Sunday, 25 July 2021

Sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan - Luke 10:25-37

"On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked byrobbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

By Balthasar van Cortbemde (1647)
But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Then Jesus said, “which of those three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The lawyer replied, “The one who took care of him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


The parable of the Good Samaritan is probably the most famous of Jesus' parables. Even people who never go into a church, who know very little about the Bible, will understand who a 'Good Samaritan' is: a person who makes the choice to help someone else, particularly a stranger. You have hopefully heard of the charity called 'Samaritans', where people volunteer to speak, by phone or email or text, to anyone who calls, particularly people who are suicidal or depressed. The Samaritans were founded by a vicar of the Church of England in 1953, after a young girl in his parish committed suicide, and the name was given in a newspaper reporting on his work. 

It has led to a worldwide network of organisations that provide someone to listen, for people who have nobody else. On my phone today, I have an app called GoodSam, which was used during the Lockdowns to connect NHS volunteer responders with people who needed help, whether with collecting prescriptions, getting shopping, or whatever. GoodSam is slightly snappier, as names go, but you can see where it comes from.

The name of the Good Samaritan is so recognisable after 2000 years because this short parable gives such a clear and challenging view of what it means to serve others, amid the reality that it is something we must actively choose, when it is so easy to find reasons not to. And, if that was not enough, it challenges us to confront our prejudices about who may be in need, and who might turn to help. Jesus tells this parable to answer a question from an expert in the Jewish Law. This lawyer has correctly recognised the two most important commandments in the Old Testament Law: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind"; and, "Love your neighbour as yourself". 

He thinks he knows who God is, but he is left with one crucial question, "who is my neighbour?". Of course, the man isn't asking who lives next door to me? He is asking who is near to my heart, who do I need to care for? Who should I love? Who is my neighbour? Now that is a question that still obsesses us today, it defines our politics and our international relations. Where do we draw the line for who we support through our healthcare and welfare system, and how generously do we support them? Do we regard lives in other countries as precious as our own, if they are threatened by poverty or war? 

These are not easy questions. And Jesus does not try to give us a precise answer in each and every situation. How could he? Not in a thousand pages. Rather, with a few words he gives us a clear illustration of the principles and values that must guide us, and he leaves us to use our judgement and our conscience, I hope with the help of God's Holy Spirit, to decide what we must do in our own lives. I pray we will take that responsibility seriously, and approach it with care, each and every day, because we never know the impact we can have, for good or bad, in small ways and large ones, as we make our choices.

"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers". Now, when Jesus said the man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, he means it quite literally, because to travel from Jerusalem up on Mt Zion to Jericho by the Dead Sea involves descending by about 1000m in altitude over a 20 miles journey. That's quite a long way down. And for 20 miles the road passes through land that is steep, rocky, barren and deserted. It was also well-known for being a dangerous route, where robbers often did strike in remote places. A man attacked and beaten here would be far from help, unless a kind soul came upon him along the road and took pity on him. Otherwise, naked and hurt out in the desert, he would surely die.

The man is unspecified, he could be anyone, though since Jesus is talking to a crowd of Jews, I think we are meant to assume he is a Jew. But it is important we know nothing about him, he stands then, for anyone in trouble, anyone in need. And there are times when we are all in need; times when we have all been set upon by troubles, not for all, by armed robbers, but certainly times when we are in deep need of the kindness of others. This man, beaten and alone, is us, in our worst moments, and we are him. 

And then who comes along the way, a priest and then a Levite, who both "walk by on the other side". I know there have been times also, when I have been that priest, or Levite, and walked by on the other side. Times I'm not proud of, maybe I was too busy, or too afraid, or somewhere I didn't know, or maybe I was hurrying to some other good deed, but I thought I saw someone in need, and I walked by on the other side. Jesus does not say it, but the priest and the Levite surely too have good excuses for not helping the man lying half-dead. The priest is coming from Jerusalem to Jericho, maybe he has served his term in the Temple, and now is returning to his family, who will be waiting anxiously for him. The Levite maybe fears that the robbers are still around and threaten him, or maybe even that the man is merely pretending to be in need, to trap him. 

