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It's a privilege this morning to preach in a church dedicated to a saint who, in some strands of Irish tradition, was believed to be the first woman priest. Especially as, only fifteen centuries after her death, we seem to be drawing close to the possibility of a woman bishop. We live in interesting times.
'Confidence in speaking the Gospel' is what we're thinking about today. Speaking the Gospel? Isn't that the job of religious professionals? Didn't St Francis of Assisi reassure us: 'Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words'? Well he might have - though apparently he quite possibly didn't - but if our faith is a thread that runs through every part of our lives there will be times when we feel compelled to try to put it into words. So what might give us confidence in doing so?
Firstly, I think we need to know how to connect the Gospel with things that actually matter to people.
The men and women who patrol Oxford St with placards proclaiming 'Woe to the hypocrites; repent or you're going down' may be exhibiting a fierce courage and confidence in speaking the Gospel, but I'd hazard a guess that most of the time they're not connecting with the lives and concerns of the crowd on the pavement. At best they make the Gospel a laughing stock, at worst people hear a death threat but to most people their words must simply seem irrelevant.
The Gospel is never irrelevant. The Gospel is the good news of the length and breadth and height and depth of God's love and forgiveness and longing for each one of us. The Gospel is the truth that God risked the particularity and vulnerability of living one single human life in order to leave us in no doubt that our lives too are sacred and holy. As Jesus came to see in the wilderness, the Gospel is not about the drama of turning stones to bread. It's about the quiet revolution of God's constant presence among us; God's word resonating with our lives. It's 'the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness' about which St Paul enthuses in this morning's reading from Romans.
That can never be irrelevant to anyone. It is a truth that will connect in a myriad ways in different moments of people's lives and it will be up to us to figure out those connections. The American Episcopal priest and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes 'Every day I look at my life, the lives of my neighbours, the world in which we all live, and I hunt the hidden figure, the presence that still moves just beneath the surface of every created thing'. The presence that still moves just beneath the surface. That's what we're looking for and that's what we're trying to point to in our conversations with others. And then we're trying to make the connections between the particular circumstances of their lives, the stage that they're at, the issues that they're facing and the hope, challenge, nourishment or peace that 'the presence just beneath the surface' can bring.
I had the pleasure recently of a very backhanded compliment from a bishop. Talking about a writer whom he greatly admires he said: 'You know he takes all of his experience, and he theologises everything, finds God in all of it: isn't that amazing?' Then he turned to me and said 'Of course Rosemary, on a popular level, that's what you do isn't it?'!
In seeking to speak the Gospel confidently most of us will be doing it 'on a popular level'. Like Jesus in his wilderness fast, we won't be distracted by the kingdoms of the world and their splendour, we'll be focussed on the needs and questions and hurts and longings of the people we meet and the people we've been given to love, trying to offer them something of God in the grounded reality of their own sacred lives.
And as those who happen to do this on a larger stage - as authors, journalists, preachers or commentators - will tell us, once we've figured out what people might need to hear we then have to find a language to communicate it. So therein lies the second challenge. Finding a way to name the presence that moves just beneath the surface: a way of talking about it that makes sense to our hearers.
I have three children, aged 12, 9 and 5 and a decade's experience of struggling to find the right language to communicate deep spiritual truths to impressionable small people. And it's hard. Partly because other people tell them things about God that are a bit dodgy and then I have to unpick it all, but also because God is above and beyond our reasoning and description and what we say about God always relies on metaphor and approximation, hints and guesses and story.
My experience of trying to explain how Jesus is in some sense God, why God didn't create a world in which sin was impossible, whether God did deliberately drown everyone except Noah and his family, why Christ was crucified, where Grandad actually is now and whether we can take our toys to heaven: all of it only mirrors the challenges that we face in communicating the Gospel to adults. The need is to find a language that resonates with the hearer. A language that piques their interest, captures their heart, opens up a fissure of questioning or possibility that they will pursue. A language which connects with the human curiosity and thirst for an understanding of the world that we saw in Eve, as we heard the poetic words of the creation story this morning
How we do that, how we find the particular language and concepts that will enable someone to see the relevance of the Gospel to their own lives, will depend on our knowledge of what makes them tick and may be a process of trial and error: but all communication is hazardous and what matters is the reaching out and trying.
So in speaking the Gospel we can draw confidence from discerning what people need to hear and from finding a language in which to communicate it. But we can probably not do either of these things unless our lives are increasingly rooted in the Gospel that we want to communicate. We need not have studied the scriptures with academic rigour, but we should be in the habit of paying serious attention to our faith.
And there are many ways we can do that: through the resources offered to us by our church; by delving into the rich and diverse range of Christian literature available to us and via social media. Social media is great for this. People point each other to sources of thinking and information which would otherwise take months to unearth. It's not difficult these days to be an informed and thoughtful Christian: you just need to be on Twitter and follow George Pitcher!
But in all of this let's not forget that we and our faith are always a work in progress and speaking the Gospel will always be a conversation not a monologue. As the writer Brian McLaren has said, orthodoxy is 'What God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn'. The Gospel that we seek to speak is not our possession. It is a gift shared and unwrapped together as with confidence we learn to question, offer, muse over and explore the lifelong riches that it brings.
So as we hunt the hidden presence beneath the surface of all things, may we find ways to connect other people with the grace and abundance of life which God longs for each one of us to have and to share.