Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Of Sheep and Annual Meetings

Both our parishes held their Annual Parochial Church Meetings on Sunday. This Homily was intended as part of the "Chairman's Remarks" (as the agenda put it):

We’re still in Easter-tide, the season of Easter. But we’ve now run out of Resurrection appearances by Jesus for use in the Gospel reading. Last Sunday we had the final appearance recorded by St. John as Jesus came to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee - and his last instructions to the disciples… what they should do to live out their faith in the risen Christ when physically he has left them.

But there’s a link between last week’s Gospel reading and this week’s. They both involve sheep. Last week we heard Jesus ask Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And to Peter’s reply, Jesus answers: “Feed my lambs…” “Tend my sheep…” “Feed my sheep…” Love for Jesus is put into action by care for the flock.

Today we hear Jesus on an occasion in his earlier ministry and he says, “My sheep hear my voice.” But there’s also a problem - because he tells the people he is speaking to, “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

Who are the sheep? Who is in as far as the flock of Christ is concerned? - and who is out? And if Jesus says “Tend my sheep, feed my sheep…” does that mean there are people who don’t need his care or who don’t deserve it?

Today is observed by the Church as a whole as “Vocations Sunday” - a day to think about being called by God. It’s also the day when our parish has its Easter Vestry and Annual Parochial Church Meeting. And our Gospel reading has us think about sheep.

They’re all connected. It’s quite appropriate that all three coincide. A vocation is a calling to do something. It might be a job - and knowing that a particular job is just right for you, and you are just the person to do it. In the Church “vocation” has been particularly associated with a calling to the priesthood in particular - and more generally to other forms of ministry. We need to keep that definition in mind. We need to pray for more priests - and for the right people to test their vocations. That’s not just about the right person to do the job, it’s about the struggle to be the person God is calling. And when we understand this, then we see that really every Christian has a  vocation - every Christian is called to live out their faith on a daily basis, to be who and what God wants. Are we ready to ask each day what God wants of us? Do we seek to know where he is calling us? Do we want to be the people God wants us to be? If we think we are, does God recognise us?... those words of Jesus, “you do not belong to my sheep,” might seem quite judgmental - but they might also be a prompt to take a good look at ourselves and ask how God sees us.

And vocation is not merely something individual. God calls me - but the Church has its part to play in recognising it. That’s why we say that a vocation to the priesthood has to be “tested.” But not just priesthood. Today we have our church’s Annual Meeting. It’s a time to take note of reports on what we’ve been doing over the past year, to check the accounts, to vote for churchwardens and members of the PCC. But not just to look back or to do what is legally required of us. Today’s meeting invites us to ask how close we can come to fulfillment of our calling as God’s people - to be the  Body of Christ; to be a sign of his Kingdom. It’s not just that we are sheep - Christ’s flock who need looking after… We have a calling to look out for other people too - those who are outside the doors of our churches, those who need our help and care, people looking for faith, people who don’t even recognise their need.

Who are the “sheep?” The real question is “who is the shepherd?” Always we are called back to Christ - and when we are called we share in his care for the flock. But Jesus doesn’t only call himself a shepherd to his flock. He also calls himself “the door to the sheepfold.” He’s the way in. If we wonder who are the sheep he calls into his flock, the way forward is not to judge the answer for ourselves. It’s to see that we keep the door open for those who might come in.

There are some well-known words often used at the door of a church - and we might use them as a prayer for ourselves in our vocation and on this day of our Annual Meeting:

O God, make the door of this house
    wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship;
    narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride, and strife.

Make its threshold smooth enough
    to be no stumbling-block to children,
    nor to straying feet,
    but rugged enough to turn back the tempter’s power. 

God make the door of this house the gateway to your eternal kingdom.

Can we open our doors to all who are in need? Can we be faithful to our vocation as Christ’s people - and help other people recognise their calling?

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” says Jesus. On this Vocation Sunday the Church reminds us: "The young are called; the elderly are called. There is no retirement from the Christian pilgrimage. …... Women are called and men are called….. God 'has no favourites' …. We are all called no matter what our occupations may be. There is no special status in the Kingdom for those in 'top jobs' or 'important responsibilities' "   

May that be true for us! May we help other people find it is true for them!

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Two Thomases - the 2nd Sunday of Easter

(Gospel Reading: John 20.19–31)

“The man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith.”

This is a tale of two Thomases. “Doubting Thomas” is the way one of the disciples in today’s Gospel reading is often unjustly described – as if we think we can write him off for his temerity in questioning the disciples’ account of their Easter meeting with Jesus. The other Thomas is the man who wrote those words with which I began: “The man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith.”

This Thomas is a writer I’ve kept going back to throughout the time I’ve been ordained - over 30 years. Thomas Merton was one of the great Christian writers of the 20th century. Like many people, I first encountered his work in his book “The Seven Storey Mountain.” It’s the account of his vocation – from his childhood upbringing in France and England, through the loss of both his parents, his move to America, and his coming to faith... which led him to become a Trappist monk. He realised, as he says in his book, that his vocation – any Christian’s vocation - was to be a saint, and the book ends on a high note with a great confession of faith and his profession into monastic vows. It’s a tremendous book of 400 pages telling how God has been there all along, seeking him out and calling him on his journey of faith.

