Sermon – The Proud Young Man

I was preaching today for the first time in about six weeks and had a lot of fun doing so. You can hear what I had to say here or read it below.

There is something terribly tricky about young men who get excited about religion.

I remember a number of years ago. I was training to be ordained and was doing an internship in a congregation in Edinburgh in Scotland. Like very many Episcopalians, I did not grow up as an Anglican. I’d come from a background in the Salvation Army and been through many different types of congregation on my journey. I’d been baptist and non-denominational. I’d been just about everything as I searched for the truth.

And finally, I found what I was looking for in the Scottish Episcopal Church. There I found a church which in which beauty mattered, holiness mattered, worship mattered. It was a church which could cope with the radical theology that had excited me at college and it was a church that had the exotica of every liturgical practise of the ages.

You know how it is.

People with a background like mine of wandering through the protestant denominations are easy pickings for the Episcopalians. Starved of the sacraments, desperate for sustenance, craving liturgy – they must have seen me coming.

Candles. Vestments. Incense.

I relished it all.

I was a young man who had found his way. I was a young man drawing close to Jesus. I was proud that I had found the truth at last.

And so after a long period of discernment (which is a word which does not begin to describe the agonies and frustration of wanting to be a priest and being told to go away and think about it), I did end up in training in Edinburgh.

And as part of my training, they sent me to work in a congregation very different from anything I was used to. It was high church. It was very high church. It was liturgically so high it was the Nob Hill of churches. Clouds of billowing smoke. Gorgeous vestments. And votive candles for days. I thought I had gone to heaven.

And so they put me to work, teaching me the delicate steps of their Sunday Morning Liturgy. It was as complex as the ballet. Everyone knew their place. Everyone knew what was expected of them. And I believed that every service needed to be perfect. I would practise my routine at night. Ready to genuflect at every moment. Down on one knee. Keep your back straight getting up again. (The rector made me practise in front of a mirror).

Anyway – on this particular Sunday, they made me the subdeacon. That meant that I had to kneel behind the priest (we were all facing East with our backs to the congregation, of course) ready with the lighted thurible to cense the blessed sacrament as he lifted it up freshly consecrated over our heads.

The moment came. The bells rang. I lifted up the thurible. I gave a deft flick of the wrist and the thurible rose up in a perfect arc with clouds of smoke everywhere. The smell of heaven in my nostrils, I knew I had nailed it. I’d got it all right.

And then, as the thurible reached the height of its swing, I looked on in horror and saw…..

Well, let us leave that thurible in mid-swing. I’ll come back to that story in a moment and tell you what happened next. Let us go back to the proud young man who drew near to Jesus and told him he had kept all the commandments.

There is a general presumption that this passage is all about the young man’s love of money. However, when I read it, I get a sense that it is also about being a young man enamoured of religion. Enamoured of the Lord. And just trying in that painful way that young men like me often have of trying to be perfect.

Oh, he had kept the commandments all right. And yet still he was not satisfied.

He had kept the commandments but still was looking for more.

The trouble with this story, I think is one that bedevils so many of the gospel story. The trouble, I think is that we can’t see Jesus’s face or hear his tone of voice.

Go and sell all that you have then, the Lord says. But is that another commandment to be laid on top of all the others.

I have a feeling that it isn’t.

I have a feeling that this is actually more about pride than about poverty.

Go and sell all that you have then, the Lord says. But the trouble is, we can’t see the shrug of his shoulders or the glint in his eye. We can’t hear the teasing in his voice.

The truth is, if we think we have all the answers, God will find a way of telling us it just ain’t so. If we think we have arrived at the end of a spiritual journey, God will somehow let us know we’ve only just begun. If we think we’ve found the perfect church, God will remind us that if we’ve been able to join it can’t be all that perfect in the end.

Proud young men (and women, I dare say) can cause all kinds of trouble when they use religion to answer all their insecurities. As a community, we need to demonstrate in every we can that religion is about joy and love and peace more than about keeping religious laws with ever increasing stringency.

But let us get back to that thurible which I left hanging in the air.

What did I see as it reached the top of its great arc?

As it reached its height, I saw lots of little lighted coals, each glowing red hot, fly out of the thurible and land all around me on the lovely persian carpet that was in front of the altar of the Lord.

I found myself for the rest of the mass trying discretely to stamp out the sparks whilst looking dignified and serene.

The end of the service came and we all processed out of church and back into the sacristy. I waited for the wrath of the priest I was working with, whom I was in some awe of and who could be not a little frightening.

“Hmm,” he said, “Hmm, Liturgical Dance.  It will never catch on here”.

Yet the truth is, I have found that the Christian life is a little like a dance.

But perhaps not like the rarefied world of the ballet where every step is perfect. No, the ddance of faith is a little more boisterous and filled with joy. A bit more like a Scottish Ceilidh dance where we hurl and burl our partners around the floor in gay abandon.

I don’t know what the nearest equivalent of that is over here, but I saw lots of line-dancing gay cowboys at the Castro Street Fair last Sunday afternoon and they looked as though they were having the same kind of fun.

After my debacle with the sparks around the altar someone told me very kindly that when we make mistakes in the liturgy, it is just like when you stand on someone’s toes when you are dancing. You just smile, bow and dance on.

That’s not a bad metaphor for what the Christian life is like either. A great joyous dance where when we make a mistake or put a foot out of step we just smile and bow towards the Lord of the dance himself and dance on to glory.

Proud young people like the man in our gospel can get the wrong idea of what religion is about. It is not dark, humourless nor about keeping commandments. No, it is about knowing that you are God’s beloved child. And it is about taking your place in the great movement towards bringing in the reign of god where everyone knows the same passionate, joyful love. The reign of God where every mouth has enough to eat, where the tears are wiped away from every eye, and everyone knows deep down inside that they are already loved.

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Liberator.



  1. Jane Mason says

    Amen, Kelvin. Amen

  2. Rosemary Hannah says

    Although I enjoy sermons, it is not all that frequent for a wholly new interpretation to open up – so convincing that I at once think -why did that not occur to me- but this did that. It makes perfect sense and also of the camels and needles …

  3. Franny Mawditt says

    Thanks Kelvin, so nice to hear you again; and thanks for the challenge and lightness of touch.
    (I’ll remember your lighted coals the next time I pass you the thurible – at least you know the Dance).

Speak Your Mind