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Sermon for 9th Sunday after Trinity

Hebrews 11.29-12.2 Luke 12. 49-56

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Spirit of life,


For our summer holiday Mary-Rose and I went out to visit our daughter Annalie, who is working as a paediatrician on a research project with children growing up with HIV and aids in Zimbabwe. We did and saw all sorts of wonderful things, but the experience that stands out most for me was of the final days, when our tour company arranged for us to stay for two nights in the Johannesburg township of Soweto. Our b and b was mid-way between the house where Nelson Mandela lived and the house where Desmond Tutu lived- the only street in the world home to two Nobel prize winners. I don't think I've ever been anywhere so full of so much recent history, or anywhere which so powerfully symbolised the power of faith to overcome evil, because this was really the place where people with faith that truth and justice could one day overcome the evil of apartheid struggled to overcome prejudice, hatred and intolerance, confident that they could create something better. The ladies who ran our b and b spoke so fondly of Mandela and Tutu; for them these weren't people from distant history, they had been friends, visitors to their homes, people in whom they'd had faith, and whose leadership had given them confidence that they could one day live in a future free from oppression and violence.

We'd come to Soweto because a group of young Sowetans, the children and grandchildren of parents and grandparents who had known and worked with Tutu and Mandela, full of faith in their community and its future, have started running cycle tours as a way of sharing their vision for the township and its people with the rest of the world. Any doubts we'd had before about whether cycling through Soweto was a good idea were blown away by the passion with which Jaz, our leader, and his friends, told us how welcome we were and taught us about Soweto and its troubled history. Everywhere we went local children and their parents smiled at us and ran up to shake our hands. At the end of the day Jaz told us to go back home and tell everyone about what we'd seen and learnt, and I thought about Jaz and his friends when I was reading today's lesson from Hebrews, because the theme of today's readings is faith, and to cycle around Soweto was to be aware of the power faith has to change things, even when evil seems as monumental and overwhelming as apartheid must have seemed to the people of Soweto just a few decades ago.

Last week we heard the writer of Hebrews tell us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. That morning in Soweto we met people who were living the lives that Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu had faith would one day come to be; lives where they and not white authority determined where they went, how they were educated and what they did with their lives. Nobody pretended that everything was perfect, but they were living confident that the faith Mandela and Tutu had given them in a better future was justified.

Today's readings from Luke and Hebrews belong in that same world of fierce faith in the struggle and fight for God's justice here on earth. In Luke Jesus is terrifyingly uncompromising; his message is that He has come not to give us an easy time but to stir up anger and to create division. There's a tremendous urgency to this- 'I came to bring fire to the earth,' he says, 'and how I wish it were already kindled!' Living in faith, Jesus tells us, means living with an urgency to bring about change, being prepared to make things happen, saying and doing things that may challenge and anger others, even, Jesus says, people in our own families . Think of the issues that we need faith for now; when we look at the parched grass of our countryside and gardens and wonder when it will rain again, the heat of recent weeks makes most of us accept the warnings we've been hearing for years about climate change. We need faith that God will enable us to find ways of combatting global warming. But we also need to be ready to be combative, just as Jesus, Mandela and Tutu were combative. Earlier this week I heard of a fellow member of our Lewes green churches group who had tried to persuade her family to take climate change seriously, and had been answered with the response that 'we're all finished, lets consume as much as we can while we can…' As Christians we can't accept that; our faith in God calls us to challenge such counsels of despair, which is why on Sept 10th the Ride and Stride will be a chance for people to see how churches in Lewes are demonstrating faith in ways of tackling some of the problems caused by climate change. There'll be displays at all the churches showing what we're doing; there will be workshops for children here at St Anne's and the Swifts group will be here to talk about their work across the town. Other churches will have displays showing how they're working to help combat climate change. Geoff Lake will be leading a walk from church to church and there'll be cycle routes publicised to encourage people to travel from church to church by bike if they wish. There'll be more publicity in the weeks between now and September 10th, with a special map designed to support you whether you're on foot or on a bike, so watch out and be ready to join in, because by taking part you'll be demonstrating your faith that we can tackle climate change.

Earlier this week during morning prayer we heard how David overcame Goliath through faith in God, using his God-given gifts of speed, agility and tactical awareness to outthink and overcome an adversary much bigger than himself. We all have our own Goliaths, challenges to our faith in God that seem so huge they can appear overwhelming. But our readings today show us we don't have to face these challenges alone.

Today's readings remind us that we have thousands of great examples of people of faith to inspire and guide us. The writer of Hebrews tells us we are surrounded by 'a great cloud of witnesses', witnesses like David, Samuel, the biblical prophets and in our own time people like Mandela, Tutu and the people of Soweto, who have achieved such great things through their faith in God. But even their great work we're told, is unfinished; 'they would not, without us, be made perfect'. All those fantastically brave and self-sacrificing men and women of faith are waiting for us in order to be fulfilled; we need to emulate their example and to live lives of faithfulness ourselves in order to bring their work to its fulfilment and completion. What a responsibility!

So finally, today let us pray for faith, and for God to give us a vision of what we are called to do with that faith, inspired by all those men and women of faith who've gone before us, remembering that if we keep Jesus at the centre of that faith we, like the cloud of witnesses who've gone before us, can bring about change and renewal in His name, whether that's in the environment, in our relationships with others, or in overcoming our own personal Goliaths.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, Amen.


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