HOMILY at the 10h30 SOLEMN MASS for the FIFTH SUNDAY after TRINITY (B) 2018
I did not expect to be here today. And by here I mean in this pulpit. Because last year, when I first began to plan this event, I had hoped that there might have been a good number of us priests who trained together at Mirfield, here together. And that I might not be occupying this particular place today, which might have passed to another, and much more eloquent and distinguished, person than me.
And I suppose that there is another way in which I did not expect to be here today – here in Geneva, that is. If someone had said to me forty years ago that in forty years’ time I would be serving as a priest in the city of Jean Calvin I might well have expressed surprise, if not downright incredulity!
But expectations are not everything. Frequently we place far too much reliance on expected outcomes – and even in Church life nowadays in our relentlessly business-oriented culture, we are regularly encouraged to look for measurable outcomes of mission and ministry.
Life, however, doesn’t work like that. Someone said to me a while back that forty years is an odd kind of anniversary to keep. And in some ways it is. I grew up in a church where fifty years was the time you celebrated your ordination, sixty if you were able to do so.
Yet neither of these are particularly biblical numbers worthy of celebration. Forty however comes into the Biblical picture quite often. Forty days and nights of rain for the great flood from which Noah escaped. Forty years in the desert for God’s people Israel fleeing from slavery in Egypt. Forty days and nights for Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb. Forty days in the desert for Jesus. Forty days between the resurrection of Jesus and his Ascension into glory. And all of these uses have a suggestion of completeness about them, a fullness of time, an adequacy of time.
So perhaps as such, an adequate sufficiency of time, forty years is a good moment to reflect, and an even better one for the offering of thanks. Although almost as soon as one says that, there is the realisation of the need of penitence, too, for all those things which have been done or left undone as an expression of the lack of health found in all of us.
And much has happened during the last forty years! In all sorts of ways. But looking at the dedications of the places I have served during that time, I started with the Angels, went on via the Apostles Peter and Paul, John Baptist, S. Andrew (twice!), SS. Maelrubha, Finnbarr and Columba, then S. Alban, and finally, well finally I got to God, here in Geneva at Holy Trinity!
In terms of the expectations, not to say measurable outcomes, of this pilgrimage amongst the angels and saints in their journey to God, I am not sure what one can say! Apart from two Sundays during those 40 years, I have had pastoral responsibility for at least one congregation always, and on most of those Sundays I have preached at least once. That, at least, is a measurable outcome of one’s ordination, measurable in terms of the pile of paper produced once upon a time, and later the amount of megabytes on a hard drive, though I am not sure what significance that has!
Because much of the life of a priest is something which happens out of public view and cannot be said to have any measurable outcomes. Any more than friendship can have ‘measurable outcomes.’ Except in terms of joy and sadness. Joy when one’s friend rejoices and sorrow when one’s friend is hurt.
In fact, that image of friendship is a reasonably good one for the priest. The Ordinal, which spells out the duties of the clergy, tell us that the priest is to be both a friend of God and a friend to his or her fellow members of the Body of Christ. As such, those of us so privileged share the whole range of human experiences of joy and sorrow.
This came home to me very forcefully just about forty years ago, not long after I had been ordained priest. The parish priest was going on holiday and I was left in charge as we used to say back in those benighted days! This meant that I had to do all the weddings that, normally, the parish priest would officiate at. One Saturday morning, just before one such wedding, I had a call telling me that the husband of one of our parishioners had died without warning during the night. I made arrangements to call, directly after the wedding, and I remember to this day the long walk between the church – where we had been celebrating a joyous new beginning for a delightful couple – and the house where unimaginable heartache had visited overnight. And yes, it was not just all the weddings I had to do during that holiday period. It was all the funerals too.
And that is the stuff of priesthood – being with – as the Prayer Book used to say – all sorts and conditions of men. Sometimes at the extreme ends of joy and sorrow. Though one must not overdramatize this. Much of it is ordinary, down-to-earth. And there is nothing wrong with that, even though its outcomes may not be measurable.
The Ordinal requires priests to be both friend to people, and friend of God. Trying through prayer and worship to grow in this friendship of God and people is something which is essential to the life of every priest, though that is even more difficult to measure! Over those forty years, for most of the time I have been able to celebrate the Eucharist often daily, but at the very least several times each week, and this life-giving meeting point with the Risen Christ is also the place where one comes to find healing. Healing both for oneself and for those around. The bishop who ordained me as a priest forty years ago used to speak of being at one’s wits end in ministry. Not negatively though. Because, he would say, our wit’s end is where God can begin. There have been plenty of times when I have approached the altar feeling pretty much at the end of my personal resources. But the miracle is and has been that somehow, I don’t know how, the Risen Christ is there to heal and raise up, to renew and nourish and nurture. Being at one’s wit’s end in that way is certainly not a bad thing!
