A Benefice sermon… What is normal for you?

What is normal for you?

A sermon preached by the Revd Eleanor Rance on Trinity 19, at a Benefice service in Tilshead church

I wonder what is normal for you. When I lived in London it was normal to be surrounded by other people, to rush about, to drive aggressively, to work long hours. It was normal to see people from the media in my church, to baptise their children, to perform their marriages. It was normal to have dinner with my parishioners in their houses that were worth £1 million, and to hear their discussions about holidays in the States and skiing in Canada. And it was normal for me to park my grotty little car next to the third sports car in a row on the leafy, suburban streets.

It was normal for people with mental health problems to come into church during services and for them to disrupt things. It was normal to be called at one in the morning by someone because they were frightened and wanted to take their own life. It was normal to lock the door behind me as I went into church and for the ladies who cleaned the church to wear a panic button round their necks. It was normal for homeless people to sleep in the doorways, and for asylum seekers to turn up in the big B & B’s with nothing but the clothes they wore. And because all this was so normal perhaps we could have been forgiven for not thinking about it much.

There is nothing wrong in the lifestyle that many people lead. They themselves are not responsible for the misery of those who have harder lives, who have no homes, no careers, no jobs. But they do have a choice. And that choice is about making the lives of others better, about being compassionate and fair, about living by God’s standards and values and not merely by our own. And that is the choice that we have too. Because as the passage in Marks’s gospel reminds us, normal is not necessarily right.

What is right is life as God intends us to lead it. And that way of life is expressed in the Bible, in the teaching and tradition of the Church, and most supremely in the life and example of Jesus. For the rich man the example and the message were there. Not only in the great lists of the laws of Moses, but also in the stories of the people of Israel, in their mistakes and their redemption. In their stubbornness and in their suffering. In their being renewed and forgiven by God. The right way to live is offered to us and it is then for us to make a choice. Do we live the way God’s wants us to, with his priorities, his values, or do we continue to live the way we always have without allowing ourselves to be challenged and changed? It isn’t just about fulfilling laws and being ‘good’, but also allowing God in. Not about earning a place in God’s kingdom but embracing, entirely its standards and values here and now.

I didn’t give a totally honest view of normality in my corner of London just now. Because while most people around me lived successful lives, and were reasonably wealthy, they were not oblivious to the needs of others and to the way God wanted them to live. Our local community had 6 churches in it, and those 6 churches set up a support group for asylum seekers, bringing them food and clothes and all the basic things for day to day life. Each of our congregations gave of their own money week by week and to projects that would support poorer communities in times of crisis.

We partnered a church in Zimbabwe, sending them the resources to furnish a new church building and to train a new priest. And each church took it in turns with others in the area to provide a cooked meal for those who were homeless. More than that, members of our community marched peacefully with 1000’s of others to demand that the government consider dropping the debt of some of the world’s poorest countries.

And people with mental health problems were welcomed and befriended and supported by members of our churches. And that was right.

Sometimes new situations were a huge challenge. So many asylum seekers arrived in our area at once that we were battling not only with a need to support them, an instinct that that was God’s will, but also with all the questions that you might expect about whether it was acceptable for them to be with us in the first place. But little by little, these new and strange situations fell into place and became part of our normality. They became the right thing and the holy thing and the everyday thing. And that is what living by faith is all about. It is about being challenged by God to respond to the situations around us, and even as we battle with our prejudices, and our doubts, acting in the way we know God wants us to.

So what is normal for you? What is normal in your everyday experience? Is it right? Is it right in the eyes of God, who sees each of us as precious, each of us as equal? And if it isn’t right are you and I prepared to make it right? Prepared to befriend the one who is on the edge of our community, to support the one who is more vulnerable, speak out for those who have stopped being heard? Or will we simply shut our eyes and our ears, and say ‘this is my normal world, and it will stay this way’. God has given us each the choice.