The first Sunday in Lent and St David’s Day with Iestyn Henson leading our service….
Call to Worship:
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of reflection and of challenge.
“If you want to give it all you’ve got, go and sell all your possessions; give everything to the poor”
Sorry, didn’t quite hear that… what were you saying?
“If you want to give it all you’ve got, go and sell all your possessions; give everything to the poor”
Did you say everything?
That’s what Jesus said. He then said ‘Follow me’.
We’re going to have to think about that!
Of course! Reflection and challenge!
Prayer of Approach and Thanksgiving
We come to worship this morning, your people here at St David’s, on the day which bears his name. As we come, we are conscious that we are but a small congregation, in a small town, in the smallest of countries. And yet, we know that we are part of a world-wide community too, and that therefore as small and insignificant we feel sometimes, we are never alone, and our contributions are always important.
So as we celebrate St David, and celebrate Wales, as we think about the importance of small things, help us to remember this. For you are always with us and in you all things are uniting.
We give thanks for each other and for our bits and pieces of news; we give thanks that our care for each other is an expression of our identity. We celebrate good news together, and we support each other when things aren’t so easy.
We give thanks that this was the example which Jesus gave his friends, loving everyone without condition, welcoming all, accepting all as they were and as we are. And because of this, we worship in confidence, and worship in his name.
Matthew 4:1-11 (‘Good as New’) and Matthew 19: 16-22 (‘The Message’)
Three weeks ago, at our Church meeting following the service, Ben (Walkling) introduced us to some ideas about how we might become a more sustainable and environmentally aware church, having done some really useful analysis of where we are at the moment. Later in this reflection, we’ll remind ourselves of some of those ideas, and of the decisions made by church meeting because really, they are decisions for all of us, not just for those who are members or who attended that meeting.
To get us to that point we are first going to reflect on the double-theme of our 1st of March service. Saint David’s Day, Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant, which coincidentally this year falls on the first Sunday in Lent. On the face of it, the link between the two is clear and is straightforward; we’ve already touched on this in our introduction and in our hymns. Saint David is reputed to have been an ascetic monk – a holy person who lived a simple life of prayer, and whose followers were encouraged to do the same. He was traditionally believed to have been born into a Royal Family – or at least, one which had royal connections, but left this for the life of a monk and priest. David’s life, and his teaching, seem to have been characterised by monastic discipline; the same sort of discipline which ascetic or hermit monks have practiced for centuries, and of which Jesus himself undertook before the start of his ministry. That discipline frequently involves fasting, or limiting the type and variety of food or drink during the period – the concept which manifests itself in our Lenten tradition of ‘giving up something’ – whether food, a habit, or some other vice – or, sometimes ‘taking up something’ – having the discipline to do something new, or to do something in a new way.
David of course, didn’t give up just for Lent. The monastic lifestyle, whether explicit in any vows he may have taken, was – and still is for some – a commitment for life. For most of us, the idea of the hermit lifestyle, a lifestyle of self-imposed denial, or even commitment to a certain discipline is quite beyond consideration. I’ll be honest with you – the challenge of veganism which is presented to me regularly – is something which I just can’t bring myself to take up. I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life – as a fussy kid to start, because I never did like the taste or texture of meat – but with a better understanding of the principles as an adult. But I’ve never been evangelical or fundamentalist in my dietary requirements, and if someone has made me a cheese sandwich rather than coronation chicken, I’m grateful rather than asking ‘is this veggie cheese’. But veganism requires that I would give up even my beloved cheddar – and no, the substitutes don’t, from my experience, come close.
