Sermon preached on Lent 5 the Reverend Jim Gorringe
I mention it because I think it taps into something which we meet often in today’s world – people who want to ‘be happy’ and who look to something outside of themselves to make that happen. I think it displays a superficial understanding of the nature of happiness. Though by saying that I don’t want to give the impression that to aspire to be happy is in anyway unworthy, and to experience this happiness as perhaps feeling secure and peaceful in one’s home, satisfied in the work and past-times we pursue, knowing fulfilment in our close personal relationships and feeling safe in society as we go about our daily lives.
But the reality is often very different. Our homes far from being places of sanctuary where we can feel relaxed can be places where we experience agitation from nuisance neighbours or abusive behaviour from those we live with. Or our home can become the four walls wherein we feel isolated and lonely and where the silence encourages memories of things we would rather not think about. Or where, when the post arrives with the dreaded brown envelopes we are reminded of pressing financial anxieties.
Our place of work can be experienced as a place of entrapment where we have to be to meet the needs of our family, yet everyday we go, is a day to be dreaded. Spending hours alongside people we have been thrown together with, knowing that we shall never get on with them in a month of Sundays and their habits begin to irritate. All in a climate of short term contracts or the threat of redundancy. In our close relationships we may suddenly become aware that things are not as secure as we have believed. Complacency and the pressures of time have meant distance creeping in where once there was intimacy. Or suddenly an illness or the death of a partner throws our fragile plans into disarray. The indications of breakdown in society mean that we become increasingly aware of intimidation on our streets and so we fear to venture out at night.
On a global scale we live within the threat of terrorism which has had our own government warning of inevitable attack These things that happen around us and to us contribute to our unhappiness and can lead to the belief that we likewise have to look outside ourselves to find happiness, but that is far from the truth. Instead happiness has everything to do with our response to what happens rather than the events themselves.
One of the things that I like about the stories we read in Scripture is that we can usually find someone with whom we can identify. For me, in the Gospel story we have just heard, it’s Judas. You get the sense from this and other stories that he is a man of the moment, someone with a quick reaction to a situation. With no thought he leaps in arguing that Mary’s action is a waste, the poor could have been fed with the money gained from selling the expensive nard used to anoint Jesus’s feet. There is anger and bitterness in what he says. He wants things to happen his way but they don’t.
So much of our reaction to life events is of a similar kind. So self-centred and keen to be in charge of what is happening that when some thing or some one disturbs us or things happens that we were not expecting we jump in feet first. Our emotions pour out or cause turmoil in our minds and we certainly don’t feel happy. How much energy we waste when we act like this? How much potential for hurt there is? A story that I love comes from Anthony de Mello’s book The Song of the Bird. It tells of a man who took great pride in his lawn and found himself with a large crop of dandelions. He tried every method he knew to get rid of them. Still they plagued him. Finally he wrote to the Department of Agriculture. He enumerated all the things he had tried and closed his letter with the question: ‘What shall I do now?’ In due course the reply came: ‘We suggest you learn to love them.’
De Mello applies the moral with the following story of a man who was becoming blind by degrees. He fought it with every means in his power. When medicine no longer served to fight it, he fought it with his emotions. It took courage to say to him, ‘I suggest you learn to love your blindness.’ It was a struggle. He refused to have anything to do with it in the beginning. And when he eventually brought himself to speak of his blindness his words were bitter. But he kept on speaking and the words slowly changed into words of resignation and tolerance and acceptance…and, one day, very much to his own surprise, they became words of friendliness…and love. Then came the day when he was able to put his arm around his blindness and say, I love you.’ That was the day I saw him smile again. His vision of course was lost forever. But how attractive his face became!.
Some years ago I came across a poem entitled, 'In acceptance lieth peace' by Amy Carmichael. You may not have heard of her, so the briefest of biographies. Amy Carmichael lived from 1867 -1951 and spent 56 years as a missionary in Dohnavur in India. She worked with young girls who were dedicated by their families as temple prostitutes and during her life gave over 1000 young women a new and different start in life. I asked to have the poem printed in this week’s notes and you may like to follow it as I read it to you.
