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Allen Valleys Churches

The Diocese of

Newcastle

Last Sunday’s Sermon

They are right to be suspicious, I suppose. I’d be suspicious, if someone started wandering the Allen Valleys, preaching at the people having a drink outside the Golden Lion; or at the quoits players outside the Elk’s Head; causing a commotion at the Spring Fair. Every time I open the door to a couple of people carrying slim briefcases full of tracts, who ask me questions like, ‘Am I worried about the state of the world?’, I’m suspicious. I usually tell them I’m busy writing a sermon, and ask if they’d like to make a proper appointment, rather than interrupting what I’m working on. That gets them away from my door, but I worry lest they mislead other people in my parish. So as our tale begins, this sunny sabbath morning, I’m on the side of the Pharisees!

Who is this upstart from Nazareth; and by whose authority does he set himself up as a wandering preacher, healer, and leader of this band of rough-looking disciples? Look at them, casually picking ears of corn as they wander in through the fields! Now, that’s work, strictly speaking: picking ears of corn. Harmless enough, you might think, but it’s not permitted on the sabbath, if you are supposed to be upholding the Law. Yes, technically, if they were starving, it would be lawful. But they’re not starving are they? They’re just nibbling. They probably don’t wash their hands before meals, either. They probably split their infinitives, too, and none of them looks as though he knows which knife and fork to use.

But who else is making their way to synagogue this morning? It’s a sabbath day like any other, I imagine. Difficult to do the things you and I take for granted, though, with a useless hand. Washing, dressing, eating. But at least he doesn’t face the difficulties of trying to work today, singlehandedly. Attending synagogue doesn’t need the use of both hands. And there is a visiting preacher today: that will make a change from the local rabbi. I wonder what the stranger will have to say? I wonder if he’ll notice our friend with his withered hand, with his imperfection, his disfigurement. Who will be trying to keep to the background, of course, his sleeves rolled well down, trying not to be stared at.

But then, our friend isn’t the only person here this morning who has life’s difficulties to overcome. He thinks he has to remain inconspicuous because his problem is external, on show. But disabilities of mind or body, limitations of education or upbringing; scars sustained through pain or loss; these are less visible, if not less debilitating. Everybody here this morning is withered in some way or another: imperfect, disfigured; wounded, outside or in.

So we’re all gathered together now: the congregation, some of whom are Pharisees; the disciples, conscious of the disapproving glances cast their way; the man with the withered hand. And Jesus, acutely aware of everything that’s being said, and everything that’s not being said, wanting to make every single one of them aware of God’s love, but knowing it will be a struggle to do so. Tense, then.

Withered hands don’t seem to pose a problem for Jesus, we discover. But withered hearts: these are much more difficult to restore.

Unravelling the cocoon of suspicion that we spin about ourselves. Untwisting the worry that he might want us to become something we don’t want to be, to give up things we don’t want to give up, to do stuff we might be scared of doing. Enlightening us to see that faith isn’t about following a set of rules, or ticking a set of doctrinal boxes. Restoring us, so that we can see that, despite what pains we’ve suffered in the past, it’s safe to trust him. Enabling us to trust that we are loved, and to allow ourselves to be loved.

Withered hands don’t seem to pose a problem. But withered hearts: these are much more difficult to restore. For, whereas we can all see the man’s withered hand, recognising someone’s withered heart is less easy. Recognising our own can be almost impossible.

And I wonder how it happens, this withering of your heart. Are you born with a heart that’s withered, like the man and his hand? Or does it wither over time, as hurts and betrayal and all the humiliations and mistakes of living accumulate? As they cut off the life-giving circulation of love, so that it gets harder and harder to be vulnerable and open?

For we all have to trust, when we are infant. We have to depend. We all have to accept the nourishment of whatever love surrounds us. But we don’t always enjoy being so vulnerable and dependent, as we get older. Things go wrong in all kinds of ways, and we become suspicious. So that we’re all a little bit withered, I’m afraid.

Jesus can help the man with the withered hand, because his heart hasn’t withered yet. What courage does it take, I wonder, to come out of the shadows, and stand in front of everyone, unsure of what will happen next? The centre of the attention he always tries to avoid, while Jesus and the Pharisees debate his condition. He doesn’t know what Jesus is going to do or say as he steps forward. But he’s the real hero of this story, because, rather than rushing for the nearest door, he overcomes his suspicion. He will go home today made whole.

I try to picture the scene, as his life changes for the better. I try to imagine the awe, on the faces of the people there, as love works this wonder in their midst. I try to see the joy and delight, as our friend flexes his fingers for the first time, and picks something up without awkwardness and struggle. As he throws his arms round Jesus, perhaps, or dances round the synagogue, waving his unwithered hand in the air. ‘Look, look everybody!’ And sadly, I picture the hard-hearted Pharisees with disapproving frowns on their faces, who can’t see his joy, or share his release; who can only suspect Jesus’ motives in doing good.

But can Jesus help the Pharisees? He will go on trying, of course; and some will respond. Pharisees are not the mustachioed villains in a pantomime, there only to be hissed at whenever they come on stage. They are real people. The problem is, the suspicious Pharisees think that Jesus has come only to challenge them. They never suspect that he’s come to help each of them. Their greatest tragedy is that they can’t recognise their own withered hearts.     


The Sermon is based on the following passage from the Bible: Mark, chapter 2, vers 23 - 3, verse 6

© Jon Russell 2018

A Preacher’s Tale:

Explorations in Narrative Preaching

by Jon Russell

Available from SCM Press, priced £16.99

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