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Heartfelt Trust – sermon given by Richard Croft on Sunday 12th July 2015

St Johns and St Stephens Church, Reading, 12th July 2015, Trinity 11

Proverbs 9:1-6, John 6:51-58

‘Heartfelt trust’

 

Many of you know that a couple of weeks ago a small group from St John’s, and some friends, spent a week at the community of Taizé in France. It was the 6th visit we have made. It was, as always, a wonderful experience of prayer, of community, and of joy. It so happens that today, August 16th, is a very significant day for the community, for on this day, exactly 10 years ago, the founder and Prior of Taizé, Brother Roger, died. He was killed during evening prayer by a mad person. He was 90 years old. The 10th anniversary of his death coincides with the 100th anniversary of his birth, and the 75th anniversary of the founding of the community in 1940, during the 2nd WW. There are many thousands of people from all over the world at Taizé right now to give thanks for his life, and ro remember him.

 

I never met Brother Roger but his influence is felt very strongly in the community. During our stay, every morning, we older adults met for an address given by a French-Canadian brother, Émile. Each address was based on one word which Brother Roger used frequently. One of the words was ‘trust’ and it was that which spoke to me most powerfully. I am therefore, quite unashamedly, going to try and use that talk as the basis for my sermon this morning, giving full credit to Brother Émile, and to Brother Roger himself. I ran it past Vicki and Alison – they heard Émile too – and I am grateful for their comments and support.

 

By pure chance, I picked up this headline in The Times of Friday 14th August: ‘Britain grows into a land of distrust and suspicion’ Nearly half the British population distrust the people around them and think that ‘you can’t be too careful when dealing with people’….about 1/3 of Britons were also skeptical of people’s kindness, saying that given the chance they would try to take advantage of them most of the time’.

 

Let’s see if we can hear Brother Roger on the topic: https://vimeo.com/25553854

 

What I would like to do this morning is present ‘trust’ to you as a core Christian virtue, one that would make a difference to our life of faith and of human relationships – communion. Trust. Heartfelt trust, to use Roger’s words. In French, ‘la confiance du coeur’. Another word quite close to trust is ‘hope’. Roger often used the word ‘trust’ as if it meant ‘hope’, and we often speak of our Christian hope of, for example, the resurrection. But there’s a difference between those two words: Hope is perhaps less concrete, it’s more difficult to base your life on, hope can sometimes mean wishful thinking: ‘I hope the sun shines tomorrow’. Trust, on the other hand means more like there is something real, something solid to it. It’s a good word. We can contrast it as well with the word ‘faith’ which can feel like something we possess – or not – or as the opposite of reason, which never goes well. But trust – trust is simply something we do. It is an attitude of openness, of willingness to receive, and to act. It’s not the same as naivety.

 

Suspicion, which is the opposite of trust, does not nourish or fulfill; it does the opposite, it stultifies, paralyses us, it cuts us off from other people and ultimately from God. In the short video we saw, Roger spoke about a lack of trust, suspicion, providing an alibi for not doing anything: if we don’t trust anything or anyone, if we believe everything is corrupt and without value, then we have the perfect excuse, or alibi, to do nothing at all. But to trust, to trust another person, to trust God with my life, is to reach outwards and upwards, beyond ourselves and our fears and suspicions. You can tell how precious and important trust is by considering what happens when it is broken.

 

Trust is what helps us to sleep at night, but also what gets us up in the morning. We hand over what is beyond us since we know that we are not in control. Often, what makes us anxious is the fear and suspicion that makes us try to control everything, which is impossible. Trust is life-giving – to hand over our concerns gives life and is a gift of life. We can do this because fundamentally, what we, as Christians say about God is this: he can be trusted. His trustworthiness, his faithfulness, runs through the whole of creation and through the stuff of our lives like a seam of gold. We are invited to enter that trust, to live it. We are called to dare to trust. Yesterday evening I watched, again, the French film, ‘Of Gods and men’. It’s a beautiful, moving, true story of a small religious community who lived peacefully in the Atlas mountains of Algeria. In the 1990s there was an violent Islamist uprising. The film shows the brothers’ struggle to reject fear and to embrace trust – in which struggle they succeeded.