Which is where, eventually and I am sorry it has taken so long, we come to this morning’s Gospel reading. There were at least two people at their ‘wit’s end’ in that reading. Jairus and the woman suffering from haemorrhages, maybe a form of menorrhagia, are both at their wit’s end. The woman has tried everything – significantly, S. Luke the physician omits the rather derogatory comment by S. Mark about spending all her money on useless cures and doctors! Jairus, too, is desperate. Both however have some kind of faith in Jesus. That faith is answered. There is healing, raising up, new life. Even though at first there is a moment of being at one’s wit’s end.
That is a good picture of faith. Over the time I’ve been a priest people have said sometimes to me how they feel their faith runs short. We all feel like that sometimes. But faith is not about sight. Neither is it measurable. As a scientist, one of the things that led me first of all towards ‘faith’ was the observation of our wonderfully ordered world of nature, the proliferation of species and the miraculous sustaining of life in each of them, as celebrated in today’s first reading from Ecclesiasticus. The other thing that helped was philosophy – an understanding that belief in God is a perfectly rational and reasonable way of looking at the universe. But I had to learn that faith as opposed to belief is something different again. Faith is mostly about trust rather than about things that we believe intellectually. Trust in God is something that grows as you do it. Jairus in today’s Gospel found that out. As did that woman in the crowd, terrified that her ritually unclean action – a sinful action – of touching the Lord might be discovered. Yet both of these people at their wit’s end found healing. Trust was vindicated.
Just a couple of days ago, I found a quotation of the 13th century Dominican Mystic, Meister Eckhart from his Meditations. He prays to God I often think it is my work to find You, and in the tangle of my life I stumble into brambles of doubt and pits of uncertainties and wonder where You are hiding, and then I remember: You seek and I am found. Yes – here is the stuff of faith. It’s about trusting that right there in those brambles of doubt and pits of uncertainties we discover the presence of the forgiving, healing, loving God. The One who seeks us out before we even begin to think of searching for Him. And above all the One who accepts us as we are – not as we might like to be, not as we feel that we should be. Just as we are. That’s where our journey of trust can begin – trusting that it is in fact all right not to have the faith we might like to have, or to be the people whom God might like rather better! Who are we to determine that? The journey of faith begins with this act of trust.
And the journey of faith moves then into hope. The ‘theological virtue’ of hope which flows out of our trust in God. Hope in God means that no matter what, God ultimately brings about his purposes for good. The great sign of this hope is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this hope is to take root in our lives as we learn to trust its Author.
But our pilgrimage doesn’t stop there and if it does then it has failed. Faith leads to hope. And faith and hope lead us to, make possible in our lives, the third great theological virtue – Love. The one that goes on for ever. Love never ceases – S. Paul so wisely put it. Because when we have no more need of faith because sight has arrived, when we have no more need of hope because we see and fully participate in God’s good purposes, then one thing remains for us, and that is love. Love of God and love of all in God.
As a priest, it is an enormous privilege to be a fellow pilgrim with many people in this journey of faith, hope and love. Can you measure its outcome? I doubt it – nor should we wish to do so.
In this celebration today, I am very conscious of many fellow pilgrims to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude, some of them now no longer with us in the flesh. Particularly I remember those with whom I trained, and the ones who did their best to train me – as you can see with only limited success! And I am very grateful to all of you who are here today to share in this moment of joy. A moment made even more joyful by the wonderful music that our musicians here are producing – including as well as the delightful playfulness and exuberant joy of the Mozart Mass, an anthem tailor made for – in the words of Ecclesiasticus which we sing in it – a compounder of medicines. Probably most of you know that a few years back I completed another 40 year anniversary – that time as a registered pharmacist!
There is however one person to whom I owe more thanks than I can ever express, and I know that I shall be in trouble for mentioning her. But thank you, Geraldine, for being there throughout these forty years and for everything that you are and everything you have been and have done and given. I certainly wouldn’t have been here without you!
Now to him from all blessings come, in earth and heaven be ascribed as is most justly due, all praise, dominion, glory and majesty, now and through endless ages. Amen.