Latest Sermon

Vicar’s sermon 14.7.24 Hymns and Pimms at Whorlton Romans 15.14ff

It’s a while since family Harding have pulled the film ‘Open Range’ down from the shelf to watch Keven Costner and Robert Duvall take on the corrupt Michael Gambon in a shootout in Montana, USA. It’s a film which shows us a conflict writ large in the scriptures and in many a culture between herders and settlers. Charlie, Boss, Mose and Button are herding cattle across the plains. Denton Baxter, the sheriff, tries to stop them and there is a magnificent shootout at the end of the film, with ‘love interest’ provided by Annette Benning.
Most human societies have ‘settlers’ and ‘herders’ within them though hopefully they aren’t at war with one another. There are some folk for whom ‘there is no place like home’, (they know what they like and they like what they know), and then there are others who want to ‘climb every mountain, ford every stream and follow every rainbow till they find their dream.’
The apostle Paul comes across as a herder who crosses barriers. There really is no stopping him. He seems to be always on the road…or in a ship. Many bibles have maps of ‘Paul’s missionary journeys’ at the back of them. He walked, he rode, he sailed and sometimes (when shipwrecked) he had to swim as he sought to take the good news to communities across Asia Minor, into Greece, back to Judea and then (as we heard in our reading) off to Rome and on to Spain.
Personally, I’m a settler. You might have guessed that. Perhaps its inbuilt into Church of England Vicars and congregations? We are wedded to places and buildings; passionate about the local (dare we say ‘the parochial’). We recognise names in old church registers and feel a connection to the past. We hear the names of those about to marry or those who come for baptism and we can see a future for faith that lives here. But change is a coming over the hill.
Herders unsettle us because they bring newfangled ways and thinking from other places. I remember a holiday with my mum and stepfather driving through Texas down near the Rio Grande and feeling every pair of eyes turn to look at our car as we drove through one particular community: we knew in that moment what it meant to ‘a stranger in town.’ My stepfather pushed the button to lock all the car doors.
There’s tension between settlers and herders but that tension can be good. The two types of people really do need each other. Herders need somewhere to lay their head: if they are trading in goods or ideas they need someone to sell to or engage with. Settlers in towns and villages need new families to survive. Communities need new ideas, new energy otherwise they turn in upon themselves and die.
As Paul made his travel plans and promised the church in Rome that he would finally get to visit them as he passed through to preach in Spain what I see is the infant church taking root in communities but also drawing inspiration from the wider Christian community represented by the apostle. Like the sower in the parable Paul’s gift was to establish Christian communities and to set them off to grow before moving on to another mission field. What is remarkable is his claim that he’s done all he can from Jerusalem round to Illyricum: he’s content to establish a tiny church, give it what it needs to grow and then to leave – he entrusts the growth to God. He is confident that the gospel has a power of its own to transform people and communities. He doesn’t have to be around to see this happen.
What do the settlers amongst us need? There are hints in our reading. Paul, having written a letter that some of the world’s greatest minds have grappled with tells the church in Rome ‘you don’t really need this letter, there’s nothing here you don’t already know and you can instruct one another’ – I know he’s flattering his hearers but there’s something there about Christian people growing and learning in the faith. But is that us? Are we serious about understanding the faith we profess? Do we read our scriptures and practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer and service that might enable us to be more confident in our understanding? Can we hear what the spirit is saying to the churches through voices that are beyond our own or are we closed to anything new?
And then secondly, Paul seems to believe that a church, no matter how small, established in a geographical area will (like the leaven in the lump or the mustard seed that grows into a great tree) transform the society around it. Is that us? Is that what we do? What is the fruit of our faith: is it in our care for our neighbour, our concern for justice, our work for other? Is the world a better place because we are working for the kingdom of God to come on earth as in heaven or would no one notice whether we were here or not?
And finally, Paul connects with Christians wherever he goes in his travels. His itinerary in our passage would take him from Asia Minor and Greece back to Jerusalem and on to Rome. The churches in these places will have had much in common, but also much to differentiate themselves from one another. Culturally, linguistically, socially each church would be different. But they were one church. One people of God, bound together through faith in Christ and mutually dependent upon each other (remember the bit about the collection being taken back to help the poor in Jerusalem). Small church communities like this one in Whorlton must never forget that they are never alone. We are all part of a larger whole to which we can look for support but which can also draw on our gifts and abilities as together we seek to bless our communities in Jesus’ name.
But enough. The apostle has given us his words and is moving on. He, in search of a nice glass of sangria, we are waiting for our Pimms – but as we raise our glasses let us give thanks that settlers and herders can find common ground and learn from one another and, as those called to serve in this place, may we always be open to what the Spirit is saying to the churches as we seek to proclaim the gospel afresh in our generation.

2023 Sermons