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The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 3rd September 2017 at 11.15 AM
We live in an abbreviated age; a world of texts and tweets and advertising slogans: ‘Every little helps’; ‘Keep calm and carry on… or eat cake, or whatever else floats your boat; or, my personal favourite, ‘You’re worth it!’ (every morning, in the mirror, three times); hopeful, cheerful, positive little sound-bites that imprint themselves effortlessly and indelibly upon the mind.
In the modern-day Church of England, many a diocese also has its own tag-line, though perhaps a little too worthy to be truly pithy:
Blessing our communities in Jesus’ name
Living the mission of Jesus
Generous churches making and nurturing disciples (to quote a few).
While these phrases probably make little sense to your average member of the public, the aim is presumably to focus and galvanise the faithful—to give them something to rally around.
And I have tell you, even Westminster Abbey is not above such things, representing, as we do, ‘Faith at the heart of the nation.’
Love them or hate them, you can’t completely escape the tag-line, the slogan, the catch-phrase.
St Paul was, famously, a maker of tents, but I can’t help feeling that he might have done rather well in a modern-day advertising agency, because he could certainly coin a good pithy phrase: such as, from today’s epistle:
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
While other catch-phrases may stick in the mind because they are designed to do so, by people who may well want to sell you something, or, in the case of some bishops, because they have a particular agenda that they want everyone to follow, here, from St Paul, are some memorable phrases that might actually do us some good if we could take them to heart
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Rejoicing in hope may simply be taking a moment to remember what an extraordinary hope we have received—a hope handed down to us faithfully from generation to generation—the hope we have in Jesus. This is not just hope for life beyond death (though that is quite a lot of hope just in itself), but hope that every fragment of our lives, and indeed every fragment of creation, however glorious or hidden, however joyful or painful, however lasting or fleeting has weight, purpose and meaning.
Our atheist friends will tell us that such an insistence on purpose and meaning is strained and mis-guided—better to man-up, grit your teeth, and embrace the hedonistic rush of meaningless experience until the lights go out. To that we might want to acknowledge that sometimes we are too quick to give meaning and purpose to particular experiences, especially painful ones—airy assurances about the will of God, or everything being for a greater purpose may not be wrong, but can so easily be employed at the wrong moment. But as long as we don’t ever think we have the last word (and for believers the last word, as indeed the first, must always belong to God), the search, the quest for meaning is surely one of the more interesting things about human beings, and it seems perverse, or evidence of a very closed mind, to dismiss it as so much evolutionary froth.
Through the Scriptures and Sacraments, through the great cycles and festivals of the Christian year, we are offered endless opportunities to remember and to rejoice in the hope that we have been given. Depending on our particular constitution this rejoicing may be more emotional or more cognitive; more heart or more head. It might be rather tentative and questioning, it might be a great, sudden surge of reassurance (like the psalmist today—O Lord... your love is before my eyes... I love the house of your habitation and the place where your glory abides)—either way, it really doesn’t matter—but rejoicing in hope is always worth remembering, worth cultivating.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering.
Being told to ‘Be patient in suffering’ could sound a bit cold; as if we should shut-up and stop complaining. Fortunately Scripture gives us many examples, especially in the psalms and the prophets, of people who certainly didn’t shut-up when trouble came their way. Earlier we heard Jeremiah expressing his disappointment, his dismay, even his anger at God. Jeremiah had been true to God’s word, but it seemed to have done him little good.
Why is my pain unceasing?—he asks, and in a flash of anger declares; ‘Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.’ Strong words! And, indeed, God says some pretty sharp things to Jeremiah in return.
Being patient in suffering isn’t about not being a bother, keeping quiet, pretending everything is alright—it’s about being patient, because when there is suffering around, especially when it goes on for a while, patience can soon wear thin. Most of us manage to be sympathetic towards other people’s suffering in the short term, but after a while, it can become a real drag, a buzz-kill. And our capacity for sympathy may be just as limited towards ourselves—why aren’t we better yet, why are we still feeling anxious?—or against parts of ourselves—wretched arthritic knees, stupid fuzzy brain! Being patient in suffering isn’t about being quiet in a corner, it is surely about accepting, with compassion, our own human frailty and the frailty of others around us, and offering help and graciously receiving the help of others whenever we can.
For us, patience in suffering has an additional significance, an additional dignity, we might say, because of Christ. St Peter in the gospel reading struggled to acknowledge it, but the suffering and death of Jesus was not just some regrettable hiccup in an otherwise successful Messianic ministry. It is in taking up our Cross, says Jesus, it is in losing our life that we will find life. Patience in suffering is for the sake of life: our life and the lives of others. The Cross of Jesus is our hope and guarantee that our suffering will not be for nothing.
If St Paul really did miss his vocation in advertising, by a few centuries, you will already be mentally rehearsing the final phrase of his catchy triplet…
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering… persevere in prayer.
Over the summer I was fortunate enough to spend a few days on retreat with a religious community in Yorkshire. True to the desert tradition of monasticism, this community spends a great deal of prayer-time reciting, indeed singing the psalms. However, the monks are, many of them, quite aged, and keeping pitch proves a bit of a challenge. At the end of each and every verse, sung by the assembly, the cantor, with the aid of a small keyboard, would patiently and persistently dragg the pitch back up the quarter or half tone it had slipped; a true, if rather excruciating model of dogged perseverance in prayer.
So, my sisters and brothers, ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.’
A pithy phrase, worth committing to heart, worth remembering when the meaning of life is proving elusive; or when irritation rises within us at our own frailty and the weakness of others; or when prayer is on the slide… again. Hear it as words of encouragement; a motivatiional tweet from the Apostle; a gentle, patient correction of pitch every time we go flat; a catch-phrase for the Kingdom.