Posted by: owizblog | June 5, 2016

Faith On The Edge: Sermon, Communion, 5 June 2016, UCB

1 Kings 17:8-24

1

It was a huge privilege to be at Elaine Garman’s ordination at St Paul’s yesterday, probably the first Episcopalian ordination to the priesthood ever on our ecumenical little island.

elaine garman ordination

I loved the way the array of Anglican robes and vestments – surplices, chasubles, the bishop’s mitre – reinforced the rich sense of the diversity of Christian life.

What I didn’t see was one of these.

39 buttons

It’s a 39-button cassock. And yes, perhaps at the back of your mind, when the number 39 is mentioned, is the thought “Doesn’t the Church of England have 39 Articles, or something?” Yes, it does. Which maybe explains why I didn’t see any 39-button cassocks yesterday; the Scottish Episcopal Church is NOT the Church of England’s local branch!

39 Articles of Belief – 39 buttons. And apparently, the tradition is that if a C of E clergyman disagrees with any of the Articles, he leaves the corresponding button on his cassock discreetly open. It’s reputed that some radical vicars and rectors are in danger of catching a chill on a cold day…

In a very few minutes, we’ll be doing something we do at every communion service. We will be standing, and saying the Creed together. We’ll be affirming, all together, the ancient faith of the Church.

Is that what faith is? Saying to a list of statements “Yes, yes, yes, I believe this, I believe this, I believe this too…”?

Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed is the faith of the whole Church. It’s the universal, or catholic, faith of the Church in God and in Jesus Christ. It’s how the Church holds Jesus Christ out to the world, in its teaching and preaching.

But, you ask – and so you should – what does it mean for me to say that I have faith? And it’s a question that’s heightened by the fact that we are all about to come together to the Table of the Lord’s Supper. And because of that, I know, there’s another question that can accompany it, very subtly, but that can fall into the minds of any one of us at this point. It’s a crucial question, and because of that, I’m going to ask it, and answer it, before we think about anything else.

Should I be here?

Yes, you should. You should be here, you have your place here from Jesus Christ, you belong here.

Now, let’s look at the rest of this.

“What does it mean, to say that I have faith?”

Is faith a matter of ticking all the boxes, of saying “Yes, I believe everything in the Creed, no doubts, no uncertainties – at least, nothing I can’t sweep under the carpet?”

What if there are things I can’t sweep under the carpet? What if I have problems, maybe huge problems, with things in the Creed? If I can’t tick all the boxes, do I even have faith? Can I call myself a Christian at all? And again, through the back door – “Should I even be here?”

We’ve already answered that one. But let’s say it again. Yes, you should. You have your place. You are here because you have been invited, because God wants you here. But you are also here because your faith has brought you here.

So let’s see what this faith business is actually all about…

2

We don’t live all of life at the edge. We live most of life out of a web of ordinary things woven together by the hours of our days; If we stop and think, at most points in our week, we realize that “I’m doing this now, because it’s mid-morning on a Thursday, or Monday afternoon and they’ll be home in a couple of hours for tea, or I’m queuing for the half-eight ferry to go to the mainland again, or it’s the North Bute Lit tonight, or whatever. If we work, the likelihood is that a lot of strands in the web of ordinary life are made up of the demands and timetables of work. That’s true whether you work in an office, or as a tradesperson, or in a shop, or on the land – and the slow regularities of life on the land, the seasons, and what the weather allows, and when – these things organize not just our days and weeks, but our months and years. It’s the same for folk involved in retail, or tourism.

Of course, there are things that cut across. Let me speak out of my own experience. Said one preacher, contemplating the pattern of his week, “The Sundays, they do come with an awful regularity…” And it’s true. Every preacher knows that, if he’s spared, he will have to stand in front of the congregation, and preach a sermon next Sunday.

It’s said that Murdo Ewan MacDonald used to tell his Practical Theology students preparing for the Ministry at Trinity College, Glasgow: “Never start your sermon until you are inspired. But always make sure you’re inspired by Tuesday morning…”

Because things cut across. And often, they cut across on a Tuesday and a Wednesday and a Thursday, and you lift your head out of the parish on Friday and, that close, and at that angle, this pulpit looks very high indeed!

Things cut across. It’s because so much of life is routine that we feel it that way. Things interrupt, break up the flow of the week. Usually, they are small, footery things, sometimes stupid, irritating, infuriating things. Have you noticed what we say at times like that?

Victor Meldrew I dont believe it

“I don’t believe it!” Things that need to be dealt with there and then. The car won’t start. The bank failed to make a payment. “I forgot to tell you that it’s the Brownies’ Halloween Party tonight, and I said to my friends I was going as a zombie robot, and I need a costume made…” The ferries are going to Gourock. “I don’t believe it!”

3

Someone’s in hospital…

Or worse. Sometimes, things happen which disrupt the routine entirely, huge things, things we could never have expected, things which stop everything in their tracks. The kinds of things which, when we hear of them, will have a good boss, and good colleagues, saying “Go! Just go now, and leave everything. You deal with this. We’ll take care of everything here…”

And sometimes these things are so huge that we just know that, when we eventually get back to normality, to a routine, it won’t be the same one we knew before. Life will be different. Everything has changed…

And sometimes the routine and the huge, invasive, disruptive thing just lie together in our lives, side by side. A change in circumstance, a new reality, a new condition that has to be accepted, unemployment, grief: sometimes routine is what lets us live with the things that are so terribly not routine. It’s the routine that lets us say “I don’t believe it!” and get on with what we can. We both do, and don’t believe what’s happened.

