Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin at 9 am on Sunday, 5th February 2006
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”
I was back in the Church of Ireland Theological College to attend a lecture at the end of January. It was strange being back in the place I first entered as a student twenty-three years ago. I’m sure there were books on some of the shelves that hadn’t moved in that time. Looking around I tried to remember what it was like being there for the first time. I couldn’t recall much – a 22 year old fresh from England with easy answers to all the world’s problems and an intolerance towards anyone who disagreed – an awful character.
One of the things I do remember was an attitude that a place could only be special or holy if it fitted into my idea of what was special and holy, which really meant that it should be like a medieval English parish church.
One of the things I learned in the two decades since is that a sense of holiness can be found in very many and very diverse places. God isn’t just encountered in 15th century buildings.
I think this was brought home to me most forcefully in the Philippines in October 2001. Visiting one of the Filipino villages, Roger Purce, a Presbyterian minister and I, were asked to celebrate Mass in a little community hall built from concrete blocks with a corrugated iron roof.
We explained that this was not possible; we were not Roman Catholic clergy and would not wish to mislead people. Our interpreter explained to the people and turned to us, ‘nevertheless’, he said, ‘we would like to have a Holy Communion service’.There was only a Mass in the village once every three or four months and many of the people could not afford to travel elsewhere.
We agreed and said we would need half an hour to prepare something. We wrote the congregational responses from the Church of Ireland Alternative Prayer Book on large sheets of paper and stuck them to the wall. We found a Bible in Ilongo, the local language, for people to read the Epistle and the Gospel. We said the Creed in our own languages and people stood up to say their own prayers at the time of the intercessions.
Roger read verses from the 11th chapter of Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians as the Communion prayer.
The altar was an old table someone had brought from somewhere. A candle had been found and stuck in a glass. The bread was three little sweetbreads that someone had for a special occasion; the wine was rum, made from sugar cane that grew around the village, shared around in a china cup. Hymns the whole congregation knew were sung in the local language. There were about forty of us gathered under the light of a single unshaded light bulb. The hall was open on two sides – the wall rising to no more than three feet and mystified bypassers looked in at us.
To have looked at the scene through the eyes of everyday life would have been to have seen a gathering of poor people – some without shoes – and two Europeans – in a building that wasn’t much better than a farm shed.
Yet there was there a sense that this was something special, that this was a place of holiness.
The experience was a lesson that a place of holiness is the place where one meets with God. We may find that a church is the place where we meet with God, but that does not mean God is not met elsewhere. If we read Jesus’ words in John Chapter 4 we are told that where worship takes place is not what is important; what is important is that God is worshipped in spirit and in truth. When we look at this morning’s Gospel reading we see Jesus setting an example.
Saint Mark tells us, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”.
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark” – Jesus deliberately sets aside specific time to be with the father. This was a time when there would be no distractions, nothing else competing for attention. It’s not so much the time of day that is important, it is the attitude, the state of mind. Do we come to worship with that degree of deliberateness? Is thisto be a time that is completely set aside? Or is there a whole load of other stuff going on in our minds? What’s for lunch? What’s happening this afternoon?
“Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place” – he removes himself from a place where there would have been numerous things to divert his thoughts. This was the house of Simon and Andrew; there would have been rope and fishing tackle to make him think of the men he had called. There would have been the kitchenware on which Simon’s mother in law had prepared a meal, prompting thoughts of her healing. Jesus goes to seek a place apart.
For us a place apart might mean being in a church, or it might mean sitting by the sea, or walking up Killiney Hill, or climbing Sugar Loaf. The important point is that we try to find a place where there are not the physical distractions that so quickly draw our thoughts to other things.
When Jesus reaches his place apart we are told that, “he prayed”. An earnest seeking after God; I wonder how often we really attempt this. We might make time, we might make a place, for most of us the time is Sunday morning and the place is in church, but do we ever pray with the sincerity, with the intensity, with the commitment, Jesus shows in this spot outside of Capernaum.
There used to be a bishop in the North who would say, ‘it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it’. What service you had in church wasn’t important, what mattered was the spirit in which it was conducted. Our Communion service in that little Filipino village was a pale and pathetic effort in contrast with the liturgies of the great cathedrals, but its power came through the spirit in which it took place.
There is no right way of worshipping God. There is no set way of meeting with holiness. What matters is that we learn from Jesus. May we find time for God. May we find a place apart for God. Most of all; may we pray to this God. When we worship him in spirit and in truth, then he will hear us.