Either way, they make their choice, and hurry on, and the man is still lying hurt and in need. Their choice is made more stark, by the important roles they hold. A priest and a Levite are the religious and moral leaders of their day. I have a beautifully illustrated children's version of this parable, for my daughter, let's say, and in that version, it is a Bishop and a Judge who walk by. Today it could be another person as well: maybe a member of parliament, or a local councillor; maybe a doctor or a charity worker; anyway, a person in a position of trust and moral authority, who walks by on the other side. As sadly people in positions of trust and authority sometimes do, because it's always more easy to talk about doing good, than it is to actually do it. I felt very aware of that as I sat and wrote this sermon, I thought, if anyone asks me for help now, I will have to say yes, there's a limit to how much of my own hypocrisy I can live with.

So the priest and the Levite walked by on the other side, but now the Samaritan comes along, "and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him". The first thing to notice is the man's needs are very concrete, and so is the care the Samaritan gives him. One of the huge problems with Politics, is it can leave us so caught up in theoretical, ideological discussions, about who is responsible, and who is to blame, and who should pay, and why, that we lose track of real and concrete needs. I consider myself a patriot, I love my country, its people, its history and its land, but people can't eat patriotism. 

The more abstract issues may matter in their own time, but we cannot lose track of the fact hungry people need feeding, and the sick need care, and people who are cold need heat, and once we have attended to those needs, we can argue about the theoretical issues. Jesus makes this point again and again, such as in the parable of the sheep and the goats. At the end of time, at the end of our lives, Jesus draws this distinction between good and evil: when I was hungry did you give me something to eat? When I was thirsty did you give me something to drink? When I was a stranger did you invite me in? When I needed clothes did you clothe me? Justifications and excuses are not enough.

The Samaritan crosses the road to tend to the stranger, he chooses to make himself involved; he puts the beaten man on his donkey while he walks, and he takes the man to an inn. At that point the Samaritan could have considered that he had done his good deed, he had completed his job, he had discharged his obligation, but he doesn't. He takes his involvement a step further, and says "Look after him, [...] and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have." He chooses to make an ongoing commitment to the man who was attacked. He sees it as his responsibility as long as there remains a need. He has given his time, his effort, he has already given money, and now he gives his ongoing commitment. 

Jesus is making a point here. Any help is better than none, but many problems do not have an easy and immediate solution. Often the most important choices we make are not when we help someone once, but when we make a commitment to be there to help them again and again, for as long as they need. Now, that is a difficult commitment to make, and it's not something we can do every day, or need to do every day, but it is one of the most noble things a person can do.

Who is this Samaritan then, and why did Jesus pick him as the example of what it means to be a neighbour? Well, in our society this parable is so well-known that, as I said, a Samaritan just means someone who chooses to help a stranger. But the Samaritans were, and still are, a religious community in the Middle-East closely related to the Jews. Today there are sadly very few of them left, only 850, in Israel and the West Bank, but when Jesus was preaching, they were a thriving community. The Samaritans were closely related to the Jews, they lived in Samaria, which is now known as the West Bank, and their religion is very similar to Judaism. But the two communities separated hundreds of years before Jesus was born, and now there was a long-standing bitterness and hatred between them. 

This was a type of division that is all too common in our world: a civil war, a lingering, smouldering conflict between people who lived right beside one another, and have almost everything in common, but sadly, hate each other all the more because of it. Many of the worse conflicts of our modern world are like this: in Northern Ireland, in Syria, in Bosnia, in Israel and Palestine, in the Congo, and elsewhere. In smaller, thankfully less violent ways, we suffer from polarisation like this in our society as well, for the last 5 years between Brexiters and Remainers; or in America over the rumbling culture war between conservatives and liberals.

