Moving on

Eileen McLean's last sermon at St Peter’s, Nottingham

Trinity 16 15 September 2002
1 Timothy 2: 1-6
Matthew 5: 43 - end
(Readings for the Peace of the World ASB)

When I was interviewed for this job (which was then as Parish Deacon), and again when I was interviewed at Bamburgh, I was asked the same question - first by Leslie and eleven years later by the Bishop of Newcastle - "What are the subjects you come back to time and time again in your preaching?" (Both being very wise men and realising we all have a very limited number of sermons in us) Of course you may say something entirely different, but I think that in a very fumbling way, I gave similar answers each time.

Firstly I return time and again to saying very simply that this world was created by a God of love, who is with us always and everywhere. Secondly, I have an obsession with the fact that God made us in his image, to be co-creators with him in ‘making all things good’. And thirdly, that although we all have that same calling, we will all do it differently because we are unique persons, each loved and accepted by God, but Different. This is another obsession - that we are each on a journey of faith, trying to become the people God wants us to be.

Today, for just one last time, I want to try to bring those together. Bear with me, in the personal emphasis.

God is with us

I chose the Collect and Readings this morning especially; they are those set for times when we are particularly concerned for the peace of the world. If one of the pillars of my belief is that we live in God’s world and that he, the God of love is present in every part of it, then I would say we can’t ignore the reality of what is around us. We are at this time surrounded by war and rumours of war. No matter what is happening in our personal lives, and there’s quite a lot happening in mine at the moment! - we can’t run away from the world. We must always live our lives, pray our prayers in the larger reality which surrounds us, not cut off either floating in a pious devotional bubble, or retreating into a delightful safe place of friendships and comfort.

For ‘God is with us’. The message of Christmas - ‘Emmanuel’ resounds every day and in every place. Because of this there is ‘nothing that is not holy’.

God is with us here and now - as we share in the sacrament of Communion - as we gather together afterwards for something I know nothing about! God’s spirit is also with all worshippers today - everywhere. He is with all those ordinary billions for whom worship is far from their mind, whether they be rejoicing in celebration, or just struggling to survive. He is with members of the UN as they struggle to solve questions of war and peace. His spirit is with them.

The question has been asked again this week? ‘Where was God then when the twin towers fell last September?’ Asked in such a way that the questioners seemed to blame God for not turning the terrorist planes round, not leading all the victims safely out of the flames. God doesn’t act like that. This world follows physical laws. I am not into dreaming of a God who comes and intervenes like that - you can’t intervene in something in which you are already profoundly present.

To intervene means to come in from outside. The God of love is not outside - he is inside - all the time.

Yesterday I read a description of one of the canteens where rescue workers were fed in the days after the attack - written by a Jesuit volunteer helper.

Hundreds of workers, firefighters, government officials, police officers, iron workers, all sharing food; military policemen making room for Red cross counsellors, truck drivers getting cups of tea for doctors. It was a strangely beautiful sight - and I immediately thought of an image - the Kingdom of God… Here were people eating, working, sharing their stories, encouraging each other, united in a common purpose. It was difficult not to see it as a Eucharistic meal, a breaking of bread in the spirit of sacrifice and remembrance. It was a room suffused with the spirit of God. Here was God.

Whether we recognise his presence, or put a name to his presence, God is ever present. We must look for God - search for him. We must ‘tune-in’ to his Holy Spirit - to seek his comfort, his wisdom, his inspiration. And then we must work with him.

In his own image

And that is my second obsession. God created us in his image, as co-creators - to work with him in making the world ‘to be good’. In those readings for peace we heard from the Epistle ‘pray for all in high positions’; we heard that ‘Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all’, and reminded ourselves that as his disciples we too are to work for the freedom of all humanity. And in the gospel we were told that we are to ‘love our enemies’.

I very often use a prayer which incorporates all of these themes - prayer, love and work:

Give us O Lord, thoughts which turn into prayers,
Prayers which turn into love,
And love which turns into deeds

A member of the congregation gave me a wonderful anthology of poetry compiled in response to the events of 11th September. The contributors are writers, poets, actors and journalists. One poem by Ben Okri begins:

Grief ought to be used
To create more love

And it ends:

This is the strange blessing
Of those flaming towers:
That we may wake up to world suffering
And with vision sweeten humanity’s hours.

If only. If only our thoughts about those dread events could be used to create more love, more vision. That is our calling. To cooperate with God in his care for the world - to be pray-ers - and lovers - and workers for justice and forgiveness and peace. We are part of the answer to all of our prayers for peace in the world.

We are unique

And my last much repeated point is that although God has made each of us to work with him in his world - he has not made us all the same. He has made each of us preciously different. We are called, as Jesus said in the Gospel, ‘to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect’ - but not to be identical. God wants each of us to grow fully into the unique person he has made us to be. And I haven’t just said that once in this pulpit, I have said it dozens of times.

When we set out in the Christian life we are being called to a journey of discovery, to find God and to find ourselves. This journey is different for everybody. Your way of faith will not be the same as that of the person sitting next to you. This is a bit scary, when we realise that we can’t just copy someone else, we have to have the courage to be ourselves. But it’s incredibly liberating when at last the truth hits home ‘It’s OK - I can just be me because God loves and accepts me - I can pray as I can, I can live my Christian life as only I can, in the place where he has set me and nobody else.

The encouraging and hopeful thing of course is that although we are free to be ourselves, we don’t have to do it by ourselves. Coming full circle - God is with us - and we have each other as fellow workers in Christ. Our spiritual journey is with and among others - we support and encourage and love each other into keeping going.

As we set off to the far north, I am very conscious of how much the community and communion of this church has meant to me. I have changed during the last ten years. Belonging to St Peter’s has changed me (that is not apportioning blame - it’s a statement of fact!) Ministering in a City centre with all is variety of humanity has changed me. Being Area Dean has changed me as I have learnt with humility of the faithfulness of fellow Christians living and working under pressures many of us can hardly imagine. Working with colleagues who have given me new and broader spiritual and worldly insights has changed me.

I hope that in all of this I have been changing in ways which God wants me to change. I hope that I am journeying on in directions which he wants me to follow. I say that - while knowing perfectly well that in many ways I just go on getting it wrong - like we all do.

I believe that in moving to Bamburgh and Ellingham I am listening to what God wants. I know that there are communities of people there who are waiting to welcome us - so although there is real sadness at what we are losing there is also the excitement of anticipation of making new friends, getting to know them as I have come to know you, sharing in communion.

It is also risky. What if? There are so many what ifs! But when we become afraid of the risks and the changes and challenges as we all do - we can only remember those great and simple truths 'God is with us - underneath are the everlasting arms - love will never come to an end'. It’s that certainty of God’s love and acceptance that enables us to set out, physically and mentally, not knowing the end.

In that same anthology I mentioned earlier, ‘Poems for Refugees’, there is a poem by C. Day Lewis. It is in a section about partings, and ends:

Selfhood begins with a walking away
And love is proved in the letting go

If we are to truly be the selves which God made us to be, then we do have to sometimes walk away from the familiar and the loved. But love is proved in the way in which we let each other go. The poet says that this is ‘what God alone could perfectly show’ because in love he gave his son for the world. That says it all.

But let me finish with those wonderful words of thanksgiving and hope written by one of the greatest of UN Secretary Generals - Dag Hammarskold:

For all that has been - THANKS
For all that shall be - YES

Thanks be to God.

Eileen McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 21st October 2002