Tuesday, 9 February 2016
First sermon at St Michael's, Camden Town - In returning and rest you shall be saved
Christian Egypt, early in the life of the Church: three brothers from the same village want to give their lives in service of Christ. The first, inspired by Christ's healing ministry, goes into medicine. The second, following Christ's proclamation 'blessed are the peacemakers,' goes out among the various warlords suing for peace. But the third is inspired by Christ's frequent retreats into prayer alone. He takes himself deep into the desert to live as a hermit.
Some years pass. The first brother, who has worked tirelessly among the sick, finds that the sick keep coming, and he cannot heal them all; the second finds that however much he brokers peace, the wars around him continue. Exhausted, drained, they go to find their brother in the desert.
They tell him their troubles. Saying nothing, he takes a flask of water from its hanging, and pours it into a bowl. "What can you see?" he asks. But they can see nothing through the murk of the swilling water. Their brother tells them to wait. They're losing their patience. But gradually, the water settles and goes clear, as the dust in it separates out and sinks to the bottom. And when they look in, this time they can see their faces: tired, drawn, stressed. "When you are so busy," says the hermit, "you cannot see yourself clearly, and you cannot see Christ within."
If you rely on your own efforts to heal the sick, to bring peace to the world - to catch all the fish - you won't get very far. You'll end up with empty nets, exhausted. But if you rest in the presence of Christ, trust Him to take the load, He will enable you to bring in a haul of unimaginable plenty.
Well, that's what the Gospel says, and not just here. Jesus Himself says, "come to me, all you that are weary, and I will give you rest: my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” He calls Himself the Lord of the Sabbath, that final day of rest. And God's message to Isaiah sums it up: "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength." The message is as clear as the water in that hermit's bowl.
So do we believe it? - or do we maybe really think, "well, that's all very well if you've got time, but I've got the shopping to do, bills to worry about, children wanting this and that, then we've got the grand church reopening to think about, the art installation coming in from the V&A, the Legal Drop-in to find lawyers for, the cleaning rota to organise, the list goes on: and 'resting in Jesus' would be lovely, I'm sure, but it's not going to get any of these things done." A bit like Martha, perhaps, banging away in the kitchen that time when Jesus came to visit, getting annoyed because her sister Mary was just sitting there, listening to Him. But you know which of those two sisters Jesus said had the "better part."
So let's clarify and think this through. First, let's be clear about what the Gospel is NOT saying here: it's not just saying, "you look like you need a holiday," "everyone needs a break now and then." The Gospel isn't some string of platitudes for lifestyle advice. When Jesus called Himself "Lord of the Sabbath," He didn't mean "Lord of the Day Off." The Sabbath rest is something much more profound than that: it's the end of Creation, the whole purpose of our existence, to rest in God. Jesus is the one who is always at rest in the Father, and He came to invite us to join in that rest and stillness, not just after this life is over, but here and now. After all, it was from the emptiness and stillness of the Virgin's womb that Christ exploded into our reality. It was from the emptiness and stillness of the tomb that He sprang out in resurrected fulness, to give new birth to the Church and tear down the veil that hides from us on earth the eternal joy and rest of Heaven. That heavenly rest, that peace, that underlying joy, is not some optional bolt-on to the Christian religion: it's at its heart. And you can rest in Christ's peace here and now, you can let Him into your boat, into your heart, let Him guide you to the deep waters of your soul where He will help you cast your net down to haul in spiritual treasures you never even knew were there.
I've only been here seven days, but I can see already, and you don't need me to tell you, that this is a busy church. You work hard, and in the vacancy, you've worked harder still - the DCC, all the volunteers, Frs Oliver, Simon and Jim, Helena, all of you - and I want to thank you all again for keeping the church so healthy, active, and optimistic. It's clear to me that Christ is at the heart of what you're doing here: if He wasn't, you wouldn't have achieved so much! But I think today's Gospel is timely. After all this hard graft, I think it's time for us to rediscover what it is to rest in Christ, to breathe and take stock. Lent, of course, is the perfect time to do just that: to go into the wilderness, or into those deep, still waters, to let them settle, and watch expectantly for Christ's new birth at Easter. The Bishop wants grand new initiatives and new life in this church, and we'll have all that, but only if we first spend some time waiting and listening in the presence of Our Lord. All our efforts must rest in Him.
What I'm talking about, of course, is prayer. Throughout Lent I want us to enter more deeply into the stillness of Christ's presence, to develop the discipline of making regular time for silence with Him. You'll notice from next week a change to our liturgy for Lent, a more contemplative tone, with a chanted musical setting that we're going practice after Mass today. We're also introducing an optional half an hour of meditation with the Blessed Sacrament just before Healing Prayer, on Tuesdays at 12.30. Before being a place that gets you on the rotas working your socks off, I want St Michael's to be a place of sanctuary and peace for you. And I'm going to try to spend Lent more quietly, too, listening to you and the people of Camden Town, getting to know you and your hopes and needs. If you'd like me to come and visit in the next few weeks or to meet up somewhere, Helena will have a book at the back for you to write your name and number or email address in, and I'll get in touch.
But for now, here, pray, take, eat, let Christ dwell within you that you might rest in Him, and see what treasures He can haul in from the deep waters of your soul.
Posted by Tom Plant