IN ACCEPTANCE LIETH PEACE
- He said, ‘I will forget the dying faces;
- The empty places,
- They shall be filled again.
- O voices moaning deep within me, cease.’
- But vain the word; vain, vain:
- Not in forgetting lieth peace.
- He said, ‘I will crowd action upon action,
- The strife of faction
- Shall stir me and sustain;
- O tears that drown the fire of manhood cease.’
- But vain the word; vain, vain:
- Not in endeavour lieth peace.
- He said, ‘I will withdraw me and be quiet,
- Why meddle in life’s riot?
- Shut be my door to pain.
- Desire, thou dost befool me, thou shalt cease.’
- But vain the word; vain, vain:
- Not in aloofness lieth peace.
- He said, ‘I will submit; I am defeated.
- God hath depleted
- My life of its rich gain.
- O futile murmurings, why will ye not cease?’
- But vain the word; vain, vain:
- Not in submission lieth peace.
- He said, ‘I will accept the breaking sorrow
- Which God tomorrow
- Will to His son explain.’
- Then did the turmoil deep within me cease.
- Not vain the word, not vain;
- For in Acceptance lieth peace.
In our striving after peace and happiness how much do we attempt to forget the indelible memory that is our personal history that haunts us with past trauma if ever we dare to try. Our emotional feelings need to be spoken if ever we are to integrate events into our being. The second verse speaks of this generations disease. Frenetic endeavour to prove how powerful we are, becomes a running away and an avoidance of our pain. It’s a dis-ease that permeates the life of the church too and which so often succumbs to activism. Selling God like soap powder rather than offering the quiet space where he may be discovered. Dull existence replaces the sense of excitement and risk which is the essence of life when people withdraw from life. In their aloofness doing just enough to survive and calling death life.
Defeated resignation in the face of things that befall us is understandable. How do people recover when disaster strikes. One of the things I found myself questioning in my head as I watched the pictures of the horror of Madrid was, ‘Where do people start when they come to clear up the mess and begin to rebuild normality?’ How easy to be overwhelmed and to submit. But acceptance, says Carmichael, is what brings peace - an open-ness to embracing the things that happen, a learning to love them, and a desire to respond creatively rather than destructively. In many cases there is no easy route to acceptance. As de Mello suggests in the story of the man going blind it can take an age and be a very difficult struggle. Working through our emotional response is never easy, it is painful, but to work towards acceptance is a goal that can also have immediate benefits. To engender an attitude of acceptance is very much in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 13 love is never quick to take offence. An attitude of acceptance, especially in the small irritations of life can give us space for reflection and lead to a deeper understanding of why things happen, why others do things as they do. It can help with our response in making it measured and less prone to emotional outburst that so easily leads to misunderstanding.
As I have wrestled with writing this sermon I have recognized that to suggest that we should be ever ready to accept things that happen to us fails to address those times and situations which are anything but acceptable. Clearly there are occasions that demand a response, such as when we feel called to fight injustice, to challenge the causes of poverty or to defend people against abuse in all its forms. It is no good just to say we should accept these things. Indeed our energy and passion will strengthen the cause against them. What I am saying of acceptance is in the manner of the prayer which says, give me the courage to change the things that I can, the strength to cope with the things that I can’t and the wisdom to know the difference. And more especially, I am speaking of the acceptance shown by Jesus to what was happening as he prepared himself for what was inevitable as he made his way to Jerusalem.
We cannot ever be sure that he knew what exactly was going to happen to him however tempting it is to suggest that his divinity gave him complete foresight. He was well aware of how people were reacting to him and he could foresee the likely outcome. Rather than submit though, in a resigned way, to an inevitable conclusion there was a readiness to embrace the suffering of the cross and he accepted it as a necessary part of his obedience to God. He understood the paradox of suffering, that through it God would be glorified. Paul urged his readers to have this same sense of acceptance, of embracing suffering, to thus share in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering, and he encouraged them to trust in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Through it comes the peace of God which passes all understanding AMEN.