Texts: Isaiah 30:8-21, 2 Corinthians 9.
The members of the Holywell Community have just come back from a few days of retreat in the Wirral with the Sisters of Jesus Way. It was the first moment I’ve had to stop and breath after an eventful few months. I went straight from Godly Play training, to travelling around the Welsh coast with my parents, to two weeks of intense work in Walsingham for their youth pilgrimage, to the Holywell Community’s Induction Week. It’s been a whirlwind.
It’s also been a time coloured by my consciousness that I am not going to be here for much longer. The middle of October, when I’m due to leave, will be here any minute now. And yet, here I am being inducted into a new year of the community. It is a very strange feeling!
In thinking about this, I’ve been drawn back to a wee snippet of a Godly Play story that I picked up in July. Here it is:
Time, time, time. There all kinds of time. There is a time to get up in the morning. There is a time to go to bed. There is a time to go to school and a time to come home. There is time to work and a time to play. But what is time?
Some people say that time is a line, but I wonder what time would look like? Ah, wait a minute. What is this?
Time. Time in a line. This is time in a line. Look at this. Here is the beginning. It is the newest part. It is just being born. It is brand new. Now look
Look it is getting older. The part that was new is now getting old. I wonder how long time goes. Does it go on forever? Could there ever be an ending?
It ended. Look at the ending.
The beginning that was so new at the beginning is now old. The ending is the new part now.Godly Play Story: The Circle of the Church Year
I’m going to leave this ambiguity hanging for the moment. We’ll come back to it! I want now to turn to our readings for tonight in light of two themes which were discussed during the Community’s recent retreat. I’ve spoken about both of these themes to you before, but they are hard to exhaust! The themes are: obedience and listening.
Our retreat was focused on the Rule of St Benedict. If you have read much of the Rule you will know that it is filled with references to the scriptures. In the edition we use, you can tell that Benedict is quoting from the Bible when the words are in italic script. Flick through, and you’ll see that many pages are filled with italics.
When explaining what obedience means, St Benedict quotes a line from the New Testament reading that we have just heard: “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). Indeed, the whole passage is very helpful for understanding the kind of obedience that a Benedictine is supposed to cultivate.
In the passage, St Paul is engaged in something like the first Christian Aid Week He is in full rhetorical swing trying to convince the Corinthian Christians to provide material support for the Christians in Jerusalem. He uses a few different strategies to encourage the Corinthians to give: ‘I’ve been telling the Macedonians that you are very generous… you wouldn’t want to make me a liar would you?’. All good rhetorical moves. But there’s something deeper. Paul tells the Corinthians that they must not give reluctantly or under pressure but cheerfully.
St Benedict insists that obedience isn’t just a matter of following commands. Obedience must be from the heart. It must be “free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness”. This is hard. I think of the most annoying kind of store manager or boss, who demands not only that you fulfill your duties but that you also do it with a smile. Or that you ‘embody the values and company philosophy of McDonald’s’ or whatever.
There’s something especially unpleasant and overbearing about a boss who says not only must you do what he tell you… you have to like it too! They already have control over where you are and what you do, now they want control over what you feel and think too! Ugh!
It might look like this is the kind of situation St Benedict is trying to create. It might look like St Benedict was just another overbearing boss. (Incidentally, this is why I get a little anxious when I hear about business leaders trying to use the Rule of St Benedict as a model for their companies — it sounds like it could go quite badly!). But there’s a difference here. The reasons that Christianity thinks of obedience as a virtue are incompatible with that obedience being merely external or merely a matter of following orders.
What is the reason? It is simply that our obedience is being directed towards God. God may be demanding and may appear at inconvenient or frustrating times, but God has something the overbearing boss doesn’t have. In my experience, the worst examples of overbearing bosses tend to be, lets say, a bit incompetent. They tend to screw things up. God, on the other hand, is the source of all goodness. For things to be going well, for things to be what they ought to be, just is for them to work according to God’s purpose for them. (The boss’s purposes are not necessarily in line with your best interests – God’s, almost by definition, are.)
I’ve just been complaining about incompetent bosses. But they’re not the only ones with a tendency to screw things up. We all have a tendency to screw things up. The call to obedience to God is, in part, a recognition of this. Without God, we’re nothing. Left to our own devices, and our own desires, detached from the source of all Goodness, we have no hope of improving. At least, this is what the Benedictine thinks. Instead, we are to open ourselves up to God’s desires.
