At the regional consultations on the document ‘The Case for a Free Province of the Church of England’ Sam Philpott preached about mission and hope.
As he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach at some length.”
Pussy cat, pussy cat
Where have you been?
I’ve been up to London to see the Queen.
Pussy cat, pussy cat
What did you there?
I chased a little mouse from under her chair.
I like to think that the nursery rhyme speaks of a Devon Dumpling of a cat! You know; a getting-on-in-years, greying-and-going-bald, over-weight clerical type of cat, for whom just think about a trip to London (or Birmingham … Manchester … Leeds … Bristol … Croydon) might have been a bit of a nightmare. Actually to undertake such a journey – what courage, what determination!
But our cat is spurred on by an insatiable desire to see the Queen. Alas, poor moggy! There comes the very side-show guaranteed to take priority in any cat’s attention – a mouse under the chair where the longed-for monarch was to be seated. I have often wondered if he did see the Queen.
As we reflect on our own situation and attempt to envisage the future, honesty compels us to own up to the fact that a whole variety of thoughts and feelings, real, imagined (or both), clutter up and impede us in our Christian journey. They either freeze us in our tracks, bringing a sense of hopelessness and impotence, or they simply provoke from us a long litany of woes. Like the children of Israel of old, we find ourselves in a strange land; we have indeed hung up our harps and the Lord’s song seems to have gone out of us.
Many of us priests are mesmerised by fear for our security, freehold, preferment, stipend, pension and more, alongside a real sense of commitment to our people whom we could not bring ourselves, as we see it, to abandon.
And our faithful people? They struggle with deep affection for where they have belonged these tens of years; with a sense of loyalty to those who have gone before them; with affection for the building in which they have said their prayers, received the sacraments and been taught the faith. And, for so many of them, isolated in parishes where the new order holds sway, there is a real sense of loneliness in, and rejection by, the Church of their birth: the Church which they have served so generously these long years.
And not a few among us, both priests and people, are so anxious about wanting to remain ‘Church of England’. If only we could begin the journey back; back to how things used to be before that wretched vote!
Dare I suggest that these are all mice-type distractions? It is high time to take our harps into our hands and to sing the Lord’s song again.
Long ago, one of the great heroes of the catholic revival in our church, Fr Stanton of St. Alban’s, Holborn, told a group of priests:
‘Don’t teach your people to be Church of England, teach them to love the Lord Jesus’.
We read in the letter to the Hebrews the even more compelling persuasive encouragement that “we should throw off everything that hinders us … and keep running steadily in the race we have started. Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection: for the sake of the joy which was still in the future, he endured the cross, disregarding the shame of it … (Hebrews 12 v. 1-2).
As we meet, both for this celebration of the Eucharist and, in our consultations with one another afterwards, I urge you: Look to Jesus! Search for him! He is searching for you. And, finding him, keep your eyes firmly fixed on him. Don’t let Him out of your sight! Jesus has the message of eternal life!
In our first reading at today’s mass, we hear Yahweh telling the People of the Old Covenant:
“that (which) I enjoin on you today is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach … it is very near to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart …”
In the Old Testament, including this chapter from Deuteronomy, we see the gentleness and generosity of God. He is the One who comes alongside his people in order that they might be faithful to what he asks of them. He offers them life and prosperity, promising that they will live and multiply. Yahweh is the God who has pitched his tent among the People of Israel. He is always close to hand. He led them for forty long years. Yahweh will never let go of them but will seek them even to the far ends of the earth. The obedience for which Yahweh looks is not far beyond them. They can travel hopefully because they are His people.
