St Bride's: Sermons

Guard the deposit

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When it was first founded back in the 1870s, the theological college where I trained for the ordained ministry, had a particularly robust and distinctive motto.  It was a phrase that was taken from our first reading this morning, from the Second Letter to Timothy, in which, as we heard, the writer stresses how important it is to safeguard 'sound' Christian teaching, urging his readers to treasure the deposit of faith that he has passed on to them.  So the original college motto was 'Guard the Deposit' - and it was duly inscribed (in the original Greek), on all the college's crockery, including believe it or not - and this is rather glorious - the Victorian college's chamber pots.  (I am not normally prone to the sin of covetousness, but I know a clergyman who has got one of thse original chamber pots, resplendent with its motto, on one of his bookshelves, and I am deeply envious!)

But interestingly enough, 'Guard the Deposit' didn't remain my college's motto for very long - indeed, it seems to have been abandoned at around the time of the First World War.  The college authorities seem to have realised that perhaps it wasn't altogether helpful to suggest in their 'strap-line', that Christian ministry was basically a matter of protecting, and then handing out to people, a package of ready-made religious doctrines, that simply had to be accepted, unthinkingly and uncritically - a bit like a very restricted game of theological Pass-the-Parcel, in which nobody is ever given the opportunity to unpack anything.

That is not to say, of course, that the Christian faith does not testify to a truth that is both timeless and changeless.  After all, for centuries it has retained its power to speak in a profound, and meaningful, and liberating way to each new generation: it addresses all the most significant of human experiences and emotions: desolation, despair, fear, hope, joy, love, freedom, forgiveness, grace.  And above all it speaks to us of the power of faith, which is the subject of our Gospel reading this morning.

As we heard, in that reading the disciples come to Jesus with a rather peculiar demand: 'Increase our faith!', they say to him.  Peculiar, because I am left wondering precisely how they expected him to do this.   After all, surely the whole point about faith is that it remains ultimately a journey that each one of us has to make by ourselves and for ourselves. By its very nature, faith is not something that we can ask someone else to do on our behalf - or to increase for us - as if it were a kind of celestial rice pudding.  ('Can you increase my faith, please?' - yes, here you are, have another spoonful).  At the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, the whole point about the life of faith is that it is a life that has to be lived - and nobody else can do our living for us.

I first came to a Christian faith when I was a university student.  I had spent my school years firmly convinced that religion was only for deeply sad people who needed propping up with that kind of psychological or spiritual zimmer frame.  But then, quite unexpectedly, I had an experience in my early twenties, which startled me into thinking about the whole faith business much more carefully.  For me, it was a sudden and profound glimpse of my own mortality - and my sudden recognition that we have one shot at this life, and one shot only - so wouldn't it be terrible if there were, after all, a spiritual dimension to this life - and I ended up completely missing out on it simply because I had never taken the trouble to investigate it properly. 

And at the same time I was baffled, and perplexed, and irritated by the fact that a number of otherwise highly educated, intelligent and articulate human beings of my acquaintance, for whom I had great respect, for some bizarre reason seemed to take this Christianity lark seriously.  So I decided I needed to find out more - if only to satisfy myself that it was all tosh after all.

So, wearing dark glasses, and carefully checking over my shoulder in case anyone saw me, I slipped into a local Christian booksellers, and slipped out again clutching a couple of evangelical paperbacks concealed in the brown paper bag that I had brought with me for that very purpose.  And I read them.  And I have to say, I still didn't get it.  Because although those books set out for me various Christian doctrines which the writers assured me were true, I was given no explanation at all of why I should believe any of them - other than that they were in the Bible so they must be correct.  Which, from my personal starting point, which was one of profound scepticism, really didn't help me at all.

But it gradually dawned on me that, in fact, it was very unlikely that I was going to find the answers to my questions in books alone.  I began to realise that at some point I was going to have to suspend my disbelief for a while and just try it - try actually living it.  So I did.  And it was then that, contrary to all my expectations, I glimpsed something that was truly and utterly and extraordinarily life-changing.  I finally got it.  And once I had received that glimpse, much that I had previously been told, and had read, began to fall into place and to make sense - but only once I had started to make the journey myself.

To return to my earlier metaphor, faith is not something that can be dished out like a bowl of rice pudding, and then topped up on request.  Rather, each one of us is on a journey that is utterly unique; a journey with the God who loves each one of us individually.  A God who calls us, both in and through our individual needs, and gifts and experiences, and who takes the tangle of threads that comprises who and what we are, and weaves them into a tapestry that is ours and ours alone.  And, in the process, the most unpromising fibres of our being are slowly transformed into a glorious new creation.

Which is why, in today's gospel reading, Jesus uses  that rather bizarre image to describe how the smallest amount of faith (faith the size of a mustard seed) can have the power to achieve the most astonishing and unexpected of results.  Having faith does not mean that life suddenly becomes easier - my own experience is that it remains just as challenging, but challenging in different ways.  Rather, for me, the truly radical shift was the change that happened somewhere deep within the very core of my being; because somehow the whole of my existence started to become richer, more fascinating, more exciting, and more full of ... well ... life!  And the deeper I explored, the more I found there was still to discover.

And that still remains the case for me today, over thirty years later.  The journey of faith is unending and unpredictable, and some of its greatest riches turn out to be concealed within the most difficult and unpromising of situations.  It is a journey in which each day brings with it new and unexpected gifts, once our eyes are open to see them.

It is a journey that each of us must make for ourselves. But although it is a journey that we must make for ourselves, it is also, very importantly, a journey that we do not make alone.  Because we are part of a community of faith.  And so, we travel together; we learn together, we learn from each other, and when we disagree, we have to learn to disagree well so that we can stay together.  The best and most functional of families are those in which every member, however different or awkward or unusual, has his or her own valued place - and is loved, and supported, and is encouraged to flourish and to grow.  We do not have to look the same or to think the same, to be part of the same family of Christ. 

Because turning to Christ does not require us to accept, unthinkingly and uncritically, a parcel of undigested doctrines that we have been handed.  Rather it asks us to believe that we are loved by him, wholly and unconditionally; and to follow him.  And from that simple starting point all else follows.  But there has to be a yearning - a sense of longing within us - for us to be able to make the first step.

Part of a prayer of blessing by the priest and poet John O'Donohue says this, in words that I would want to say to little George here today, but which are of profound relevance to all of us:

 

Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take...

... May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

And thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

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