A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on May 15, 2022 by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for address: Acts 11.1-18, John 13.31-35
Many of us will have heard the Arabic expression Inshallah. It means if it is God’s will, or in short God willing. It expresses the belief that nothing happens unless God wills it- that everything is in God’s hands. This phrase is used by Muslims but also by Arab Christians and Arab speakers of other religions.
“Thy will be done.” We say in the prayer that Jesus taught us. The will of God. Each of us stand on the edge of the unknown seeking the will of God. Our prayer is our means of discovering the will of God and being transformed by it.
I had wanted to stay in the Old City of Jerusalem when I planned my trip to the Holy Land where I have just been for twelve days. But we never know in advance how God will be at work in the events of our lives. Inshallah. To get to the hotel I had booked I needed to trust in God. The Israeli taxi driver had told me he could not enter the Old City. He would drop me at the Damascus Gate and I could walk through. “Which way do I go” I ask “I don’t know” he replies I have lived in Jerusalem all my life but never been through the Damascus gate- I am a Jew and this is the Muslim Quarter. It is a divided city. And there I was like an innocent abroad, pulling a large suitcase and trying to limp my way through the Damascus Gate in a sea of people as dense as a football crowd on cup final day but all these people trying to get to prayer. There are they say 250, 000 Muslims who are here for the last week of Ramadan- Many pilgrims from around the world and most of them at the time I arrive at the Damascus Gate are trying to get to the mosque to answer the call to midday prayer. In the sea of people a man in a high visibility jacket grabs my suitcase- where are you going? He asks. “The Hashimi Hotel” I answer. “Yes the Hashimi” And he is off in front of me with my suitcase and all I have brought with me to the Holy Land. I try to keep up with him but it is very difficult to move- Inshallah .But I am having to trust God. I can do nothing else. But the man with a florescent jacket is my saviour and within minutes has threaded his way through the crowds and down alleyways to the Hashimi Hotel. I am delighted, and still unfamiliar with the currency I give him a note which is far too much and he is delighted too which makes me glad.
When I booked the hotel I had asked for a room with a view. Sister Kerry dressed totally in black with a black hijab covering her head and neck welcomes me in a very kindly way. I am given a key to my room on the second floor. I go up and find a small cell of a room, just about big enough for a bed and nothing more and no windows at all. I go back downstairs to ask if I can change it for a different room at least with a window.
“I am so sorry,” says Sister Kerry, “that is our only room left- at this time we are full of pilgrims for the end of Ramadan and Eid. All our larger rooms have whole families or groups sharing-forgive me for offering advice but just follow God’s will and accept- when I first came here I was given a room with no view too but it ended up being the right place God had provided. It has privacy and if you want to see the city go up to the fourth floor where you will meet other pilgrims and you will see the whole city from the roof top.”
I am learning how to follow God’s will so I accept the room like a cell and actually sleep very well. The Muslim pilgrims are so very kind to me- full of excitement about their pilgrimage to this Holy City they sit with me in the evening on the roof top and we chat for hours. They tell me about what the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque means to them to them and I tell them about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and take one of them Hasan to visit where he buys me a prayer rope as I gift. “Like we use to pray.” he says. It is Holy Ground, this city where pilgrim journeys meet. They share with me bread and humas to break the days fasting and birthday cake. They tell me that Sister Kerry, the receptionist, is a kind and very holy woman- we always take her advice she is a wise guide. Three days later when I leave the hotel I thank Sister Kerry for her kindness. I have presumed by her dress and the care she shows to all the Muslim guests – I have seen her up through the night for the guests must eat before daybreak, that she too is Muslim. “No she says I am a Christian. Here in this hidden humble way she is living out her Christian vocation God’s will takes the humblest part. She is living Jesus in such a way as Charles de Foucauld wrote: “If such is the servant what must the master be like” or in the words of Jesus himself: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I am learning to discern the will of God. Inshallah. Two days before leaving for the Holy Land I twisted my knee. I could hardly walk and needed a walking stick. But strangely too even the painful knee has a lesson- slow down it says. You are trying to do too much. Just spend time in a single place. Just spend time with God. I do just that. Each day I make my way back to the Holy Sepulchre where I slowly climb up to what they believe is the rock of Calvary and there I spend time each day in silent prayer. My knee has turned into a blessing reminding me- to be still and know God.
