This is the first sermon which Revd. Stephen Snelling preached at Seal, following his ordination as a Deacon on Sept 4th in Rochester Cathedral.
“One more step along the world I go” – and yesterday I took the next step in my journey that God has planned for me as I was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Tonbridge in Rochester Cathedral. It’s a journey that I will be privileged to share with you for the next few years but it’s a journey that began when I was three days old when I was baptised in hospital. Clearly I wasn’t expected to live but God had other plans for me to fulfil.
Although my parents were not practising Christians at the age of seven or eight I nevertheless found myself attending Sunday School at my local church – St John’s, Bexley - where I very soon came under the influence of a Lay Reader – Stan Allen who was to have a great effect on my life – although I didn’t know it at the time. It was Stan who helped to plant the seeds of my Christian faith and to nurture them so that when I was in my early twenties I thought seriously about training as a Reader (but they all seemed so old!).
College and work then got in the way and it was about ten years ago when I finally finished work that the little nagging voice started on at me again as it had done on more than one occasion in my life – previously I had pushed it away and filled my life with other things but now I couldn’t.
The prayer by Abbé Michel Quoist in the Church Times a couple of weeks ago sums up my position perfectly:
Lord, you seized me and I could not resist you.
I ran for a long time but you followed me.
I took by-paths but you knew them.
You overtook me. I struggled,
Here I am, Lord, out of breath,
no fight left in me, and I’ve said “yes” almost willingly. When I stood trembling like one defeated before his captor,
Your look of love fell on me. . .
Marked by the fire of your love,
I cannot forget you.
Now I know that you are there,
close to me, and I work in peace beneath your loving gaze.
I just lift my eyes to you and I meet yours.
And we understand one another.
All is light, all is peace.
And so I started training as a Reader at the church in my village of Bidborough where I had worshipped for sixteen years and following a placement at St Mary Hadlow I was able to move to that church where I was licensed as a Reader two years ago. During my placement the little nagging voice started up again and following meetings with the Diocesan Director of Ordinands, four interviews with priests in the Diocese, and five supportive references I was selected for training for ordination two years ago and now here I am standing before you as an ordained person who to borrow words from Winston Churchill, has not reached the end, or even the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning.
Now I have got this far my only regret is, perhaps, that I didn’t embark on this wonderful adventure earlier in my life but I think that some words from psalm 139, which is also set for today, puts my journey into context:
it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secretYour eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
So I am here not in my time but very much in God’s.
I was so pleased that Stan Allen’s daughter, Jenny, was able to be with me at my ordination yesterday and indeed she is here today along with my wife Deborah and many of my friends who have supported me during my life and on this most remarkable unfinished journey.
Before I go on I should like to say a few thank yous – to Anne for agreeing to take me and to continue my formation during the time I am here and to all of you who have made Deborah and me so welcome and who will come on this journey with us over the next few years.
We heard in Luke’s Gospel this morning that Jesus was on a journey too and he said some things that to be honest are not great: It doesn’t sound that attractive being a Christian does it? – give up your possessions, hate your family, hate even life itself, carry a cross; sounds pretty miserable
Jesus had large crowds travelling with him – they were looking for answers and this was what he said to them. He’s very challenging - this is Jesus at his most extreme. The answers he gives are not easy – he’s saying that living fully as a human being in the world is costly but he’s also saying that somehow it’s worth it. So when today's gospel speaks about ‘hating’ the members of your family if you want to follow Jesus what does it mean? Now it's tempting to weaken the force of Jesus' words by some sleight of hand that concludes that he couldn't have meant what he said. But we can be clear that Jesus means what he says and means it with the utmost seriousness. The question is, how does he mean it?
Well Matthew has preserved the saying in a slightly different form: ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10.37). That makes the meaning clearer. Clearer, but not weaker. Jesus goes on to explain. ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ The call, the summons, the demand is still all-embracing - It's not a case of ‘hating’ in the sense of detesting the good earth God has placed us on, or the people he has given us to love, or the gifts he has entrusted to us for our care. Far from it.
What we are called to do is to examine where our loves, our hungers and our longings really lie. If our relationships, our possessions, our race, our politics or our country claim our absolute loyalty, then our attachments are becoming simple idolatry.
When it comes to this life, there is no such thing as the ‘love that asks no questions’. We cannot serve two masters. The cross always puts to us the question Jesus put to Peter: ‘do you love me more than these?’ And it’s no good us sympathizing with Peter when he gets exasperated when the question is put three times because what the risen Jesus is looking for from Peter is the same unconditional love that he is prepared to give to him and us. Peter on the other hand is only prepared to give human friendship – he just doesn’t get it.
So like Peter, good old impetuous Peter who always tries his best - always gets things wrong - but is saved by Jesus, we humans feel things very intensely, we love, we are jealous, we are afraid, we’re happy, we’re wanting to be liked, we’re wanting to make a difference in the world: and in the never ending day by day network of relationships it’s often true that our spiritual life doesn’t really get a look in.
Most of the time, Jesus is, if he’s really lucky, our second best friend - or actually, an abstract presence that is not really part of most people’s everyday lives. And the state of our spiritual life is in part affected by the emotional experiences we have in the world. Doctors tell us that a feature of modern life is the acronym TATT. They write it on their notes and hear it from many of their patients. TATT; Tired All The Time.
In today’s competitive and noisy environment we are required to maintain the façade of competence and clarity; when in fact we may be lost inside. To keep a job in order to pay the mortgage or rent, to pass the exams we need to progress, we are required to disguise the myriad of fears and uncertainties we carry.
But the good news of today’s reading is that we do not have to be Tired All The Time; there is a depth of spirit, a spiritual energy inside each one of us, planted, and nurtured by God that is the essence of life itself. And Jesus is telling the crowd and us that we should measure all of our lives against the template of the cross - it doesn’t depend on our possessions, our relationships, our families, our plans. Whatever plans we make, like the builder or the king, the truth of our lives is that we are ourselves and we are alone before God where all human attachments will be measured and judged by the cross.
To know that we are alone before God doesn’t make us selfish or self centred – quite the opposite – it makes us turn outwards from ourselves to connect with others, to realise our mutual dependence.
All we are called to do is find that inexhaustible fire of life inside that awakens our will to live differently. We don’t have to be afraid or tired: because the energy of God sustains us.
The truth is, that God does not weary – as I do – of me and my interminable worries about what people will think of me. God does not weary - as I do - of the abortive attempts I make to pray. God does not weary – as I do - of the pursuit of justice and mercy. God does not weary - as I do - of looking for beauty and finding it stubbornly and delightedly despite so much evidence to the contrary.
We bring all that we are, all that we need, all that we long for, our loves, our worries, our desires, our petulance, and selfishness to the still small voice who tells us we are loved.
It is our exhausting need to justify our place in the world over and over again that means we as a society are Tired All The Time; we live at the edge of our capacity to communicate – emails, texts, images, even music – pour into our consciousness. Holding the mask up to present to others the person we think they will like – makes our arms ache and leaves us little room to breathe.
The good news is that there was no mistake in creation when we were made.
Remember the words of psalm 139:
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
That’s the truth. All of what we are is known to God and accepted as the truth.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when Jesus calls a man or a woman he bids them come and die. We must take up our cross. But in dying to ourselves and putting our old ways behind us we are born into eternal life. That is Jesus’ overwhelming invitation of love to us – all we have to do is accept.