 

To trust means you see there are possibilities for change. If we are told, ‘you can’t change anything’, then our margins of freedom are reduced. Trust breaks through that. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard used this parable. What do you do when someone is choking? You give them air. What do you do when someone is choking of despair? You offer them possibilities. Roger wanted Taizé to be a place where people would realize that is possible. Through the worship and prayer, people would deepen their trust in God, their love of Him; and through community, the experience of meeting and living with people from other countries and different Christian traditions, trust in one another would be strengthened and deepened. And it works! It works here too at church as we express our trust in God in worship and prayer, and as we spend time with each other in trusting relationships, as we really do, we exercise our trust. It’s as if every Sunday we get to experience, and to practice trust, to get another dose of it.

 

As Christians, as the church, we are of course part of the human family. We are not just a little sect, unconnected with the rest, doing our own little rituals on a Sunday and enjoying cosy relationships. We are here, is Jesus told us, as salt. We are not here just to serve ourselves or the institution of the church, but to serve the human family. Salt makes things different, but only when it is mixed in with them. Our faith, our trust in God is not just a private reality but we take what we know, what we practice on a Sunday, and offer it to those around us. I wonder how that plays out, what it looks like? In a world where so many are cynical, suspicious and pessimistic, what does it mean to be different? To not conform? Paul tells us, ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Rom 12:2) I think again of the brothers in the tiny monastery in Algeria who chose to reject violence and hatred, and instead trust­ – wherever that would lead. It was a radically counter-cultural thing to do. What would that mean for you and me? What decisions are you facing now, what new possibilities exist that with a trusting heart you could reach out and embrace in trust, in hope, in faith, leaving behind doubt, and cynicism, suspicion and fear?

 

Speaking personally, this message directly touched me as I went to prayer later on that day and felt able to trust God for the future direction of my life. I have shared that with some of you. I can only say that I felt liberated.

 

As Christians, if all we do is carp and criticize, we are conforming! Trust is non-conformist and counter-cultural. How has it felt when someone has trusted you? Our institutions which surround us – government, NHS, workplaces, schools, churches even, are very fragile, they can easily lose their sense of service. Our trust, our hope and faith that things can be better can change that.

 

I hope this hasn’t been too much of a ramble and that you have been able to catch some of the sense of simple joy in trust, that you have heard Roger of Taizé speak. There was a new song we learned at Taizé, I’m afraid I’m not going to sing it, but here are the words in English (the song is in French). It is a prayer of Roger: ‘Happy are those who abandon themselves to you with a trusting heart. You keep them in your joy, simplicity and mercy’ (Heureux qui s’abandonne à toi, ô Dieu, dans la confiance du coeur. Tu nous gardes dans la joie, la simplicité, la miséricorde)

 

What would happen of the decisions I make were not based on suspicion, but on trust?

 

Richard Croft

With thanks to Brother Émile of Taizé, Brother Roger, Vicki Jones and Alison Peyton

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Trinity Sunday 31st May 2015

Trinity Sunday – John 31-7

Morning Communion, Trinity, 31st May 2015

Who do you pray to?  Do you pray to the Father, as Jesus did?  Or do you pray directly to Jesus?  Or sometimes one, sometimes the other?  And do you pray to the Spirit?  I suspect that, like me, you may not always be sure.  Sometimes you know who you are praying to, sometimes it does not seem to matter.  There is a bit of a tradition in the church that, because the Holy Spirit’s role is to glorify Jesus and the Father, not himself (from John 1613-14, among other places), you do not normally direct prayer to Him, but it is clearly not a strict rule.  Does it matter who you pray too?  After all, they are all God…

Well, that is the nub of the matter.  They are all God.  But making sense of that is another matter.  Three in One.  It is a bit like this diagram, where there is only one Dr. Who, but three people who are Dr. Who.  But in this case the identity is sequential – who was, and is and is to come – which is not really like the Father, Son and Spirit at all.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  This is the beginning of the rest of the year as far as liturgical time goes, up until Advent, with 24 Sundays in Trinity (though we now take up a few of them at the end with Creation Time has crept in recently).  But on Trinity Sunday we think about the Trinity, which is not easy.

