Sermon given by Revd Sue McCoan 1 October 2023
Exodus 17:1-7 Matt 21:23-32
There seems to be so much bad news around at the moment. We are called to share the good news – but how do you bring this good news to people who might not be particularly interested?
Let’s look at our bible readings, starting with Moses.
Moses was sent by God to bring really good news to the people of Israel living under slavery in Egypt – news of liberation! Freedom! God had heard their cries; they were going to be released. You might have expected celebration, rejoicing – but Moses never got a word of thanks. Instead, he got grumbling, and complaints.
You get the sense that the people never quite trusted Moses, never quite felt he was one of them. Maybe they resented the fact that, though born in slavery in Egypt, as they were, he was brought up in luxury, and never suffered any of the deprivations, the hardships, that all the rest of them had faced. Or that he had been out of the country for years and then suddenly returned as their rescuer. Who did he think he was?
It didn’t help when Moses first challenged Pharaoh to let the people go, and Pharaoh was so outraged that he doubled down on the hardships, forcing the people to make bricks without Thanks a bunch, Moses! Our life was rubbish and you’ve just made it worse.
And yet, despite their misgivings, and their grumbling, the people followed him. They followed him out of Egypt; they followed him through the Red Sea; and they continued to follow him for 40 years in the wilderness. Why do they do that? And how does Moses keep going in the face of all that flak?
The people follow, quite simply, because Moses delivers. He said he would set them free and he did. God was the power behind it all, but Moses was the man who stood up to Pharaoh; Moses lifted his staff to part the Red Sea so they could get to safety. When they complained about thirst, he made bitter water sweet; when they were hungry, he brought them quails and manna, again all through the power of God. The people may not like Moses, but he meets their needs, time and time again.
And how does Moses put up with it all? He keeps going back to God. Every step of the way, Moses is consulting God – what do I do next? How do I help these people? How do I stop them killing me? And at every stage, God guides and provides. God doesn’t give Moses a long-term plan, or a map of where they are going; like the manna, the guidance is for that moment, for that day. Moses learns to be dependent on God as the people are dependent on him.
Let’s leave Moses now, and look at Jesus.
Jesus has come to bring the good news of the kingdom of God. Unlike Moses, Jesus is very much a man of the people. They know him; they like the way he teaches; he speaks to them in a way that they can understand. But Jesus has been breaking rules: challenging accepted religious teaching and practice. And now he has done something truly shocking.
Just to remind ourselves of the context, we are in Jerusalem now, in the middle of Holy Week. Jesus has staged a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and wreaked havoc in the Temple on the Monday, overturning tables, ruining peoples’ business. You can’t leave disruption like that unchallenged. No wonder the chief priests ask, ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’.
The thing is, there is no answer Jesus can give that would satisfy them. If he says ‘God’s authority’, that’s no help because as far as they are concerned, God’s authority rests with them. Instead, Jesus answers indirectly, with a paradox and a parable, steering them towards the good news that they are missing.
‘Let’s talk about John the Baptist’. John came with invitation – to repentance, to forgiveness, to baptism. We see from this exchange that the chief priests didn’t go to him. Of course they didn’t – why would they need baptism? They were already holy people! But plenty of people whom they would not have regarded as holy – people who would not have regarded themselves as holy – went to John, accepted the invitation, and took that wonderful step towards the kingdom of heaven.
And you missed out, you chief priests. You missed that opportunity.
Maybe they can see themselves in the son in the parable who said the right things but didn’t do them. And maybe it’s not too late??
Looking at these two readings gives us some pointers about our own sharing of the good news of God’s kingdom. From Moses we learn the importance of meeting people’s needs, in body, mind or spirit, and of being constantly attuned to the guiding of God. From Jesus we learn the importance of engaging in conversation and shared thinking rather than just telling people what we know, and of leaving the invitation open – this kingdom is for you too.
There are some fine recent examples of this kind of sharing.
You may have read in Reform magazine of the URC café at Greenbelt. The URC partners with an organisation called REfUSE, based in county Durham, which collects surplus food from supermarkets and retailers and cooks fabulous meals to serve their community. At Greenbelt, URC volunteers serve the meals to paying festival-goers and engage with them, while they are eating, through craft activities, speakers, storytelling and conversations. It was good value, and under cover unlike most festival food stalls, so attracted a lot of people and raised the profile of the URC in a really constructive way.
Another example, this time from West London Leaders. That’s the gathering for church leaders across the Borough of Ealing. This last week, they organised a meeting for church leaders but also people from local businesses, the council and the police, to talk about issues surrounding mental health. There were 2 good speakers and over 50 people present. West London Leaders are big enough to work at that sort of level in the community, bringing people together for mutual benefit. It was out of a similar meeting a few years ago that the Ealing Foodbank started, so who knows what might spring out of this event?
A different kind of community engagement again with the Ealing Churches Winter Night Shelter – surely needed more than ever this year.
We don’t have to be as dramatic as Moses. We don’t have to be as radical as Jesus. We don’t have to do anything on the scale of the REfUSE café. But we are all called to look for the ways in which we might share the good news. We identified some on our Vision Day; we already have the Eco Church work, now well under way; and we said we would look for one more project, which might be the night shelter?. So let’s keep our eyes and ears open, as we move forward; and let’s stay constantly attuned to the guiding of God.