The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s016e05 Lockleys Lent 5 13/3/2005
"to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" Romans 8.6
Our readings today speak again and again about life, of resurrection, of renewal. St Paul speaks about the different mindsets that we can have. A mind set on flesh is death; a mind set on the spirit is life. So life, resurrection and renewal is not at all external to our selves; something that some are given and denied others. Life, resurrection and renewal, in some way, depend on our own cognitive efforts.
Early last year I heard a noted psychiatrist Dr Dorothy Rowe speak about the necessity to focus the mind to overcome mental illness. So strongly did she believe this that she discouraged the use of medication, which drew quite a reaction from those who believe prescribed medication to be vital. I do not want to get into a debate about this particular issue, but I do want to say that if someone doesn't have a perception of their own self esteem and worth, any medication the person will take will be doing double duty, trying to relieve the illness as well as the mindset that says "Well I suppose I deserve it anyway!"
So what we believe about our own self worth is vital for our own health. And I took away from her talks the perception that as the Church, we have been very good at trying to lead people in the right paths in life, but less good at encouraging other people, of building up other peoples' self esteem. Actually, I do think that this is changing and we are trying to do better.
We are now into the fifth Sunday of Lent, and I have to confess, even after 27 years of ministry, Lent confuses me. The gospel readings for the Sundays are readings about the victory of God. Today the gospel account is the story of Christ's victory over death. Last week it was the story of the curing of the man born blind. The week before it was the story of the conversion of a whole Samaritan town through the witness of the woman at the well. The week before that was the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus. The first Sunday in Lent was Jesus victory over temptation in the wilderness. So I find it difficult not to rejoice on these Sundays in Lent, but perhaps I'm a bit dim.
Of course the Book of Common Prayer makes it plain the Sundays in Lent are not actually fasting days. Each and every Sunday is a feast of the resurrection. Even the purple robes I wear are the robes of royalty and victory, not sackcloth and ashes of Lenten penitence.
Somehow I think we have all been brought up to think that there always has to be this downside before victory can be ours. No pain, no gain. We can't progress till we've reach rock bottom and the only way is up. When we completely surrender all our own self-determination and leave it up to God. But the problem with this is that, if we allow ourselves to think that we haven't yet found life and peace, and if it doesn't come, then the only logical reason is that we aren't good enough, we need some pain first, we aren't at rock bottom, we need more self surrender. This doesn't seem like good news to me.
And perhaps the other reason that Lent confuses me is that it is autumn (fall) here in Australia, and therefore we are six months "out of kilter" with the expectancy of immanent new life that Lent in spring makes more obvious. We are still looking backwards to the joys of the summer past. How people in tropical or desert climes make connections with the Church year is even more a mystery to me, and yet so much of our spirituality is bound up in these associations.
Some weeks ago I talked about Lent at the Taizé service. I spoke about spring (when Lent was conceived to be) as the time when plants put down their roots, prior to the flourish of growth above ground that inevitably comes later on. So much of what happens is unseen, yet vital. As I say the trouble with being in the southern hemisphere is that we are six months out of kilter. Root growth and sprouting happen at quite the other time of the year. Lent here is associated with autumn, wilting and raking up dead leaves.
As I interact with our Sudanese friends, I am beginning to realise the importance of our early schooling, when we get a grounding for all that follows. Without that grounding and forced into an alien culture, they struggle; just as much as we would if we went to live in the Sudan, without the grounding of their culture behind us.
And, of course, school is supposed to be a happy place. Education is meant to be a joy, not a trial.
So if we care to look at Lent in this way, like the carefree days of our youth, exploring our talents, finding out what we are good at, getting extra help at the things for which we struggle, putting down our roots; this seems to me to be a very healthy way of thinking both about Lent and the spiritual life. The joy of youth is that it is a time of learning, and that we are not especially expected to achieve anything, in terms of earth shattering discoveries. The world will not come to an end if we get a "C" rather than an "A" for a particular subject. We might put that subject to one side and concentrate on a subject that we are naturally more in tune with.
One of the joys of childhood is the friends that we make. I was interested last year, to get an e-mail from a friend of mine from my primary school days; back in the last century :-). He was the son of the priest at St Jude's Brighton. I hadn't heard from him for years, but his elder brother had died and he was coming back to South Australia for the funeral. His brother was a long time golfer across the road and in the media business. The service was at the Heysen Chapel and was huge! I wondered if I'd recognise my childhood friend after all this time, in the crowd, but I needn't have worried. Neither of us had changed!
And I thought, as I reflected on this as I was typing these words, how through the intervening years of life, passing through one little renewal after another, as, no doubt, was his experience as well as mine; each of us were the same! He gave a lovely tribute to his brother.
So life, resurrection and renewal are not alien things; things that alter our personalities, so that we are new and unrecognisable. No, the gift is more precious than that, for it affirms that we are all, as we are, precious in the sight of God.
If we are looking to the Spirit to make us different from who we are, like Cinderella turned into the beautiful princess by the fairy godmother, then we are likely to be disappointed. The transformation is that we will become more the person God created us to be, in the beginning. We will always be instantly recognisable by all who know us. Rather than ever wanting to be someone we aren't, we desire to become all that we are.
Again for me this has much resonance with those words of Bishop John Spong who regularly pleas: that we "live our lives fully, love wastefully and become everything God created us to be." Again and again in the Bible, people are lifted to their feet; enabled to become all that God intended from the beginning.
I would actually like that the "life and peace" that my text offers us to be now, rather than later, as indeed I am sure that it is intended, for us and for all.
This does, ever, remain dependant on our cognitive efforts. If we think others are never going to be worthy of God's life, then we will never do much to encourage them along the way. If we think that we have to earn our way into heaven, then we set ourselves a big climb. Both of these seem rather different to the "life and peace" that might be ours and others, as we set our minds on the Spirit.
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