This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 6 June, 2021. (Pentecost 2B)

“Jesus looked at those seated around him and said ‘Here are my mother and my brothers’”  Mark 3:34

In one of the country churches where  I ministered, there was one Sunday when the small number of worshippers seemed to be scattered willy-nilly around the church, and I invited them to move and sit closer to one another.   I forget exactly what I said that would achieve, but I can imagine it was something like “it will be easier for you to support one another and feel united”.   There was some obvious resistance to this at the time, but after the service, one woman came to me and said, “sitting close together doesn’t make you close — John and I were having a blazing row before coming to church this morning — I was sitting next to him, but we weren’t close!”

Can I invite you to look around you and think about how you are related to those you see — are they naturally the people that you would associate with?      Yet later in the service we will say “We are the body of Christ…the peace of the Lord be with you” — in pre-COVD days even sharing a physical greeting, and going on to drink wine from the same cup.   Or think even more widely, about those who are at present worshipping at Saint Raphael’s, or the Parkside Baptist Church:  what is there that brings you into relationship with them?

In the way that we too often are guilty of, those around Jesus tried to put the meanest of interpretations on the motivation behind his actions:  “By the prince of demons he is driving out demons”.   His family joined in this process, going to take him in hand because “He is out of his mind”.   Jesus used the pictures of a divided household, and plundering a strong man, to illustrate how wrong these interpretations were.   And when the family came knocking at his door, he pointed instead to those sitting around him as those who were genuinely his relatives, his family.   “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother”.   Who are those we are most closely related to, in fellowship with?

Then, how did you respond to the talk in the Old Testament reading about “kings”?   What was it that you saw the Israelites wanting as they pestered Samuel to “give us a king to rule over us”?   We have plenty of examples in recent national and international history of communities stating their desire for a leader that they might not call “king” but who still has the nature of strong individual authority, exercised in a way that relieves people of the need to make their own decisions.   We all have our little lists of such rulers, “kings”, but “the task of filling in the gaps I’d rather leave to you!”   Such “kings” don’t always stand the test of time, and we have seen some of them removed from office, either by popular vote, or by some other exercise of power.

We can identify with some of Samuel’s warnings to the Israelites:  “he will appoint some to be commanders, and some to plough and reap, to make implements of war,… to be perfumers and cooks, he will take the best of your fields and give them to his courtiers…”   Too often “kingly” power is utilized for the benefit of the king rather than that of the subjects.   So, being like the other nations, and having someone to fight our battles does not always, in the long run, lead to our well-being.

The prophet’s warnings are full of realism;  they point to what “other nations” have already experienced, but when Samuel takes the issue to God, he realises a more important truth — God says, “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them”.   The God who made them a nation by bringing them out of slavery in Egypt “with a strong hand and a mighty arm” is the one really that they are rejecting by seeking an earthly king, a strong individual ruler who will “go out before them and fight their battles”.

Is our Nomination Committee looking for a “king” for this Parish?   What kind of leadership are we wanting as we seek a new Parish Priest?   [I was interested to read the other day an article about a Diocese that was seeking a new Bishop.   The writer suggested that the Diocese was in a situation where it was stuck — not growing, and in some ways in decline.   He identified four temptations which faced a Diocese in such a position — and that would all lead to decline rather than health.   The Diocese might be tempted to appoint a “crash-through leader”, might become “culturally defensive”, to pursue structural solutions rather than spiritual renewal, or become obsessed by infighting.]   Those responsible for such appointments often put together a “person specification” which no one human could ever live up to, because we all have somewhat different ideas of what is needed, and when these are put together…!

God’s words to Samuel may come back to us — “They have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them.”   How do we deal with choosing human leaders while not “rejecting God from being king” over us?

Today’s Gospel reading had Jesus “looking at those who sat around him” and saying “Here are my mother, my brothers”.   The Greek words in this text all came to me fairly readily until I came to the word κυκλω sitting there in the middle of the sentence — that puzzled me — was it a verb, a noun, an adverb?   Then I transliterated it — c instead of k, y instead of u — and there it was “cycle” — they were sitting in a circle with him!

I pictured what happens here on Thursday mornings — seated in a circle which includes the altar, a number of us, some weeks four of us, some up to eight, and after meditating together we celebrate Eucharist in a way that values the experience and contribution of every member, while sitting under the inspiration and judgement of the gospel passage for the day.   Is this what it means to “have God as king over us”?   Clearly Samuel was the Israelite people’s acknowledged leader in human terms, and they recognized his relationship with God — though his children were clearly a different story!    In demanding a “king”, the people were expressing their anxiety about how this kind of godly leadership would continue, and thought that a “king” would be a safer bet than waiting to see what God their king would provide!

Help us, Lord, not to lose heart as we await your gracious provision of a godly leader who will lead us in the ways that you will choose.