Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sermon 10th September evensong

First Reading Exodus 14.5-31
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed towards the people, and they said, ‘What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?’ So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, "Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians"? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’
Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.’
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

Second Reading Matthew 6.1-18

Jesus said: "Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
"So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
"This, then, is how you should pray:
"‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
"When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

There is a contrast between these two readings this evening. We have Moses instructed by God to stretch his hand over the waters of the red sea and part the waters to let the Israelites cross and then close again on the Egyptians and the New Testament with Jesus instructing his disciples to keep their acts of righteousness secret. Is this a change of heart for God? A lesson learned.

How do we show our faith by our acts of faith if our acts of faith are to be kept hidden from others? Unfortunately I’m not sure I have a complete answer for that one I’m afraid but I do have a partial one. An act of charity is charitable if it serves the one who is in need but if it serves also the one who gives it is not charity. If, in some way, we gain something from our acts of faith other than a closer relationship with God then it puts up a division between us and God. I read a book some time ago which has stayed with me. It is based on the wisdom of John Cassian. Cassian discovered these 8 thoughts as the things that even in the midst of meditation of isolation from the world in his ascetic eremitic life. Even he as a solitary monk found that seeking God only physically wasn’t enough. These eight thoughts burdened him and kept him away from God. The book talks about the 8 “thoughts” that keep us distracted from God. These are much like the seven deadly sins but with some differences. The thoughts are Food, Sex, Things, Anger, Dejection, Weariness of Soul, Vainglory and Pride. Cassian and the author of this book have much to say about each of these but I think for this evening, the two that really concern us are the last two. Vainglory and Pride. For me these are continuously the hardest to overcome – not to say I am not troubled by the others at all but these two seem to be the more insurmountable of them all.

Working for a church and being what some people might call a VISIBLE Christian means that many people I come into contact with KNOW that I do what I do in response to my faith in God. Whether it’s working with a group of young people like yesterday or acting as Deacon this morning at the 9.45. It’s clear that I am doing something CHRISTIAN. When I do something really up front like youth work or leading a service is that people kindly congratulate or thank me for something (which of course ppl are free to do). The trouble for me is when I take that thanks as a reflection of something _I’ve_ done. This is when the vainglory comes in. Instead of something being the work of God through me, I can begin to think it’s ME doing it and of course that vainglory eventually leads to pride. I think particularly for those of us who serve, we can also feel pride in our own humility (a pride in our own lack of pride) which is a difficult cycle to exit. Each time you think you have cracked it with one of those eight thoughts, the relief of feeling that you’ve DONE IT can lead to vainglory and the spiral to Pride can begin. This I think is what Jesus was talking about when he was telling his disciples how they should do good works.

I’m not saying that ppl shouldn’t thank those who help but I am saying that it produces for the helper that temptation to feel vainglorious. To take the glory rightly due to God for themselves and when that self-glorification accumulates to become proud of it all. In fact, Moses, from our first reading was later chastised when he recreated a miracle to produce water in God’s name and struck the rock when God had told him merely to invoke God’s name. God reprimanded him for his showiness. I think in the incident we heard tonight, God was left with little option but to allow Moses to show the Egyptians but I think God took that and other instances of Good men later becoming proud to heart which may well have spurred Jesus on to say what he said about works.

I don’t think it a mere coincidence that Jesus gives advice about works and prayer at the same time in the reading we heard tonight. This morning we heard form the reading of James’ letter asking how we can have faith without works. The combination of a personal spiritual life with an active charitable life of service is fundamental to the life Jesus called his disciples to. In fact the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples is one which roots them in prayer in order to enable them to serve. It is a prayer which contains SO MUCH in such a few short lines. In our prayers we used the exposition by St Francis of Assisi and I’d like to explore it one more time with you now. Jesus gave the words now known as the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples and those words are used across the world in many different languages, in fact one of my favourite moments at TaizĂ© is when some 5,000 people join together in saying the Lord ’s Prayer in their own language. It is an amazing SOUND which doesn’t feel discordant in any way. Yet Jesus gave them not as a form of words to use but as a model for prayer. We used it earlier this year as the basis of an alternative prayer zone in the North Chapel. We had many ideas for it that we didn’t even use it is SO FULL and yet something we use so often that we might not remember it’s depths. My own youth leader, a former curate here taught us many things which I have forgotten but he taught a few I remember. One thing I remember he taught us was that when we say the Lord’s Prayer to focus on one line. This was based on one of the desert fathers who had gone in to the desert to pray the lord’s prayer and came back days later saying he got as far as Our father and no further as there was so much to think about in that one line. So as your lips form the words of the Lord’s Prayer, have your mind focussed not on one of the eight thoughts but on one of these twelve lines.

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