The problem we are trying to solve with, in St Benedict’s words, ‘the strong and noble weapons of obedience’, is that our hearts aren’t quite right. Well, the only way that could work is if obedience transformed our hearts. Just following orders isn’t going to do the job. Obedience in the Christian sense is a matter of the heart.
St Benedict was trying to set up a particular kind of social structure: a monastery. Whether his rule for monks is a success or a failure ought to be measured in terms of how well it leads monks to the kind of obedience to God that we have just been talking about.
Tonight, I don’t want to focus on the bits of the Rule which specifically concern monks and monasteries. Instead, we can ask a more central question: how are we to be obedient to God from the heart? Benedict gives us an answer: listen “with the ear of your heart.”
There’s no getting around the importance of private prayer as the place where this listening happens. There’s lots of advice out there about how to pray. I’ll just say a few words now (not pretending to great expertise in the matter). As many now recognise, contemplative prayer is important. This is prayer in which we go beyond words. But we shouldn’t forget meditation, in which we take something from the scriptures or some episode from the life of Jesus or the saints, and make it come alive in our imaginations, thoughts and feelings.
This has the advantage of not being simply a list of requests given to God. “Lord please give me this, please give me that”. One way God speaks to us is through the scriptures and the saints. We can take advantage of that. Meditation also has the advantage of engaging the heart. Often some aspect of the story will stir our emotions or stick out to us. These things can change from day to day. But the whole person is involved in this process.
There is always something in the key events of the Christian story to take away and apply to our own situation. So it making resolutions as we conclude a time of prayer is also important. That is, to commit to some way in which we can exhibit the truth of whatever we have been meditating on in our own lives in the coming day or two. This is a way in which our actions can be brought in line with God’s purposes.
Perhaps, say, in meditating on the creation story, we might focus on the virtue of thankfulness. We might then resolve to express our thankfulness to someone in particular who has done something for us recently. It can be that simple!
The approach I’ve just be gesturing towards is only one way in which we can listen to God in prayer. Your mileage may vary!
One thing that this kind of listening is not compatible with is assuming that we already have the answers. We might (and unfortunately sometimes do) tell God what needs to happen in a given situation. Our Old Testament reading can help to illuminate this problem.
Isaiah is not happy with the people of Judah. They think they know what’s right. They won’t listen to the true prophets.
The problem they are facing is that the Assyrians are threatening the kingdom of Judah. You wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the Assyrians. Let’s say that they didn’t believe in multiculturalism. So the Judeans sent treasures to Egypt to try and get in their good books and help them to form a defensive alliance against the Assyrians.
But, Isaiah tells us, none of this was done with God in mind. No listening involved. And, we’re told, God doesn’t think the Egyptians are going to be much use in this matter. But the Judeans had their plan and they weren’t going to hear otherwise. They reject, in the words of our reading, ‘quietness’ and ‘trust’ and instead ‘flee upon horses’. And God says: you will flee! Things will not go well for a time.
But all is not lost. God promises to a restoration in which ‘[our] eyes shall see [our] Teacher. And when [we] turn to the right or when [we] turn to the left, [we] shall hear a word behind [us] saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”’ (Who’s the Teacher? The usual Sunday School answer is correct… but that’s another story).
So let’s avoid getting carried away with our own plans and attitudes about what needs to be done or what God ought to do. Let’s not let our business overtake us. Rather, let’s ensure that we leave time to listen to God in prayer and to have our hearts transformed so that we can be truly obedient.
A loose thread…
I left this string hanging earlier. Our time line where the beginning has gotten old and the ending is the newest, freshest bit. Let’s come back to it:
Do you know what the church did? They tied the ending that was like a beginning and the beginning that was like an ending together, so we would always know that for every ending there is a beginning and for every beginning there is an ending.Godly Play Story: The Circle of the Church Year
I was expressing some confusion at the start of this sermon about being at the end of my time here while everyone else is at the beginning. It is a strange feeling. But endings and beginnings are joined together as we grow into the people God intends for us to be.
In this case, the virtues of obedience, humility and the like discussed in the Holywell Community’s initial retreat are not just for members of the community. Our discussions were just as relevant to me, about to leave, as they were to the people who will stay for the year. Indeed, the themes I’ve been talking to you about tonight are relevant to all of us in our growth as Christians.
So let’s listen with the ears of our hearts.