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Thornbury Parish


Lent Sermon

preached on 17th February, following the first anniversary of Rev'd John Suddards' death.

Today we mark the first anniversary of John Suddards death in fellowship with his family who join us in worship. It seems appropriate that this is the beginning of Lent and we have heard in the gospel reading abut testing in the wilderness. We have been through a wilderness indeed, or rather you all were there last year; from what I have seen since arriving in September the testing has found you faithful and strong, and I was particularly struck by that at the study day that we held during the autumn. The parish is in good heart, and moving ahead with growth and energy, which is a joy to see. Still, this first anniversary is a natural moment to pause and reflect, looking back at that tough wilderness experience. During Lent we all seek to enter the wilderness with Jesus and to walk in the way after him. With him we struggle with our fears, our anxieties, our griefs. With him we are tempted. To be in Christ, to be a Christian means making the same difficult decisions that he made. What were they?

‘Turn these stones into bread’: Jesus refused, saying that physical bread is not all that we need; spiritual food is desperately needed in our world too, the food for an empty space deep within us. We cannot live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Of course Jesus did feed the hungry with bread later, but only once or twice; daily he fed them with teaching and with his example showing them what God is really like.

John was known for feeding the hungry, sharing his bread with the needy. By doing so he was trying to feed not only the stomach; he wanted to show the love of Christ to the apparently unlovable. That is real food.

‘Throw yourself down from the temple’ and land safely - they will flock to follow you if they see such a spectacular trick! No, Jesus rejected this way. To use miraculous power to save his own skin was not the right way. It would have gained him crowds of followers - but only waiting for the next amazing trick. He resolved to do something much more lasting than that.

Jesus was offered all the kingdoms of the world, if he would just worship the devil. Use power to influence people, to get your own way, use power and force to make people recognise your authority, use power to make people worship God!  This was a real possibility for Jesus, it was the way chosen by the Zealots who were fighting guerrilla warfare with the occupying Roman forces, and who would no doubt have welcomed a charismatic leader. Most Jews expected their Messiah to be a warlike character who would literally fight to free his people. It would have been an easy win for Jesus - for a while.

Jesus rejected this way. ‘Worship only God’, he said. He called people to follow him but not in war or violence. When threatened in the garden he did not resist but allowed them to arrest him, and submitted to mockery, torture and execution. It looked like defeat. I am sure that on that black Friday, all his friends and family thought it was total defeat and annihilation. But that is not what happened.

Jesus chose the way of weakness and vulnerability, rejecting the way of power. And what it led to was resurrection; the founding of the Christian faith; a name above every other name; salvation for all people. What a victory!

And so for us, if we follow him in the way, it is a way that does not seek power and influence; that embraces weakness and vulnerability; a way of humility.

This way John trod, opening his door, giving help to strangers, not defending himself when threatened. He lived, that last night, in the most christlike way possible. Even though we mourn him and we grieve for him, and his loss is a type of wilderness. But even in the wilderness, in the desert, there is water deep underground. Even in the desert it rains occasionally and then up springs life in many forms. Life out of dry and arid wastes, like a miracle, as life is always a miracle.

Out of Jesus’ decisions in that wilderness period came his whole ministry of service, of compassion, of healing, of self giving, and ultimately his death itself flowed naturally from those choices and decisions. No show of power. No magic tricks. No self protection. So they crucified him - but life sprang up again, could not be kept down, and that resurrection life changed the world forever.

Dear friends, here too is new life. In this benefice you, we, have stepped forward with hope and trust. Out of John’s death will come great fruit. Already a garden is beginning at St Paul’s; here at St Mary’s by Hilary’s request the children's corner will be refurbished in John’s memory, and that will bring great fruit with our children and their parents, taking up and continuing and growing the work which John developed with the very young.

A Memorial Fund has been started in John’s name which  will work with the charity Emmaus to help homeless people to rebuild their lives. The Fund will also help those studying for ordination with the the cost of books needed for their studies.

As we receive Christ in bread and wine today lets recommit ourselves to follow him in the way - the way that goes through the wilderness, through pain and struggle, even death, and reaches new life, resurrection life in all its fullness. Amen.