A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on October 10, 2021 by Revd Richard Carter
Reading for address: Mark 10. 17-23,31
One of the difficulties we face in the Church of England in the western world I believe is that we want more people to have faith in God without the faith that God can make faith happen. In other words the church wants people to trust in God but we don’t trust God to let that trust grow. You can’t believe in God without trust. Its not like signing up to a set of rules or registering for a set of activities its actually about believing in a God beyond and greater than understanding or our control. St Augustine said ‘We come to God not by navigation but by love” Of course we need navigation or the boat would be in danger of going on the rocks. But the magnetic north for that navigation- is God’s love.
In other parts of the world I have lived trust in God is a much more recognisable part of daily life. I learnt this trust in God in the South Pacific. Go downstairs after this service and see the South Pacific Festival in St Martin’s Hall-it’s wonderful- an exhibition which tells the story of living closer to the natural world in Fiji and small islands surrounded by “Moana” the unfathomable restless and miraculous life-giving sea. See the beautiful hand- beaten tapa- bark cloth on the walls and hand-woven mats for sleeping- islanders who have lived sustainably and as community for centuries with no carbon footprint As you plant seed in your gardens you trust in God. As you water and nurture the plant you trust. As you set out in small boats to go fishing in vast seas, as you drop your nets or fishing line- there needs to be skill but also trust. As you face cyclone or tsunami or earthquake in houses that you know cannot withstand the destructive power of the natural world you trust. In sickness and many miles from a hospital or doctor you can only trust. You are constantly aware of a creative power greater than oneself. I remember in the Melanesian Brotherhood when we arrived for an evening meal and there was nothing to eat I would ask what’s for supper tonight. “Brother Richard we are living by faith,” came the answer. But of course at that point I don’t want faith I want certainty- where and when I am going to eat. But what if we can’t change the situation-or don’t know? What if flooding has destroyed your crops. You are constantly reminded of the land, the sea, the rain, the water that will sustain and also of your own mortality- all around you is the miracle of life- who can fail to trust God in this context. Tell a South Pacific Islander there is no God and they will laugh. God is their life.
I am reading a book at the moment that was given to me called Four Thousand Weeks. By Oliver Burkeman. 4000 weeks, that’s the average length of time most of us will live from birth to death. Our life span in contrast to all that is around us is comparatively short and its constantly running out. Burkeman points out how our constant battle to create more time for ourselves has actually led to less time- and culture constantly battling with busyness. He writes of the products and numerous apps, and wearable devises for maximising the payoffs from your workday, banking apps, energy saving appliances, communication and planning apps, workout planning, step counting, sleep management, meal replacements, calorie counters, movement monitors, travel planners- and thousands of products and services, or devices you can talk to- ‘Hey Google’ what’s the weather like today- so you no longer need to look out the window. All give us the sense of control over our lives. The problem says Oliver Burkeman isn’t that these products don’t work. It’s that they do work- in the sense that you’ll get more done, race to more zoom meetings, ferry your children to more after school activities, field more messages via email, voicemail, text, be confronted by more choices, be more contactable, less able to escape. Paradoxically the more we now have to help us save time and become more efficient has instead according to Burkeman made us feel more anxious, more pressurised, less able to turn off, less able to escape, less able to trust. Our time becomes a constant never stopping conveyor belt of endless choices with the constant fear that if we stop everything will start backing up and we will be buried under and endless pile of failed expectation, unfriended and cut off. ‘Hey Google what’s the meaning of life?’. Silence.
