Cheryl’s last sermon

The team are about to risk their lives in a last-ditch attempt to save the known universe from destruction. Just before they put the plan into action there is a pause. ‘I guess this is where I say something profound?’ muses the handsome and charismatic leader. There is longer pause. He speaks again ‘Nothing comes to mind.’ I understand that some of you will be feeling anxiety in this time of change and farewell, with both Tom and I leaving. I am sorry that I have no words of wisdom for you at this moment, but I hope to point you in the right direction.

Just before ordination the candidates go on retreat. I can still remembermy own retreat preacher, Margaret Selby, reminding us that our calling was to be John the Baptist and not Jesus Christ. John is the forerunner, the one who prepares the way for Jesus. He isthe guide, the one who points away from himself and towards Jesus. He is the bridegroom’s friend, the shoshben or little companion who understands that it is not all about him. That is the calling of the priest. So, I can’t allay your anxiety with any wisdom of my own. I can’t promise you the most charismatic, Christ-like, dynamic new Rector, though I’m sure God will be calling the right person for youThere is only one thing I can do, and that is to point you to God. Our confidence, hope and faith can only come from who God is and from nothing else. If we’re honest we know ourselves to be earthen vessels, cheap clay jars, our only treasure is the power of God working in and through us.

Today’s readings all help in making this point. In Isaiah the prophet  brings new hope by reminding people ‘Here is your God’ and then  unpacking who God is for them. In James’s letter to a young Christian
congregation, he tells them that their faith must bear fruit in behaviour that model’s God’s priorities as seen in Christ. In Mark’s gospel Jesus’s reputation has proceeded him. People recognise in him the signs of
God’s kingdom becoming reality. ‘He has done everything well’ they say, just as the creator saw that everything in creation was good and wellmade. Isaiah’s message is to ‘those who are of a fearful heart’ and that
probably includes all of us at this moment. We are exhausted, we are heart-sore, we are beaten down. And that’s about much more than the situation in this church of course. We are worn down by the pandemic and all that it has taken from us, we are fearful of the climate catastrophe human actions have unleashed. We are stricken by the images coming from Afghanistan, from Haiti, from Yemen, from so many places in our world speaking of human misery and despair.

Our strength to play our part, our confidence that things can be different cannot come from ourselves or from our leaders; secular or sacred. The only reason we can let go of our fear is because God is here. Yes, God is still here, even when we can’t detect his presence. And what do we know about who God is that can help us hope? God is the one who made everything in this world with purpose and for joy. God has done everything well, made everything very good. God is the one who does not forget or ignore the cries of creation. Just as the prophet Isaiah promised the people of Israel that their cries inexile would be heard, we have a God who will not leave the world as it is. God will restore justice and destroy evil.

The prophet tells people that our God is a God of transformation, who can restore well-being, heal us and bring us home in from the most challenging places and circumstances. The disabilities he mentions
prevent us from seeing God at work, from hearing God’s message to us, from being active for the kingdom, from singing songs of joy when we recognise God’s presence here among us. But God can change all that.
Our disabilities stop us from fulfilling God’s intention of fruitfulness. We are as arid and entangled as the wilderness. That’s all we can see- a vast arid desert. But the wilderness is the place where so many discover God unexpectedly- Hagar, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus himself to name but a few. I love the fact that, geographically speaking, theshortest way home from the Babylonian exile was across the desert,
through the wilderness we will come home. The images that Isaiah uses give us a powerful sense of God’s transforming action- waters will break forth in the wilderness, streams in the desert, and the thirsty shall
become a spring of living water. Scholars point to chapters 34 and 35 of Isaiah following a pattern of judgement followed by grace, of relinquishing our own efforts which are not working so that we can receive the gifts of God which will restore us to fruitfulness. The very first sermon I preached contained a quote from Cardinal Newman ‘What is it that we who profess religion lack, it is this.  A willingness to change, we will not suffer almighty God to change us. We do not like to let go.’

God’s transforming power comes to us not in coercion and compulsion but in invitation and in gift. Lasting change can only come from inside our own hearts, but the truth is that change is life and an unwillingness
to change is death. Caterpillars that don’t change into butterflies die. Now, don’t panic, I’m not talking about scrapping the Book of Common Prayer or making everyone hug one another at the peace. No, I’m talking about something much more fundamental to our lives asChristians. In his letter James challenges the church about their behaviour because they are continuing to live according to the standards of the secular world they should have left behind, and not to the pattern of God’s Kingdom. When we see Jesus, we see God. We see the way God wants us to live, growing in Christ-likeness as we let God transform our hard hearts into hearts beating in time with the rhythm of Jesus.

One of the hardest things about being a Christian is the way that one becomes more and more aware of one’s own need to change, one’s sinfulness to use an old-fashioned word. The good news for us is always
‘Here is God’, God wants to dwell within us, to be intimately connected to every part of our lives so that we can be transformed for God’s glory and bear more and more fruit. Here is God, and God will be here with you whatever the future holds. God will be there with me when I move to Sheffield and try to discern what’s next in my life. God is inviting us to put our hope and our faith in God, to open ourselves to God’s transforming love. If hope is the melody of the future, then faith is dancing to that melody right now.

So, let us join the dance.