Back in the 1970s, the Lifestyle Movement was founded – and Dad was a member for quite a number of years and was a good friend of its founder, Horace Dammers, the Ecumenical Dean of Bristol, an Anglican attached to Bristol Cathedral. The moto or slogan of the Lifestyle Movement is ‘Live simply, so that all may simply live’, a headline which is supported by statements of commitment and guidelines for living. You can look these up on the internet https://www.lifestylemovement.org.uk/ and I’m happy to make copies available if you are interested, but what struck me about revisiting this material for this service is that in the 1970s, this was radical and prophetic. Horace Dammers died in 2004, but what reads today as sensible guidance (albeit recognisably ‘green’ and arguably ‘left-wing’) would have been considered quite outrageous in the 1970s and more so still in the 1980s when we were actively encouraged to grow and take advantage of the luxuries given to us by our modern world. It was in the 1980s that we mostly had our first motor cars; it was in the 1980s that South Wales people went from mostly renting property to owning property (thereby being in debt, for many for the first time in their lives); it was in the 1980s that we started going on foreign holidays, not just the occasional city break or school exchange to Brittany, but cheap flights -Freddie Laker and all that – to just about anywhere.
Saint David would have been horrified by such luxuries. And I dare say Jesus would have been too. That slightly ‘off the wall’ call to worship was written, in part, as an illustration of this. Challenged to discipline? Our natural inclination is always to say ‘give me a moment to think about that, and I’ll get back to you’.
Last Saturday evening, we had Liz’s mum, Shirley, staying with us, on the way to visiting her third great-grandchild in Bristol. We sat down in the evening to watch a film, and ‘The Two Popes’ was chosen. Have many of you seen this yet? Hands up?! It is, I think a quite brilliant film, made so mostly by two Welshmen – Jonathan Pryce who plays Jorge Bergolio, Cardinal of Buenos Aries, and future Pope Francis, and Anthony Hopkins who plays Pope Benedict XVI. It’s also a touching film with humour and light hearted moments to balance some very serious subject material.
The film traces both history and I think a fictional account of the transition between the two Popes, with appropriate flash back to their formative years, in particular references to political difficulties – in Germany and in Argentina.
But what struck me was the decision to contrast the very characters of these two leaders, and through this (and I’ve got not reason to suspect that there isn’t large amounts of truth here), their approach to Church and to Service. Benedict, or rather Ratzinger had been a theological and legal heavy-weight – he had been given the nickname of ‘the Pope’s Rottweiler’ (“I know what they called me” says Hopkins, in an accent which is a cross between German and Port Talbot). Though a liberal in his younger years, Benedict had become the most conservative of Catholic Leaders, arguing that keeping the church – ever the same, never changing – was non-negotiable, not even when it was losing members in their thousands. You got the sense that Ratzinger had no connection with the people, no understanding of the world in which he was meant to be Christ’s representative. He didn’t watch sport, for goodness sake, nor recognise Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’…..
In contrast, Bergolio’s history was one rooted in real life. He gives breaks his engagement to be married to become a priest; he struggles with the balance between practical solutions and ideology during the military rule; he supports his football team with a passion, and Cardinal or no, will find a bar showing the game; he serves soup in the soup kitchen.
Oh….and he’s a Jesuit.
Founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1540, the Jesuits or the Society of Jesus is a religious order of the Catholic church, whose members have taken a vow of poverty. With members in over 100 countries world-wide, it is actively involved in health care, education and other forms of direct social ministry; it also has a history of ecumenical work.
St David’s lifestyle, by all accounts, but years earlier, would have had things in common with the Jesuit philosophy – simple living, the bare minimum of personal possessions, ordinary food rather than fine dining, living in humble accommodation rather than in luxury. This is not a lifestyle which is unique to the Jesuits, or for that matter to certain Christian traditions; you’ll be aware I’m sure of other examples in all of the world’s major religions. But for the Jesuit – and perhaps for David too – this is very much a response to our call to worship and second reading today. Sell all your possessions and give them to the poor…. Most of you responded at the start –“ We’re going to have to think about that!” I wonder – with any degree of discomfort??
Let’s go back to ‘The Two Popes’ for a second and note again that the film makes much of the contrast between Benedict and Francis. You’ll perhaps know already some of the traditions and formalities which Francis rejected right at the outset of his papacy; ordinary black shoes, not the red shoes of the pope; his own plain cross around his neck, not the golden cross of the pope; accommodation taken in a Vatican guesthouse, rather than using the papal apartments and (if the film is to be believed) a liking for takeaway pizza from outside St Peter’s rather than the slap up banquet of a VIP.
We could just regard all this as a changing of the guard; the replacing of one rather fundamentalist approach with another; we could just regard all this as Pope Francis wanting to make a dramatic point.
