11 August 2019 Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16, Luke 12.32-40
Ensam – the Swedish word for lonely, also meaning single; sometimes seen on noticeboards – Ensam? here is this club, network etc you can join. The picture on our screen today shows a lake a short walk from where our daughter Anna lives in southern Sweden. There is no one in the picture. If she and her son go there they will almost certainly be the only ones there. It’s beautiful, yet it’s also lonely. Ensamhet – loneliness – is a feature of life in Sweden. It’s partly the geography – a big country, mainly forests and lakes, with a relatively small population, 1000s of Swedes having emigrated from the countryside in the 19th/early 20th century, especially in Småland where I’m going, because it was almost impossible to scrape a living from the boulder strewn post- glacial land. Sweden has one of the highest percentages of single person households in Europe.
Perhaps the word stands out for me because I anticipate feeling lonely sometimes while I’m staying in Sweden, away from Richard, my family, my friends, this church, from so much that is familiar. Sitting in class and learning Swedish will be hard, but I will have to be totally focussed and therefore won’t have space for thinking about how I’m feeling. In between, though, what will I be doing? I ask myself. Here, if I’m feeling a bit lonesome I might strike up a conversation with someone walking a dog, or standing at a bus stop. There, if I want to do that I’ll be doing it in Swedish. By the time I’ve worked out what to say the moment will probably have passed!
Sweden seems to have developed a culture that tries to counter loneliness in a number of ways. I don’t know if that is deliberate. There is a strong emphasis on consensus in decision making, for example; that means people coming together, taking time to reach agreement. When there is a coffee break at work it is assumed that everyone will sit down together. The long distances needing to be travelled in order to reach significant events means that often those events are residential – like confirmation- where young people all go off to a confirmation camp for a period of time, living and learning together before the confirmation itself. St Sigfrid’s college where I’ll be learning Swedish for 3 months is a residential folk high school (‘folkhögskola’) or college, set up in 1942 by the Swedish church as its way of drawing adults together for learning, for community building, and whether deliberately or not, to combat ensamhet, loneliness. In a country where people are thinly scattered over wide areas building a shared culture, shared values is a challenge. One small, fun way is by having set days when everyone does the same thing – crayfish day, cinnamon bun day, St Lucia day. The folk high schools (there are over 150 of them in Sweden) offer a more intensive approach. The course I’m doing, a basic Swedish language course, is for foreigners who are settling in Sweden (I’m not planning to settle there!). Staying at the college with a whole mixture of students doing a whole range of courses will help those of us studying there to absorb the values and norms of Swedish society. Because St Sigfrids is run by the church the chapel is at the centre of life there and I’m looking forward to joining in daily morning prayer there. And I’ll be praying for all of you there too!
The lectionary has come up trumps today! I couldn’t have asked for more appropriate readings as I prepare to spend 3 months in a foreign country. There’s Abraham travelling off into the unknown. Perhaps I’m a bit like him as I set off for a faraway country, but it’s not unknown to me. I’ve stayed at St Sigfrid’s before when I’ve visited Sweden with our Oxford/ Vaxjo link committee. I won’t be living in a tent, like Abraham. The college is a comfortable place and the food is good. Nor will I be travelling with my extended family most of whom view my decision to go as, well, interesting, adventurous even, but also a bit bewildering. I do have a sense of call, but to quite what I’m not sure. That’s where I can identify with Abraham. Whilst I do know where I’m going, what lies ahead in terms of my call is unknown.
There are some clues though; one is my age. I’m more aware that life comes to an end, that my end is much closer than my beginning, that I want to travel more lightly, focus on what is most important, on what Jesus calls the ‘treasure’ in our gospel reading. Where my treasure is there will my heart be also. This is an inward journey, but it can be helped by an outward journey too, a sort of pilgrimage. I’d like to see my journey to Växjö in that light and also draw on the experience of pilgrimage in the Swedish church. They love pilgrimages, even short ones between rural churches! Even those small journeys mirror that bigger one that we all make through life and eventually beyond death. But is that why it’s important to them? I don’t know and I’d like to find out.
Jesus’ instructions to his disciples are an encouragement to be ready for God’s call. It helps not to be weighed down by possessions. (cf Jeremy’s preaching on the rich fool last week). They have to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice. That’s not something I find easy so perhaps this journey to Sweden is a way of testing out what that feels like. And then, just when I’m thinking that this requires quite a lot from me, can I really manage it, I’m given these words of Jesus’ to his disciples, ‘Fear not, little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’. I don’t have to try too hard.
Another clue to my call, my reason for going, is family. Our daughter and youngest grandchild live there. Anna is having a difficult time. My classes end at midday on Friday, leaving me free to visit Anna for the weekend. She lives in the same part of Sweden (Smäland) about 50km away. My Dad’s mother was Swedish, from the far north of the country, a long way from where I’ll be studying. She emigrated to South Africa where she met my English grandfather. Shortly after they came to England my Dad was born and a few months later my grandmother died in the 1919 flu epidemic – exactly a hundred years ago. I’m named after her. So, there’s a family connection.
The last clue is faith. I will experience ensamhet (loneliness) sometimes, but like Abraham and I guess most of you, wherever I go I carry within me a place which is a deeper home than the one where I live in Reading or where I’ll be living in Sweden. I think of it as being a taste of the heavenly city to which the writer of Hebrews refers in today’s first reading. The heavenly city is something already present inside us, even if only in a small way (like when Jesus says, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’), not something up in the sky somewhere or a place that we only enter after death. It’s the place within us where we are most at home with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and with ourselves. It’s our treasure. I think it was that inner home, that treasure that kept St Sigfrid and his companions steady as they made the hazardous voyage over to Sweden from England in the 10th century, bringing the gospel to what was then a very inhospitable country. Now, through our diocesan link with Växjö we enjoy a mutual exchange of good news.
St Paul in his letter to Philemon uses a great phrase when telling Philemon of how much he and others have been encouraged by Philemon’s faith. He says, ‘You, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints’. I like to think that is what happens when we foster links with brothers and sisters in other countries. I’m hoping that when I return in November there might be a mutual refreshing of hearts with my sisters and brothers here in this church.
Image Credit – Swedish Flag by Jonathan Brinkhorst on Unsplash