On Sunday 04 March I presided and preached at St Mary’s, Newport-on-Tay. Here is my sermon:
Year C – Lent 2 – Luke 13:31-35 “Trusting God”
Lent is traditionally a time for self-examination and reflection, of taking stock, of examining your life in the light of Christ’s life. So I want this morning, if I may, to share with you something of my own journey of faith in the hope that perhaps it may give you courage, and encouragement in your own journey of faith and your journey together as a congregation.
Theology of Ministry
When I was at college in Edinburgh I was required to write an essay entitled “My Theology of Ministry”. I was to examine my calling, the story of my life â€” where God had brought me â€” and interweave it with my understanding of what God was calling me to do with my life through it. This is part of what I wrote. It is a chapter entitled “Failure and Loneliness” and it begins with a poem by R.S. Thomas.
A pen appeared, and the god said:
‘Write what it is to be
man.’ And my hand hovered
long over the bare page.
until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out
the word ‘lonely’. And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s
window cried out loud: ‘It is true.’
(R.S. Thomas Laboratories of the Spirit, 1975)
For years I wrestled with my calling to ordination, I still do, I suppose. Growing up in a town where the majority of young people do not go to church I felt rather out of place. I felt that people did not understand me, or my calling. I was risking everything with God, and it was a long and lonely road that I was travelling, one which would involve me risk giving everything to God, pouring out all that I was so that He could use me: I might decrease so that He might increase.
I thought that this was the lot of the ordinand, the life of the ordained cleric. And I believe that I was right. But it is not the whole story, because it is also the lot of the whole of humanity.
Henri Nouwen in The Wounded Healer shows that what we often regard as being the most personal of experiences if often the most universal. “When one has the courage to enter where life is experienced as most unique and most private, one touches the soul of the community” (p.38), he writes.
Part of the purpose of ministry [and indeed our Christian faith] therefore is two-fold: entering into our own humanness, and articulating that to other people; putting our weakness and vulnerability at the disposal of others.
This means getting involved: “It seems necessary to re-establish the basic principle,” Nouwen writes, “that no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process. The beginning and the end of all Christian leadership is to give your life for others.” (p.72) “No God can save us except a suffering God, and … no man can lead his people except the man who is crushed by its sins.” (pp.72f.)
This rings true with my experience. Where I have been, the experiences that I have had, the fears felt, joys rejoiced and tears cried, all that has gone into making me ‘me’ I offer back to God to use, and to others to share in, that they too may become comfortable with their humanness, their brokenness, their imperfection, and in relationship with God journey towards healing and wholeness.
Throughout these times I have always had a sense that God is with me, whether I can sense that He is there or not and the subsequent waiting on God has been an important theme in my development as a person, Christian and minister.
I offer that to you because there seems to me to be something of that sense of risk, of wrestling with God’s call and entering life where it is experienced at its most unique in the Gospel reading this morning.
In this rather strange story of Jesus being confronted by the Pharisees; of Jesus being asked to choose between his own safety and security on the one hand, and God’s will for his life â€” even though it might mean losing it â€” on the other. In short, it is about wrestling with where God is calling us; it is about trying to discern God’s will for our lives, both individually and corporately, as a Church.
In the Gospel story this morning Jesus is confronted by a possÃ© of Pharisees seemingly sent by Herod, who warn Jesus that the king wants him dead. It seems strange that the Pharisees â€” usually so anti-Jesus â€” are trying to protect Him from Herod’s wrath; it is as though they have decided that they have more in common with Jesus than they do with Herod and so, for today at least, Jesus is on their side.
Jesus’ response is interesting, in a cryptic-crossword-clue kind of a way. He listens to their warning and tells them to report back to Herod that he is not going to be threatened. God has a will for His life which is not going to be postponed because of some mere, human threat.
From time to time in our lives we are faced with something which threatens us, something which threatens to knock us off balance, something which threatens to get in the way of our relationship with God: admittedly it doesn’t usually come in the shape of a death threat from the monarch, but ill health perhaps, financial worries, employment questions, family matters, relationship difficulties, questions of faith.
Times when our courage is challenged, and we have a choice to make. It is in these very personal challenges of everyday life that we encounter something of what Jesus faced. It is about finding our place in life, at that particular moment in time, with God. Last week may have seemed fine, we may have been in a good place with God. But today is a struggle. Today we are wrestling with our call; today we need to especially find where God is leading us.
Thomas Merton – XI
One of my theological heroes, Thomas Merton, writes in his book Thoughts in Solitude: that nourished by the Sacraments and formed by the prayer and teaching of the Church, we need seek nothing but the particular place willed for us by God within the Church. When we find that place, our life and our prayer both at once become extremely simple.
Then we discover what the spiritual life really is. It is not a matter of doing one good work rather than another, of living in one place rather than in another, of praying in one way rather than in another. It is not a matter of any special psychological effect in our own soul.
“It is the silence of our whole being in adoration before God, in the habitual realization that [God] is everything and we are nothing, that [God] is the Centre to which all things tend, and to Whom all our actions must be directed.
That our life and strength proceed from [God], that both in life and in death we depend entirely on [God], that the whole course of our life is foreknown by [God] and falls into the plan of [God's] wise and merciful Providence; that it is absurd to live as though without Him, for ourselves, by ourselves; that all our plans and spiritual ambitions are useless unless they come from [God] and end in [God] and that, in the end, the only thing that matters is [God's] glory.”
It is something which God brings me back to again and again: to be attentive to Him. To listen out for Him regardless of my own psychological and emotional weather. To trust God to lead us through the worries of turmoils of everyday life and to recognise that that is a gift, and one to be shared with all of humanity, that they too might have the courage to do the same.
We ruin our life of prayer if we are constantly examining our prayer and seeking the fruit of prayer in a peace that is nothing more than a psychological process. The only thing to seek in prayer is God; and we seek Him successfully when we realize that we cannot find Him unless He shows Himself to us, and yet at the same time that He would not have inspired us to seek Him unless we had already found Him. The more we are content with our own poverty the closer we are to God for then we accept our poverty in peace, expecting nothing from ourselves and everything from God.
Thomas Merton: Prayer
I want to close with another of Merton’s writings which perhaps we can see as a prayer, of handing our whole lives over to Him.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.