A sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings: Matthew 16.13-20
Last week as most of you will know in the UK was exam results week for those taking their GCSEs.
This time last year I had been on holiday when my niece Molly got the result for her biology exam which she had taken a year early. We were having fish and chips in a pub in Cornwall when she got the news on her mobile. The meal was meant to be a holiday treat. But I saw Molly go very quiet and then tears come into her eyes. I realised she had not passed the exam. Outside it had been raining and there was this huge rainbow arching round the harbour. I remember Molly standing
under this rainbow looking so forlorn. I tried to console her, but it’s hard failing an exam when like Molly you have worked so hard. “It’s alright uncle Richard,” she said, but I could see that it wasn’t. She walked off by herself for a while bravely to have a bit of a cry where no one would see her. This year Molly took nine GCSEs and on holiday with her family again I could see how anxious she was. “This time next week I will know the results,” she told me nervously. “You’ll be fine,” I tried to reassure her. “I couldn’t have worked any harder than I did,” she said. The week before, her cousin George got his A’ Level results, two As and a B. “He’s so clever,” said Molly wistfully, “I wish I was as clever as he is.” Her cousin George gets high marks without outwardly seeming to try that hard. “Look,” I said to Molly, and I meant it, “I just want you to know that whatever exam results you get I think you’re a really kind and lovely person and to me that is far more important than any exam results. And I know this too, being the kind and the caring person you are is actually far more important in your life than any grades in an exam.” “Thank you, Uncle Richard,” she said, but without sounding at all convinced. But it is true – Molly is an incredibly kind person – she notices the person sitting on their own in a gathering and goes over to talk to them, she notices if someone is upset, she is attentive if there is work to be done or a meal to be prepared, or washing up that needs helping with, she has nursed her guinea pig through cancer, she is brilliant with my mum who has dementia; she is incredibly kind. But you don’t get grades in kindness or generosity or thoughtfulness or awareness of others. You don’t get GCSEs in compassion or attentiveness. And yet those qualities too are the essence of the formation of our lives.
The good news is that Molly did pass all her GCSES this year so of course she and we are absolutely delighted. But I also meant what I said which is that I would love and value her just as much if she had passed none of those exams. It’s an obvious thing to say isn’t it and yet we do live in a society that often seems to value competition and achievement above relationship, compassion and kindness. Witness contemporary reality TV where people are voted on and off, where competitors are invited to be as horrible as possible to each other to secure their own success and where friendship on social media can become so binary- like or unlike, friend or unfriend. Of course, we need to seek excellence, and excellence demands a command of knowledge, and our education exam system of course can motivate our students towards that achievement and excellence. But what about the people who don’t get the high grades, or the places at the best schools, or universities and don’t pass the interviews or get the job of their dreams? They are not lesser people, deserving of less opportunity and less choice.
Our Gospel today asks a profound question – not a question of achievement but identity and personhood. “But who do you say that I am?” This question comes about half way through the Gospel account and the remarkable thing about Jesus is that he has never told them or tried to prove his credentials or his status. We know of no formal training or title that he has achieved, there is no evidence of academic education, he has no status or position to give him authority, no wealth, no property to give him credibility, no evidence of business acumen. What is also obvious is that you do not seem to require academic or religious or secular status to become his disciples. In fact quite the opposite – he calls ordinary people, often those who have little social status, like the woman for example who become his closest and most faithful followers, he even is followed by those accused of being sinners and prostitutes. He calls fishermen, and even fishermen who don’t actually seem very successful at fishing. He even calls a despised tax collector. What we see in this man is not a theoretical theology, not the teaching of a doctrine, or the formulation of a strategic plan for success. No, what we see has far more in common with an apprenticeship or still more those chosen to set out together upon a journey. The wisdom is going to be learnt by showing, not by telling and by being with – listening and observing. It is going to be a journey of discovering – a journey of wondering. And on this journey the profoundest lesson of all, as I had tried to express to Molly, was not how much do you know but how much do you love? How much are you able to love God and your neighbour as yourself.
I read a story that when in an exam the pupils had been asked to list the seven wonders of the world and one child had listed.
1. To see
2. To hear
3. To touch
4. To taste
5. To smell
6. To love
7. To live
These are indeed the wonders of the world – and they are the wonders the disciples experience as they journey with Jesus. We often think that education is about accumulating knowledge but in many ways the experience of the disciples is a journey into unknowing – the place where they are unsure and they are forced to question profoundly the meaning of his life and theirs.