As humankind we are so prone to these kinds of divisions, we seek them out, like the voice of the Devil whispering constantly in our ear, encouraging us to seek splits and divisions wherever we can. The narcissism of small differences, as it's sometimes called, where we obsess about our differences despite the fact we have so much in common, can be our greatest threat. These kinds of divisions can come in communities of any size, within churches even, or families; sometimes grievances linger for decades, even after the original reason has been forgotten. If we let these linger, before long it stops even being about the original grievance, it becomes about the things you did to me and I did to you, in all the years in between. And that can go on forever.

Responding to an expert in the Jewish Law, probably in front of a crowd of Jews, Jesus is making a very powerful point by having a Samaritan as the hero of his story, in contrast to the choices of the Priest and the Levite. We are prone to stereotypes and prejudices, that often involve us thinking we are better and smarter and kinder than some group we label as Other than us. But goodness does not involve belonging to a tribe or a side or a party, it is defined by the way we choose to act; by the love we show to our fellow men and women. The individual is not defined by their group: people we think of as Us, like the Priest and Levite, may fail when it comes to the test; and people we regard as Them, like the Samaritan, may surprise us with their pity and compassion. We all bear the image of God, and we all have the potential for good and evil. But when we let stereotypes and prejudices do our thinking for us, we make ourselves stupid, and we risk ignoring the good among people who are different to us, as well as missing the evil lurking on our own side. 

This doesn't mean there aren't real rights and wrongs between groups or nations or in politics, there are. Before Jesus's time Jews had killed Samaritans, and Samaritans had killed Jews. His audience might have expected a Samaritan to not just ignore the man, but to attack him again. But Jesus went the other way. We cannot assume our prejudices about the group, define the individual; each person deserves the right to prove themselves, and to define themselves. 

After the recent European Cup final there was, quite rightly, outrage about racist abuse directed at Black England player online. And as a community we should take pride in the fact 3 of those players: Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, have spoken out about their Christian faith. I don't doubt that they will have read this parable, they will have reflected on this parable, they will have heard sermons on this parable. And I wonder what impact that has had on their campaigning as role models for poor and marginalised people in this country. Racism is evil because it doesn't care about the choices a person makes, but defines them as good or evil based on what race they belong to. Martin Luther King, the great Baptist minister, a man drenched in the Bible, described this beautifully in his famous phrase, when he said he wanted his children to "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character".

Too often, though, people who called themselves Christians have been responsible for encouraging racism, rather than defeating it. But I cannot open my Bible and possibly understand what book they were reading; as I cannot when people call themselves Christians but ignore their obligation to the poor and vulnerable. I think these cases are clear examples of when people have allowed their desire to protect their positions of wealth and power blind them to what God is saying in the Bible on page after page. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that we have a choice, we can choose to blind ourselves to our responsibility and walk by on the other side, or we can choose to prove what it really means to love the Lord our God, with all our heart, and to love our neighbour as ourself. 

I believe that the Christian faith has a unique contribution to make in overcoming racism and prejudice in our world. We have a story, stretching back 3000 years to right to the present day, that can help all people see that they can be, and must be, brothers and sisters to one other. The Bible says that the entire human race are one widespread family, spiritual children of the same parents, Adam & Eve, created directly by God in his image. Centuries before Jesus was born the prophet Isaiah spoke movingly about a day when all the peoples of the world will stream to Jerusalem, united in worship of God, and Mt Zion in Jerusalem "will be called a house of prayer for all nations". The Gospels describe how Jesus sent his disciples out to the ends of the earth, "to make disciples of all nations". At Pentecost the first miracle of the Holy Spirit was to give the Disciples the power to speak in the many languages of all the people there. And, St Paul confirmed in his famous words, "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus"

The result of this is a Christian Church that is today the largest and most diverse community in the entire world. A community that is real because it is based on sharing the most profound and important of things, a life defined by love and faith in Christ; not on belonging to a race or nationality or language or sex or age, and so a community uniquely open to all people to join.

