Do not let your hearts be troubled - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Do not let your hearts be troubled

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I wonder if there are any phrases or expressions in common use, that cause you irritation, or indeed downright annoyance?  One particular phrase that I cannot bear - particularly given the circumstances in which it tends to be used, is the utterance: 'Cheer up!  It may never happen!'

Some years ago, I took a particularly difficult funeral following a tragic and traumatic death.  I had done my very best to support the distraught and bewildered family, and the service itself had gone very well.  But inevitably, the emotional cost of the day caught up with me once it was over, and I was feeling exhausted and wrung out.  And so, when a man who was a complete stranger - I think he was delivering something - cheerily greeted me with the words, 'Cheer up!  It may never happen!', I could gladly have flattened him against the nearest wall and bellowed into his ear - 'Actually, it already has!'

I find there is something particularly objectionable about that facile expression - not least its emotional illiteracy.  If a person is looking downhearted, or distraught, or simply lost in thought, then anyone with an ounce of sense ought to recognise that there is likely to be a reason for that.  And so to intrude into their emotional space, and presume to comment upon their demeanour, without any knowledge of what is going on for them, or indeed any interest in finding out (note the reference to 'it' in the phrase, 'it may never happen'), does nothing but trivialise and demean the experience of the person who is being addressed.  It is the kind of bogus bonhomie that is parodied brilliantly, and with excruciating accuracy, by the Monty Python team in the song 'Always look on the bright side of life.'   OK. My apologies for the rant.

But it does seem to me that words of comfort that are false and insincere, or based on no knowledge or understanding of the situation, are not only unhelpful: in some circumstances they can be actively damaging.  There is a world of difference between all that and authentic words of encouragement and hope that are meaningful precisely because they are rooted both in reality and in relationship. 

This morning's reading from chapter 14 of St John's Gospel contains a really interesting example of this, which for me highlights the difference between the two.

Just a reminder of the setting for this passage.  It is at the Last Supper that Jesus has been sharing with his disciples, before his arrest, trial and crucifixion.  He has just washed his disciples' feet: a moment of unprecedented closeness and intimacy with them.  He has also set in motion the sequence of events that will lead to his own suffering and death, by dispatching Judas out into the darkness to do what he has to do.  And it is there - in that time of closeness, with both the literal and the symbolic darkness deepening around him, that Jesus utters the words with which our Gospel reading begins: 'Do not let your hearts be troubled.'

This truly is a remarkable moment.  Because we need to remember that the one whose heart had most reason to be troubled at this precise moment is Jesus himself: it is his solitary and isolated journey to the cross that lies ahead; his suffering; his pain.  And yet, he is the one offering them comfort. 

Twelve years ago, I sat with one of my oldest friends as she died from cancer.  She and I were born within days of each other; we walked to school together; we had children of the same age.  And I was profoundly struck by the way in which she handled the final months of her life.  Because I observed that, paradoxically, she was the one doing most of the comforting.  She said to me once that the thing that kept her going was the thought that it would have been so much harder for her to see her husband, or one of her children, going through what she was facing, than it was to go through it herself.  And somehow the fact that she was able to be the comforter in that situation, gave real depth to the love and the encouragement, and indeed the hope that she was able to share with them, and indeed, with all of us. 

In our Gospel reading, Jesus not only offers comfort to the disciples; he goes on to entrust them to one another, saying: 'Love one another, as I have loved you.'  And he then reassures them that, the other side of whatever turmoil lies ahead of them, he will be there, waiting for them.  Their hearts need not be troubled, because whatever trials they may face, he will have walked that journey ahead of them already, and, the other side of it all, he will be there waiting to welcome them home.

True love and friendship can survive any amount of disruption or separation.  You do not love a family member any the less because that person moves to the other side of the world.  Love survives even when we are not able to share it in person - just as the sun continues to shine throughout the cloudiest of days - and indeed, throughout what we experience as the darkest night.  It is still there continuously, bringing light and warmth.  It is just that there are times when we ourselves are unable to see it.

In my sermon at Evensong last Sunday, I was reflecting on an image drawn from a book by the writer on spirituality, Margaret Silf, which involved the experience of travelling through a canal tunnel on a narrowboat.  In that book, which is entitled Landmarks, an Ignatian Journey, she uses another canal-related image, which is also very striking, but this time it is not a tunnel but a canal lock that is her focus.

In her book Margaret Silf describes how, at a time of considerable difficulty and challenging in her own life, she watched a narrow boat pass through a lock, and was amazed to observe how the gently flowing water of the canal could suddenly take on the power to lift several tons of iron and steel.  But she then reflected further.  Because when a narrow boat is in a lock chamber with the lock gates firmly closed, the experience can feel prison-like: there are brick walls on either side of you, and you cannot see what lies ahead, or behind you.  Let me read you what she goes on to say next (and I quote):

The lock chamber makes no sense at all unless you know about the canal.  Without the canal, the boat is, truly, just a prisoner in a pointless place.  But when the reality of the canal is felt, and embraced, then the transformation happens.  Then the lock chamber is seen to be the place, and the only place, where God's grace might be inflowing, to raise me to the place where I must be, if my homeward journey with [God] is to go on into what is still unexplored.

She continues:

To raise me? Or to lower me?  Sometimes, as I look back, I can see that grace has flowed into my empty lock and lifted me up, on its tide, into God's presence, with no effort of my own.  But sometimes it seemed to do just the opposite.  Grace seemed to be draining away, and I felt myself sinking lower and lower between the dark, damp stones, to be left alone in the very darkest depths of myself, until God opened the lock gates and set me free to journey on.  Downstream or upstream?  Either way transforms the dark imprisonment of the lock chamber of our life into the very place which is making possible the onward movement on a journey that is infinitely larger and greater than our caged hearts can understand. 

Geoffrey Paul a former Bishop of Hull, who died in 1983, wrote this of Jesus Christ:

He stands behind us as God's deed making sense of our history and providing a sure and tested salvation.  He stands ahead of us, the fulfilment of all our wanting.  He stands with us as inexhaustible love and grace that turns our anxieties into hope again, that gives energy for goodness, and new energy again when we fall on our faces and break our hearts; that promises that human eyes shall in the end see God and be satisfied. 

Jesus said, 'Do not let your hearts be troubled.' 



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