Sermon for Trinity 16/Proper 22, Year C - Mucknell Abbey
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Sermon for Trinity 16/Proper 22, Year C

2nd October, 2022

It’s been interesting considering Jesus’ words in our reading from Luke alongside Benedict’s words on humility that we’ve been hearing in community this week as we work our way through chapter 7 of the Rule. Both can be unsettling, in times that already, I’m finding, feel quite unsettled. Does Jesus really think that we are “worthless slaves”? Is Benedict so convinced of our potential for evil that he thinks we need frequent portents of doom as he reminds that God and the angels are always watching?

It’s tempting just to say, “no, of course not”, and remind ourselves of Jesus earlier in Luke’s gospel speaking of himself as the master who does in fact take off his cloak and serve his slaves, or of Benedict’s warm words about the great love that can exist in community. Or we can, being Benedictines, take the third way, and negotiate the balancing act that can hold these seeming opposites in tension, coming to realise that they are two sides of the same coin.

We celebrated Br. Adrian’s solemn profession this week, and I recall that at his simple profession 3 years ago, Sr. Alison spoke about the poise of the Benedictine life in its search for balance. Imagine a ballet dancer holding a pose: it looks effortless and ethereal, but in actual fact there is a lot of hard work going on to keep that balance. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when we too find the balancing act less than straightforward.

Both poles that we’re considering today have a secret in common: honesty. Real honesty. The kind of honesty that can say, actually, sometimes I do mess things up, and so perhaps knowing that God is always present is helpful in those moments of temptation and choice. The honesty that says that there are definitely days when, like the slaves Jesus speaks of, I survive by doing the bare minimum, and to expect extravagant thanks just for turning up is frankly ridiculous, when I know that I’m capable of better. Which may be as much, if not more, about attitude as the time spent on a task, or the number of tasks completed. Attend to what love requires of you, says Quaker Faith and Practice, which may not be great busyness.

This honesty, as well as recognising our failures, is also able to see our abilities and our potential for growth. A somewhat facile example: I’m currently engaged in a Calligraphy course, and as I’ve worked on it over the past couple of years, I’ve seen improvement. Earlier this year, though, I visited an exhibition of calligraphy, and wow. I have a long, long way to go. The same might be true of any part of our lives, not just practical skills. When I’m getting frustrated by something, I remind myself that my patience will only grow by being stretched. Sometimes I remind myself of this with something approaching joy, and sometimes through gritted teeth. I’m a work in progress.

So. Honesty about ourselves. A good thing. Balance is needed. But there’s a danger here: It’s easy to get stuck in navel gazing, endlessly bemoaning our faults, our mistakes, the general unfairness of the universe, in a way that can become entirely self-centred. It’s also increasingly easy to look at the world around us and throw our hands up in despair. If we’re going to be honest about ourselves, we also have to be honest about God. We along with Paul have to “know the one in whom [we] have put [our] trust”, we have to remember that we are not, as Paul says in the letter to the Romans, “of all people most to be pitied”. Our faith, our hope, is not in vain, because we worship and serve a God whose promises are being fulfilled among us.

The apostles’ cry to Jesus is disarming in its simplicity: “Increase our faith!”, and is in some sense answered by the beginning of the letter to Timothy we heard this morning, where Timothy is encouraged to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you”, and reminded that God “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” Here we have perhaps the true ‘other side’ of the same coin. Whatever we may know to be true about ourselves, in our beauty, our ugliness and just our ordinary selves, we are not God. And yet God has come to us. God in Christ has drawn our humanity up into heaven, and has given us all the fulness of Christ here and now. It’s not just pie in the sky when we die, it’s real transformation, the coming of the kingdom now, today, among us. Coming to know our own shadow and light is crucial to being made whole, but so is knowing that we are those who have been saved and called and filled with the good treasure of God and with the Holy Spirit, the helper and advocate living within us. We are not the end of the story, thank God.

This is underscored in the reading from Habakkuk we heard. Here’s a good example of someone looking at the chaos all around and throwing his hands up, saying to God, “what is all this nonsense? Why so much injustice, wickedness, strife and contention?” And God spells it out for him and for the people, inscribing God’s promises on stone tablets in big letters and simple words, so that anyone can read it: “there is still a vision…it will surely come”.

And just as God wrote it on stone tablets back in the day, now he has inscribed it on our hearts. And so each of us becomes a sort of centre point, holding together all these tensions as we go through our lives. We trust God to take care of the mess, whether that be through our own actions – after all, sometimes we are agents of the grace of God – or in some way that we as yet cannot see. In the mean time, and indeed at all times, we whom God has called righteous through the shedding of Christ’s blood live by faith, by a persistent, patient and tenacious adherence to the instructions and promises of God. Amen.