Sermon at Evensong on the First Sunday after Trinity 2021

How is your soul?

The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon in Residence

Sunday, 6th June 2021 at 3.00 PM

It would have been a tough job description; who could have sustained this calling? When God called Jeremiah, the prophet pleaded that he was too young, but he would serve as God’s messenger to the people through forty tumultuous years:

Over that time, in the north the Assyrian empire would fall and the Babylonian empire rise. To the south, the power of Egypt would be both a refuge and a threat. The nation of Judah herself, subject to the vicissitudes of her successive kings, will vacillate between faithfulness to Yahweh and faithless paganism.

Throughout this Jeremiah expends himself, at God’s disposal, for the people. For their sake he must warn of judgement, defeat and exile. If nothing changed, what once seemed impossible would come to pass: golden Jerusalem and her temple destroyed; the king taken prisoner; the people displaced.

So, God, implored, cajoled and sought to call away from danger those were indifferent and those who outrightly refused to listen.

It was hardly a welcome message – scarcely believable and certainly unpalatable. One carried by Jeremiah through prophetic word, action and metaphor, by which even ordinary things gave voice to God’s message; an almond tree about to blossom with the arrival of spring, a boiling pot, tilted in one direction and as in our passage today, a crossroads where paths meet and diverge.

Such a meeting and diverging of paths, usually forces a choice. If, whilst hiking, I take this path up the mountain to the summit I cannot simultaneously take this other path downhill to the Wild Strawberry tea room in Keswick (other tearooms are available). Which is it to be? Will the lure of homemade cakes eclipse the promised splendour of 360-degree views?

Other choices are more serious of course. Though we may be inclined to blunder ahead unthinkingly, when we reach a crossroads, we are given a precious opportunity – to reflect and to decide which path we will follow. At the crossroads our priorities and intentions are exposed and our resolution tested.

The people to whom Jeremiah spoke, were faced with choices. In times when the global balance of power was shifting, on what and in whom were they to rely? Where would God feature in these evaluations? Would their core be centred upon God, or on their own forged alliances with other nations, like Egypt and Assyria? What would this say about their priorities and intentions?

Through earlier chapters of Jeremiah’s prophesy the urgency had been building, now the warning trumpet blasts of the sentinels were close at hand. This was a significant crossroads, now the time to choose. Before the coming pandemonium they are invited to a moment of deep calm consideration.

“Stand at the crossroads and look and ask for the ancient paths,

Where the good way lies and walk in it and find rest for your souls.”

Which brings us to an important question: how is your soul?

I’m not suggesting we get into convoluted discussion of the difference or similarity between, heart, mind, soul, spirit and so on. Rather, what I’m enquiring about is the very essence of you, that which God knew before you were born and which will be embraced again by God as you leave this earth. The ‘you’ that is shaped by, but distinct from, any role you inhabit, any success or failure you achieve. That which responds to or rejects the wooing of the Spirit. The ‘you’ making the choice at the crossroads.

When the early Methodists first got together in small group meetings, for encouragement and support, the first question that these Christians asked one another was ‘How is it with your soul?’

We can ask the same thing of ourselves. We might ask it of the neighbourhoods in which we live, the organisations to which we belong or perhaps we lead. How fares the soul of this community, this business, this nation, this Abbey?

The people God addressed through Jeremiah were in grave and urgent danger of their soul. The tragic irony was that their religious mindset and practice, expressed in spending effort and money to bring incense from afar, in making offerings and sacrifices, was lulling them into a false comfort. In truth their priorities were out of kilter with God’s, creating a kind of dissonance of the soul. Failing to heed the warnings they also failed to recognise the signs of their own soul-sickness. The consequences would be dire, but it didn’t have to be that way.

They had reached a moment of choice. The crossroads – the place to:

Stand – to stop

Look – to take stock

Ask– to seek out wisdom

Heed – to act

There is a tragic arrogance abroad if we see no need to stop, take stock, ask and to heed.To discern whether our current priorities, intentions and direction truly give rest, for our souls and the souls of our communities, nation, businesses and this Abbey.

John Wesley founder of Methodism, leader of those who would ask, ‘And how is it with your soul?’ would pause to take stock in self-examination. Pondering questions such as:

Can I be trusted?

Am I a slave to work, or habits?

Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?

Am I mindful about the money I spend?

Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?

These are good questions, not just for individuals but for systems and organisations, as we think about the future at this crossroads in our collective circumstances. Questions to apply to consideration of say, the nature of work and society to be as we look to the future?

For those of us who are people of faith there are other pertinent questions which John Wesley posed to himself: ‘did the Bible live in me today?’, ‘Do I disobey God in anything?’ and, ‘Is Christ real to me?’

Is Christ real to me?

Perhaps the most significant question of all.

It is one thing to stop at the crossroads and to survey the potential paths, but how much more promising to have an insightful companion on the road.

Jesus, himself the Way. Who faced crossroads at so many points in his ministry; when tempted in the desert, when his disciples tried to persuade him to shield himself from danger, when wracked in prayer, hours before his arrest.

At the crossroads Jesus consistently chose the costly path of obedience, compassion and self-giving.

If we truly desire rest for our souls, may we hear his voice: ‘come follow me’.