Thursday, January 28, 2021

Lights in the Darkness

Text:  Mark 4.21-25

Proverbs are strange things.  They are an arrangement of words which say much more than the words themselves.  They spark our imaginations, and cause us to seek out deeper meanings.  For example, there’s an old French proverb, which goes ‘il y a des gants sans les mains dedans’ – which translates as ‘some gloves have no hands in them’.  One can’t help but wonder who such a phrase is aimed at.  Leaders, who are all words and no action?  Or self-proclaimed saviours whose clever turns of phrase turn out to be empty and useless?

Jesus liked proverbs, and according the Gospels, he coined many which have been handed on to us.  Today’s reading contains a number of such wise sayings, all thrown together in a few verses sandwiched between the parable of the sower, and the parable of the seeds.  As such, Mark clearly intended us to apply them to the notion of ‘spreading’ the good seed of the Kingdom.  So when he says that no-one would stick a lamp under a bushel basket, we can see immediately that Jesus wants us to know that the task of the spreading good news about God’s love for humanity belongs to us all.  We are each called to be lights in the darkness…which is a radical thought, indeed.

We human beings have a tendency to let others do the heavy lifting, don’t we?  It has often been said that one of the greatest weaknesses of the Anglican Church system is that it essentially sub-contracts the work of all Christians to one person – the Vicar.  Thankfully, for me, that is anything but the case in this parish.  I count myself among the most blessed of Vicars, in that I have such a great team of staff and volunteers working with me to bring light into the darkness.  But I have enormous concern for some of my colleagues, who find themselves entirely responsible for running their buildings, giving pastoral support, preaching and teaching, as well as printing and photocopying and cleaning the loos. 

This is an issue which the church across our land is going to have to confront with real urgency in the coming months.  The Pandemic has led to a significant drop in giving to churches – with the result that our Portsmouth Diocese is currently having to seriously downsize, and is considering losing something like 20% of our paid clergy, to cover a £2million black hole in the Diocesan budget.  Frankly, this is just accelerating a trend which has been going on for a number of years.

Our first reaction, when hearing such a statistic, might be horror.  How can we possibly cope with 20% less paid clergy?!  But actually, I think this is a change which needed to come.  For too long, Christians who should be shining their own light into their communities have been content to let the clergy do it for them.  They have sub-contracted, for the sum of a few pounds per week or less, the sacred task of being lights in the darkness to a handful of clergy. 

And believe me – we are only a handful.  The Havant Deanery, of which we are a part, has a population of around 170,000 people.  And just 15 clergy.  That’s one full-time minister to 11,333 people, on average.  If only 1% of that population wanted the personal attention, support, advice or individual prayers of their Vicar, each week, that would mean every priest having to cope with 113 individual requests for assistance each week.  Think about that for a moment.  Could you cope with 113 individual requests for support every week, on top of managing a parish, preparing and leading services, writing sermons, and attending to essential legal paperwork?  No.  Neither could I.  Which is why the work of spreading the seed of the Gospel, or sharing the light of Christ, is a task that Jesus gives to every Christian, in every place that such Christians find themselves.

It sounds like a stern command, doesn’t it?  And in many ways, it is.  Jesus expects us to take him seriously when he calls us to action.  But Jesus offers a carrot with his stick.  Alongside his clear teaching on the responsibility of every Christian to be a light in the world, he offers this:  “the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given to you”.  Another proverb.  Another profound proverb, containing the promise that as we give out of our energy, our love, our resources, our prayers to the work of the Kingdom, we will be rewarded in return.

What might those rewards look like?  Well, of course one longs for the reward of heaven.  But there are tangible rewards to be had on earth too.  Bear in mind, that, according to recent studies, there are an estimated 2.6 billion people in the world who call themselves Christians.

If every Christian used their voice, or their pen, to speak out against injustice…how much more just would society be?  And how many poor Christians – as well as others – would benefit. 

If every Christian gave one tenth of their income to the work of God, as the Scriptures require, how much more good could the church do in the world? 

If just a tiny portion of Christians stood for political office, and put God’s principles to work in our economies and policies, what a difference we could make!

If every Christian donated food to the hungry, medicine to the sick, water to the thirsty – at home and abroad, how much less tension would there be in the world:  how much less competition for resources?  How many Christians in war-torn lands would benefit?

If every Christian took the time to know their neighbour, and to telephone the lonely, and shop for the housebound, how much more love would be spread around every community?

If every Christian gave just one day a year to the task of planting trees, or clearing litter, 2.6 billion days a year could be added to the sacred task of caring for our planet.

I could go on…but I hope the point is made.  As a body of people sub-contracting to a few paid clergy the tasks of the Kingdom, we are a weak and, frankly, ineffectual expression of the love of God.  But as a 2.6 billion-strong army of lights in the darkness?  What a difference we could make!

To quote, again, the words often read from our service after the creed: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your father which is in heaven”.  Amen


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