Where is your faith?

Sermon preached on 20 February 2022

Luke 8: 22 – 25

Before anything else, I would like to point out that I did not choose today’s reading!! It is sheer coincidence that the Gospel reading set for the 2nd Sunday before Lent – Matthew’s account of Jesus calming the storm – happens to be making an appearance just days after storms Dudley and Eunice did their worst!
And I’m still not sure whether that coincidence is a gift or a challenge, for someone preaching in their wake.

As always, I suspect much depends on what we make of the various miracle stories of Jesus. If we take this account as literally true – and so as proof that Christ can simply control the elements at whim – we might be simultaneously impressed and relieved, but also rather dismayed that he doesn’t intervene a bit more often.

Whatever our take on miracles, this account is largely concerned with Jesus’ identity – as the punch-line makes clear: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
Who then is this?

And, given the more Jewish focus of Matthew’s gospel. the reader is surely intended to find echoes in the God who parted the waters of the Red Sea, so that the Israelites could escape their oppressors. Ant that, whether the disciples recognised it or not, in Jesus, Jahweh himself was walking this earth beside them.
And it is, perhaps, easy for us who’ve always been taught that as fact, to forget how radical that claim is; and how blasphemous it must have seemed, during his earthly life and in the decades that followed.
And yet that clearly is what the gospel writer wants us to acknowledge, and it is fundamental to our Christian faith.

There is more to this story, of course.
It’s also concerned with our nature, and the nature of our faith. Faced with mortal danger, the disciples are seized by debilitating fear – they don’t know what to do.

They can’t believe that Jesus is actually asleep,
and they must be starting to wonder why on earth they trusted this man?

And that’s probably something we can identify with.
There are times in all our lives, when we are hit by events we can’t control – or when there are so many things flying at us that we feel like we’re sinking under it all.
It’s easy then for fear to creep in and doubts to take over – why would God allow this to happen to me?
Is he asleep, doesn’t he care?

But that’s not the only response we might feel. Sometimes the opposite is true. A devastating blow of some kind, or a sea of problems, can lead us into a more INTENSE period of faith. Finding ourselves unable to control events, or unsure of what comes next, may simply make us more aware of our dependence on God.

And it’s that that I think Jesus is drawing out for his disciples when he asks them “Where is your faith?”
I don’t think he is dismissing their fear – or showing exasperation that they would lose their nerve.
He wants them to know that they will face dangers and hardship in life, but that ultimately they can trust him to bring them through.

We might imagine a small child, walking through a storm or wading through choppy waters, would easily lose control and be swept of their feet. But if they’re holding on to Mummy or Daddy’s hand, they will be carried forward I their strength. And even when they can’t hold on, the parent will can still take them by the wrist and guide them safely forwards.

That’s the kind of faith and trust that I think Jesus is calling from the disciples.
He wants them to know that they won’t always see him, or sense him with them, but that whenever they reach the point where they think all is lost, then he will act –
he will hold them, and not let go until they are safe again.

And for us, as for them, that message contains both an assurance and a challenge. This is not a promise that Christ will just take care of everything for us – we are not invited to fall asleep in the boat and leave him to it.

Learning to trust him does not mean that we no longer take responsibility for ourselves, or that we deliberately put ourselves in harm’s way.
And just as we take steps to ensure our physical safety, so we need also to guard our spiritual welfare.

We know that, for our personal safety,
there are places that it’s wise to avoid at certain times:
it’s probably best not to take a gentle stroll across the seafront during a heavy storm.

Similarly, there are situations that we need to extract ourselves from, either because they leave us emotionally drained and depressed, or because they are so tempting, so compelling that they lead us into some form of addiction, where something other than God takes hold of us, and won’t let go.

Jesus asked his disciples “Where is your faith?”
Perhaps we might re-pitch that question to ourselves as “where is your faith?” “Where is my faith?”

Do we place our trust in him, or in something else?
And do we need to start to refocus our attention on him and not on the waves around us.

People who live in parts of the world where wild storms are a regular occurrence are usually well-drilled, and well equipped for battening down the hatches – and they have effective systems to give them advance warning.

And I want to suggest that we need those same mechanisms in place for ourselves, in order to preserve our faith and our spiritual health.

Do we know ourselves well enough to recognise the warning signs when all is not well – when we’re not coping as well as we might?

Can we recognise the things that have become TOO important to us and get in the way of our faith?

Do we have any ways of reconnecting with God, when we can’t feel his hold on us any more?

Those ways may just be very simple:
perhaps lighting a candle or holding a Cross,
to focus our thoughts on God.

Depending on our sensibilities,
we might try using the Lord’s prayer;
using Rosary beads
and asking Blessed Mary to pray for us;
using the Orthodox Jesus prayer “Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner”;

using any simple prayer,
and just repeating the same words, over and over again, until we rediscover a sense of God’s presence with us – of present help and direction.

As we move towards and into Lent,
if we can spend some time thinking about, and building up our spiritual armoury – finding resources that we know will help us to focus in that way – then that will be a far better Lenten discipline than giving up chocolate again! (And, for some of us, at least, infinitely preferable!)

A prayer by Jeffrey John:

Give us Lord the grace to walk by faith,
through every storm of life to keep our eyes on you.
And when we fail to see, or start to sink,
stretch out your arm to raise us up.
So may we learn to hold to you through good and ill,
until we come to that haven where we would be,
in everlasting joy and peace.
Amen.

In time and eternity

Sermon given on 13 February 2022

Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10 Luke 6: 17 – 26

Back in the early 90s, I taught in a small school in Somerset. And we all had to take our turn on the “duty roster” – patrolling the courtyards and corridors, at break times, to make sure that the many rules were being obeyed.

