Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (14 March 2016) by Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (14 March 2016) by Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

Canon Michael stresses the importance of listening to people's stories

The Fifth Sunday of Lent marks a gear change in our observance of Lent.

The pace of our journey to the cross, following in the footsteps of Christ, quickens as we focus on Jerusalem and the final events of Christ’s earthly ministry. 

Today, in the Church’s calendar, Passiontide begins.

The word ‘passion’ may seem a strange word to use to describe the darkest part of the Gospel story. We often use the word today to describe emotional excitement but, at root, the word means ‘suffering’ – this case, Christ’s suffering in betrayal and death. 

The word, then, has a sense about it of both the agony and the ecstasy: the agony being the very real experience of so many of the world’s people and the ecstasy being those moments when we try to stand outside of ourselves and look at how the world could really be if only we could rebuild the city and truly be the people whom God intends us to be.

On this gear-changing moment in Lent, then, perhaps we should try to stand outside of ourselves and consider – both in prayer to God and in collaboration with each other – how to redeem the agony and ensure that every human life is transformed from the darkness of Good Friday into the new life of Easter Day.

In the Church, we know about the importance of listening to people’s stories and about working together in order to respond to people’s needs. And both halves of that equation are crucial. It’s no good just criticising the Government for trying to resolve an economic crisis to which most of us have contributed without also proposing alternative solutions to the problems of recession. Nor to oppose the removal of migrant camps without offering to house refugees ourselves. 

And so one could go on, picking through the maze of broken stories and the half truths of our newspapers, desperately trying to resist the temptation to opine on every issue under the sun from the comfort of our armchairs.

We must listen to people’s stories and, together, work out how to respond.

Perhaps something along those lines is going on in this morning’s Gospel lesson. The problem of the poor is placed on the table by Judas – not, we’re told, for particularly charitable reasons – but the solution to that problem and indeed to all human problems, entanglements, disagreements, needs, sufferings is far more valuable and effective than the quick bit of fund-raising which Judas proposes.

And the solution to the problem is sitting at the table.

The solution to the problem is Jesus. 

Why? Because Jesus both in his life and in his death turned upside down all conventional theories about leadership, politics, economics, law and order, relationship, community – well, and everything in fact – by coming among us as one who serves and by dispensing grace, mercy and truth – not as commodities to be bought and sold – but as gifts from God.

There’s a lesson for us all: grace, mercy and truth are not commodities to be bought and sold. I wonder just how many people – both within and without the Church – have been led to believe that that is exactly what they are: prizes to be claimed only after a good deal of expenditure on the part of the individual in the matter of their humanity and integrity.

But, like the costly perfume made of pure nard, they are not for sale. Instead, Christ anoints us with these gifts of grace and mercy and truth. It is our response that counts – not as a test of our worth but as a measure of our understanding and by that understanding are more and more people invited to discover what has already been given to them and to respond with open hands and with voices uplifted in prayer and thanksgiving.

And so, if we shape our lives after the manner of Christ, are more and more people set free from poverty and suffering as we attempt to shape the world to be more Christ-like – in our being and doing, in our voting and campaigning, in our giving and sharing.

It sounds very simple but it is vastly more effective than raising three hundred denarii by selling a jar of costly perfume made of pure nard because our discipleship of Christ obliges us as faithful people to make ourselves responsible for the plight of our neighbour and by not resting – even if it kills us – until our neighbour sees and experiences his or her equal share of the grace, mercy and truth which flow from the generous God who made heaven and earth and who came among us as one who serves. 

As one former Bishop of Durham has said, “You may not feel up to it but God is certainly down to it!”