When I went to South Africa I travelled with Mike Wooldridge and as we drove through the complexities of Johannesburg and sometimes got lost he repeatedly refused to use a satnav that had been installed in the car. “I find if I use one of those things,” he said, “I stop looking, and seeing and learning.” Martin Buber writes that all journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware when he or she sets out. It is in fact the unknown destinations along the way which often become far more significant than the planned destination when you set out. What you don’t know is actually far more fascinating that what you do know. The danger of all religious fundamentalism is that by prescribing dogmas and answers it actually prevents learning and discovery. It stops the journey into the very life that God is.
Who do you say that I am? Jesus does not give answers he asks questions – he entices his disciples to imagine – to take all that they have seen and heard, and use it to discern the nature of his life and theirs. We often see this as the moment of breakthrough, when Peter gets it right – top of the class is ait were. It is, as Jesus points out, a moment of inspirational insight: “You are the Messiah the son of the living God.” But while Peter has reached the answer, he is, as we shall see, an incredibly long way from getting there. It’s like he’s glimpsed the destination but has no idea of the map. He has glimpsed Jesus is the Christ – but he hasn’t taken on board the suffering, the cross, his betrayal, Christ’s death, the resurrection, his redemption and commissioning, the coming of the Holy Spirit, his mission or his own martyrdom and death. Perhaps it’s just as well he doesn’t know because he may never have set out. What he had to do was trust in the intuition and to allow the future to unfold. He had to live in the presence of Christ – soak it up, as it were. He had to imbibe the loving, the caring and the sharing. He had to let that presence of God expand him and grow within him. He had even to spectacularly fail, to sink down in doubt and betrayal, not once but at different times, in
order to rediscover the meaning of who the Son of the Living God was and what that meant to his life. You have to know the deepest darkness before he will see the beauty of the stars.
We often think that knowing is about achieving and possessing. And we want to know more to make our lives more understandable. But if you look at the greatest science and learning – discovery is always about leading onwards – using your discovery to move forward to another discovery. The next discovery may in fact refute the first, but that does not negate the process. Einstein said that imagination was more important than knowledge – because imagination leads the scientist
forwards. Within all of us there is a desire to control, to master the puzzle, to find answers that will make us safer and our lives more secure. Just at present in our society, this desire to be in control has reached epic proportions where people are increasingly fearful of that which cannot be planned for, anxious of the spontaneous, terrified of the unknown. Of course we need knowledge, we need foresight and good planning. That is of God too. When you are in an aeroplane, or going over a bridge, or building a skyscraper you need accurate engineering, skilled builders and pilots and engineers, careful checks for health and safety. Woe betide the fool who says we do not need experts, or who makes up truths to suit their agenda. As Grenfell Tower has shown the world, accurate knowledge is vital, testing, rigorous application of standards for safety and human wellbeing. We need human accountability. Yet at the same time what Grenfell Tower has also shown is that expertise is also based on relationship, loving, caring, sharing, respecting and valuing the sacredness of our neighbours’ lives as much as we value our own lives. What we have seen at Grenfell is not just the failure of the materials of a skyscraper, it’s not just the physics, not even just the failure of safety procedures, what we have seen is the failure of relationship – the failure of human love and care and equality, a failure of the human heart and imagination. At the same time what Grenfell has also revealed is that ultimately what people need most in times of crisis is that loving and caring and sharing – the compassion that comes out of hiding in times of tragedy – the compassion and the Christ-like presence that makes the future possible. Which is why you see in every national tragedy the Church becoming such an important place of gathering, because those very relationships and that compassion is the Church’s calling. Why do we have to wait for tragedy before we can learn the joy and strength of this outpouring of mercy?
In Christ we are invited into the unknown – but we do not go alone – we are invited as part of the body of Christ, each with our gifts and roles to play. To make Christ present in the ordinary and through our own gifts and the gifts of those we may have taken for granted. We cannot know the future, but if we recognise the identity of the one who walks with us – if Christ’s identity becomes the heart of our own identity – his loving, his caring, his sharing – then like Molly we do not need to fear the future. We are invited not to fear but to wonder.
I want to end with the words of the mystical poet Rumi.
My head is bursting with the joy of the unknown
My heart is expanding a thousand fold
Every cell taking wings
Flies above the world
All seek separately
The many faces of my beloved
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