christian life must be both an acceptance of grace and a sense of peace, where peace means the willingness and ability to live as people committed to the whole of human flourishing and good and godly relationships between all people. We are to live as people of peace, cultivating that sense of peace through our prayer life which leads to what Paul describes as ‘the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom.’  

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is often, and rightly, considered as an exemplar of the Christian virtue of charity, but I think that I would want to argue that the Samaritan is only able to act as he does because he understands, and has appropriated for himself, grace – the idea that all goodness is essentially a gift, or divine gift, and peace, the imperative to live a life characterised by good and godly relationships between all people.

The tragedy in the parable is that the Priest and Levite are more concerned with protocol than peace and that they are therefore incapable of enacting the greatest of all virtues - charity, or love. With all their religious and legal training they are unable to answer the most basic of all questions: ‘who is my neighbour?’  I have no doubt that they would both claim to be people who feel that they ‘love the Lord their God, with all their heart, soul, mind and strength,’ but have failed to realise that the way that this is worked out in the here and now is through the way that they relate to their neighbour, and especially their neighbour in distress.

Both the Priest and the Levite fail they apostolic test (of being sent of ‘going in peace to love and serve the Lord) because they have little or no understanding that their role is to raise up the bruised, hurting, brutalised and victimised. This lack of recognition, as the parable reminds us, is to have eternal consequences; the story begins after all with the question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

The Parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that living in grace and peace must necessarily lead to an active spirituality. From grace and peace must flow, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘all good works.’

Two more thoughts: first, the only reward we might legitimately expect from a life lived underpinned by grace, secured through peace and animated by charity, or love of neighbour, is eternal life. The fate of the Good Samaritan is to remain unnamed in this life. The story is therefore a calling to humility, a story that at the end of the day it is how God regards us that counts; true, eternal, esteem can only come from God. The eternal crown is the one worth wearing, all other crowns are mere trinkets. Secondly, the story talks to our aspiration to be an hospitable community. The injured man is taken by the Good Samaritan to a place of refuge. The church must always be a place of refuge, a hospital for the injured, excluded, rejected and distressed. How we welcome and esteem those who nobody else cares about – those who are brought to us by modern day Good Samaritans, is the only true test of our hospitality.

Can I ask that you take away with you the pew sheet and reflect this week on our readings allowing the virtues of grace and peace to embed themselves in your heart so that ‘all good works,’ may (again the words of the Book of Common Prayer)  ‘proceed’ through a radical commitment to humility, inclusivity, charity and hospitality; for grace, peace, humility, inclusivity, charity and hospitality really are the very stuff of eternal life; yours and mine.

I hope I was sufficiently concise!

Amen.