Sermon preached by Revd Hazel White, Sunday 3 September 2017, Trinity 12

During this last week there has been a fair bit of comment in the news about the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. We’ve been reminded of the enormous outpouring of public grief that surrounded her death, which at the time was relatively unusual in our nation, although there have been other figures in the public eye whose deaths have triggered similar displays of public grief such as Elvis Presley 20 years before Diana and Margaret Thatcher more recently in 2013. There have been others who have not been public figures whose deaths have triggered similar public displays of grief. Perhaps some of you remember, for example, the teenager Stephen Sutton, whose courageous battle with cancer spread through social media, with his death in 2014 mourned by many who had never met him.

It is said that these public and collective expressions of grief for people not known to us personally in some way give expression to personal and individual experiences of loss and grief. We live in a society that doesn’t find it easy to give voice to experiences of death and dying. I remember as a small child going with my family to see a great Aunt after she had died. There she was, laid out in the living room with family gathered around the open coffin. This is much more unusual these days, although in some cultures there does exist the practice of paying respects to the deceased around an open coffin—it happens particularly with West Indian funerals here in Birmingham.

At the time of Jesus public expressions of grief were much more normal. Think of stories in the Gospels such as the raising of Lazarus where we read that ‘many of the people had come to console Martha and Mary in their loss’, or the account of Jesus raising to new life the son of the widow of Nain. We’re told that as Jesus approached the gate of the town, ‘a man who had died was being carried out, the widow’s only son … and with her was a large crowd from the town’. Set in its cultural context then, today’s Gospel reading where Jesus predicts his own death is not, on one level, particularly remarkable. At the time of Jesus it was quite likely that it would have been very natural to talk openly about death and dying, in a way that we don’t tend to do in normal everyday life today.

The problem for Jesus’ first disciples wasn’t so much that Jesus was predicting his own death, it was more to do with what he was saying about the location of his death and the means of his death at the hands of the religious and political leaders of the day. The disciples, and Peter in particular, had gained some insight into who Jesus was by being with him, listening to his teaching and seeing what he did. When asked ‘who do people say that I am?’ Peter had responded ‘you are the Christ’—an acknowledgement that Jesus was the long promised Messiah.

But there the insight stopped. For the Jews, including Jesus’ first disciples, the long promised Messiah was someone who would free them from their enemies and bring in a new Kingdom, perhaps starting by re-claiming the Temple in Jerusalem as the centre of that new Kingdom, to be ruled over by Jesus as King. It simply wasn’t in the script for Jesus, the promised Messiah, to enter Jerusalem on a humble donkey, and then to suffer and die. Little wonder then, that the disciples had no idea what to make of Jesus’ words as he predicted his own death.

For us, as 21st century followers of Jesus, Jesus’ words are no less challenging. Jesus says ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’. These are not easy words: they call us to a life that involves self-sacrifice, and they invite us to consider the cost of following Jesus.

What might this self-sacrifice look like today? To embrace the cost of the Christian life is on many levels deeply counter cultural. In our church life together, we often make judgements about something according to whether it suits us or not. If a service is not in a style we like, or at a time that suits us, we vote with our feet and opt out. Perhaps walking in the way of Jesus invites us to put aside our personal preferences and focus more on what is good for the Christian community here in Moseley as a whole.

In our personal lives perhaps there is an invitation here to think about how we put in place time for prayer and Bible reading, even when we apparently have no time—though I suspect that most of us, however busy, can usually find time for the things that we really want to do.

The other thing that I think today’s Gospel encourages us to do is to live well in the knowledge of our death.

The centrality of the cross in Christian theology can lead, if we are not careful, to the presentation of Christianity as a religion centred on death. It can be argued that the whole focus of Jesus’ life and ministry was centred upon the cross. However, I don’t believe that we are called to a religion with a focus on death. The story of Jesus is not complete without resurrection, and in the light of that I believe that we are called to a faith that is orientated to life—and to true life, life in all its fullness.

It is healthy to be aware of our own mortally and I do think that we need spaces where it is safe to have conversations about death and dying and grief, and that there is a lot more we could do to be alongside one another in this. The Church of England has produced an interesting resource called Gravetalk to help us with this. It’s a pack of cards which are conversation starters to help people talk about death and dying. If you’re interested in giving that a go do think about coming along in November when we’re going to try it out. It’s also worth saying that the clergy team are more than happy to chat with you if you want to talk through any of this, or even to plan your own funeral! I guess that’s one of things people may not realise that we even do, but we count it a privilege to be alongside folk as they explore these things.

But that’s only one side of the coin. I believe that Jesus invites us to live well in the knowledge of our death just as he did, and I also believe that we should present Christianity as a life orientated religion, not a death orientated religion. Taking up the cross may involve self-sacrifice but this, says Jesus, is the way to finding true life—life in all its fullness.

What might life be like if we took all this seriously I wonder, both for us as individuals and as a community of faith here in Moseley?