But we deny that potential if, like the Priest and the Levite, we walk by on the other side from the troubles of our brothers and sisters both near and far, of every creed and colour and name.

“Which of those three [the Priest, Levite and Samaritan] do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The lawyer replied, “The one who took care of him.”

Then Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Sermon on Colossians 4:2-18 - Why do Christians spread their Faith?

"Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a
door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.” 

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you."


Earlier in Colossians Paul expressed his thankfulness for the faith and love of the people of Colossae. He expressed in clear, dramatic language who Jesus is, "the Son of the Invisible God, the firstborn over all Creation. For in him all things were created". And he speaks of Christ's great mission, "to reconcile to himself all things".  For we received Christ, so we must live on him.  Because he is the "Fullness of God", he has the power to redeem us, to transform us.  And since we have that power let us "put to death" what is evil in us, "greed, rage, lies, bitterness, jealousy". Instead, we clothe ourselves with "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience", all of which spring from Love.

That is a brief summary of the last three chapters, and today we look at St Paul's final words in this letter.  His last instruction to Colossae is brief, but important, and it’s about prayer and evangelism. Paul reminds church in Colossae to "remain faithful in prayer, being watchful and thankful". Thankful for what? Well, for the gifts of peace, reconciliation and belonging with God, that he has described again in the previous chapters. And watchful, for what? For opportunities to share these gifts with others.

People often wonder why Christians are so determined to spread their faith to others. Why do we put so much emphasis on conversion, on mission, on evangelism? What we have heard in this letter of Colossians answers that question.  We have the most amazing gift of the Kingdom of God. Through the Holy Spirit we are united with the one through whom "all things were created", who shall "reconcile all things", and all "thrones, powers, rulers and authorities" fall under him. We have so much. Even when in this life we face suffering. Paul wrote those words of Colossians in chains, in prison, regarding Christ who was crucified. Never let anyone think Paul's words were cheap. When he said in another letter, "we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed", he spoke from experience, of the power he had received, through Christ, and in Christ. And that power is ours as well, through the Holy Spirit. 

And the fruit of those gifts is "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience", gifts we all need. We have so much, and it is in that awareness that we go out to share our faith with others. Jesus commanded us to be salt and light. Now, salt adds flavour to food, but before refrigerators its more important use was for preserving food. You don't keep salt in a box, you take it and rub it all over your joint of meat or fish, and that means it keeps good and nourishing, it preserves life. Jesus called us light, and light cannot help but shine out, unless we deliberately hide it. And so our evangelism, our Good News, that we have been blessed, should just spill out of us in every way. 

There is no division either between work of charity and love, and evangelism. You bring someone food, you feed their body; you bring them faith in Christ, you feed their soul. The Bible never divides the two. Jesus heals people's bodies, and forgives their sins; he feeds thousands, and he dies for the salvation of all. St Paul doesn't know any division between the two either. He preaches Christ, and he gathers a collection for the starving. Now some people will feel more called to preach, and others to works of charity, and that's fine; as long as between us we are covering both. For both ways are the Light within us spilling out to others, both are inspired in us by the same source, the gift of Christ. Our Mission is to feed and support bodies and souls, the whole person, inspired by the Love Christ showed us.

If our prayer and evangelism and charity is an attempt to fill an emptiness in ourselves it will deserve to fail, but if it means the richness we have spilling out and being shared with other people, it will deserve to succeed. That, I believe, is why Paul has this instruction at the end of his letter, after he's described again the riches we have in Christ. Because we have this gift, in "jars of clay", we have something worth sharing with others. And the richness of Christ is not just what we share, it defines how we share. We have no need of defensiveness or fear. We don't need to trick people or browbeat them. We need to be honest about the gifts we receive through faith. Gifts of community, of patience, of hope and purpose in our lives, all grounded and made certain by being rooted in Christ, "the Son of the Invisible God, Firstborn over all Creation", "the Fullness of God".

