Sunday, October 11, 2020
Reasons to be cheerful? A sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, 11th October 2020, Proper 23A
There is a cartoon doing the rounds on social media which really resonates with me. It shows a slightly anxious-looking couple walking together, one of whom announces "My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane". It's a point of view with which I have tremendous sympathy. I am once again making sure that I head up to bed before the 10.00 news, as experience has taught me that hearing the latest Covid statistics at the end of the day is a sure recipe for a sleepless night. If you add in the grim findings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, published this week, which brings much that is broken in the Church of England into painfully clear view, the many cries for help articulated on World Mental Healthy Day and the lingering sadness of Baby Loss Awareness Week, it might be tempting to close the curtains and retreat under the duvet, waiting for better days. But for the most part, that seems a little impractical - and in any case we are supposed to be people of hope...so let's go in search of it. Our Epistle seems to have plenty on offer. First, though, I want to say loud and clear that there are seasons when, whatever Paul proclaims, we may find ourselves living our life and expressing our faith in the minor key of lament. There is nothing, anywhere, that says that it is somehow more Christian to pretend that everything is wonderful when the reality is very different. We are in no way failing God, or selling our faith short if we admit to vulnerability or sadness - quite the reverse. Being real matters. If we are followers of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, then clearly personal integrity - being honest about the challenges as well as the blessings of life - is of foundational importance...as is having the courage to ask for help if life's struggles threaten to overwhelm you completely. PLEASE hear that! And yet - and yet - Paul exhorts the church in Philippi to see things in a rather different way...though he engages with messy reality too. I love that this passage starts with a quiet reference to a disagreement in the Christian community. Some things don't change, do they. The funny thing is, we have no idea what divided Euodia and Syntyche - simply that they are at odds with one another, and need the help of the wider congregation to sort things out. Whatever it was that seemed so important to them has long since been forgotten but they are remembered because Paul wanted the church to engineer their reconciliation. I suspect their issue wasn't so very important really...and it's always worth trying to take the long view. Some things may be worth falling out over, - but the majority probably aren't. I very much doubt if many of the causes of distress or faction in the local church are going to be on God's check list of hot topics when we stand before God on the last day. How we have DEALT with them just might be - if we have sought to silence or exclude others, or have turned them into commodities to suit our own needs, perhaps. But that's not for us to decide. It's all a question of perspective...and God's is always wider, more generous, than ours. And that's where this exhortation to rejoice comes in. Rejoice in the Lord always I mean it. I'll say it again REJOICE ‘Don’t you realise, Paul, how tired we are now? How much we’ve faced over the last few months? Has no-one told you about the closure of our churches, about the fear gripping the world, about the recession and the mental health crisis, about the risks of infection? Has no-one told you that we are not even able to sing? This is your message for us in the midst of a pandemic?…’ Nonetheless, says Paul, REJOICE. I'm not talking about superficial happiness, emerging from the pleasures of the moment. I’m not exhorting relentless cheerfulness in the face of all the evidence. I'm pointing you towards something richer by far. No, We are not being invited to thank God FOR our trials and tribulations, for the hardship, the grief, the death. We are allowed to name those as the struggle that they are, to be honest with God and with one another. But we are challenged to look deeper...to see our lives founded on God and so to change our focus that we can see joy amid all the mess and pain and fear. In all of that we are not alone. THE LORD IS NEAR. We are never abandoned in a hostile universe. God is here - and that presence should be enough to help us shift our perspective, to keep us both from cynicism and from fear. The Lord is at hand, as the Authorised Version puts it...even now we just have to reach out and we can touch God...and though there may seem to be no rational grounds for peace or for joy, God's presence brings with it that peace that is beyond understanding, beyond logic... The invitation is to learn to take the long view - and as we shift perspective, to use our joy to power our rebellion against all the darkness and pain, to make it our own act of subversion against the powers and principalities that threaten our peace day by day. We aren't supposed to be relentlessly cheerful...God forbid! But we ARE to focus not on the darkness but on the pinpricks of light...and Paul gives us a strategy to enable this. Focus on the good things. "Whatever is is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable" Do try to avoid the trap I just fell into of thinking, grumpily, "Well, that won't take long today." I'm not denying the darkness - but, with Paul, I'm inviting you to choose to focus on the stars, even if you do so lying on your back in the gutter. Because that turning towards joy IS always a choice, and sometimes it isn't an easy one Telling God if that's the case for you right now is more than fine. Don't worry - but let your requests be made known. Honesty, remember. Say it as it is. God can cope! I'm struggling with joy...and I really could use some of your peace...and to be honest, I don't mind if I understand it or not. I just want to feel it. But be alert for the signposts, those glimpses of joy that direct your gaze to God even now, even if it's very hard So, let's be practical. Where might you look? I'm confident that you can, without too much difficulty, come up with some ideas. Take moment to notice any prompts to joy around you now. Reflect on those things that are good and true for you. Turn them over in your heart as a miser might turn over his treasure by night. Let yourself luxuriate in their beauty and the hope that they represent. For us in the Cathedral this morning, a prime focus must surely be the gift of music that Kerry has enabled throughout his time with us - and which expresses the truth and beauty of God in ways beyond words again and again. I often talk about its power to open windows onto heaven - because that has been my own experience. The beauty of choral Evensong in a college chapel communicating so clearly the beauty of the God that inspired it that I could do nothing but submit to love and joy then and there... Something to remember with gratitude as the music of other places and other times performed that same work of blessing. So we can thank God for Kerry - and for the way that he has used his own gift to enable the gifts of others, to ihspire, encourage and transform, And we can look forward in hope to all the gifts that Rachel brings with her. As we think of our musicians - there is so much that is worthy of praise. And the music of joy that awakens in our hearts resounds long after the air is silent again...a treasure that cannot be taken from you. And if music isn't your first language, there are many many others. God wants us to know God is close...wants us to experience that peace beyond understanding. As we close, let me share the experience of a friend, who was driving back to a place she doesn't much want to be, having said goodbye to someone whom she struggled to leave behind. She was in no way filled with joy...but as she drove, she saw the most stunning sunset in her rear view mirror - and ahead, amid the gathering dark of storm clouds, a double rainbow of great beauty. That gave her the joy she needed to drive onwards - trusting that God was there ahead of her. Where might you glimpse him today? IN such things are are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing....think on those things and the God of peace will be with you.