Sermon, Sunday 4th March 2012
Genesis 17:1-7,15,16; Romans 4:13-end; Mark 8:31-end
I’ve been doing some work just recently with members of the congregation who are interested in seeing what we can do to support people in their working lives. As many of you will know, the workplace can be a very challenging place from the perspective of faith and finding a way of doing your job with a degree of integrity can be difficult. To get our creative juices flowing at the first session we began by discussing those aspects of the workplace that cause us most grief. The discussion came alive when one of our number said “the thing that really bugs me about work is how I arrive at the office in the morning with a list of things that I simply must get done only to return home with none of them done simply because other things got in the way.” Everyone in the room agreed heartily with that view and of course it applies just as well to the home and family life as it does to the workplace. You start the day with the very best of intentions, knowing that there are certain things you must do only to find that stuff just gets in the way.
There is an uncomfortable truth about human life in this that we find very hard to accept – namely that we are nowhere near as in control of our lives as we like to think. And that is not just inconvenient – it’s an offence to our pride too, as we really do like to see ourselves as authors of our own destinies.
What’s true at the individual level is surely true collectively as well. We try and exert control by predicting what’s going to happen and then planning for it, but then stuff goes and happens. A good example of this at the collective level is the great manure crisis of the late 1890s. 1898 saw the first urban planning conference ever and it was held in New York City. It was called because cities like London and New York were expanding very rapidly and in those days the dominant mode of transport was, of course, horse-drawn. This meant that the amount of horse manure being dumped on the streets was rising exponentially. It was predicted that at current rates of expansion London streets would be suffocating under no less than nine feet of horse manure by 1950. In New York they were predicting that by 1930 the manure would reach to the level of third storey windows on Manhattan Island.
We may laugh at this now but it was a very serious problem then. And what happened was that, of course, the internal combustion engine was invented which duly solved the manure problem whilst creating all sorts of problems – and opportunities – all its own.
Now, we would be mad not to do our best to forecast, plan and control as best we can but we also need to humbly admit that stuff happens too. In reality it is very difficult to balance these two demands – to do our best to plan for the future on the best available evidence on the one hand and to accept that there are many forces at work which are beyond our control for good or ill on the other. Generally, there are three ways in which we respond to circumstance. We ignore the fact that our plans haven’t worked out and plough on regardless, just trying that bit harder. At the risk of being contentious, it seems to me that this is exactly what the leaders of the Eurozone are doing at the moment with the Greek debt crisis. We can sink into despair and cynicism and just give up. And we can face the inevitable change and uncertainty of our lives and engage with it creatively. Of course, these three reactions aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive and we can experience all of them.
If we are to face reality then surely it must be a goal of any life worth living that we cultivate an attitude of creative engagement with the radical uncertainty that is such a feature of our lives. There is a spiritual dimension to this that goes to the heart of this holy season of Lent.
Abraham, whom we meet in our Old Testament reading today, is a model for us here precisely because he is a man who knows and accepts that he is not, ultimately, in control. Despite all the extraordinary and often dispiriting things that happen to him he never gives up trusting God. He persists, in the face of all sorts of stuff happening, in believing in God’s promises to him and in so doing he is a model to us in showing how faith breeds hope and it’s that hope that enables us to engage creatively with the awkward reality of our lack of control.
Today we meet Abraham at the point when God repeats two promises to him – that although old and childless he will father a multitude of nations and that the land of Canaan will belong to him and to his descendents. To say that the fulfilment of these promises took a winding path would be a severe understatement. No sooner does Abraham reach Canaan than famine forces him to leave for Egypt. No sooner does he arrive in Egypt than he is kicked out and forced to return to Canaan where he gets into a rancorous dispute with his nephew, Lot. Then he gets into a war with the Northern kings who have captured Lot. And all the while there is no sign of his wife Sarah having any children. Worse still, in despair at her barrenness, she encourages him to have children by her slave girl Hagai. Well, that plan – as you would imagine – brought quite a number of problems of its own.