The rest of this chapter, the final section of Colossians, emphasises one important gift in particular that is so important, and that is Community. St Paul knows the importance of community, he knows that his ministry, his mission, could never have succeeded without the community around him. And he never forgets to remember and thank each person who has been important in helping him. The people Paul thanks at the end of his letters give us a fascinating cross-section of the early Christian community: Men and Women, Jews and Gentiles. We also spot some famous names, Mark, and Luke, who wrote two of the Gospels we have today. 

Now, community is one of the things that is declining across our modern world: and by that I mean the institutions of closely connected family and life that support and encourage us. And this last year of Lockdown has accelerated that decline. We are not meant to live life alone, and while seeing people through screens is better than nothing, it's not the same. There's an old saying, "it takes a village to raise a child", but not just a child, it takes a village to live a life. But often these days, because people move so much for work, as fewer people get married, as fewer have children, as fewer join clubs and community groups, we become more isolated. And that can be fine, when life is good, when you're young. But when you face challenges, it's so much harder on your own. We're just not meant for it. A recent survey in America found that 30% of young adults said they did not have a single friend: Zero, not even one. And the proportion was far higher among young adults than older ones. And that kind of statistic has an inevitable impact on mental and physical health and wellbeing down the line.   

One of the things Church has always been is community, and that is valuable. Don't get me wrong, when community goes wrong it can be controlling and oppressive, but when it's right, when it's based on those Gospel principles of "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience", it gives life. And Churches endure as communities as well, in a way that's special, in the face of persecution and change, because they are not randomly thrown together. Our community is based on a shared faith, a shared love, a shared joy. That is important, because community also requires people to put in a lot of work. Our faith and experience that we are one family in God, motivates us to put in the commitment: in time and money and care, that makes our community work.

We live in a world of constant change, uncertainty and confusion about our lives: where we're going as individuals and a society, how we should guide ourselves in politics, and to face huge challenges like Climate Change, or the Covid Pandemic. Through the Gospel, the teachings of Christ, and the Apostles, we have truth from God that has endured for 2000 years, because it speaks to what is most fundamental about our human nature, our spiritual nature. And that does not change. Jesus said living by his teaching is to build our lives on solid rock, not shifting sands. That is the basis that makes for a strong community, one we can all benefit from.

The thing about that teaching as well, is that it too comes to us through a community, the community of the Church. The Bible itself is a reflection of the experience of the earliest Christian community that Christ had risen from the dead, and he had empowered his followers with the Holy Spirit. And our community, and all the communities of Christians around the world are a direct descendant of that first community. The word theology just means the 'knowledge of God', and true and good knowledge of God can only exist where the texts of theology like the Bible are understood in the Spirit of faith, hope and love.

A Church community should be special, because it should be open and welcoming to everyone. And while no community is perfect, here at Wolston my family and I certainly felt welcomed from the start. If we are true to Christ, then anyone must be welcome to come in and join us. We are not united by race, or age, or sex, or nationality, by where we went to school, or whether we went to University, we are united by faith in Christ. And that means any man or woman or child can be my brother or sister. In fact, you don't even need to have faith yet, if your mind is open and searching, you're welcome. I talked earlier about evangelism and as Christians we often think of that as going out and spreading the Word. But equally it has to be about how you treat people when they come in. There's no point going out and telling people about Christ, if when they come into Church they are not welcomed and supported.

Let our love be plain and obvious to see, let our "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" be clear and unmistakeable, and people will appreciate the reality we know, that the "Fullness of God" is in Christ, and Christ lives and moves in us.

Amen.  

Friday, 2 April 2021

Palm Sunday in Lockdown - Luke 19:28-44

After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethpage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
By Zambian painter, Emmanuel Nsama
They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”


It is a great joy to be back here with you, after so long. It has been a hard three months since Christmas. Hardest, of course, for those who have lost loved ones in the last year; but hard, certainly, for us all.

