God of Surprises - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

God of Surprises

I have often had cause to reflect that Almighty God has a very interesting sense of humour.  For evidence of that you need look no further than my own life story, and the fact that I have spent over thirty years as an ordained minister of the Church of England.  What is so funny about that? you might ask.  Well, for starters, because during my youth I was profoundly dismissive of all kinds of organised religion - and indeed I regarded the Church of England with little more than contempt.

Because as a young left-wing radical (as I liked to think of myself in those far-off days), the Church of England seemed to me to represent the most narrow-minded, out of date, and out of touch manifestation of respectable Middle England imaginable - it was certainly deeply uncool.  And the idea of church services, where you were expected to sit passively while being lectured at by some man (and it was always a man in those days), who spoke down to you from a pulpit, 'six feet above contradiction,' as the saying went, really didn't do it for me.  And what was all that antiquated language about, as well?

In short, if the chances of my even becoming a churchgoer were virtually non-existent, the likelihood of my becoming an Anglican priest was frankly laughable.  So, as I say, the Lord has an interesting sense of humour.

What on earth was it that caused such a seismic shift in my own world view - a shift that resulted, not only in my giving my life to God, but choosing to do so within the context of the Church of England - an institution that I had previously so despised?

There was a whole chain of events, chance encounters, and ground-breaking conversations that led me to the point where I finally realised that I needed to suspend my disbelief, take a deep breath, and just give it a go - even if only to confirm my conviction that there was nothing in this religion malarkey.  

But what I want to talk about this morning, is what happened next.  What it was that I encountered when I finally did have the humility and the courage to set aside all my prejudices and preconceptions, take a deep breath and plunge in.  Because what I found was not at all what I was expecting. 

To begin with, I had never fully appreciated before quite how radical Jesus was; how he overturned all the cultural assumptions of his day, and so antagonised and challenged the religious authorities that they ended up plotting to destroy him.  There was nothing remotely middle class or respectable about Jesus.   And I was also astonished to encounter a God of love - not the rather limp' being generally nice to people and well-behaved' kind of love, but rather a love that was robust and powerful and costly and life-changing. 

And I was startled to discover how extraordinarily insightful the Christian faith was, and is, about human nature, and the reality of human life - in a way that is utterly timeless, transcending all boundaries of culture.  Somehow, I found that it addressed the whole of life, in all its complexity, acknowledging every facet of who and what we are: our amazing capacity for love and self-giving; our frailty; the darkness that lurks within the hearts of even the best of us, which can lead us to cause harm to others.  The marvellous, disturbing, complicated glorious mess that is human life - it was all there.

In our second reading this morning, St Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome gives us a powerful, and disconcertingly personal example of this, when he writes:

I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate ... For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.' 

I suspect that, if we are honest, most of us have been there, and know exactly what Paul is talking about here.  And remember that this is St Paul speaking: a premiere league saint talking about his own all-too-human struggle to live a life worthy of his calling.  This is heady stuff.  And so it was that I began to recognise that, contrary to all my expectations, the Christian faith was very much alive and spoke to me very powerfully, and very directly, in the here and now.

And as I explored that world in ever greater depth, so too I started to understand what the life of the church and its worship was all about.  I began to discover something of the importance of community - because although our journeys of discipleship are unique to each one of us, the life of faith needs to be lived out in relationship with others.  And it is within community that we are best placed to learn from one another and to grow, and to encounter God, in ways that nurture us, and feed us and challenge us. 

And I also started to see the point of ritual and of tradition; of a kind of worship that engages our bodies and our senses, as well as our hearts, and of a style of preaching that feeds our minds as well as touching our souls.  I was encountering a faith that was rooted in a tradition that had withstood the test of time, but it was also a living faith that has the power to speak to each new generation afresh. 

In this morning's Gospel reading, Jesus observes that it is the very same people who accused John the Baptist of being demon-possessed (on the grounds that he neither ate nor drank), who were also those who are accusing Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of tax collectors and sinners because he does eat and drink.  In other words, there was no logic or coherence to the accusations of his opponents - they were simply determined to find ways to undermine the credibility and trustworthiness of the Baptist and of Jesus, without having any intention of finding out the truth about them.

Reading that text, I was reminded of my own young self, all those years ago, standing outside the institutional Church and its traditions, determined to find reasons to sneer at it all, but having no desire whatsoever to have my prejudices challenged.  

Two days ago I marked the 32nd anniversary of my ordination as deacon.  So, for 32 years I have been striving to live the Christian faith as one of its ordained ministers, as well as being a disciple of Christ.   And even after all these years I still find that the deeper I explore, the more there is yet to discover.  I am constantly finding out how little I really know, because this amazing ocean, the sea of faith, is so infinite in its wonder and its depth.

Those who embrace the Christian faith, should not expect an easy life.  Discipleship will inevitably take you well out of your comfort zone, because this is a faith that is all about love - and love, properly understood, will always be costly.  And it is a faith that challenges our assumptions about everything we believe to be the case: as Jesus says in our Gospel today, God has hidden things from the wise and the intelligent and has revealed them to infants.'

But alongside all the challenge, it is also the path to achieving a quality of inner peace that has also far exceeded my imagining: hence in our Gospel reading Jesus  says this:

Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

And it is true.  There have certainly been times in my life when I have found myself shouldering burdens that felt far beyond my strength to bear; but I have learned to place those things carefully, and prayerfully, at the foot of the cross, and entrust them to the God who is all compassion.  That is not abstract theorising; that is an experience that for me has been extraordinarily real and liberating on the path to inner peace.  And that is the message that a world, so beset by spiritual turmoil, so urgently needs to hear.

In the words of today's prayer after communion:

Eternal God,
Comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken.
You have fed us at the table of life and hope:
Teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

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