There is a rather more famous version of the previous triangle regarding the Trinity.  This is exactly the same in form as the Dr. Who diagram, but means something rather different.  The Spirit did not follow the Son, who did not follow the Father; they have all always been.  This is what the church traditionally thinks about the Trinity.  Incidentally, the diagrams I am using are from a wonderful book called Theologygrams, by Richard Wyld.  Having presented them and discussed them a little, he concluded that there is “probably more to be said about the Trinity than can be fitted into a diagram.”

The Trinity is not explicit in the Bible, but is more a way that Christians came to understand the various saying and happenings in the Bible.  Jesus did not give a definition of the Trinity, but the things he said lead you there.

Take for example, one of the earliest events in Jesus ministry, his baptism recorded in the earliest of the gospels: As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.” (Mark 110).  Father, Son, and Spirit.

Jesus talked about his Father (as in the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 69-13).  He also talks about the Father sending his only begotten Son into the world, a little further on from today’s New Testament reading (John 316).  He claimed to be God (“before Abraham was, I AM”, John 858, “I and the Father are one”, John 1030).  He frequently talks about the Holy Spirit, for example in today’s passage (John 35-8), and about asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit on believers (John 1415).

So the church came to understand that God was three persons in one.  It was always very clear that there was not a hierarchy.  One is not superior to the others, nor did one come before the others.  The Trinity is, in particular, a high understanding of who Jesus is.  The church has always maintained, strongly, that Jesus was both God and human.  This diagram summarises various heresies.  The church has had to counter teachings that try to detract from who it believed Jesus really was.  He was not created by God, he was not separate from God, he was not God in disguise, he was not a man specially touched by God.  We are in the white bit, the overlap of the circles.  (I particularly like the Aslan bit.)

So far, so good, but how can one person be three people?  It is an analogy for something we cannot really comprehend.  It is like a person having different aspects, one person being a wife, a teacher, a friend, different to different people.  It helps to explain different aspects of God.  Mark Laynesmith has a YouTube video[1] about the Trinity, in which he talks about the Father being the part of God which is mystery, beyond us, Christ being before us, what God is going here and now, and the Spirit being alongside us.  But, like the Trinity triangle diagram, there is probably more that can be said than can fit into an analogy.

Having a science background and being interested in that sort of thing, excuse me a slight digression at this point.  There are things in science, in the world and the universe, that we can understand and imagine.  Classical mechanics, where object move around and have momentum, and are acted upon by forces; it does take a while to understand the principles behind it, but you can picture it.  You can see why, when you throw a ball, it follows a parabolic path, and you can even modify that picture to say that it falls a bit short because of air resistance.  And we can extend this to orbiting planets, and rotating galaxies.  Our minds are geared up to model the physical world we see.

But quantum mechanics is something else.  It is one of the most successful scientific theories ever, has led to a lot of the electronics and gadgets we have today, and has at its heart apparent contradictions that we cannot get our minds around.  There is something called the two-slit experiment, where you fire a beam of electrons at two slits in a plate.  If electrons were particles, the your detector plate would have two slightly scattered lines of points on it where the electrons have landed.  If electrons were waves, the plate would have an interference pattern on it, like ocean waves going through two openings in a harbour wall.  The waves diffract and spread out on the inside, and then at some places the peaks from the two propagating waves join together and make big peaks, and at other places the peaks and troughs meet and cancel each other out.  You would get a pattern of peaks and troughs arriving at the quayside.  What actually happens is that your detector recognises discrete particles hitting it, but in a pattern that looks like wave interference.  Electrons appear way off from where they should be, but they still seem to be particles.

