Sermon preached by The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley
I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom
you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you
or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be
full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely
and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. Glorious
and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours.
So be it. Let this covenant now made on earth be fulfilled in heaven. Amen.
If you had been alive the middle of the seventeenth century, which side
would you have been on? Roundheads or Cavaliers? King Charles or Parliament?
I think you can tell quite a lot about people from the side they choose.
Canyou guess which side I would have been on? The Royalists have got the
lovely clothes, they have the culture, Rubens, Van Dyck, great musicians and
architects worked for the King. He certainly had good taste. However Charles
I was an absolutist monarch who believed in bullying tactics to get his own
way and was prepared to dispense with silly old Parliament when it didn’t do
what he wanted. But on the other side the Parliamentarians had very dull
clothes, dodgy haircuts. …as Charlie told us last year, they abolished the
celebration of Christmas. They got rid of maypoles and tried to ban FUN. But
the puritan faction had very exciting, progressive ideas about personal
freedom, about men and women having a personal relationship with their
Maker. If they didn’t like dancing and drinking, the Puritans had idealism.
They loved language, wave upon wave of wonderful preaching, extempore
prayer, writing about God and the way that His people could serve Him. What
the Puritan position boils down to is summed up in just two words:
discipline and commitment.
Wesley was influenced by many traditions. We know of his interest in the
Moravians, for example, and also his love of early Anglican writers. But for
this service, Wesley turned back to one of his passionate loves, the Puritan
writers. In particular he admired Joseph Alleine’s great book on the Old
Testament Covenant and his linking that covenant with the people of his own
age, who were to be the new Chosen Race. Wesley borrowed from Alleine’s
magnificent language, prophetic warnings and Apocalyptic threats. What
Wesley achieved was a linguistic balance between his source and the needs of
his own, Methodist people. You will see from the prayers in Partnership News
this week that very similar thoughts occurred to the devout Catholic
Ignatius of Loyola. Writing on “The Character of a Methodist” Wesley tried
to sum up what Methodism was not and then, more demandingly, set out what it
was to be. “…the one desire of his life” (a Methodist’s) shall be “to do not
his own will, but
the will of Him that sent him; his one intention at all times and in all things is, not to please himself, but Him whom his soul loveth. He has the single eye.” I really like that phrase, the single eye, suggesting as it does, an ability to focus on just one thing, the most important thing. It is a very real problem when you have a great many material possessions, as most of us do, that our attention is constantly being distracted from important matters. We have television, DVDs, video, radio, the telephone, the kids have texts and email and the Internet. We live at a highly privileged time in history. We don’t for the most part have to worry much about lack of food, we certainly don’t have to forage for it, or hunt or grow it. We aren’t under pressure about the rains failing or the health of the harvest. We live longer and healthier lives than any generation before us.
But are we making use of the time that our culture has allowed us? Do not most of us live in constant search of distraction, from reality television, soap operas, music, shopping, gossip? All these ephemeral things absorb our interest only fleetingly before we flit off to the next temporary preoccupation. I expect people in the Puritan era or Wesley’s eighteenth century had their distractions too. I expect, instead of
watching soaps, people gossiped about the aristocracy. Instead of watching Celebrity Big Brother they went to a bearbaiting or a cockfight. Perhaps the banning of dancing and Christmas was an attempt to make people focus on God and important things. The trouble is that kind of bullying doesn’t work. I don’t think God wants forced recruits, He wants volunteers. You can’t shove other people into a right relation with God. And so the Covenant service offers us a space to make our own choice. To gently bring our minds back to the essentials. To make again the commitment to love and serve God.
The original Covenant service was prepared for in a three hour catechism and self-examination, in which symptoms of back-sliding, spiritual laziness and weakness of oral life were rooted out, thoroughly addressed and later repented of. Psychologically I suppose these exercises were absolutely right, that they involved real self examination, the gaining of self-knowledge and a determination to begin again. Now I am not proposing a three hour confession of sin, but it does make you wonder whether it might not be helpful for us to allocate time to ask deep questions about the way we live. I am going to take some time now to analyse what Wesley is saying in the prayer of Dedication, to help us focus on what he meant and what it might mean to us. I am no longer my own but yours. The first line is about letting go of control and acknowledging God’s power over our lives. What that really means in practical terms is explored in the next sentence.
“Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will” these lines remind us of one of the preoccupations of the eighteenth century, with social rank, mixing in the right society. In our age we have other obsessions, more to do with wealth than class. But for Wesley’s age, loss of rank was truly terrifying, and the willingness to be placed in the wrong order of society was a brave, heroic self-sacrifice.
“put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you”. These lines further submit to God’s will in how and where we serve him. It acknowledges the possibility that God might seem not to want our service! A friend who was ordained with me, had ME for about six months and wrote to tell me that he had found Wesley’s words very helpful, that inactivity might as much a part of God’s plan as activity. That God might desire our willingness to be patient and wait upon Him. Let me be “exalted for you or brought low for you” these few sparse words are rich in content, hinting at the whole issue of success and suggesting that they are not of any importance, that it is for God to decide what constitutes success not the admiration of the world. Obsessed as we all are by self-esteem and seeming in control, this phrase cuts us down to size.
“Let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing” these words are very clever because they could just be about having possessions, or life’s blessings, they could also be about health, spiritual and mental. The last lines in this section of the passage pack the decisive punch
“I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal”. It marks a total giving over of self into God’s hands, to be used or not as He chooses. It takes incredible courage to acknowledge that God has the power over us and courage to offer ourselves, not just as and when we feel like it, but as God requires. The final section is a kind of drawing together, reminding one almost of a marriage service, an exchange of selves.
“Glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. Let this covenant now made on earth be fulfilled in heaven. Amen”. We don’t just give in this service we also receive. We gain, in exchange for our self- giving, the presence of God. We gain far more than we are giving. The great conundrum of self-giving is that we gamble ourselves and always win. But giving over of power takes courage. Right at the end of the Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail film, Indie, the hero, has to step out into what appears to be an empty space, over a bottomless canyon. Only faith and courage allows him to do anything so stupid, but of course he is right to make the leap of faith and so are we. In the words we say collectively, we promise again to make the leap of faith and to give ourselves without knowing the outcome, what it will mean, where it might take us. But we have our tradition, the experience of those who have gone before us, to encourage us to step out into the future. Joan Crossley