But what of you and me, people of the New Covenant? We know, not only the generosity of God, but the lavishness of his generosity meted out to us, pressed down and running over. We are confronted by it here in the Eucharist where, in exchange for our meagre gifts of bread and wine, He returns into our hands the Holy Body and Blood of His beloved Son. Here is Emmanuel, the God who is with us, who makes His home with us; who bids us sit at His table and eat with Him; who Himself becomes our food for the journey that He asks us to make with Him. Let us remember how it came to be that we have the daily Mass in this Church of England. Not as a badge that marks us out over against others; a mark that we are high and they are low; we catholic and they Protestant. No. It was restored, one hundred and fifty years ago by Fr Pryne, the first and most illustrious vicar of St. Peter’s, Plymouth.
He and the Devonport Sisters were working in downtown Plymouth and facing the appalling dangers of a cholera epidemic. They received Holy Communion daily so that they could know the Lord’s closeness in that daily round of danger and work. This Bread from Heaven is for our sustaining in the ordinary business of daily living. You and I need to seek this Food, to hunger for this Food and to lean on the strength that we receive from it. The God who gives us His Son will refuse us nothing.
What for today may we learn from the Gospel reading?
The Lord is concerned for His hard pressed disciples who had gone without food. They had all been so busy meeting the needs of the people that meal times had just slipped by unnoticed. Our Lord takes them off in search of rest. But the people follow. We see Our Lord looking out on that vast crowd. He is moved to pity. They are as “sheep without a shepherd”. Jesus sets aside the need of his disciples and himself and is to be found “teaching them at some length”.
Poor Peter and the others were probably ravenous by this time and in the passage just beyond where our Gospel reading ended, we see them urge the Lord to send the people off in search of food, presumably so that the apostles could go and tend to their own needs too.
Our Lord will have none of it: “Feed them yourselves”.
“Two hundred denarii is not sufficient”, they argue. And the little food they have? Well, what use could that possibly be among so many?
But the Lord tells them to get the people seated. And as they place their few loaves and fish into His hands, they see how lavishly God provides, so that all are fed and an abundance is left, over and above what is required.
You and I must often return to this passage. We need reminding of the graciousness of our God … especially when those around us appear to be so niggardly! God’s graciousness overflows in Scripture, in the sacraments, in our prayers and in our communion with one another. He does not just spend his time on us, he expends Himself for love of us.
What of that vast crowd that we all look out on in, our own communities and in our nation? Jesus longs to teach them at length. It is time for us to put our nothingness into the Lord’s hands – even our sense of impotence.
Baptism and Confirmation call us to take His Good News to others. He will give us the means, just like the Israelites of old. It is within our reach to do as he asks.
Can’t you begin to imagine it? He wants to use us to make new Christians; to raise up new priests and religious; to celebrate and shout of his glory from the housetops. We are to walk His Gospel way with such a joy that it puts a bounce in our step and a song in our hearts, so all may hear the message of eternal life.
And let no one here doubt that the Lord wants us to raise up new priests.
I do not believe the nonsense that is often put about (by bishops no less) that God is moving us into a lay-led church, and that the decline in priestly vocations is all part of His grand plan.
It is our negligence – negligence in prayer and in expectation that our prayers will be answered; negligence in the business of seeking out and suggesting to young men that the priestly life is for them. My inner city parish has raised priestly vocations, men now working in the parishes of this land, and so can all of you. We are, after all, an Easter people and (even in Lent) Alleluia is our Song.
Don’t any of us dare to wriggle, as the apostles did, when Jesus suggested feeding the vast crowd of people. He insisted then and he insists now: “You feed them yourselves”.
Jesus has, no, rather He is the message of eternal life. And, as of old, he has written his message in our hearts and placed it upon our lips. England’s people are in need of good news. They need to hear the Gospel of Christ and Jesus says to you and to me: “You feed them!”
It is time to stop the lamenting for things past, the longing for the return of what can never be. Egypt is behind us! It is time to reach for the future in which, free from all that would hold us back, we are willing to face a cross if needs be, for the joy that lies ahead. Hungry people await the Lord and He longs for us to take Him to them. Fixing our eyes firmly on Him, let us go to them.
Sam Philpott is Vicar of St Peter’s, Plymouth