You can explain this with maths, predict what is going to happen with Schrödingers equation, but there really is no sensible way of imagining what is happening.  This is the subatomic world behaving in ways that is unlike anything we can see with our eyes.  It seems to be a contradiction in terms – something is both a wave and a particle at the same time – but it happens, and you can prove it repeatedly.

You can probably see where I am going with this.  There are things in this world, even is something as unimaginative and rational as science, that we know exist but cannot imagine.  How much more, then, should the creator of the universe be beyond our imagining.  We cannot fully rationalise the theory of the Trinity, as we cannot fully rationalise the incarnation or the atonement, but that does not mean it is not true.  Certainly it is an approximation, an analogy, but it can still be helpful.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, you must be born again, born of the Spirit.  Let us allow this complex, loving God to speak to us through all his parts, the Father in his glory, as in the vision of Isaiah, Jesus showing us God as a man, and the Spirit within us to guide and change us.  Amen.

Jeremy Thake St. John and St. Stephens.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-PzKtTKYJk&list=PLUvMk1fN40M_kuL-0SbztxmO8mVeI0PJq&index=4

Joy – John 21-11: The Wedding in Cana

An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman walked into a bar, and the barman said, “Is this a joke”.

There are not many jokes in the Bible. You may think that was not one either – one to think about. But there is humour.

Today we are going to be following our reading about the wedding at Cana. It is, in many ways, a rather strange story. We know it well, but there are some odd things here:

  • It was Jesus’ first recorded miracle, but it seems to be completely unplanned, and that Jesus actually did not want to do it.
  • The miracle appears to happen because Mary completely ignores Jesus, and tells the servants to follow Jesus’ instructions even after he has asked her not to.
  • Jesus makes an extraordinary amount of wine, about 800 bottles. And this for a wedding where they had already finished all the wine the bridegroom had laid on. If there were a thousand guests, with what they had had already, they would have been having a bottle or so each.

Commentaries on this passage often read a lot of significance into it. It is special because Jesus chose this as his first miracle. Jesus makes use of the vessels used for Jewish ceremonial purification, and replaces it with wine that represents his cleansing blood. Wine then leads you into thinking about ‘new wine’, and communion.

I am not sure about this. It may be in the gospel because John saw it as particularly important (which is a good argument), or it may be there just because it happened. What it has made me think about is the softer side of faith. Of joy, and humour, and kindness, and friendship, and good company, and how that is also part of Christianity.

In the Bible is says that ‘Jesus wept’, but it does not say ‘Jesus laughed’, or even that he smiled. But he obviously does have a sense of humour. As you read the parables, there are lots of witty illustrations: houses built on sand (Mt 726), lamps hidden under baskets or beds (Mk 421), pointing out the speck in someone else’s when you have a plank in your own (Lk 642), dead people being left to bury dead people (Lk 960), picking a gnat out of your drink then swallowing a camel (Mt 2324). Huge crowds went to listen to him, so he must have been a good speaker, entertaining as well as thoughtful and challenging. One of my favourite bible stories is Jesus’ way of paying his temple tax. He tells Peter to go an catch a fish, that there will be a coin in the fish’s mouth, and that he should use that to pay the tax (Matthew 1724-27). Can you imagine him saying that without a smile?

Jesus was also obviously good company, because he was regularly invited into homes, and joined by large numbers of people for meals. These were not always posh, polite dinner parties, because Jesus’ enemies accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Lk 734).

Consider in today’s reading the amount of wine Jesus made. This is not a kill-joy whose mind is only on higher things, who does not like people enjoying themselves. Jesus is being kind at a very personal level, helping out some family friends, not with a matter of life or death, but so that their wedding would not be spoiled.

Of course faith is about important things too. It is about obedience to God, about sacrificial love for others, about justice and truth. Jesus says hard, difficult, uncomfortable, demanding things as well. He does not avoid suffering so that he can have a good life. But an enduring theme in the New Testament is joy, and you cannot have joy miserably. Jesus demonstrated that he was good with people, he cared for people, he enjoyed being in their company. In this passage, and others, he demonstrates his humanity, in a sense that is down-to-earth, neighbourly, friendly. And we are his followers.