Sermon preached by Revd. Conan Chitham

Sunday 28 January 2018, Candlemas/Presentation of Christ at the Temple/Stewardship

Luke 2:22-40

We celebrate a complex concoction of feasts and events today. Candlemas, the end of the Incarnation Season; Presentation of Christ at the Temple; The Purification of the Virgin Mary; and, because we didn’t think that was complex enough, we thought we would add in Stewardship too.

Candlemas was the traditional time of year when the supply of candles for the year were brought into church and blessed (dedicated to God). This was not just a few candles for decoration, but the only source of light, and often heat. Without candles the church could not operate, the priest could not celebrate mass or any of the other ministries of the church. Windows were small, so even in the daytime, churches were dark. The candles were donated by the congregation; if you were lucky by the Lord of the Manor or other well-off folk, in which case they would be beeswax, or otherwise by the more modest members of the congregation, in which case they would probably be tallow so that services would smell of old roast beef. Either way, candles were pricey.

We also celebrate the Presentation of Christ at the Temple today. First-born boys were a special blessing in the ancient middles east. As a father of a first-born son, you had someone to inherit your family and property. You had someone to provide for your widow and daughters when you die. You had someone who could help in the heavy labour that most families faced. But for Jews, the first-born child was dedicated to God’s service. This echoed a long tradition, remember Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham was old and had been long promised a son, an inheritance. When it comes it is with great joy. Then God demands that Isaac is taken into the wilderness and sacrificed to Him. It was a test and Isaac was spared, but Abraham had been willing to give up not just his child, but, effectively his whole family’s future. Later in the Exodus, Israel committed to dedicate their eldest sons exclusively to God’s service. Because they were the only ones who remained faithful, during the spot of trouble with the Golden Calf, this was restricted to the son of the Levite tribe only. Yes, as a reward – the Levites got to give up their firstborn sons to God’s service. The other tribes instead had to redeem their sons from by paying 5 silver coins – and it still done by observant Jews today – it is called the Pidyon Haben

The story in Luke is wrong on this by the way, or at least misleading – two pigeons or doves were a poor person’s sacrifice for the purification of the mother after birth, in this case, Mary. There was no let-off nor discount for this ceremony of Pidyon Haben. Five silver coins were a lot – at least several months’ pay for an average worker and possibly more like a year’s pay. Look at it in term of the minimum wage today, somebody working full time should get around 12-15,000 per year depending on their hours. So this would be a very significant sum. But it was an honour and a joyful time. God had given them a son and they were celebrating while they paid this sum of money over.

This was not the only Jewish obligation either. They had to sacrifice to God the firstborn animal of any of their flock or cattle; they had to tithe their harvest – 5% to the Temple, 10% of the rest to the Levites (those whose eldest sons were dedicated to God), and then another 10% as well. Only then could they call their harvest their own, but still with obligations to those worse off than themselves. But again, these tithes were offered in gratitude and celebration. God had been gracious to them, the obligations of the law specified for them how they were to show their gratitude to God.

So for us? What is God, your faith, your church worth to you? How do you measure your gratitude for what you have received? What is the value of God in your life?

If you don’t like linking value, with its commercial connotations, to such things, then perhaps we can ask: Why do you come to church? Is it for secular reasons – to make you look good in society or some other secular reason? Is it a social club, where you catch-up with your friends? A habit you formed just because? Or, is spiritual in nature, something led by your faith? In short is your reason banal or is it profound?

That might depend on the sort of church of course. So what sort of church do we want to belong to and be involved with? What sort of church is St Mary’s now and do we want it to be in the future?

There are two models:

1) Plentiful church:
A church that is providing for itself and is therefore able to be outward looking, others serving and community orientated. It is a church that is giving and generous, brave and adventurous, meeting people on the fringes and involved on the frontlines. It is growing and equipping people with spiritual tools and strengths to navigate this hideously complex world where mental health issues and spiritual poverty and ignorance are rife.

2) Subsistence church:
When a farmer is operating at a subsistence level, they are constantly living hand to mouth, they cannot plan for a future, because having food on the table today, this week is the overwhelming priority. One piece of bad luck, one illness or bad storm sends them over the edge. So too with a subsistence church. It is inward looking and self -serving. It has to be. It is in decline, downbeat and ultimately dying. It fights to keep going, but week by week, and year by year it loses ground, shuts down more and more.

What sort of church are we and are we to be? When I came to St Mary’s 8 years ago, I was delighted that it was a plentiful church that looked out, not in. That served others first, not itself. That when it raised money, like today’s cake sale, it was for causes and needs beyond itself.

Our Vision 13 strategy, paints a picture of a plentiful church practising what it preaches with practical help for people in need of wholeness and healing. A church where active ministries and mission live out for the benefit of others the Good News of Jesus. So what is your role in that vision to be? It will need great resources of time and talent from within and without the church to be sure. It will unfortunately also need great resources of money to build it and to enable it to operate. How much of priority for you is that Vision?

If you were audited, right now, it is tax return time after all, what would your priorities be shown to be? What does your bank statement or credit card statement or your diary show about what is important to you? In what position would it show the church and your faith in your list of priorities? Near the top? Midway? Down low? Not at all?

If we are truly committed as a church to our faith and Vision 13 as a church model with which we are proud to be associated, then I urge you to read the Giving Up to God leaflet and consider, prayerfully, what role you can play and what you can give to make it happen.

Amen

Rev Conan