But I think that would be a mistake. For whilst a vow of poverty, a commitment to a simple lifestyle, or a decision to give up expensive or extravagant traditions all require a degree of discipline, these things are not explicitly about self or self-discipline. Put another way, the Jesuit’s poverty is not about self-denial, but rather about how the rejection of wealth and materialism, of comfort and luxury, has a consequence for others. It is also about identifying with those others, being more like them, so to better understand their needs. Unlike the bookish, academic and Vatican bound Benedict, Francis’ experience is of the real world. It’s not a retreat into the desert, for self-denial, for fasting, and for ‘giving things up’ for 40 days or however long. It’s about being back in the real world, with real people, with real problems, and being in the middle of that messiness to look for solutions.
I quite like that Francis’ revolution – feared by, and possibly still a problem for the likes of Benedict – starts with small gestures. He probably knew that he would only be able to do so much, and it’s likely that in electing him, the Cardinals understood the score. For us, looking in, the success or otherwise of Francis as Pope may yet only be seen in what comes next.
And so we must leave Francis, but not St David. How could we, a congregation gathered in a building bearing his name?!
Remember the little thinks – Cofiwch y pethau bychain, is what David said. And whilst Christians follow the teaching of Jesus Christ, a church bearing David’s name must surely be paying attention and remembering the little things.
What might they be for us today? What are the little things that we can do as Lenten discipline, and as a more enduring sign of discipleship? Well, for many, the ongoing issues caused by the flooding – a fortnight ago, and into this weekend, will be a place to start.
We might donate to the funds being collected for the clean up operation; we might volunteer in specific locations, in shops, in clubs, in our streets, wherever we can lend a hand in a literal sense; if we can’t do that, perhaps we can simply keep an eye on our neighbours and friends, be just that bit more pastoral in our habits. You may have had other ideas, and may already have helped in other ways. Remember the little things.
And as a church together, we are conscious of how flooding and extreme weather is an inevitable consequence of environmental change. Though our understanding is incomplete, and though we often feel helpless, we do have a good idea that humanity cannot continue to live as it does without putting that same humanity at risk.
I chose ‘the Message’ translation of Matthew 19 because I was drawn to its concluding comment about the Rich Young Man. Did you hear it? “That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crestfallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.”
As society, we too may have to let go of things we hold dear. Perhaps our society’s reliance on the motor car, or its love of foreign holidays. Certainly future generations will not be burning petrol, diesel or aviation fuel as we have done these last 50 years. Big changes of behaviour as society however are shepherded by small changes of behaviour as individuals and as communities. Remember the little things.
And so, as St David’s we have resolved to start with those little things, and three in particular.
First, we are going to try and use only recycled paper in church, including recycled toilet paper, which in case you are wondering is toilet paper made from recycled other paper – it’s not toilet paper which has been recycled!! Using recycled paper in our news-sheets, in our posters, and throughout church may cost slightly more than using the cheapest on the market. But remember the little things.
Next, we plan to plant a small wild-flower garden at Church House, including a ‘hotel for bugs’. As natural habitats are spoilt, we will be creating a place where the smallest creatures of our eco-system can play their absolutely vital part. It will again cost – in terms of time and effort at the very least. But again, remember the little things.
And thirdly, but hopefully not finally, in the grand scheme, we are going to subscribe to the ‘Toilet Twinning’ scheme, in which we will pay for each of the toilets in church and at church house to be ‘twinned’ with a toilet somewhere else in the world. As well as financial contribution to sanitation and clean water abroad, doing this will allow us to be reminded constantly that others around the world also face huge environmental challenges. Remember the little things – and I’ve been waiting to do this all service – What’s the Welsh for ‘Toilet’?? Ty Bach – the ‘little house’. Indeed, Remember the little things!!
Lent is a time of reflection and challenge. We receive that challenge in and through the Spirit of God, who draws us always to think about how Jesus’s life and witness have implications for us today; the Spirit of God who shows how the example of the Saints – both those of centuries ago, and of the modern day – can guide us today.
‘Follow me’ said Jesus. May we do so, in Spirit and in Truth,