Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 26th Jun 2016 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

The sea as a symbol of chaos was never far away in ancient Hebrew thought. Chaos always lay close at hand, even if it never finally won. Just as the storm at sea surrounded Paul's journey, as we heard in our reading.

Following the UK referendum about our place in Europe we are NOT in chaos—but we are definitely in uncharted waters; a sea of uncertainty. Whether we feel delighted and excited, or dismayed and shamed, by the outcome, one sure thing for us all is that we and the rest of Europe are facing great uncertainty.

When we have to face any deep unsettling uncertainty—personal, political, or both—various familiar coping mechanisms tend to kick in. One instinct is to try to find a way of regaining control in the situation. But of course we often can't; many actions of others, forces of nature, and contingencies of history, are simply beyond our control.

Another instinct is at least try to understand what is going on, even if we cannot control it. But that too is often beyond us: our small place in space and time simply cannot give us a good enough vantage point to see enough to understand.

Or we may take refuge in counterfactuals: that is, try to reconcile ourselves to the present uncertainty by imagining something worse that would have happened if a different path had been taken. But of course that won't work either. Counterfactuals are even harder to know. Nobody really ever knows what would have happened on the 'path not taken'.

But if none of these instincts for control or knowledge can really help, we can reach down further to an even deeper instinct. The instinct of faith. Not to give us a spurious control or knowledge we do not have; nor as a way of retreating to fatalisms or quietism: that is not what faith does. But what faith can do is give a capacity to go forwards into any uncertainty with a purpose, and a hope.

Faith first bids us take responsibility, the God-given responsibility to always try to make whatever good we can out of any situation that arrives, good or bad. That is the purpose it gives.

At the same time, faith doesn't presume total responsibility—because it is also a disposition of trust: trust in another hidden hand at work also working for that good with us; trust in a divine hand able to make good ultimately out of any path we have taken, good or bad. The paths we take still matter because the cost of making them good will be much greater on some than others. But no path is finally beyond God's power to redeem. And that is the hope faith gives, as well as the purpose.

Faith, then, lies in a God who has given us responsibility; but who has also never relinquished His own responsibility, with us and for us.

This truth about a shared responsibility is a truth faith sees in all history. All history, not just the present crisis, is a mixture of good and bad personal and political actions, combined with historical contingencies beyond anyone's control, with good and bad outcomes—yet all ultimately worked together for good by a divine alchemy.

This truth is seen above all in the history of the life, death and resurrection of Christ himself. It was also seen in that short narrative of Paul at sea we heard: a story of someone trying to affect the course of events himself; appearing to be blown of course; at the mercy of the contingencies of history (the storm and the decisions of centurion); but also, if we read on to what actually unfolded, a story of how all this is ultimately woven into some good—as even the storm itself became a further step on a journey which eventually helped spread Christian faith even further, and transformed human history. Just as four centuries later St Augustine too found himself driven by a storm which was finally turned to good. These are stories bristling with counterfactuals, the real possibility of alternative paths. But in the end the sense of divine overruling was such that whatever different routes might have been taken, God is still ultimately able to 'work all things together for good' (as Paul himself wrote elsewhere).

The Danish philosopher Kiekegaard once famously said we can only live our life by going forwards: and only understand it backwards.He was right. The uncertainty of being unable to understand forwards is not unusual. Most things can only be seen looking back. So this uncertainty is just the normal state of life, like the sea, always round us. But we still have to go forwards, live forwards, purposefully. And with faith we can.

As we live out the plot of our own lives, as the world plays out its troubled history, and nations take fateful decisions, there's no escape from this responsibility we have in uncertain times; whatever happens, we are always bidden still to go forward with purpose, to help make good out of whatever situation arises. But do not be overwhelmed by this responsibility. There is always God too at work, navigating this sea with us…

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