If you happen to be keen on major sporting events, you are certainly spoilt for choice at the moment – with the mounting excitement of Euro 2020 (I should mention at this point that I am recording this sermon before England’s quarter final match with Ukraine, so I don’t yet know the outcome) – just as Wimbledon is revving up. And, as has happened before, I am finding myself fascinated to observe the strange relationship that can exist between sport – that most secular of activities – and religion.
For example, one glimpses it in the momentary way in which the most unlikely of people can be observed using the language and gestures of prayer. One particularly poignant moment, prompted by the shock and alarm that we all felt was when, in Denmark’s opening match, the footballer Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch – and nobody knew what was happening. Such incidents seem to trigger a primal need in even the most sceptical of us, to reach out to some great cosmic force, when our guard is down in the face of something so frightening, and bizarre, and unexpected.
Another rather more trivial kind of manifestation is one that I was reading about the other day – namely, the strange rituals that some professional sportsmen and women perform, or superstitions that they observe, before participating in major sporting events – such as the wearing of lucky socks; or listening to a lucky piece of music. That kind of practice, characteristic of much folk religion, is really quite interesting.
Because, if you think about it, what lies behind such practices it is a strange human conviction that, if only we perform the right ritual, in the right way, and at the right time – or if only we have the right lucky charm; or repeat the same pattern of behaviour as we did last time things went well for us – then it will help us to obtain the result we want – whether in a sporting event, or a job interview. Or perhaps it will solve one of life’s problems: find us a life partner, or resolve our infertility, or cure our warts. This kind of outlook emerges from our deep-seated human desire to try to be in control; to be able to shape the world according to our own hopes, aspirations, and desires. Rationally, it makes very little sense at all. I mean, do any of us really believe that the choice of a pair of socks can determine the outcome of a Wimbledon match? But, nevertheless, perfectly sane and rational people succumb to that kind of thing. Strange, isn’t it.
Now, of course, it has to be said that, historically, Christian tradition has developed its own versions of this. You can see it in the cult of saintly relics, firmly believed to have special healing powers; or in the notion that there was a designated saint to whom you should pray for just about every eventuality: if you had a sore throat, it was St Blaise; if you were suffering from arthritis, St James the Great was the saint for you, and so on.
But the reason that I find all this particularly fascinating is that it communicates a very peculiar view of the Christian faith – and one that seems to have very little to do with the life of discipleship as described in Scripture. Because faith is not about trying to take control; it is not about trying to predetermine outcomes; to ensure that we get the things we want. Nor is it a celestial insurance policy preventing bad things from happening to you. And all three of today’s Biblical readings make that very clear.
In our Old Testament text from Ezekiel, we hear how the Spirit of God sets the prophet on his feet – and charges him with a task that probably made his heart sink: he is to go and speak to an impudent and stubborn people, some of whom will refuse to listen. Far from God rewarding his prophet with a comfortable life, and granting him his wishes, Ezekiel is instead propelled into the very midst of challenge and indeed unpopularity.
St Paul, too, is charged with a commission for which he not only feels completely ill-equipped, but which will bring him insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. And more than that, he describes how the ministry that he is able to exercise comes not out of his strength and ability, but the exact opposite. Because God uses his very weakness, when working through him. Nor is Paul any model of saintly perfection. Endless ink has been spilt trying to establish precisely what Paul is referring to when he speaks about the ‘thorn in his flesh’. But ultimately I am not entirely sure that the detail matters: what counts is that, like us, he had his human struggles; his human weaknesses; his besetting problems; and God worked through him nevertheless.
And all of this is drawn together in our gospel reading, in which the twelve disciples are sent out with nothing except a staff: no bread; no bag; no money. The reason for this was that, like St Paul, they are to be dependent upon nothing but God. They are to be in control of nothing, least of all their own destinies. But that is how God works through them so powerfully. Allt his is about as far away from the kind of folk religion, or indeed the kind of prayer, that is all about us securing for ourselves the things, and the outcomes, and the solutions that we happen to want – as it is possible to get. Faith is certainly no celestial insurance policy protecting you from bad things happening.
Seen in this light, the Christian faith isn’t a terribly attractive proposition, is it? And yet, there is a glorious paradox here: the life of faith is not a method of getting God to do for us what we want; but rather it is a process of surrendering the superficial aspirations that we all cultivate, and instead aligning ourselves with God, in such a profound and remarkable way, that we begin to discover for the first time who and what we really are; and to discover the deepest needs of our soul, needs that we didn’t even realise that we had – and then to find that those needs are met generously and graciously. But for that to be possible we have to learn to let go; to allow our hands to empty, before we can receive the true riches of God’s grace.
When I was confirmed, almost 40 years ago, one of my student housemates gave me as a confirmation gift, an English translation of a book by Michel Quoist called Prayers of Life. Quoist was a French Catholic priest, and was aged just 33 at the time of its initial publication. So the reflections it contains, which fall between the genres of poetry and prayer, have accompanied me through the whole of my Christian life. And I would like to read you an extract from one of the pieces within that collection, that is called simply: ‘All’. For me it sums up the experience of living with some of the truths I have been exploring today. In it the young priest anguishes in a disarmingly honest way about how afraid he is of truly living the Gospel – but what is most interesting of all is the answer that God gives to him in the closing line.
Quoist wrote this:
… This evening, Lord, I am afraid.
I am afraid, for your Gospel is terrible.
It is easy to hear it preached,
It is relatively easy not to be shocked by it,
But it is very difficult to live it.
I am afraid of deluding myself, Lord.
I am afraid of being satisfied with my decent little life.
I am afraid of my good habits, for I take them for virtues;
I am afraid of my little efforts, for I take them for progress.
I am afraid of my activities; they make me think I am giving myself,
I am afraid of my clever planning; I take it for success.
I am afraid of my influence, I imagine that it will transform lives;
I am afraid of what I give; it hides what I withhold;
I am afraid, Lord; there are people who are poorer than I;
Not so well-educated, housed, heated, fed, cared for, loved.
I am afraid, Lord, for I do not do enough for them,
I do not do everything for them.
I should give everything,
I should give everything till there is not a single pain, a single misery,
a single sin in the world.
I should then give all, Lord, all the time.
I should give my life.
Lord, it is not true, is it?
It is not true for everyone,
I am exaggerating, I must be sensible!
Son, there is only one commandment,
You shall love with all your heart,
With all your soul,
With all your strength.
And interestingly enough, the one characteristic of love – real love – is that it never, ever seeks to control.