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16th Sunday after Trinity Year B

Back to Church Sunday Eucharist – 27.ix.2009

(James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50)

You might be puzzled by an item I’ve included in today’s pew sheet about
St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Why’s it there? And what on earth is it all about? In
part it’s there because I had a gap to fill, and an article ready-made to fill it.
In part it’s because it’s the Feast of St. Thérèse on Thursday - we’ll be
observing it as we celebrate the Eucharist that morning. And in part it’s
because of a rather strange happening, which you might have come across in
the news. From Wednesday afternoon until Thursday morning, Newcastle is
going to have a “visit of the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.” It’s part of a
bigger event. Some of the physical remains of the saint (I think it’s bones
from her foot and leg) have been brought from Normandy, where she lived
and died, and they’re being taken round the country in a glass casket.
Thérèse was a Carmelite nun who died early at the age of 24. People might
have said she didn’t have much of a life: a pious childhood; education that
seemed appropriate to a girl of her class in late 19th Century France; and the
rest of her life in a Convent which she would never leave again. But from
those narrow confines she touched the hearts of people round the world
through what she wrote about her life in a small book called “Autobiography
of a Soul.” Now people are turning out in thousands to venerate her relics.
The journey began a couple of weeks ago in Portsmouth. From Newcastle
her remains will be going on to Darlington to rest for a time at the Carmelite
Convent there - and then it’s on to York Minster and even a visit to
Wormwood Scrubs - the prison - before the relics are taken home.

People have been fascinated by this phenomenon. That’s obvious from the
numbers who have already turned out in cathedrals and churches where
she’s been. But there have also been articles in the press by atheists and
agnostics - some of them horrified by what is happening. The journalist and
former MP, Matthew Parris, couldn’t contain his anger when he wrote in
The Times, condemning it as an exercise in credulity. It’s rather heartening
to see someone get so annoyed! As Andrew Brown wrote in the Church
Times, here’s someone who’s got really rattled (“entirely unbalanced,” as
Brown puts it) because his atheist certainties have been challenged by a
visible expression of faith. I think Andrew Brown sums it up rather well:

If there is one thing certain about modern Britain, it is that no one can
afford to sneer at anyone else for being the member of a “faith
minority,” least of all conviction atheists like Parris, who represent a
minority’s minority. For all the fuss made about Richard Dawkins, it
is impossible to imagine him, even alive, drawing the kind of crowds
that the dead St. Thérèse has done.

I wonder what you make of it? Christians are made to tread rather too
carefully these days. This week’s issue of the Church Times also has yet
another story of a nurse being banned from wearing a cross round her neck
on the ward - she’s been forced from her job in nursing into administration.
And the Advertising Standards Authority has forced a Pentecostal Church to
withdraw a poster which carried the testimony of a woman whose son had
been healed of heart defects after he’d been anointed with oil - the reasoning
is apparently that people seeing the advert might go to their local church
instead of the doctor when they felt unwell.

All this begs the question, what do people want in life? What do you want in
your life? What do people feel is lacking? This strange phenomenon of
people coming out in their thousands to touch a casket containing the
remains of a dead saint who is revered for her holiness… It’s something
beyond explanation. We don’t have agreed definitions of “holiness.” And
that’s perhaps why people then find themselves touched by something
beyond explanation. That’s what we need. Thérèse was a very ordinary
person who didn’t fulfil her ambitions, but was in some way touched by
God, and who has infected others so that millions have now read her
“Autobiography of a Soul” and have believed. Are we willing to work at a
faith that can’t be easily wrapped up or packaged? Or do we prefer a society
where so many people now don’t even know the Lord’s Prayer? - where we
want to say something about our need / our hope / our desire but no longer
have the words or capacity to express it?

Well… just touching on what we have on offer this week at St. Cuthbert’s,
there is an opportunity to come to a service which will involve prayers for
healing, the laying on of hands and anointing with oil blessed by the Bishop.
Probably not many people will come. It’s happening this Tuesday because
there is a service anyway to celebrate the Feast of St. Michael and All
Angels - and one of those angels is Raphael, who is traditionally associated
with the prayers of those seeking healing. And we’re having the service
because it might just meet a need… it might just meet your need. And
remember, you don’t need to be credulous: I’ve just had a fortnight in which
I’ve had a visit to Eye Casualty at the RVI, two visits to a dentist and - for
good measure - two visits to the Vet (the cat is OK now); I don’t doubt that

if you’re sick you need medical attention, doctors and medicine. I’ll say it
again - to pray for healing you don’t need to be credulous - just open to God.

And we do need to be open to God: in today’s first reading, St. James

reminds the early Christians: “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.” Healing is something more than a cure. It’s
more than coming up with all the right answers. A couple of weeks ago I
was with a group of local clergy reviewing how a Conference we’d
organised for priests from all over the country had gone. It was agreed that
we had had great speakers. All the organisation had gone smoothly, the
food, bar and accommodation had all been great. But then someone spoke
up: what he’d found most profound was the opportunity we’d made for
people to receive anointing in the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral. We
had the impressive setting of the Cathedral itself and glorious music at
Choral Evensong. But what really touched the heart and soul was that
opportunity - quite informally - in the quietest and coldest part of the
Cathedral to go forward and receive the sign of the Cross made in oil
together with just a brief prayer for healing and renewal in ministry. Casual
visitors weren’t told what was happening, but I sensed that they stopped and
were still - prayer took over from tourism.

Today’s Gospel reading begins with an argument about the gift of healing.
The disciple John says, we found these people casting out demons so we told
them to stop! He gets a rebuke from Jesus: “He who is not against us is on

our side.” You can sympathise with the disciples when they wonder what
Jesus is about - what Jesus wants of his followers. It’s human for us to want
everything done the way we want it, to have certainties, to go about things
the “right” way. If we didn’t have “right ways” of doing things / established
procedures, we’d waste a lot of time and get a lot wrong - there are good
reasons for systems, traditions and the right approach…

But to seek God’s way is to recognise the need also to be open to what he
can give us - more powerful than what we can work out for ourselves:

 he’s the “something more” when we don’t know what we’re looking

 he’s the new perspective on life when we’ve got so used to things
being dim, gloomy or jaded.

 he’s the reason we can come to him for healing, while at the same
time we go to the doctor.

 he’s the dawning answer to the prayer we couldn’t put into words or
the question we didn’t know how to ask.

Next Sunday we celebrate our Harvest Festival. Why do occasions like

Harvest Festivals remain so popular? I think the answer is that there’s a
basic human need to give thanks - gratitude makes all the difference to the
way we look at life. So we give thanks, not only in churches with regular
week-in, week-out worshippers, but also in schools, in farming communities,

in prisons… The need to give thanks is there as an underlying motive when
people in factories, offices and other places of work join an appeal to send
shoe-boxes full of gifts to needy children at Christmas. Being able to say
“thank you” puts us in touch with one of the things that’s essential to being
human. Perhaps that’s why at Newnham College, Cambridge a few months
ago some students produced a “Grace” for use at meals which gave thanks
for the food without mentioning God. Famously, Newnham is a college
without a chapel or a chaplain - God was not intended as part of the set-up.
So when they wrote this Grace who did they think they were thanking?
Perhaps they were just recognising their “need” to be grateful.

And that’s a start. Here, today, as we try to understand what’s going on in

our hearts, perhaps we can recognise that it’s in our need that God is already
there to meet us.