Deep Connections - St Bride's: Reflection

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Deep Connections

Matthew 16: 21-end

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21 From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.

22 Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.

23 But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.

24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

25 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

26 For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

27 For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.

28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

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Like many clergy who preach regularly, I am occasionally asked questions such as this: 'How do you manage to come up with different things to say each week?'  'What would you do if you found you couldn't think of anything to say?'  'Do you ever run out of ideas?' 

Well, it is certainly my own experience that, taken together, the Bible, the Christian faith, and human life in all its glorious and challenging complexity, are so rich as resources, that their interaction provides an inexhaustible supply of sermon material.  And even the most familiar passages of Scripture constantly yield new insights, however frequently one returns to them: hence I fully understand why the Bible is described as the living Word of God.

Over the past thirty three years I have preached hundreds and hundreds of sermons, in all kinds of settings, and to very different congregations.  And yet, throughout the whole of that time there has been only one solitary occasion - one occasion - when I found myself completely and utterly stumped.  And I realised yesterday that it was on this very weekend twenty years ago that it happened - which is why I would like to tell you that story.  Although I should warn you in advance that it was all very weird.

It was a perfectly ordinary Sunday, just like today, and I was due to preach at the regular parish communion service at my own church in Birmingham.  I had already looked at the biblical texts earlier that week, which looked very straightforward.  Indeed, by the time I sat down on the Saturday morning to write the sermon, I already knew what I was going to be preaching about. 

So I wrote the sermon, which did all the things that a sermon ought to do: it engaged with the biblical readings for the day, it was relevant to that congregation and its community, it was coherent, and well crafted, and made connections with real life.  In every respect it was a perfectly acceptable sermon.  But when I finished it and read it through, I knew deep within my soul that it just wasn't right.  I couldn't put my finger on precisely what was wrong with it - I just knew that I could not possibly preach that sermon the following day.

So I tore it up, and started again from a completely different angle.  A couple of hours later I had another sermon, which again ticked all the boxes, and seemed to do everything that it needed to do.  But again, I knew it wasn't right.  I have to say that I had never experienced anything like it before - indeed, by this stage I was starting to worry that I was losing my grip.  So, with a heavy heart, I tore up the second sermon, and started again. 

It was midnight before I managed to finish my third attempt at that wretched sermon - I had been sat at my desk for the entire day - and I knew that it still wasn't right.  But by that stage it was so late, and I was so exhausted, that I had to give up, and resign myself to the fact that it would have to do.  So I printed it off, and went to bed.

The following morning I woke up, switched on the radio, and was immediately greeted by the astounding news that Princess Diana had been killed in a car accident during the early hours of that morning.  So I tore up my third sermon, and in the space of twenty minutes wrote the sermon that I actually needed to deliver that day.  And I was absolutely right to do so, because by the time that the congregation arrived, they were all so shell-shocked and disorientated by the news that had rocked the world, that their minds could not have focussed on anything else. 

How on earth could I have known that none of the sermons I had been slaving over for the whole of the previous day would be preachable?  I have absolutely no idea.  And it is the more bizarre because I would never normally describe myself as an intuitive person - quite the opposite.  And yet, those kinds of experience do happen to me in ministry.  Some of you will have heard me describe how, on three separate occasions in the past, I have had an overwhelming sense that I needed to go somewhere, immediately, even though it made no rational sense to do so - and on each of those occasions I was as a result able to be with someone at their moment of death.  Very strange.

But perhaps those kinds of bizarre experience are on the same spectrum as other, rather less dramatic, but no less inexplicable occurrences, that happen to most of us from time to time.  I don't know if you have ever had the experience of suddenly thinking about a friend you haven't heard from for years - only to receive a phone call from that very person the following day.  At the time you probably dismissed it as an odd coincidence.  But I am left wondering whether there may be more to it than that.

You see, it seems to me entirely plausible that there are deep levels of connectedness and communication between human beings - and between human beings and God - that operate in ways that don't obey the normal rules, and which defy normal explanation.  Perhaps there are parts of ourselves that we cannot access or activate at will, but which nevertheless form invisible bonds that occasionally surface unexpectedly.  My husband describes a very peculiar incident from when he was a small boy: he was playing on the floor at home with his toys, while his mother was ironing.  And he vividly remembers her suddenly putting down the iron, looking very shocked, and announcing that his eldest sister - a young unmarried girl who had emigrated to Australia some months previously - was pregnant (as indeed she was).  His sister was 10,000 miles away, and had not yet broken the news to anyone, least of all her parents.  So how on earth did his mother know that?

It is in this context that for me the whole idea of prayer begins to make real sense.  As many of you know, I have very little time for the kind of understanding of prayer that regards God as a kind of celestial cash dispenser: press the right buttons, or ensure that you are a favoured customer, and - bingo!  The machine will deliver what you ask it to.  It seems to me that that is about as far removed from a prayer of faith as it is possible to get. 

Because for me, prayer is all about relationship: it is about cultivating and deepening our relationship with our fellow human beings, with our world, and with God.  It is about opening ourselves to a kind of deep connectedness that brings with it a quality of wisdom and insight that challenges, and sometimes defies, normal human logic - and which allows those kinds of strange revelations to surface.  And precisely because it is about relationship, prayer understood in that way, is not about trying to influence events - it is about learning to channel love - and in the process, connecting ourselves with others, and with parts of ourselves, in ways that we do not normally access.  It is of course entirely possible that all the things that I have described are purely very bizarre coincidences - but, as a bishop once famously observed: 'When I stop praying the coincidences stop happening.'

The Christian faith if full of strange paradoxes, some of which appear to defy normal human logic.  In our second reading this morning, we were told:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them ... if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink ... do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

In our Gospel reading, Peter is appalled to hear Jesus tell of his forthcoming suffering and death - only to hear Jesus retort: 'If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.'

If anyone embarks upon the journey of faith because they think it will be the path to a more comfortable, carefree life, they can forget it.  It is most certainly the path to life in all its fullness - but that is because it is a life of profound connectedness: a life that connects us with the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, and with the sufferings of the world; a life that occasionally seems to defy ordinary human logic.  But the reason that it is like that is because ultimately it is a life of love. 


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