Vicar’s Sermon – Advent Sunday 2021

Luke 21.25-36

When you pray do you find that your mind just wanders? I ask, because mine does.  I find it really hard to stop my thoughts from jumping from one thing to another. My best intentions of praying for you…for others ..easily turn into ‘what’s for tea tonight?’…’have we enough milk in the fridge’….’better get to the tip and rid the garden of the fallen leaves’. I know I’m not alone in this. I seem to recall that it was Bishop Michael Ramsay who when asked ‘how much do you pray?’ said something along the lines of: ‘I spend 29 minutes getting ready to pray and 1 minute praying’. I know how he feels: perhaps you do too?

It’s difficult to focus. For some of us we can combat this by creating a pattern of prayer: settling into its routine, finding a place and a time when we can be still, undisturbed, but it’s still a battle. We live in a 24/7 world and find it hard to make this space either physically, mentally or spiritually: this building is a gift – use it.

Unable to focus we are left exhausted and distracted. We see this inability to focus in our children. Teachers and parents struggle to hold them to task in our schools. It seems that as human beings we have an insatiable desire to be entertained – to shift our attention from the task at hand and to gaze out of a window or turn around to see what the child on the other side of the room is doing. In our interconnected world we have more than enough devices to demand our attention and disturb attempts to focus: email alerts, ring tones, pop up messages on our computers, adverts, click bait – all designed to say ‘look at me, I’m more important than what you are doing now’.

The result? Even the simplest of tasks can take an age – because we have been distracted from them. Psychologists tell us that this is damaging to us: it leaves us forever responding to the next demand, unable to work out whether that demand is reasonable or not, unable to take charge of our lives but pushed and pulled by the phone, the TV, digital media. Self-care gurus tell us that flitting from one task to another depletes our energy: nothing seems to get finished…everything is left ‘hanging’ waiting for completion and that causes us stress.

‘Be on your guard’ Jesus said ‘so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the worries of this life.’ We understand drunkenness (some more than others perhaps), we understand the ‘worries of this life’ too, but dissipation? It’s not a word we hear very often. It means wastefully spending yourself (your time, your energy, your resources), for nothing. Jesus warns his followers against dissipation in this apocalyptic passage where he describes the world in turmoil, people being confused and anxious, fearful of what the future might hold. It sounds like the end of the world (and that is indeed how some people have heard these verses) but it sounds very much like now too.

‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world’ – that’s a phrase that speaks to our times isn’t it? There’s a lot of fear about? We are fearful for the life of the planet on which we live? With that fear comes an anxiety for our children, our grandchildren: what world are we bringing them into? The pandemic has rocked the whole world, bringing out both the best and the worst in people. We have seen how fragile our economies are. There are gaps on the shelves and gaps in our social fabric: food and fuel poverty in this, one of the richest nations in the world. We had assumed these things to be done with, consigned to the history books, but our only response seems to be to expect a 24 year-old footballer to solve the problem. Fear can engender hyper-activity (panic) sometimes it tends towards violence. It can also paralyse us. ‘The problems are so huge’ we say, ‘so intractable that who am I to affect change?’ Beware falling prey to apathy: fainting from fear.

Our gospel says to us as Christians ‘be on your guard, be alert, focus on what is important, stand up for what you believe, stand up and make your life count, be hopeful (for Jesus is near) and remember ‘heaven and earth will pass away but His words will never pass away.’ Surely that’s enough for us? When we make these words speak only about ‘the end times’ we shelve their wisdom for another day. But Jesus is always present, always coming to us. If we take heed of these words now we can make better use of the time we are given to serve Him.

Can you see how these things fit with what we have been trying to do as a church over these last few years?

‘My words will never pass away’: as Christians we must be rooted in God’s word to us, His word is what gives us life and hope. We’ve tried to embed this reality into our life through Dwelling in the Word together: that way of reading scripture that allows it to speak to all of us, allows us to hear it fresh again and again.

‘Stand up, raise your heads’: what we have found is that we can act as public Christians without shame, we have something to offer those who are confused and fearful. We found this through linking up with the local lunch clubs as St. Marys’, not just as people who happen to go to church. We continue to find this through our music making: sharing with others who have a love of music and creating community with them. We found this through the Eco event the other week which was unashamedly pulled together by our Eco church group, unapologetically included prayer and worship and declared ‘this is God’s world.’

And then focus on what is important: don’t waste your energies. The other week you took part in our ‘balloon ride’ trying to envision what our place might be in Barnard Castle in the next few years. Last week, in Durham some of us spent time trying to distil all our work over the last few years into a phrase or sentence that captures what God calls us to be and do here. That involved being mindful of our reflections on our community and town, our useable history as we have looked at our past, the interviews we conducted in the congregation and beyond, the connections we made through Covid, your comments from the Balloon ride: all this and more we felt might be distilled down to the phrase: ‘Celebrating God’s love in Barney in worship, action and prayer’

It’s a draft phrase to focus our work– what do you think? ‘Celebrating’ is a word that speaks of joy, of life, appreciation and hope. It carries the meaning of taking pride in something and holding it up for others to see and, (in the context of worship) it is what we do as we celebrate communion. Celebrating God’s love in Barney speaks to our geographical attachment to this place (the church) but it looks beyond it. We knew, but we know all the more following Covid, that there is so much goodness in this town of ours that speaks of God, we have been trying to see Him at work. This goodness we believe finds its origin in the heart of God so we want to honour it and find ways of doing so.  And then we add: ‘in worship, action and prayer’ – tie-ing these three together because we have a tradition and great gifts in worship that we can build on and develop and broaden so that more people feel able to express their praise to God. We have begun to learn that our engagement with others as St. Mary’s is welcome and expected: words are not enough – our faith is to be lived and we can live it publicly. And prayer? not just for this church but publicly (in worship and elsewhere) praying for this town, its people, its life. Naming names, asking God’s blessing, seeking his kingdom in our midst.

Once we have agreed on what we are called to be and do here we will fill in the how…and the when. We will try to focus our energies – to avoid that ‘dissipation’ that Jesus warns us against so that we might more confidently stand in Jesus’ presence and offer our neighbours hope in a confusing and troubling time.

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