Sunday, 9 May 2010

Sermon for 9th May 2010

Sermon for 9th May 2010  The Revd. J. Michael Povey, at All Angels by the Sea, Longboat Key, FL
John 14:23-29
I can remember the exact words of a conversation I had with my classroom teacher Miss Jean Smith 58 years ago.  I had made an error in my exercise book, and as I used an eraser to delete the pencilled word, so I wore a hole in the page. I immediately confessed my error.  It was at the end of term.  At the beginning of the next term, Miss Smith held the page close to her eye, and looking through the hole at the Church across the street she said “John Povey, I can see St. Anne’s Church  in the hole you made in your page.  “Please Miss Smith”, I replied, “I told you about that last term”.  The matter was dropped when Miss Smith replied, “Of course you did, I remember it now”. 
I could give you many other instances of the way in which my memory has held on to so many conversations and incidents from many years ago.  I remember them in minute detail. When my family members get together and share the memories of life in the Povey home, so other memories come alive, or are honed.
I suspect that something very similar happened as our four gospels were compiled.  There were so many memories of the work and words of Jesus from those who had known him and been with him.  In a society with an oral and story-telling culture those memories were passed on by word of mouth.  But as the fellowship of believers grew larger, and began to expand far from Palestine and into the wider Roman Empire, it became necessary that those memories be codified and written down.  Of course there were differing memories leading to some apparent contradictions, but Matthew, Mark and Luke are in basic agreement on the substance.
John is different. This gospel was the last to be complied, maybe in about A.D. 90, or even later.  This Gospel is like a great tapestry.  There are threads of the remembered words of Jesus interwoven with threads of commentary.  It is sometimes very difficult to know where the words of Jesus end, and the teaching of an Apostle begins.  When we read passages as the one we did today, it’s a bit like looking at the tangle of threads on the back of a tapestry.
We would need to read the entire gospel to see the big picture on the front of the tapestry.  Even before doing that we should need to ask “when and why was this tapestry made?”, i.e. “when and why was this Gospel compiled”?
Many scholars believe that the book found its final form around about A.D. 90.  A few scholars would date it later.  There is pretty well a consensus that it was written to the Christians who lived in Ephesus.  There is a very old tradition that the apostle John settled in Ephesus with Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Ephesus was then an important City of the Roman Empire, and a busy trading port.  It boasted one of the ancient world’s greatest libraries, right across the street from a huge brothel.
By the time the gospel was compiled the separation of the Jewish followers of Jesus from the synagogue was well under way.  There was mutual tension and anger between those Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and those who could not so believe.  And although Jesus had said that he would return, that had not happened, so the Church is learning that it will be in business for the long haul.
So the gospel is addressing believers in a city which was both replete with learning and prostitution.  Those believers have come through the bitter but heart wrenching division with other Jews.  And the believers are struggling to adjust their faith to the reality that Jesus has not returned. It is a precarious and uncertain time.
In that light I will pick out but one thread from the tapestry. Verse seven reads “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid”. In fact this idea is expressed twice.  Verse one of John 14 starts with these words “let not your hearts be troubled”.
“Let not your hearts be troubled”.  It occurs to me that this bit of John’s gospel says it twice simply because their hearts were troubled.   We do not say such things to those whose hearts and minds are serene.
I believe that they are apposite words for today. We live in the Episcopal Church which has been badly divided over certain “hot button issues”.  We live in a world in which learn-ed people scorn our faith. The faith we once thought was certain and immutable has changed before our very eyes and we do not have the certainties of our parents and grand-parents.  Let not our hearts be troubled.
For you see, with the admonition there came a promise. Hear again the familiar words of Jesus “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you”.  We are to accept and enjoy the gift of serenity.
Some colleagues and I were musing on this earlier in the week. I wanted to move from the abstract to the concrete, so I pressed them to tell me stories of their own serenity.
One used to be a navigator for yacht races.  These were the long ocean races, and long before the days of G.P.S.  My colleague said that using a sextant, a compass and the stars he always knew exactly where they were – and this led to utter serenity.
Another recounted of a time when he and his wife had been serving God in Nicaragua.  On one occasion he was caught up in prolonged gunfire during the civil war.  He ducked for shelter, bullets flying all around, not knowing whether he would be hit. He experienced not fear, but a deep peace. A peace which arose from his understanding that he was not in charge, and that he could do nothing to change his situation.
A third told of the terrifying time when she and her husband were hiking in Alaska. They had been flown to a remote spot, and were on their own for a week.  They got caught on the wrong side of a canyon, and the wrong side of an impassable river.  They knew that they could die in that wilderness.  Against all odds they found a long and safe way to the lowland meadow where the plane would land to take them out of the wilderness.  They saw a plane and wildly flapped their bedrolls to attract the pilot’s attention. As the plane flew over, the pilot dipped a wing, showing that he had seen the couple.  After a fear-filled three days they felt great peace, because someone else knew where they were.
Knowing exactly where we are.  Understanding that we are not in charge. Realising that someone else knows where we are.  Those are some of the keys to experiencing the peace which Jesus promised.
We can take those ideas and apply them not only to the times and places of our present circumstances, but also to the inner place of our deepest fears and anxiety.
Why then does this promised peace often elude us?  I suspect it is because we lack two tools.   The first is discipline.  The second is practise.
Of course we know that to master any skill requires both discipline and practice.  Why do we imagine that the Lord Jesus will give us his peace “on demand”!
We are of course speaking of the discipline and practice of prayer. In prayer we know exactly where we are.  Prayer will lead us to the freedom of knowing that we are not in charge.  As we pray we begin to understand that someone else knows where we are.  
 That is Someone Else with and uppercase S and an upper case E.
There was a period in my life when I was in a turmoil of anxiety.  I had taken an unpopular public stance and was subjected to six weeks of letters to the Editor about my action.  I came to the point that I feared to open the newspaper.
I went to my travel agent and said “get me out of here quickly”. So off I went to Aruba for six days.  The Berkshire Eagle newspaper was not on sale there, but my anxiety did not abate.  For I was there in Aruba, with all my fears.  I had packed them in my suitcase. I began to pray over and over again  “Lord, give me your peace, and show me what to do”.  That helped some.
When I returned to Pittsfield, MA  I told one of my lovely parishioners how I had prayed.  She, with all the bluntness that love can offer, said “that was the wrong prayer”.  


She went on to say “why not pray this way”.  “Lord, give me your peace, and show me how to be”.  She was right.  As another friend had once said “Michael, you are a human being not a human doing”.
I know that when I practise that prayer in a disciplined way I experience the peace of God whish passes all understanding.
“Lord, give me your peace, and show me how to be”.

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