Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Second Sunday before Advent (17 November 2019) by Richard James, Chief Executive Officer, YMCA St Paul’s Group
As we gather this morning in this beautiful setting, I would like to tell you three stories.
My stories will start in 1840, early Victorian England, before jumping back 18 centuries to one of the very first churches, established in Thessalonica Greece in AD 50 and then bringing us back to today for the third story.
I believe these interwoven stories have a message to share with us as we gather here from a range of backgrounds and countries.
As I tell you my stories, I want you to remember the final words of the reading from 2 Thessalonians 3: “do not be weary of doing what is right”, or as it is put in the New International Version of the Bible, “never tire of doing what is good”.
My first story starts (using the words of another famous story) A long time ago in a field far, far away there was a boy called George. Now, George was the son of a farmer. He lived in Dulverton, Somerset, South West England.
For George, life was a simple pattern of springtime and harvest, of growing crops and raising cattle in order to live from hand to mouth. Like most other young people living in early Victorian England, George’s imagination was determined by the world around him, his beliefs limited by the small community he was part of. For him the world was what he could see and, given he could see little further than the boundaries of the farm, as far as George was concerned the world wasn’t very big.
For generations, farming families had followed the same pattern in life. Determined by the land and in response to their immediate need, George’s life was, however, to take another route, his life was not set to following the annual pattern rather, some misbehaviour and a subsequent accident on his family farm meant he was sent away, eventually arriving in London to earn his stripes as an apprentice to a draper shop in St Paul's Churchyard, just 100m from where we are sat this morning.
The boy who knew little of life, found himself in the middle of one of the busiest cities on earth. From the comfort of the farm and security of its boundaries, George found himself at the heart of a global empire with sights, smells and sounds that would have blown his mind.
But this was not the biggest transformation in George’s life for it was here in London that he found his Christian faith, a faith that would transform his view of the world. Challenged and informed by his faith, George saw that in busy, bustling London people were trapped by poor working conditions, poor pay, poor living and overall a lack of hope.
George saw that people were becoming cogs in an ever industrial machine, with heads down and little to look up and live for.
So, he decided to do two things. Firstly, he would pray; on June 6th 1844, 175 years ago this year, George gathered 11 friends for prayer, to bring their concerns to God and then ask for his help in what to do about it.
Having prayed, George and his friends decided to act, to tirelessly do good, helping others around them develop in body, mind and spirit.
That group of 12 young men that gathered to pray and then act, gave themselves the name the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA as we call it today. There is a plaque outside this cathedral that the spot where the very first YMCA meeting took place 175 years ago.
That first YMCA, inspired others not just in London but around the world to do likewise and within a few years the YMCA had grown from a group of 12 young men meeting in St Paul’s Churchyard to over 100 countries and thousands of branches.
In each place, where a YMCA was born, young people got together for prayer and bible study but also to do good by improving the lives of others around them, in Body, Mind and Spirit.
They were committed to “never tiring of doing what is good”.
My second story takes us back a further 18 centuries to the start of the early church and to a place in Northern Greece known to us today as Thessaloniki
In AD50 Thessaloniki, or Thessalonica as it was known then, was a global city, bordering the Aegean Sea, a port that saw traders and people from all nations and tribes. As a global city, it would have been full of the sights, sounds and smells from all over the world. Just as with George visiting Victorian London, anyone visiting 1st century Thessalonica from the countryside would have found it a sensory overload with hustle and bustle, strange food and languages.
The church in Thessalonica was formed as a result of the visit of the Apostle Paul and his friend Silas. Paul, a new convert to the Christian faith spent his time in Thessalonica preaching in the synagogues and the streets, telling people about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the new hope that now existed.
Those that responded to that message became the first church in Thessalonica, a group of people inspired by faith and motivated by hope. They met in homes for prayer and bible story, sharing the good news of Jesus with each other.
A little while after he had left them, Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica: he first celebrated their commitment to the good news of Jesus, despite the challenge of the City around them. Then, having commended them for their commitment he challenged some of them who had become “idle and disruptive” and who were not willing to put their faith into action.
Paul says these people were becoming busy bodies; meddling in the lives of others, telling others what to do whilst not doing much themselves. To the Thessalonian church Paul had a very simple message; never tire of doing what is good.
Paul knew the importance of having a faith that led to action. He didn’t see these as mutually exclusive aspects of the Christian gospel but equally aligned; a faith in Jesus is seen in the outworking of doing good.
My third story brings us back to where we are today.
This cathedral is at the heart of a global city and a globalised world. As we walk out after this service we will be surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of this busy city as well as by people from many countries and nations. In the midst of this busyness, it would not be hard to find people still trapped by poor working conditions, low pay and a lack of hope.
Return home and turn on the political news and we will see a polarised debate informed by a language of loathing rather than one of love. In the place of service, we will find people asserting rights over a commitment to responsibility.
I believe that my first two stories have a message for us as we leave this place a little later on.
George, the founder of the YMCA, died a little over a hundred years ago was buried in the crypt here at St Paul’s alongside the bodies of warriors and kings. A man of peace, of prayer and Godly service was honoured and laid alongside some of the country’s greatest warriors.
I am proud to work for the YMCA, which is now the World’s oldest, largest youth work charity. 175 years after it was started the YMCA continues to help young people thrive; here in London the YMCA provides a safe place to stay for over 2,000 young people every night and supports many thousands more through mentoring, 1-2-1 advice and mental health support. As well as helping young people the YMCA seeks provides support to thousands of families each week as well as being a large provider of Health and Wellbeing activities.
Whilst the things the YMCA does are important what has made it survive and be successful can be found in our second story and Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, that we should never tire of doing what is good. It is only in faithful service can we overcome darkness with light; it is with doing good that can we defeat evil.
We should not become like those in the Thessalonian church who sought to meddle, to become busybodies telling others what to do but achieving little ourselves, rather we should listen to the words of Paul and turn our attention to positive service, motivated by a faith in Jesus Christ.
For it is Jesus who is the ultimate example of doing good. He tirelessly gave his life to support tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners and outcasts. He fed them, he loved them, he never tired of doing good even to the point where he gave his life so that they, and we, might have a new hope and future.
Never tiring of doing what is good is not easy; I believe it is best done through a faith in Jesus. Such a faith gives us a model of service, a hope for the future and forgiveness when we get it wrong.
I close by saying that this third story is unfinished, for it is your story which you are writing yourself. Your story continues from this place and you are the one who determines what happens next.
So, as you reflect shortly in our prayers and either take part, or watch, the sacrament, can I ask you to reflect on my first two stories and then think about what those words will mean to you today, tomorrow and into your own, yet unplotted story.
As you do, my closing prayer is that, we all become people who, through a faith in Christ Jesus, become like my friend George, “who never tire of doing what is good”.