So, it’s understandable that when in today’s reading God repeats his promises, Abraham is rather sceptical. We are told that he fell on his face laughing at the thought of his having children with Sarah. And yet, underneath all of this, he never stops believing. What makes Abraham such an appealing character is that, although he is no angel, he never gives up hope and it’s a hope that his faith in God has given him. It’s a hope that enables him to face life’s difficult realities and neither to dodge or deny them nor let them be the cause of cynicism and despair.
It’s this faith of Abraham’s that is “reckoned to him as righteousness” to use Paul’s words from Romans. In that passage Paul contrasts Abraham’s faith with the obsessive legalism that was the hallmark of Judaism in Paul’s – and Jesus’ – time. Judaism was then a faith which demanded the strictest and most detailed observance of a host of laws be they concerning food, hygiene or worship. We don’t have anything much like that but its nearest equivalent would be the way many see faith as a matter of believing certain doctrines – the Holy Trinity, the virgin birth, Christ’s physical resurrection and so on. People can get very stressed about all this and often feel inadequate if they can’t meet what they see as the precise doctrinal demands of the church.
Now, I don’t for a second question the importance of doctrine. It can engender a healthy and lively debate about the fundamentals of our faith – and I trust that our Lenten study groups on the Creed this year are doing precisely that. But obsessing about such things is to miss the point. Faith is not some sort of doctrinal test that God sets us. Rather, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit that should enrich our lives in so far as it gives us hope.
To receive it, however, we must first acknowledge that we need it and to do that we have to give up the idea that we are, in any meaningful way, ultimately in control of our lives. We must face up to the fact that stuff happens and we have to deal with it. This, I think, is what Jesus is talking about in the gospel today when he speaks those memorable, demanding words “those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” If we insist on living our lives as if we are in ultimate control of them then we are condemned to futility. But if we give up that illusion and open ourselves to God’s greater reality then we can, in and through faith, become part of God’s bigger picture. Richard Rohr, the American Franciscan writer puts it like this:
“When you set yourself up to think you deserve, expect or need something to happen, you are setting yourself up for constant unhappiness and a final inability to enjoy, or at least allow, what is going to happen anyway. After a while, you find yourself resisting almost everything at some level. It is a terrible way to live. After a while you live your life with one foot on the brake, and you wonder why your accelerator does not work very well…… Ironically, when you give up your control mechanisms, you are able to live with both feet gently on the accelerator and move with the divine flow. ……Giving up control is a school of union, compassion and understanding.”
This is no happy-clappy, starry-eyed vision of how to live life. On the contrary, it’s about how to engage creatively with life’s often brutal realities. In today’s gospel we find Peter rebuking Jesus for his coming death on the cross as if it can or should be avoided. In turn Jesus issues the sternest possible rebuke to him – “get behind me Satan”. It’s a stern rebuke precisely because Peter is denying the reality of the situation. There is simply no way that Jesus can be true to himself and not end up on the cross. It’s got to happen – unless Jesus is going to give up on his mission and that would mean saving his life to lose it.
In accepting the awful inevitability of the cross in faith – although not without the pain and anguish of Gethsemane – Jesus succeeds in transcending the cross and in so doing realises God’s creative intention for mankind. He proceeds to take his place in God’s bigger picture but only by rejecting the futility of denial urged on him by Peter.
We tend to think of this sweet, sad season of Lent as a time of giving up – giving up gin, chocolate, wine or whatever our fancy is. But what we are really being asked to give up is our illusions. Whatever you give up – or whatever you take up – such disciplines will be entirely pointless if in some way they don’t help you give up your illusions. For Lent is above all about seeing our lives in truth, understanding ourselves afresh and in so doing more fully grasping our real need of God. One of the most important steps to take on this journey – perhaps the most important step to take – is to not just acknowledge but embrace the simple fact that, much as we would like to think otherwise, we control our lives only to a very limited extent. For be assured, it is only with that understanding that we will let God into our lives and know the peace, creativity and freedom that his Spirit brings.