We don’t live all of life at the edge. But there is an edge. And sometimes, we find that we are at it. Sometimes we realize that when all the routine, normal things have gone away. And sometimes we live with it by falling back on what little routine, and normality, we have left in our lives.

4

We said: we don’t live all of life at the edge. But there is an edge. And sometimes, we find that we are at it. Sometimes we realize that, when all the routine, normal things have gone away. And sometimes we live with it by falling back on what little routine, and normality, we have left in our lives.

Zarephath

A woman in a land of starvation, collecting the sticks to make a meal as she always has, her mind turning to lighting the fire, making the dough, oiling the plate, baking the flatbreads… We know what the business of preparing the family meal is like for us; this is different, but it’s also equivalent. We recognize that she’s immersing herself in the steps and tasks. This needs done, then that…

And all this routine business is helping her to avoid looking at the really big thing that just won’t fit into the routine. She has no idea where the next meal is coming from. Actually, it’s worse than that, and suddenly she’s made to think about it when there’s another interruption to her routine.

A man she’s never seen before is suddenly there, asking her a favour.

‘Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’ As she was going to get it, he called, ‘And bring me, please, a piece of bread…’

A stranger is in need. He asks for a drink from the community’s water supply – and he adds a request for something to eat.

And that’s when the strange awfulness of this woman’s situation, something she’d been trying to hide from by bustling around doing normal things in the routine way, comes to light because now it can’t be avoided.

‘As surely as the Lord your God lives,’ she replied, ‘I don’t have any bread, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die…’

And that’s it. That’s the edge, and beyond it is the abyss. And she acknowledges it, looks at it – and something else happens. This strange man presses his request on her again. But this time, there’s an invitation, and a promise. “Trust. Trust, by doing what I ask, and God will be in this, and you will get through it.”

‘Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.”

The world, which had gone mad, is still completely out of joint. The long-period patterns of the seasons, the rains, the crops and harvests, is utterly disrupted. Nothing is as it should be. She has pressed on as far as she can with the small-scale routines that have kept her life, hers and her family’s, together – and now they are on the very verge of failing her too. She has come to the edge, and on the very edge, there comes this invitation to trust.

And, incredibly, she does.

5

And that’s what faith is.

And that’s what’s still there when, just as she is learning to live with the new routine, something else breaks in, not a threat, this time, not just not knowing what comes next. This is here, and now.

The story of the resuscitation – because that’s what it is – of the woman’s son is set against the unimaginable despair of grief and loss. The very edge of life is suddenly right there, inescapable. But the very striking thing is this. In all the despair, and anger, and horror, and grief, this is still a story of faith, hers and Elijah’s. Neither of them know what is going on. All either of them has are questions, her questions, ‘What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?’ and his question: ‘Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?’

Neither of them has any idea what this means, what sense it can make. After everything else, everything that has created and sustained faith and trust, neither of them can believe what is happening. But neither of them can believe that it is without meaning. Even here, both of them, the widow woman and the man of God, are still wrestling with what this means. “I don’t believe it!” is actually an expression of faith. And for both of them, meaning is with God, and where God is found, and neither of them can believe that this is without meaning.

Like the story of the resuscitation of the widow’s son at Nain, in this morning’s Gospel reading, like the story of the resuscitation of Lazarus in John’s Gospel, the resuscitation of the boy in 1 Kings 17 is the story of the abolition of a limit, and the assertion of meaning in the face of meaninglessness and chaos. They are assertions that even here, at or even over the edge, God is still here.

But the Christian tradition goes further. Because the Christian tradition sets them in the context of something even greater. The Resurrection.

Resuscitation is something we actually understand now, better than two thousand or two thousand eight hundred years ago. It means returning someone who should be dead to this life, so that their living continues. We see it on Casualty every Saturday evening. We may have problems, twenty-first century problems, with stories like this, we may have all sorts of reservations and doubts about them – and that’s fine, and honesty demands that we are honest about that. And so does faith. We’ve already said that faith, for us as we live in the real world, can’t be a matter of ticking boxes, I believe this, I believe that, I believe the other.

Faith is trust.

6

Grunewald Resurrection

But resurrection is not resuscitation. Our faith as the Church isn’t that Jesus was dead, and came back to the life that had been interrupted by the crucifixion. Our faith is that Jesus of Nazareth, who lived our life, and died our death, is risen in the life which is of God, and that this is our hope too.

And that’s what the Creed invites us to say, not to tick a box, but to confess that God is God, and that Jesus Christ is there for us to trust, and that we trust.

And we can still have our questions and our doubts. Our grasp of God may be weak and tenuous. But faith isn’t about our grasp of God. It’s about trusting God’s grasp of us, even when we are so battered, and confused, and bruised by life that we have no idea where to turn, and no real idea of what we can believe any more, when we are confused, and angry, and maybe even angry with God because we don’t understand. But we don’t give up on God. And we trust that God doesn’t, and hasn’t, and won’t give up on us, even if for the moment, we aren’t sure what that means.

So come to the table. Take the bread, take the wine. And however you come, wherever you are in your life, whether all is serene, or you feel that the edge, in some form or another, isn’t terribly far away, come and take and eat. This is here for you. And so is God.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: