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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Sermon about Pink Floyd, Ezekiel, Phil Steer and Jesus (and I forgot to mention, Darth Vader.)


Here is Today's Sermon. The readings were  Ezekiel 2, 1-5 and Mark 6, 1-13. 

Friends I must confess a terrible sin to you.
The sin of singing in public while wearing my iPod headphones.

No one has as yet actually found me out as I do it early in the morning while walking the dog, but I do feel better for having got it off my chest. This week I have mostly been belting out this as I stride across the fields.


You are only coming through in waves
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying
When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
And I have become
Comfortably numb

Those words from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” are out of context here, but I include them in today’s talk about prophecy because they express what I feel is a big problem in the church in the Western world. We think we have outgrown the need for prophecy, and we have largely lost touch with the part of us (perhaps our childlike nature) that could interface with God as Ezekiel did.

There are lots of things in the Bible that Jesus does that amaze people and today’s gospel reading is just one – the people in the synagogue at Nazareth (or possibly Capernaum, depending on where you think ‘his hometown’ refers to) were amazed by Jesus’ teaching. But have you noticed that there is only one thing in the whole of the New Testament narrative that amazes Jesus – their lack of faith. Now I know that Darth Vader was right when he said ‘Your lack of faith disturbs me’.
We have a lack of faith, and today’s readings give us a window into why that is, and what we might do to fix the problem. I would like to be able to amaze Jesus with something other than my lack of faith. How about you?

In the Bible, being a prophet is not much fun. Almost all of the Old Testament prophets including Moses, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, try to come up with excuses as to why God should in fact not call them but someone else – I’m too young, too sinful, I can’t speak properly, I think you want my brother Aaron, and so on. As their stories unfold it always turns out God made the right choice in the end. So if you do feel called to be a prophet, hang in there!

Ezekiel is however given a bit of encouragement in chapter 2. Not only in that he did in fact hear God speaking directly to him, but also in that God says to him that even if the people reject the message he brings they will know that a genuine prophet of God has been among them, so he should not be afraid to speak God’s words to them. Jesus’ own teaching in Mark 6 also implies that prophecy is a tough gig, with the famous quotation about prophets being without honour in their hometowns.

And just as in Bible times, being a prophet today is not without its hazards. I will freely admit that I have never aspired to be the kind of person that God instructs to go up to a stranger and tell them to address the issues of adultery in their life, as happened to John Wimber on a plane many years ago. I am you see, like most of us would be, fearful of the consequences. However I have recently become convicted that I do not speak up for God enough, so today I am preaching to myself as much as to you. Prophecy is God’s gift to the church. If I give you a present and you leave it on the shelf, how will I feel when I pop round for tea? It’s the same with the gifts God gives us – they are meant to be used.

In Mark 6 the people are amazed at Jesus’ teaching, but they, like the western world today, immediately try to analyze him and rationalize the situation – “Isn’t this Mary’s son, and the brother of James Joseph Judas and Simon?” Especially in our 24-hour news channel society, nothing can happen these days without someone immediately trying to explain it.

So the world has a problem, which is that they think they can either do without or explain away the word of God. The church has a twofold problem, because we are often unable to hear what God is saying, and we are too timid to speak it out if we do hear it .
I believe that if Christians can fix the Church’s problem, then the world’s problem will be more easily fixed.

This is about communication isn’t it?
I read a quotation this week from “A History of proper English” by Henry Hitchings:
‎"The devices we now use to communicate promise greater immediacy, but they can make depth seem shallow, intimacy alien, transparency opaque. [...] Being 'always on', perpetually connected, compromises our ability to be reflective. We are saturated with information, and that makes it harder for us to know our selves."

Roger Waters sang (rather better than me)“You are only coming through in waves, your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying”. It seems possible to me that the more we communicate with each other – by text email Facebook twitter and so on – the harder it is to hear what God is trying to say to us directly. Let’s be clear, I know we would say God has spoken to us if another person said or did something that had a big spiritual resonance with us, but let us not forget that the New Testament church of which we are part was given the gift of prophecy – of God speaking directly to his people through individuals. – Its as if the airwaves are clogged with so much information and communication (a lot of it of dubious value) that God can’t get a word in edgeways.

But God says to Ezekiel “I will speak to you”. God wants to communicate with us, it is his intention to speak to us – its why we have the Bible and its one of the reasons why he sent us his Holy Spirit, so we should not make the mistake that many in the world and in parts of the church make – to assume God is not speaking any more.
How do we fix that part of our problem? I think it’s going to be about prioritizing our listening. I hereby resolve to spend more time in reflective prayer than I do on Facebook, and I will see whether the Lord can get through more easily. How about you? What device or connection might you turn off or down to be able to hear God?
Once we hear from God, our next problem is that we cannot bring ourselves to speak it out. We are uplifted by tales of treasure hunting – of seeking out people in the street to tell them a word from God, but for most of us that is something that someone else does. But why not you and me?

I think it is because we have become comfortably numb. Just as Pink in ‘The Wall’ is injected with painkillers to enable him to perform but severely limiting his perception, our comfortable and easy lives have effectively numbed us, preventing us from communicating properly with God and with our neighbour.
If you doubt me consider this; Christian communities such as those in Iraq, or Pakistan, or China, and other places where being a Christian can be an arrestable offence, are places where prophecy takes a very strong role in church life. Equally, in Africa, where home comforts for millions of people are a lot less comfortable than for us, the concept of community and neighborliness goes a lot further than it does even in our very close communities here. In those places, people are not numb to each other’s needs, nor are they so numbed that they cannot hear what God is saying.

As I have said, I think it is harder to communicate effectively because our means of communication have proliferated so much recently. We become immune to the images on the news of suffering elsewhere, so I thank God for things like Tear Fund or J1010 or even The Braintree food bank who bring these issues right before our eyes and challenge us on our own levels of comfort.

So I think we need to be more like the Ugandan or Chinese or Iraqi church – more dependent on God, less on our own strength, ability and prosperity. That way, just like Ezekiel who started with nothing, we are going to be in a better place to hear from God.
But I don’t think we should cease using the resources we have – they can mostly be deployed in the service of the Kingdom  (however I just don’t get Twitter).

Remember those words I have been belting out on my morning walk? At the end it goes 
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
so one possibility will be that to avoid losing the ability to process things we see out of the corner of our eyes – spiritually speaking – which are the things God wants to tell us about, is not to lose the child in us, to remain child-like.

This is not the same as babyish, but it does imply a dependence on someone other than ourselves – on our Heavenly Father. I am going to invite my old friend Phil Steer, who has written a book on this subject to come and speak to us about it sometime soon. For now I think it is enough that we begin to listen – if we aren’t already – for the voice that Ezekiel heard. The voice of the Spirit who gives the gift of prophecy to his church. I’d be very happy to have more people than just me or the usual suspects out here sharing what god has said to them.
We can also be assured that when we speak out what we hear from the Lord, even if it is rejected, ‘a prophet has been among them’.