And I remember on one day, that I was supposed to be “on duty” for the first half of morning break, but I really needed to “nail” a couple of miscreants who’d been playing me up, and wanted to keep them back at the end of the lesson.

Bearing in mind this was before computers in classrooms, let alone emails, I resorted to the usual practice of sending a child with a note to one of my colleagues –
there was even a set phrase:
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but Mr Wood sent this.”

So I penned a couple of lines, asking the person after me if we could swap duties, handed it to a more trustworthy child, and off he went down the corridor.
A couple of minutes later the door opened and he approached my desk – “Mr Mack sent an answer”.

So I opened the note again,
“Yes of course, I’ll cover it all – don’t worry.”

Now giving up coffee in the Staff Room really was going the extra mile, so I thought I’d acknowledge it. And I scribbled on the bottom of the note “Eternally grateful!” and sent the messenger back along the corridor. “I’m sorry to disturb you again Sir, but. Mr Wood sent this.”

A minute later he returned,
with a fresh piece of paper.
“Mr Mack sent you this.” So I opened it.
“Be careful” he had written – “eternity is very long time!”

Not to be outdone, I took out my pen once more:
“Oh really?,” I scribbled, “I thought eternity meant there is no time.” Off went the messenger.

He returned, with a grin on his face,
realising by now that something odd was going on,
and handed me the note.
“Look!”, it read, “do you want me to do this duty or not?!”

“Yes please”, I wrote in return, “I will be EXTREMELY grateful.” Off went the messenger again,
who was enjoying all this far more than whatever maths problems he was supposed to be working through.
Back he came again, bearing the reply with all the flourish of Neville Chamberlain declaring “peace in our time”.
I opened it in fear and trepidation:
“That’s fine”, my colleague had written,
“take all the time you need.”

I asked the boy to sit down – enough time wasted!

The reason for all that reminiscing is that notions of “time and eternity” seem to run through our readings today.

The Beatitudes, those words of Jesus beginning
“Blesséd are you” also appear more fully in the Gospel of Matthew. And on both occasions they lead on to the words “Great is your reward in heaven”.
And it’s that phrase which has often been seized on to imply that this world doesn’t matter so much as what comes after. We put up with what Cardinal Newman called “this troubl’ous life” in order to store up credits for the one that really matters, that which comes next. And indeed some Christians do seem to be in rather a hurry to get there, or at least not that bothered about changing things here.

But is that really what Jesus means?

And how would you square that idea with another saying that we’ll have heard time and again,
“Oh come on, it’s not the end of the world”?

What does that phrase imply, if not that this life does matter – and that the end of it would be a disaster!

In both cases, I think, perspective is important.

When an adult reassures a child that some problem they are facing is “not the end of the world” –
it’s usually from the perspective of having been there themselves, probably more than once,
and coming safely through the other side.

With age and experience comes the wisdom to know that when we are facing a brick wall, there’s probably a way around it OR someone else who can help dismantle it for us and lead us gently forwards again

.

And I think that Jesus’ words can be taken in that same way:
he’s not doubting the reality of the struggles that the poor, the hungry, the desolate, the persecuted are facing.
He simply knows that there is consolation to be had.

But that’s not the same as saying “sorry this is all a mess, the next world will be better.”

The word that he uses, repeatedly, is “blesséd” –
not “you will be blessed” – but “blesséd are you”.
And that word implies a continuous state – you are already blessed and will continue to be blessed: there’s no waiting around for something more dramatic – the blessing, the consolation is already there, ready to be found by us.

And his focus, especially in Matthew, is on things present – things essential to this life – questions of justice and peace and human flourishing.

That’s a long way from saying – “just wait and see”.
He’s more concerned with dismantling the brick walls that inhibit people, by first enabling them to realise
that there is a fuller, richer life beyond.
Events this week have highlighted the sharp difference in perspective between Queen Elizabeth, not the longest-reigning Monarch in our history, and the various politicians who’ve been shuffled from one role to another.

The Queen has fulfilled her role dutifully and reliably for70 years – most of us can’t remember a time when she was not “our “queen.” – Her perspective is long-term, underpinned not only by her Christian faith, but by hersense of duty to the centuries old ideal of the monarchy.

Politicians. on the other hand, come and go – and even when they seem determined not to go – their perspectives are short term.

Political agendas are shaped by events, and public opinion. Political careers depend on catching the mood of the moment and shaping policies that are seen to deliver.
Ten years down the line, things will almost certainly look very different.

We cannot rely on human strength, or fame, or influence – which are fleeting, and fallible – but must look for something deeper to sustain us.
Jeremiah says “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord”, they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots into the stream”.

What a beautiful analogy – the tree flourishing in all weathers, able at all times to drink in the refreshment it needs to thrive, even in the scorching heat of summer.

We are blessed whenever we uncover the Christ-like values of compassion, mercy, justice and truth;
we are blessed whenever we sense the holiness and majesty of God – enabling us to see each day’s happenings within the timeless perspective of heaven.

Paradoxically, it’s that long-range perspective –
the conviction that all will be well –
that enables us to immerse ourselves more fully in the present moment.

It’s that long view – and trust in God’s purposes – that helps us to stop fretting about anything we’re going to face next week, next month, next year;
that frees us from guilt or regret about things from the past that can’t now be changed;
and which teaches us to rejoice in the gift of this life,
and in God’s goodness.

Back at the school in Somerset, we used to sing a very simple 3-line hymn, which reflected that truth

Be still and know that I am God,
I am the Lord that healeth thee.
In thee O Lord I put my trust.

Blesséd are we – when we calm our anxious minds,
and pause our frenetic activity long enough,
to root ourselves in God and draw in the living waters,
so that we are not withered by the heat of the day,
but flourish – in time and in eternity.