I am praying next to an Ethiopian monk. He has become my example of staying with God. He is holding in his hands a small very old Bible and every so often stands up, opens it, and quietly chants to himself. I follow his example- staying and praying. After several hours of prayer I move forward to the altar and kneel down and touch the rock of Calvary- God’s will be done. The will that gives all in love for the world Suddenly I am prompted within to ask the Ethiopian Monk for a blessing. No I think he’ll just think I am another crazy tourist. But I ask him. At first I think he has not understood. But then he places his hand gently on my head and moves his hand so that it feels like wind ruffling the hair on the crown of my head, it feels like the wind in my hair. Then he takes his small Bible and taps me on the head with it- gently but over and over again rhythmically. It is though he is gently and compassionately admonishing me and reminding me- to live the word of God- to follow it : allow that Word to be incarnated in my life. The will of God my will. And now the Ethiopian monk blows on my three big long breaths he blows into my face. And I am filled by that blessing and when I leave the Holy Sepulchre I am carrying that Spirit and blessing within me.
God’s will for us. It is not something of the head rather it begins deep down in us. It begins in the place of humility when all else is stripped away. God’s will be done.
In Acts of the Apostles today we read how Peter learns to discern God’s will. It is not a decision made in a Jerusalem board room. Rather it is the unfolding of God’s will for this young community through the real events that take place.
Look at how Luke in Acts of the Apostles captures this process taking place. This simple story of discovery – will actually have an impact on the rest of human history. Peter is a Jew, as he followed Jesus he has been part of a ministry which has been almost exclusively confined to the Jewish people. In fact Jesus has repeatedly directed them towards their own people. Peter has assumed reasonably enough that all he had witnessed was for the benefit of Israel and the Jewish people. The laws relating to food, and purification and the taboo of entering the house of a Gentile were no small thing.
And now a bizarre dream challenges that very identity. It challenges Peter with the vision that all food is created by God and nothing which God has made clean, is profane. All people are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Peter is confused but the barriers are breaking down. When he meets the Gentile Cornelius asking him into his home, he finds himself able to do nothing else- Peter crosses the threshold and enters the house of a Gentile, something unacceptable for a Jew. In this story the will of God is taking over and now it is God who is directing the story.
But the story does not stop there. Until this point Peter had been witnessing to the house of Israel but now he finds himself telling the story of Jesus to the whole household of Cornelius. He does not plan to do this. Inshallah- but it is God’s will. The story of Jesus, the story of one born in and for God’s chosen people of Israel is now being told for the so called unchosen. The story is widening, the inclusive love of this story cannot be held back or confined. But the revelation does not stop there. As Peter is in the midst of telling his story we are told- the Holy Spirit falls upon those who heard the word, falls upon these Gentiles. Peter is stunned. Up until this point there is perhaps a justification for his actions to enter this house but the will of God unfolding is taking him so much further than that. They too, these Gentiles, have become recipients of the Holy Spirit. Something has happened, something which will change everything. A new dimension of God incredible love has burst through and no one will ever be able to turn this back. A new story has begun- a story which in theory is an impossible story, but a story that is being made possible through the will of God.
Somehow Peter must now convince the Christians in Jerusalem about what has happened. They are all complaining and criticising him for eating with the uncircumcised. Somehow he must have the courage to profess what he, through the Spirit of God has experienced to be true. All Peter can do is to tell the truth of what has happened… God’s truth breaking through human prejudice and turning things upside down. It is a paradigm shift in religious understanding. Peter says: If God gave them the same gift that he gave us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I then that I could hinder the work of God?”
Inshallah God’s will breaking-down barriers, expanding our souls. I remember the prayer of Charles de Foucauld, also a pilgrim of the Holy Land who spent much of his life and death alongside Muslims. It is a prayer that I have never felt able to fully pray but I find myself praying it in the Holy with all of heart and I want to end this reflection by sharing this prayer with all of you.
Father I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures. I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.