16th of the Year, 18 July 21
When I was training to be a priest at St Stephen’s House we were expected to be in Chapel for Morning Prayer every week day at 7.30am. You may or may not be surprised to hear that sometimes life at seminary involved the occasional late night - we were very much in the student mindset it must be said though we were all a bit older. Well, on a few occasions during my three years formation I must admit I slept in possibly two or three times and didn’t make it to Morning Prayer. The expectation was that I had to then go and apologise to my Group Tutor, a sweet and quietly-spoken layman who is a New Testament scholar. Feeling very ashamed and staring at my feet I apologised and he simply looked at me said, “Don’t worry: I’m sure you needed the sleep.” Of course, his kind words just made me feel more guilty!
The Lord’s compassion is revealed in our Gospel today and I want to speak about how this is continued in the life of the Church today through pastoral care. The last two Sundays we’ve been working methodically through St Mark’s Gospel Chapter 6 but the lectionary compilers have skipped over a bit to get to today’s passage so we’ve not heard read the account of the death of St John the Baptist, celebrated in the calendar at the end of August. John’s followers - among whom had been St Andrew and St John the Apostle - will have been feeling the pain of the loss of their leader. So we find our Lord observing that the crowds were “like sheep without a shepherd.” St Matthew adds in this passage the phrase “harassed and helpless” to describe the people, emphasising the pathetic state of the assembled (Matthew 9:36).
First, care has divine structure. Christ sets up a structure in His Church so as to care for His people, a relationship that often uses the language of shepherding sheep. And so we heard in our first reading, “I will raise up shepherds to look after [my people] and pasture them; no fear, no terror for them any more,” (Jeremiah 23). Christ Himself is the Good Shepherd, the chief pastor, and His love is to flow through the veins of those who serve as pastors in the Church, out in to the world. Care is handed down from our Lord to his apostles and to bishops and priests today. A few of you may remember when I was inducted vicar of this parish ten years ago by Bishop Peter, that he said, “Receive this cure of souls which is both yours and mine.”
The possibility of it all going wrong, as described in this passage from Jeremiah 23, reminds us that this is a heavy calling given to priests. It’s a warning to me and others ordained to the priesthood of the responsibility placed upon us. I hope it’s an encouragement to you to pray for your priests to help us to be better at being shepherds of the flock.
Secondly, the importance of giving and receiving care isn’t to make us self-obsessed. “It’s not all about you, darling,” we might say to the prima donna who can only see themselves in a limelight that they’re convinced needs to be bigger. There is also the temptation when we’re particularly aware of our need to receive care to think we have the power within ourselves to heal ourselves. “If only I can rest more, I’ll be strong enough … I’ll eat and drink this, then I’ll be alright…” These are statements often that betray a rather arrogant spirit within us. Conversely pastoral care within the Church reminds us that we need God, we need to look beyond ourselves. Yes, we need our strength and wellbeing to cooperate with God’s grace - grace perfects nature, after all - but ultimately no amount of soul searching or positive thinking or reformation of diet will be sufficient without God to strengthen and heal us.
Thirdly, care involves the Sacraments. God has given us Himself in this Sacrament of the Mass to nourish and sustain us. “I am the Bread of life,” Jesus says, “whoever eats my flesh will live for ever,” (St John 6:51). The link between care for God’s people and the Mass is seen in that the next bit of Mark 6 is the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus gives the crowd bread and fish but it’s not just about filling their tummies. So also, therapy and medicine and exercise etc are all great things but we can’t equate them with the grace of the Mass: Christ’s own Body and Blood given for us.
The Sacrament of Anointing is given for those who are seriously ill and have had a definite deterioration in their health. The priest administers this with the oil blessed by the Bishop in Holy Week. The priest can anoint at home, in hospital or in church. We hear St James speaking of this Sacrament in 5:14 of his letter: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the Church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” It’s part of what’s commonly known as Last Rites though it’s not just meant to be a final push before death. Part of this commending ourselves to God in our time of ill health will also involve making a Confession and relying on the prayers of Mary: “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.”
Unfortunately this is threatened by some within the life of the Church who see training priests as too expensive and maintaining these historic buildings just a bit of a bore. They’d rather the Church meet in people’s homes or school halls. It’s absurd, brothers and sisters, that some within the Church of England propose this as a credible way of life. As we heard at Mass on Wednesday, from Exodus 3, God reveals Himself to Moses in the Burning Bush and says, “Remove the sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Without priests there can be no Mass and this would be a major denial of grace and comfort to God’s people. Our supporting of parish churches through prayer, attendance, giving and volunteering is important so that this threat from within is not allowed to prevail.
Fourthly, being cared for is never an end in itself but ensures we in turn can radiate the compassion of Christ to others. This is important. Notice, our Lord says to the crowd, “You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while.” The fourth commandment bids us rest for a day each week. Sometimes however we set ourselves over-stretching life-styles which we then need to pay for and work many more hours than we should. This is part of the sin of idolatry, thinking of ourselves as greater than God, who rested on the seventh day and hallowed it.
Now, don’t get me wrong I love having lazy days - I have to say it might be just a lazy hour these days, thanks to little ones - but we mustn’t think that rest is only doing nothing and siting in front of the TV or reading a book. Rather, to worship is to rest. That’s not to say we don’t need energy to worship because we do, but worship is also rest and we learn this whenever we ponder what Heaven is like, where these two elements are seen to go hand in hand for eternity.
In some instances, how care is shown in a church will change with time. Using phone and email is a good way in which we’ve been able to improve pastoral care in the last few years. At St Mary’s, a few people have signed up to be Phone Buddies and this will also be a great innovation in our life together. However, care within the Church cannot be administered outside of the way God wanted it to happen, with priests and sacraments.
Church communities that just have people coming when they feel they need to will ultimately die because they become self-centred and self-serving. As we pray at Mass we might ponder whom God has called us to help today, through some act of service or care or by giving them the Good News of Jesus Christ. For what greater act of love can we give to another than to remind them that God longs them to have a living relationship with them. This is the great barrier that Paul speaks of being broken down in our second reading from the letter to the Ephesians. Christ came to bring peace through the Cross, peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near at hand. Amen.