A sermon for evensong – Easter 6 – St Mary’s Whitkirk
On a cold day we welcome a hot cup of tea, on a hot day – perhaps an iced gin and tonic…I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “I just fancy something lukewarm”!
I looked it up in the dictionary…one entry began…“Mainly disapproving”…another “moderately warm liquid or food that should be hot.”
Read about Laodicea in the 1st century and you’ll find all sorts of contextual details to help explain the metaphor…but the gist is that a ‘lukewarm’ church was a church not fit for purpose. Not, as we might think, just a bit wishy-washy…“I’m about to spit you out of my mouth”, they’re told!
Not a great advert for the church in Laodicea – but what does it say to us?
Well, we can just be very glad we’re part of St Mary’s Whitkirk instead. As Matthew said at our Annual Meeting last week – there are lots of things that say this is a healthy church. I certainly wouldn’t disagree – I still reckon I’m the luckiest curate in Leeds…but…
…but. So often with Jesus there’s a ‘but’. His stories, his teaching, on the surface about someone else, but how many times, if we really listen, do we recognise something of ourselves? How often do we hear the truth and feel it condemning us.
Because, it seems, the biggest problem with the people of Laodicea was that they thought everything was ok, they reckoned they were a healthy church…
Laodicea was rich, a centre of banking with a gold exchange; it had a thriving textile industry famous for it’s glossy black woollen garments; it was a centre of medical excellence – particularly noted for its eye ointment. It was ok thank you very much – and that went for the church too.
But it’s exactly through these sources of pride that they are condemned…they are told: “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” Not just lacking a bit of oomph!
And then they’re offered the very things they are so proud to have…
They’re told to buy from Jesus gold refined by fire – so they can be truly rich; white robes, to cover their nakedness; salve for their eyes so they can see.
Have these things – good in themselves – made them forget their need of Jesus, his grace and his love in their lives? Perhaps they’ve become too concerned with wealth for its own sake? Perhaps pride in the garments they sell has made them feel superior to others? Perhaps the place famed for its treatment of blindness has become blind to what Jesus wants them to see.
Then the letter goes on…“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door I will come in to you” It sounds wonderful until we realise that Jesus is knocking on the door of the church – presumably because he has been locked out!
If Jesus is outside – what’s inside the church? Perhaps something it is so easy to become…not evil people, just people who have become complacent, people who in celebrating what is good have almost forgotten their need of God. People who think they know what is good and forget to listen for the Spirit.
…one of our curate training sessions was with a retired bishop. He told us how in his first parish he had started lots of new groups, engaged with schools, the church was growing, and healthy, all was wonderful…when one day he realised he was in danger of thinking he had it all sorted, in danger of doing it all entirely without reference to God. He was almost in danger of locking Jesus out of his church.
So what of us? Maybe whilst we celebrate what is good in our church and in our lives, we should just have a careful look, not at where we know we fail – but at our ‘best bits’…
…does the wonderful ‘Whitkirk blanket’ of care for those in need spread to those on the edges, those less grateful, those who don’t quite fit?
…are our beautiful floral arrangements, our fantastic music, an expression of worship for God, a way to help others encounter Him, or important traditions we want to hold on to?
…does our pride in what we or our children have achieved make us less tolerant of those who struggle?
…are our social events a sign of God’s overflowing love, or just a sign of how much we enjoy each other’s company?
…does our sermon preparation include listening to what God might want to say?
I’m guessing the honest answer to most of those questions would be ‘sometimes’. That’s often how the bible works…showing us extremes to help illuminate what is wrong with our lives.
If on closer examination, you reckon the best bits really are signs of a healthy church – then this passage from Revelation can just be a warning to us to keep checking.
If however, you feel the truth has found us out, you worry that Jesus might find us ‘lukewarm’ – remember it’s not the failures of the church he is condemning so scathingly, but their inability to think that they might be failing.
Then take heart that he says to the church in Laodicea, which he wants to spit from his mouth, “I reprove and discipline those whom I love”.
I would like to end with a prayer from the daily office – which comforts me when I feel Jesus’ words exposing something wrong in my life….
Most Holy God
When we come to you fearing that truth condemns us,
show us that truth is one with love
in your Word made flesh
our Saviour Jesus Christ.