Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The path of life (a sermon)

I'm on sabbatical at the moment, so generally not going anywhere near the work of preaching (or indeed much else that usually counts as 'work'). But it was an immense privilege to be asked by a very dear friend, Revd Catherine Matlock, to preach at her first eucharist as a priest, in the parish of Kings Norton where she is currently Pioneer Curate. Lots of people said lots of very generous things about the sermon, so here it is...

(Readings for Proper 8C:       Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Psalm 16; Luke 9:51-end)

Francesco Bernardone’s family were up-and-coming, newly rich. His dad was a shrewd and ambitious businessman, and as his fabric business made money, he bought up tracts of land from struggling landowners in the area. Young Francesco had seemingly limitless money to spend, and his father encouraged him to splash it around freely. Aside from his wealth, Francesco was a popular young man, charming, witty, and by all accounts a bit of a party animal. He was also a fighter, alongside many of the other young men of the city – committed to defending their wealth and property from hostile neighbours.

Clara Favarone, by contrast, came from a long line of aristocracy – and was intended to be married, in time, to a similarly aristocratic husband. She lived in a grand palace, high up on the city’s central hill, and even as a young woman had earned a widespread reputation for great honesty, kindness and humility.

When Francesco’s father discovered that his son had not only donated the money from the sale of some expensive cloth for the restoration of a ruined local church, but had also sold the horse he had been riding, his father came to find him, dragged him home in a fury, locked him up for several days, and demanded a court hearing to have the erratic behaviour of his son punished. In the public hearing that followed, Francesco not only repaid the money in question, but stripped himself naked, handing every piece of his fine clothing back to his father – renouncing his inheritance, his family, his status, to follow Jesus to the very edges of society, living in community among the marginalized and excluded.

Clara, meanwhile, after months of planning and preparation, slipped out of the palace one night under cover of darkness, and sought sanctuary in a convent about 4 km from the city. The very next day, some of her male relatives found her and stormed the chapel where she was hiding. Her sister Catherine who followed Clara two weeks later was again pursued by family members, who beat her until she appeared lifeless. Both sisters, however, resisted their family’s violent efforts to take them back home and, with Francesco and some of his new brothers, committed themselves to establishing communities of solidarity, sanctuary and tender care, spaces of resistance and humanizing transformation in a divided, violent society.

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus[c] said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

It is dangerous to read biblical texts in isolation. Dare I say it, the Jesus in this passage from Luke’s gospel doesn’t come across as much fun, very likeable, or even particularly compassionate. There is a single-minded, tunnel-visioned intensity about this man who, we’re told, has “set his face to go to Jerusalem”, and nothing, and no one, it seems, will deviate or delay him from that path.

So thank God for the reminder in today’s psalm (Psalm 16), that this path of Jesus is in fact “the path of life” – that walking this path is to walk with God, “in [whose] presence is fullness of joy”. If we are to make good sense of what God is calling us to today, we need to hold these two things alongside each other – the single-minded intensity, and the fullness of joy. Jesus invites us to say a great big, joyful YES. But that Yes also requires us to say some careful, but firm NO’s.

Just remember – lest this harsh bit of Luke’s gospel confuses that memory – Jesus had absolutely nothing against Samaritans (the woman at the well, for one); he had nothing against caring for one’s family (he goes out of his way to heal Peter’s mother-in-law); and he had nothing against grieving for those who have died (think of his own tears at the death of his dear friend Lazarus). What Jesus is demanding, in his followers – and demanding, I think is the word – is what another of the psalms (Psalm 86) calls “an undivided heart”. To follow Jesus, to be a co-worker for the kingdom, to walk the path of life, requires our full, undivided commitment right here, right now – no “buts”, no qualifiers, no conditions, no competing demands. Which is why, of course, Jesus rebukes James and John for wanting to call down a bit of consuming fire on the inhospitable Samaritan village – there is no room, on the path of life, for resentment, violence and revenge. No room. That is to walk in the opposite direction to the way of Jesus.