“Consider all the technology intended to help us gain the upper hand over time: by any sane logic a world with dishwashers, microwaves, vacuum cleaners and jet engines, time ought to feel more expansive and abundant, thanks to the hours freed up. But this is nobody’s actual experience.” Instead life accelerates, and everyone becomes more impatient and anxious less able to be present, less able to trust. How long can you last before you look at your mobile phone? Its sometimes far more frustrating to wait five minutes for a zoom call that’s not connecting than to travel for an hour to attend a meeting in person, or more frustrating to wait for a home delivery to arrive than to walk to the shops and carry the product home yourself and far worse than growing your own and picking it from the garden despite all the time that takes. What we have lost is the ability to wait and see. The ability to pause … and trust in the natural creative power of God. To trust when we haven’t got all the answers or the tracking devices.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? The rich young man asks Jesus. Wouldn’t we all like to know. Wouldn’t it make life simpler? Imagine if the modern church invented the eternal life app (I expect there is a rapidly growing church out that already working on it) then we could tick off the successes, have our acts of charity automatically logged, track our movement towards paradise, receive text message warning about adversity or predicted dangers, , facetime angels to help us when facing temptation, or ping us and send GPS satellite navigation when we had lost the path to God. Would this help or make you lose your faith completely? No longer discovery, no longer living experience- no longer the “Word made flesh” but the word made in the image of Microsoft, Apple or Facebook.
Jesus does not actually tell the rich man what to do to inherit eternal life. Rather he asks him if he knows the commandments. The man is pleased to affirm that he has in fact kept them all. But that’s not it. Jesus looked at him loved him and said. “You lack one thing, go sell what you have, give your money to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven, then come, follow me.” Jesus seems to demand a lot of the rich man. We often struggle with a single demand on us – there are five life-changing ones here: go, sell, give, come, follow. But there is also an incredible offer too: ‘you will have treasure in heaven’. I wonder how often we focus on what we think is the depletion of self and miss the generous gift. Perhaps we are not being asked to let go of our worldly wealth but simply open the hands that we clench in fear in order to
receive something infinitely more precious. The man is being invited into the mystery of the unknown. Not Christ demanding renunciation rather than Christ offering- “Follow Me” in other words let go of all the stuff, let go of the compulsions that you think you cannot live without. Letting go, learning to trust in Christ, to set out on a journey- learning to live again.
Over the last 18 months we too have been learning live with uncertainty, no longer completely sure of what the future holds, or what the aftermath will look like. The familiar structures of our lives no longer seem so familiar and we are unsure of how enter this new future or what new surprises or difficulties await. But we have been given a lesson in living like two thirds of the world always live- living by faith.
Few of us find it easy to embrace the unknown I’m not surprised the rich man walks away. I wonder if you would have done the same thing? But we cannot escape the fact that our Christian faith is a call into the unknown. I think of the last few weeks in my life:
Trust- I think of a young couple I know waiting to have their first child. Unsure of all that will entail or of the change this child will bring but trusting and hoping in the promise and joy of that birth.
I think of an eighteen-year-old I know setting out for university- living away from home for the first time and all that entails. I think of his parents dropping him off at the university and him sitting in his new room, and the parents driving home waiting to hear- trusting.
I think of an elderly couple I see in the hospital waiting area she is holding onto his hand tightly so as he doesn’t fall, the old man looking very unsteady, as together they shuffle towards the counter. “Don’t worry darling. I hear her whisper it will be all right. I’m not leaving you.” I see him grip more tightly, fearful, trusting.
I think my niece beginning her first work experience placement, the fear, the uncertainty, the stress and demands and yet excitement of the work place. You’re going to be great I tell her. I see the uncertainty in her eyes. Her talent, the confidence she has yet to discover her whole life ahead of her – only trust.
I think of a young man I know who was arrested by the police last week. He is from another country and his English is not good especially when frightened. The police do not seem to understand or trust him. He is in a cell and we speak on the phone. “I haven’t done anything wrong. This must be a mistake.” I speak to the police. He wouldn’t do this we know well-he’s a person we all trust. He’s a Christian. The policeman sounds sceptical.” What does that mean. But later he is released without charge.
I think of Annie Blaber whose memorial we celebrated yesterday. I remember her telling me the doctor had said she had only three years to live. I remember visiting her the day before she died as a put a Lampedusa cross into her hand- a sign of faith hope and love in the unknown, in struggle and pain- even in death. Only trust. Only trust.
Yesterday friends and refugees recounted how Annie had changed their lives with her generous love and trust in them: She made us all believe in ourselves” they said- I saw how many treasures she has stored up in heaven.
Give to the poor, come, follow me Jesus says and we too will have treasures in heaven. The many who are first will be last and the last will be first.
And I will trust in You alone
For your endless mercy follows me
Your goodness will lead me home.