Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lent III - The Dean of Worcester

The Dean of Worcester, the Very Revd Peter Atkinson, a former Principal of Chichester Theological College, preached at the Solemn Mass on the third Sunday of Lent.

There is a tailor in Singapore, or possibly Hong Kong, who once a year sends me an advertisement to say that for a few days in the following month, he will be available at a prestigious hotel in central London, and that if I care to present myself he will take my measurements for a suit at a price which I will not be able to resist. I have, for the past twenty years, resisted; but nonetheless I applaud Mr Chang’s tactics. There is just that much extra incentive to offer myself to his tape-measure, knowing that the opportunity will only be there for a few days; and that, who knows, next year Mr Chang may have retired, or will be dead, or will not write to me, and I shall have irretrievably missed the chance of appearing in his pin-stripe worsted. Mr Chang, his letter subtly implies, does not really need my custom; he’s doing me a favour by being in London at all; but I on the other hand (so his letter quietly suggests) badly need Mr Chang with his tape-measure and scissors.We might think that there’s something of Mr Chang about God in the reading from Isaiah this morning. ‘Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near’. There is some pressure in those words. And there is more pressure in what comes next: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways”, says the Lord’. The Lord has other matters on his mind; we are not his sole concern; and if we seek him some other time, it may not be convenient; he may not be available.But that of course would be absurd; God does not fly in from elsewhere, and fly out again; if he is accessible to us at all, then that is not limited by time or circumstance, let alone by divine whim; he is the God of love and compassion, and therefore must be available ... whenever we want him.

But that’s not quite right either. If God is not a bespoke tailor with a precious timetable, neither is he a shop assistant, humbly at our disposal whenever we choose to stop by. ‘Can I help you?’ says the shop assistant. ‘No thank you, I’m just browsing’, we instinctively reply; summoning him only when we’ve decided what we want. Is that the nature of our relationship with God: browsing, and only calling him over when we are ready to make use of him?

The truth of the matter lies, I think, in the reading from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. ‘God is faithful’, we read, ‘and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it’. ‘God is faithful’: that is the point. We must not read that whole sentence in such a way that we hurry over those first three words. His not allowing us to be tested beyond our strength, his providing a way of escape so that may be able to endure it: those are vital and saving truths, but they stem from what comes first: ‘God is faithful’. It is because God is faithful that he is neither like a Hong Kong tailor with his hint of take-it-or-leave-it; nor like an obsequious shop assistant, only too happy to oblige whenever it suits us; no, he is faithful, he is constant, and in that faithfulness, that constancy, there is the call to us to be faithful, to be constant, in return.

Inscribed on the bell of another theological college, which must not be mentioned here, are words from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians: πιστòς ό καλων ύμας, ‘he who calls you is faithful’. It is, you see, a theme of St Paul. ‘God is faithful’. ‘He who calls you is faithful’. There is a faithfulness in his calling, and a calling in his faithfulness; he calls us, he summons us, to reflect his faithfulness back to him.

Where is the Faithful God in this morning’s Gospel reading? ‘At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”’ Two apparently recent disasters: an atrocity carried out by Pontius Pilate, and the accidental collapse of a building; in both of which innocent people died. Were they innocent? - that was the question. The theology which the Book of Job had criticized centuries before was still alive and well: these people died, therefore they must have deserved it. It is a theology still alive and well; witness the callous remarks of certain American evangelists following the earthquake in Haiti. It is a theology alive and well, and it gives Professor Dawkins and his friends plenty of ammunition; but Jesus disowns it. Were they worse than the people who did not die? No. That is his emphatic answer. But he has something to say in addition; and this tells us something about the faithfulness of God. ‘Unless you repent’, says Jesus, ‘you will all perish just as they did’. His words, of course, were spoken into a specific situation: the situation of first-century Jerusalem, bubbling with rumours of insurrection, and rabble-rousers claiming that a rebellion against the might of Rome was bound to succeed. Why? Because, they would say, ‘God is faithful’. God had promised a throne to David, and that meant that Caesar must be toppled from his, and that meant that an armed revolt was guaranteed success – guaranteed by the faithfulness of God. ‘No’, says Jesus, ‘there is no divine guarantee, God will not sign you blank revolutionary cheques; and unless you think again – unless you repent of this folly – you will come to grief. You will die on the edge of the sword, or under the collapsing walls of Jerusalem, and that will be something you have entirely brought upon yourselves; for the faithfulness of God is not of that nature’.

God does not benignly underwrite all our projects; and that is something we have to learn, quite as much as the people of Jerusalem. Here again we need to hear the words of the Lord in Isaiah: ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways’. God’s thoughts were very different from those of the people of Jerusalem, with their thoughts of armed rebellion. God was faithful to Jerusalem, but faithful with a faithfulness that was also a calling: a calling to repent, a calling to think again, a calling to submit their thoughts to his thoughts, and their ways to his ways.

There is, I believe, a particular temptation to those called to serve God in the Sacred Ministry of his Church, to believe that his thoughts are always our thoughts, and his ways our ways. It is often rooted in a defective idea of vocation, which puts too much emphasis upon the inward personal sense of being called, and not enough on the external confirmation of that call by the mind of the Church. So God’s vocation becomes ‘my vocation’, my precious gift from God, which he has, so it would seem from the way some people talk, entirely handed over. It is very surprising to me learn what some deacons and priests (and bishops too, for all I know) count as part of their calling: a calling to this or that large and prosperous parish, a calling to this or that Oxbridge chaplaincy, callings to canonries or appointments by the Archbishops’ Council. Whenever I assist in the appointment of a priest to a living, I long to hear of how they feel called to the dull, day-in-day-out repetitive routine of pastoral ministry, the doing of the same things again and again (but always trying to do them well), the calling to spend and be spent in the service of God without much regard to career-planning or professional development. Sometimes priests do speak in that way; but not always. I once interviewed a priest for a post, and he told me that God had called him to be a leader. When I asked him, as I always do, what books he read, he had to think for a bit and then he said he had read an interesting book comparing the leadership styles of Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. I never did find out which of the two styles he thought was going to be of more use to him, but I doubt that it was God’s thought that he should be like either of them. The fact is that God does not hand over his vocation; his vocation never becomes ‘my vocation’ as if it belonged to me; it remains his vocation, his calling, and his thoughts are not always our thoughts; the ways in which he leads you and me are his ways, not ours. But he who calls us is faithful.