But in the world that we live in, to follow the way of Jesus, to walk the path of life, demands a lifetime of disentangling, of extricating ourselves from ways of indifference, division and death. That’s what Francesco and Clara discovered – or St Francis and St Clare of Assisi, as we tend to call them. That to say Yes to Jesus required them to say No to the lives that they had previously had – and to the power, status and violence, the social and cultural assumptions and divisions, that those lives were bound up with. For Francis and Clare, it required them to say No to the consumption, competitiveness and ‘gated communities’ of wealth; to say No to the violence so often mobilized to protect vested interests and the status quo; to say No to the exclusion, abuse and exploitation of those deemed less-than-human; to say No to those desires in ourselves that seek to deny our interrelatedness, diminish our humanity, and hide from the truth. And of course Francis and Clare’s world is not that different to our own. Many of the No’s that they had to say, are No’s required of us too – so that we too can say Yes to the way of Jesus, the path of life. Some of these No’s, in our society of Brexit-exposed divisions and ecological emergency, are perhaps even more urgent than they were for Francis and Clare – and certainly no less so.

And what about Catherine, dear friend, newly-priested pioneer curate? What does God ask of you – through, around, or in spite of, today’s Scripture readings? The ‘job descriptions’ of ‘pioneer’ and ‘priest’ allow for so many things you can say ‘Yes’ to, it can often be hard to utter your ‘No’s. For some of you here, to hear Catherine say ‘No’ at all may feel uncomfortable, difficult to take. Did not St Paul say he was ‘all things to all people’, you might say to yourself? (Although even St Paul immediately followed that up by focusing in on ‘some’ people, rather than everyone.) On the other hand, is Catherine to be like the Jesus of today’s gospel reading, setting her face in one direction only, on one small section of the parish, boldly pioneering where no one has pioneered before, saying No to ‘here’, so she can say a whole-hearted Yes to ‘there’? There is a careful, prayerful discernment in the role of pioneer priest which is unenviable. There is no blueprint. No roadmap. As St Francis himself wrote towards the end of his life: “No one showed me what I had to do.” Only slowly and gradually, one faltering step at a time, do we – pioneers, priests and saints among us – discover what walking the way of Jesus, the path of life, looks like in practice.

But there are, at the very least, some clues to shape our discerning, from those who have – in fact – boldly gone before us. And I want to leave you with two interrelated images, both in some ways profoundly traditional.

The first is the priest as eucharistic host. Here in this eucharist, Catherine, you have done the welcoming, you will do the inviting, and from your hands we will receive the bread, the body of Christ. In some important sense, as much as we are all guests of God here, it is you who creates the conditions for hospitality in this space this morning. But in the eucharist you invite us not just into a sacred space, but into a sacred time. Eucharistic time is Sabbath time. Whether it is in church or in a fresh expression, whether it’s on Sunday morning or on Thursday afternoon, the eucharist invites us into a time for saying No to ‘productivity’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’; to say No to deadlines and clock-watching, busyness and hurriedness; to say No to consumption and competition for scarce resources; to say No to division, enmity and violence… to say No, so that we can say Yes, whole-heartedly, full-bodiedly, to enjoying each other in God’s company, to celebrating around God’s table without limit or end… This patient, generous, gentle eucharistic time, Sabbath time, nevertheless has an urgency to it – as urgent as Jesus’ proclamation, as urgent as Francis and Clare’s invitation, as urgent as our ecological emergency. As priest, Catherine, even where you find yourself the guest of others, you invite those around you to say Yes to eucharistic time, Sabbath time – and call us to be inviters in turn.

But as priest, Catherine, God also invites you to inhabit that eucharistic time, Sabbath time, for yourself – and to do so with an urgent slowness (and I’m preaching as much to myself here as to you, as we preachers so often do). To say Yes fully to the way of Jesus, to the path of life, to the God in whose presence is fullness of joy, you will often find yourself having to say No even to those demands that seem of the utmost importance, from even those people whom you love most dearly. Because to follow the way of Jesus, the path of life, with urgency, is also to learn the art of not-doing, of an attentive stillness.

The priest, poet and Shropshire lad Mark Oakley was once revisiting the county of his childhood when he came across a shepherd, leaning on a traditional shepherd’s crook. Joking with the shepherd that his boss, the bishop of London, had a very similar crook, Mark asked him if he used it to haul in the naughty stray lambs. “No,” said the shepherd, “that’s not what it’s good for. I’ll tell you what I do with this crook. I stick it in the ground so deep that I can hold onto it and keep myself so still that eventually the sheep learn to trust me.”

So Catherine – and those with whom you travel here in Kings Norton – as you take this next step, together today, on your journey into priesthood, may God gently, patiently, kindly make in you an undivided heart, that with Francis and Clare you may more firmly say No to the ways of indifference, division and death, and more joyfully say Yes to Jesus’ life-giving way, to the eucharistic, Sabbath time, of love, joy and peace. Amen.