Sermon Notes 2019 08 11 Rev David Howells Thinking about what “faithfulness” means
Agnes and Harry Jenkins, a retired couple, lived in a small house in Birtley, an industrial town in the North of England, where Lucy and I served our first ministry as assistants to the Vicar, Alex.
One day I was out visiting folks from the church, and I had been invited for tea by Agnes and Harry. I was sitting chatting with Harry as Agnes brought a tray of tea into the sitting room. She put it down, a bit flustered, then she turned and looked at the kitchen door and said, “I saw Jesus standing there on Tuesday.” Harry knew this was coming but I didn’t. “What did he look like?” I asked. “He was not tall, and he had on those clothes you see in the pictures, but he was glowing a bit. I turned around to say to Harry, “Look! There’s Jesus!” But when I turned back he had gone.” “What was his face like?” I asked. “Oh!” she said, her hand rising to her mouth, “He was just looking at me, so kind, so lovely.”
Nothing happened afterwards. Harry didn’t die. Nor did Agnes. It was just as if Jesus simply dropped by for a vision! Agnes was just an ordinary woman, regularly in church with Harry. She didn’t stand out in the crowd. She was quiet and private. But she saw Jesus and of this she had no doubt. She didn’t formulate explanations of why he showed up. She just accepted this, as she accepted all the other things that happened in her life. She knew it was a blessing that she saw in his face.
I’ve often pondered “Why Agnes?” All I am left with is guesses. She lived her life, as many ordinary Christian folk do, with an attempt to live as if Jesus was present. In the same was as many people ride bikes, obediently keeping the traffic laws, as if someone were looking.
In the Gospel Jesus says, “Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” Perhaps Agnes was living her ordinary life in such a way that if Jesus did step into her sitting room, she’d not need to be ashamed, or have to cover anything over.
We, in church, are people of faith. It’s worth pondering what that means
The letter to the Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen..... , so that what is seen (by us) is made from things that are not visible.”
But whoever wrote to the Hebrews (probably not Paul) is pushing us to actually put a bit more specific expectation to it. Agnes’ faith came from within, from a hard life but also a good life, no worse, and much better than she might have expected. But for the Early Church, in the turmoil of growth and conflict, a church with eyes opened by the unconditional love they received, they saw the injustices and the cruelties all around them. This tiny organization, increasingly facing the distrust and dislike of the authoritarian and violent political system of Rome, they felt they had an impossible task.
For them faith became extroverted, faith that had consequences beyond inward, private spirituality. To them Isaiah speaks “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” The unjust; the oppressor, the attacker of orphans and widows was the State, Rome, the Empire. The Epistle to the Hebrews appeals to God for courage, “Transform us into faithful disciples who worship you alone.” (Rather than just going along with the system).
Faith calling for activism is holding as truth, things for which you have no proof, and acting on that, even when the hope of its fulfilment is dark. This is a faith that holds that Justice, Truth, and Compassion, the characteristics of our God, should be upheld by those who, in faith, try to live in God, and have God live in them. Hebrews says, “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland... they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God.”
This is the faith that says “We shall live in the kingdom of heaven right here in the mess and injustice of this world. We shall be out of step. We shall get into trouble. But we shall act out the love of our God who would go to the cross for the sake of truth and love.”
And what proof do we have that is faith not delusion? Well, none really.
The prayer called the Collect, which is so named because it tries to “collect” the themes of the readings (like re-collecting memories of something wonderful), it says this;
Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your Church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love, joy, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Agnes and Harry were never called to step forward to face conflict because of their faith. But I think that they might, in quiet humility, have done so. For them the presence and love of Christ was unquestionably real. They were already living in the presence of the unseen God, resting more and more weight on invisible faith than cultural normality.
Ponder how much weight you might put into trying to be Christlike in the face of injustice, untruth, and love-less-ness. This is not to beat yourself up, simply to begin to find out, as Jesus once said, where your treasure might be, because that is where your heart is too. I think, after writing this, that I probably need to do a little treasure re-aligning! Agnes, I think, was just fine!