But what becomes still more interesting is to see how he went on from that high point. Could he continue living at that level of faith and confidence? There’s a lot to learn from reading his personal journals. Just a few years after the runaway success of “The Seven Storey Mountain”, he finds himself correcting the proofs of the book’s translation into French. It had become one of the religious bestsellers of all time, but he admits that now the book leaves him quite cold – he is no longer the man who wrote that book. Or rather, we might say, he’d moved on. Faith cannot remain static, so a faith which is full of confidence will – if it’s going to be a living faith – have to be challenged, even questioned and doubted.

“The Seven Storey Mountain” remains a classic of Christian spirituality. But it didn’t deal with those parts of Merton’s life that his superiors thought unedifying. A rather wayward year as an undergraduate in Cambridge, for example. And it’s never been established whether during that year he had fathered a child with whom he then had no further contact, a child later killed with its Mother during the Blitz. Whatever the truth behind all the speculation, we know that beneath his desire for holiness, and the zealous faith of his best-selling book, there were private doubts, anxieties, questioning and griefs.

And this is something that comes out clearly for the first time with the publishing of his personal journals. Having renounced the world, taken his vows in a silent order, after getting special permission to live in his own hermitage in the woods, Merton at the age of 50 had to have surgery on his spine which required that he leave the monastery. The operation was a success, and he returned to the abbey just in time for Easter – only for it to dawn upon him in the days that followed that he had fallen in love. It was a student nurse who had cared for him only briefly, but his feelings forced him to conclude, “I will do the only thing possible and risk loving with Christ’s love when there is so obvious a need for it.” He knows that his vows and his security in the religious life require him to break off his contact with the nurse. But everything he felt he had under control is now called into question. Recklessly he calls her from the monastery and arranges meetings with her – and knowing their feelings for each other, he comes to understand himself the more deeply. As he writes in his Journal: “One of the good sane things about this love is seeing myself as I am loved by M. True, she idealizes me impossibly, yet at the same time I am unavoidably known to her as I am. Many of the things she loves in me are things I find humiliating and impossible, but she loves them because they are concretely mine. I love her the same way....”

In a sense it is a hopeless love affair. It’s not something Merton can continue while maintaining the integrity of his vows - nor in fairness to the young woman. But it’s also something deeply moving, something that enables him more than anything in the last years of his life to grow – and that finally allows him to make sense of his vocation.

I tell the story because it shows that faith is not something we can insist upon. We cannot impose our faith upon other people, and we cannot maintain it for ourselves simply by keeping the rules. We can only live out the life of faith by recognising our humanity, by allowing questions and doubts to reach our hearts and minds – and above all by letting love do its work. In the end for Merton there is no conflict between his monastic vocation and the call to love – and to love with all his human being. Because when he is able to accept finally that someone else is loving him as the person he is – rather than as a monk, a priest or a writer – he comes to understand truly what love is.

It’s a lesson which has had to be learned over and over again from the earliest of times by anyone who would be a follower of Christ. The apostle Thomas is not someone to be condemned for his failure to believe that Christ was risen from the dead. Perhaps he was a man of stubbornness, someone who just wouldn’t take other people at their word – he tells us that much himself: “Unless I see.... I will not believe.” But can we not feel for him too? The other disciples have a message they can proclaim with boldness, because they have seen for themselves that first Easter day, when Jesus had come to them through the locked doors. But he had missed it – how is Thomas ever to be able to join with the other apostles in proclaiming their message of the Resurrection when he hasn’t seen it the same way they have?

And I want to ask, isn’t there a message for us all here, when we are trying to bear witness to the faith which keeps us going? We need to be confident in our faith, but we need to see that our experience is not necessarily that of other people. What is convincing to us may mean nothing to other people. Have they been there with us in our experience? Have we gone through the same experiences as them?

Of course St. John’s Gospel gives us a “happy ending” for Thomas despite all his questioning when Jesus comes a week later to stand again in the midst of the disciples. But what strikes me is that though Jesus shows the wounds in his hands and side to Thomas and invites him to touch them, we’re not told that Thomas does in fact do so. “My Lord and my God!” says Thomas to Jesus, but there is no longer the need for him to have tangible proof. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” says Jesus. And the truth of Thomas’s conversion is not that he can now reach out and touch the wounds of the risen Christ, but that the risen Christ has reached out and touched him. Jesus comes to Thomas with all his doubts and questions. He lets him ask, he allows for his anxieties, and still he calls him his disciple. Failure to believe is not grounds for condemnation. And the way to faith for Thomas is through the love of God in Christ in accepting him in all the frailty of his humanity.

The other Thomas – Thomas Merton – had embarked upon his Christian journey and his monastic vocation with the highest of goals, but was to discover the true meaning of love only when he found someone who loved him outside the rules and boundaries he’d set himself, someone who loved him as and for himself. That’s the way that God loves us, and the way he calls us into a community where we love one another. As Merton records: “I dreamt I was telling several other monks, ‘I shall be a saint’, and they did not seem to question me. Furthermore, I believed it myself. If I do – I shall – it will be because of the prayers of other people who, though they are better than I am, still want me to pray for them.”

Bonnets on parade

A wonderful display from Easter Day...

... and one of the models