I remember Palm Sunday when I was a kid. The church would be packed, and there would be a donkey and palm crosses and we would process up and down the village high street behind this donkey singing hymns and waving palms. It could seem a bit goofy at times, but, boy, do I miss it now. There's something profoundly joyful about getting out of your seat and out into the fresh air, to walk together and cheer and sing. And those emotions, those simple emotions, are incredibly important, because through them we open a window to experience the Kingdom of God. I hope we are never too old or wise to let ourselves go into Joy, into Love, into rejoicing, because those things transform the earth into heaven.

When our hearts swell at the beauty of the world, at the company of our family and friends, when we worship God, and remember and appreciate what he has done for us, then we open ourselves up to God. Being human means being trapped, to some degree: trapped by our own frailty, trapped by our own weakness, by the memory of grief, and at no time more than now. So our vision of heaven through our joy and love is always like looking into "a cloudy mirror", or a blurry photo, but it is a real glimpse of heave none the less, and that is something worth remembering. 

We should remember that on Palm Sunday especially. The crowd cannot help but break out into song as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, praising God for all the things, the miracles they have seen. And by just letting it out, letting the joy run out, they are doing something incredibly important. After thousands of years of waiting God has come to his own city in person, and they get to be the ones who declare it, who welcome him in. They are speaking the truth, a truth that will change the world forever; and not just the truth of facts, but also the truth of the heart, the truth of meaning.

Some people I know have seen angels, and some people have talked about times of worship when they felt so full of the presence of God that it was like Angels were worshipping alongside them. We see that in the Bible at moments of great joy, particularly at Christmas. The shepherds were amazed and terrified because Heaven could not contain the joy, and the skies split open with Angels praising and singing at Christ's birth. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem we can be certain for every person in the crowd there was an Angel too, repeating those same words with a sound we can barely imagine.

Jesus riding into Jerusalem is the one time he was welcomed as he should be welcomed, as the King. Those people stood there and sang for all of us. But it is just a reflection of the greater joy when Jesus rose from the dead and into Heaven, bringing with him all those he saved from Hell; and it's a reflection again of the Joy when Christ will come again, and ride into the New Jerusalem; when Heaven and Earth are united and shall  be one and the same forever.

Those people two thousand years ago may not have understood all this. They knew they were doing something serious, something important. They knew what the Messiah meant for their people, but I don't know if they realised, that above and beyond they were making the world turn and the angels sing. They were only people, but they sang the same song as the angels in Heaven. Maybe the angels make a more beautiful noise, but they sing the same song, and the joy of the crowd is taken up and repeated all the way to the throne of God.

So Joy is a serious business, and worship is a serious business, and letting ourselves feel the beauty of the world and of God is a very serious business. And, my friends, that joy and beauty is all around us. There is a very famous start to a poem, that I have always loved, by William Blake, the man who wrote Jerusalem.  It says "To see the World in a Grain of Sand, And Heaven in a Wild Flower, hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour". I'll repeat that.

We have been trapped in a narrow place, these last few months: in many cases separated from friends and family. But the beauty of God's creation is still all around us. The Bible says "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies show his handiwork". Now we can interpret this to mean the world is a dead thing, like a book, in which we can deduce evidence of God's Glory, like a detective looking for clues. But I think the Bible is saying something much more. The Prophet Isaiah said "you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; and the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands", which has been turned into a great song.

The world God made is alive, my friends, and its beauty shouts of the Glory and Beauty of God. Jesus reflects those words of Isaiah in our reading today. The Pharisee leaders demand Jesus rebuke his disciples, telling them to keep quiet. But Jesus says "if they keep quiet, the stones themselves will cry aloud". I think he was quite serious. This moment on Palm Sunday when Jesus rides into Jerusalem as its King, is too important. If men and women keep quiet, the angels and the stones themselves will cry out. This is a moment on which the world turns. And even in Lockdown the beauty of the world around us is still declaring the Glory of God, still giving us a window to see the beauty and joy that will be complete forever when we see God not "in a cloudy mirror, but face to face".

