Never too late - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Never too late

Luke 13: 31-35

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31 The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.

32 And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.

33 Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.

34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!

35 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

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I can remember feeling very encouraged when I discovered that one of the most successful British novelists of recent years, Mary Wesley, published her first adult novel at the age of 71 - at precisely the kind of age when one might easily have assumed that her horizons would have been narrowing, rather than a new career taking off.  Over the next fourteen years, she was to produce a further nine best-selling novels, followed by an autobiography, clocking up more than three million book sales by the time of her death in 2002.  Which just goes to show - it is never too late in life to embark upon something new.  And you never know - what unfolds may prove life-changing

Over my years in ministry, I have encountered a surprising number of individuals who have had an experience in later life that, while perhaps not quite as dramatic as that of Mary Wesley, nevertheless marked a very significant, and very positive new departure in their life story, and proved to be a crucial time of self-discovery.

I once knew a clergyman who, although he was undoubtedly a man of integrity and principle, was not, shall we say, the most 'user-friendly' of ministers; indeed, he was unusually adept at rubbing people up the wrong way.  He was forever falling out with the Diocese, and with his colleagues; his pastoral judgements were not always wise, and many who knew him professionally found his manner opinionated and judgmental in a very unhelpful way.  Overall, he gave the impression of being a man who was not at ease with life, nor, I'm afraid to say, with ministry, even though he had been ordained for many years.

Having heard that he had been forced to take early retirement on health grounds, after he was diagnosed with cancer; I had assumed that his situation had therefore become even more unfortunate.   So I was astonished when I saw him next, some months later.  Not only did he look remarkably well, but his whole demeanour was transformed: he was relaxed, and warm, and uncharacteristically engaging; and the air of suppressed anger and awkwardness that he seemed to have carried with him previously seemed to have dissipated completely.  In answer to my enquiry about how he was doing, he beamed and said he had never been happier.  And what was the cause of this astonishing transformation?  He had found a completely new role in life. 

He told me how, every morning he was now going into a primary school, in one of the most challenging parts of inner-city Birmingham, and he was helping the infants, particularly those who needed lots of encouragement, with their reading.  He positively glowed when he described how he couldn't remember feeling such a wonderful sense of personal satisfaction, or such a clear sense that he was helping to make a real difference, than he had found, doing that simple task with those little children. 

And as he described some of the children to me, and the way in which they would run towards him and greet him with delight when he arrived in the classroom each day, the depth of his simple compassion and affection for them was self-evident.  It really was quite astonishing to see such a transformation, and such liberation in a man who had for so many years seemed so unhappy and resentful and combative.  And it was paradoxical that his life had found new meaning and purpose, and in such an astonishingly simple way, at precisely the time when enforced retirement and ill-health might well have narrowed his horizons, rather than broadening them.

In my previous parish I used to take a regular communion service in a local nursing home, whose residents included some who were physically quite fit but suffering from dementia; some who were mentally very astute, but physically very frail; and also some young adults who either were unable to live unsupported, or, in one particularly upsetting case, had suffered a devastating stroke at a tragically young age.  For a clergyperson such as myself, who is accustomed to a modicum of, shall we say, order in worship, the chaos, disorder and sheer unpredictability of those nursing home communion services were initially something of a challenge, to say the least.

But over time, I became accustomed to the fact that members of that little congregation were constantly wandering in and out during the service; or interrupting the prayers to ask if I could provide them with a newspaper or a cup of coffee; and then there was our wonderful pianist - an excellent woman, aged nearly 100, who rendered all the hymns perfectly competently, but at twice the speed that any human being could possibly sing them, and who also had a habit of falling asleep at the piano stool, so I would normally have to wake her up every time we needed her to play.

Because, paradoxically, I came to love, and appreciate, and embrace the chaos there - partly because there was something profoundly innocent, and pure and good at the heart of it, which spoke to me of the Kingdom of God.  But also because, for fleeting moments, even there, I was glimpsing people who were on a spiritual journey, which left me in no doubt about the importance of my ministry in that place.

One man whom I remember very well, then aged in his late nineties, had been confirmed as a young school boy, but had seldom darkened the doors of a church throughout his adult life.  And on one occasion he spoke to me, with tears in his eyes, about the fact that receiving communion - being fed by God, and with God, in that very tangible and physical way - was finally making sense to him in his weakness and frailty.  He spoke of how it left him feeling calmer, and more at peace with himself; and with the world; and with God.  He spoke of how faith had suddenly become real to him.  And for me it was a privilege to be able to play my own small part in helping make that discovery possible for him.  There are some things in life that it is never too late to discover for the first time.

Which brings us to the story of Abram, in our first reading this morning.  Abram was, you will remember, in his dotage, and doubtless living in the equivalent of sheltered housing in ancient Haran, when the word of the Lord came to him, ordering him to up-sticks, leave his home and his family, to go to a land which the Lord would show him, and that there he would make Abram the father of a great nation - which was probably the biggest surprise of all, because Abram was childless.  But, obediently, off Abram goes.  However, there was a problem: the years passed, and there was still no sign of any of the promised offspring, which is where our reading from Genesis takes up the story.  By this stage, Abram is in his late eighties - so no wonder there is an air of despair in his voice when he says to the Lord: 'O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.' 

But God urges him to hang on in there.  And contrary to everything that common sense might dictate, Abram places his trust in God, sets aside his fear, and believes.  And in time, God's promise is fulfilled.  Just at the point at which Abram had assumed his life was over, back there in ancient Haran, he was to discover that it was in fact only just beginning; its true purpose was still to be revealed to him.  And, in the process of that unfolding revelation, he was to discover new things about himself and his destiny. 

But it should be noted that this is not necessarily an easy or comfortable road to discovery; indeed, fear and doubt characterise this part of Abram's story.  And, as we are reminded in our very challenging Gospel reading, Jesus is certainly one who brings comfort; but at the same time, following him does not make for a comfortable life.  And sometimes, in order to have hands free enough to receive something new, we first need to be able to let go of some of what we already have.  That is why one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith is that sometimes the most important gifts come to us in our weakness, not when we are strong and feel in control of our destinies.

There is a wonderful prayer by a former Archbishop of Jerusalem, George Appleton, which goes like this.

Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the depths of my being.  Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts.  Take me down to the spring of my life and tell me my nature and my name.  Give me freedom to grow, so that I may become that self, the seed of which you planted in me at my making.  Out of my deeps I cry to you, O God.

Take me down to the spring of my life and tell me my nature and my name.

Lent is a season of self-examination, when we are encouraged to look into the depths of our being and encounter those hidden things of which George Appleton speaks.  Because that is also the place of greatest self-discovery.  And what is uncovered, by the grace of God, may well prove life-changing.  The point is that it is never too late to make that discovery.


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