There is beauty all around us, in our historic church that we are gathering in again today; in the fields, and grass, and skies and animals. If you walk up Dyers Lane out into the fields, you will see the young lambs bleating and dancing. I strongly recommend it. Again and again in scripture Jesus is called the 'Lamb of God'; or a Shepherd, who cares for his sheep. As William Blake said, "Heaven in a wild flower", or in a lamb.

The events from Palm Sunday, leading up to Jesus's Crucifixion, death and Resurrection a week from today, on Easter Sunday: these are the most important events in History. As a Christian I believe that the whole Cosmos, the meaning of the Universe, was changed forever by those events. Through Christ's sacrifice we have forgiveness, grace and the hope of Eternal Life; and the Kingdom of God has been spreading, person by person, from that day to this. But even in purely secular terms they are also the most important events in history, because of 2 billion Christians in the world today, and for all the historical events that have followed on from those events, and been shaped by it.

But if you'd been there, if you'd seen it, it maybe wouldn't have looked like that much actually. If you've ever been to a professional or international football match, you've probably seen a larger, louder crowd than was there on Palm Sunday, two thousand years ago.  But you haven't seen a more important one. Mark Twain once said "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog". Don't judge events by their size, or noise; or people by their rank, or status, or bank balance. "Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour". What we do and what we experience, each day, is more important than we realise. Maybe some of the people went out to that Palm Sunday crowd because they went with a friend, or because it was a bright day, but they made history forever.

Even in Lockdown, even with all the restrictions we operate under, we still have the chance to embrace beauty and joy, and to love one another, and so to look upon the face of God. You matter! We all matter! How we respond to each other, and the world around us, matters! The Bible points us in the direction we should go: through Faith, Hope and Love; along the narrow road of Truth; to do Justly, Love Mercy, and walk humbly with our God. By obeying Lockdown restrictions these last months we all have saved lives, at a cost to ourselves. And that is just as true for those who have sadly lost loved ones themselves. And it is something that we should all be proud of, amid the sadness about all that we have missed.

What we do matters, and how we respond matters, which brings me to the last part of our reading today. After the glorious welcome of the crowd Jesus stops, and weeps; and offers a terrible warning over the city of Jerusalem, where most of the people would not recognise his coming; and next Friday, many would cry for his crucifixion. What happened in Jerusalem was people could not recognise a King who came in peace, riding on a donkey. A King whose Kingdom is spiritual, that is "not of this world", and taught that they should "give unto Caesar what was Caesar's, and to God what is God's". 

In years to come anger against the Romans who occupied Jerusalem grew, until it broke out into War. But the Roman Empire was too strong, and eventually Jerusalem itself was surrounded and destroyed, just as Jesus had warned. If Jerusalem had embraced the route of peace, and spiritual transformation, the city could have survived, and transformed the Roman Empire from within.

But though Jerusalem was destroyed, nothing has destroyed the importance of what happened two thousand years ago between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. The community founded on Jesus Christ survived and grew, as it survived and grew through centuries of persecution under the Roman Empire, and it survives and grows around the world to this very day. 

When you hear about the ancient Christians surviving through years of persecution, and when you hear about Christians today in parts of the world that are very hostile to them: what stands out again and again, is the intense but simple faith, hope and love they have. Faith in Christ as King, Love for God and each other, Hope enduring, that God's Will will be done. It seems they are charged up by their experience of God's Beauty & Glory in every circumstance, even when they face hostility and hatred from human beings. Despite the ongoing challenges of our situation, may we all find that same joy in the good gifts around us.

"Peace in Heaven and Glory in the Highest!"

"Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord"

Amen