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Preaching Service, QCB, 17/3/81 (St Patrick's Day) (2.304 words)

(Theme[2-fold]: Real world is here and now; ministerial formation is a rite of passage that requires us to die to our old selves , that we let go and let God find us.)


Last term on a Tuesday evening I told you to 'Drop dead!', so tonight I want to tell you to 'Get lost! - right here and now!'  If 'Drop dead' took a bit of unpacking before it could be heard as gospel. then, obviously, so does the phrase, 'Get lost!'.

If someone is giving you a hard time, if he or she is  getting on your back when you are feeling tired and irritable, then. if you are as rude and crude as I am - at least part of the time, then you may well tell that person to 'Get lost!', or if you are more polite, as I am sure you are, you may well say, 'Would you, please, go away and leave me alone' - which amounts to the same thing, but may ruffle fewer feathers.

Since none of you have gotten up and walked out - at least as yet - I think that we may assume that I mean something else by 'get lost', and, of course, you are right.  But I did not simply say 'Get lost', but rather 'Get lost - right here and  now!'

And it is the 'right here and now' part that I want to start with.  And if any of you suspect that this sermon is going to be slightly chiastic, you are right again.  Let's work up to 'right here and now' by stages.

Many of us have come to this college from the 'real world' - the world of commerce, the world of industry, the world of working with real people with real problems in the social services and education, nursing, and the like.  And a number of us will be going out at the end of this academic year into the real world of circuit ministry and parish life.  How often we find ourselves looking back to our jobs or ahead to our ministry as being the place where life is real and earnest.  I think most of us feel that at times, and perhaps some of us feel that most of the time.  But I would suggest to you that there is a very substantial amount of heresy in this view, and that unless we come to terms with it, this feeling will stunt our ministry in Christ in the future - and 'right here and now'.  Perhaps there are times when we feel almost as though we are held in captivity here and now in this college, a captivity from which we long to escape - a captivity that hamstrings us and hems us in.

St Patrick knew captivity in Ireland as a lad, and we all know what he did about it - he went back to Ireland, to the scene of his captivity and his captors to bring to them the freedom of Christ.  That, perhaps, is what we should be doing - right here and now.

For we have come from the real world, and we shall go to the real world, but we shall only do so in the fullness of Christ as we recognize and live with the fact that we are in the real world, God's world, the world he has placed us in, RIGHT  - HERE - AND - NOW.

If we think the real world is out there, not here, then we are in company with the Series 2 Eucharist of the Church of England, for the final prayer said by the congregation asked God to 'send us out into the world'.  Someone nodded when that prayer was written, and in Series 3, the Queen's Rite, and the Alternative Services Book, we simply pray that he will 'send us out'.  We, you and I, the members of The Queen's College, are part and parcel of God's world right here and now. 

There is a part of most of us, perhaps of all of us, that doesn't like to hear that.  It is like being in the country looking for a place to spread our blanket, have a picnic and take a snooze.  We look across a fence and see how green the grass looks on the other side.  We see nothing but the tops of the grass, and it looks continuous and velvety, as though we could lie on it in comfort.  But yet if we look down at our feet right where we are, we do not see nothing but grass.  Instead we see some hummocks of grass, quite a bit of dirt, and probably a number of pebbles and rocks.  Not at all the kind of place we would choose to lie down on.

And so, in high hopes, we clamber over the fence to the greener pastures, only to find that we are confronted once more by hummocks of grass, patches of bare earth, pebbles and stones, and quite likely a thistle or two thrown in for good measure.  And now it is the grass on the other side of the fence that looks greener and more inviting.

This all too human propensity for, so to speak, climbing over the fence to reach seemingly greener pastures is simply being met in another form when we find ourselves beginning sentences with the words, 'If only ...' or 'Just wait until ...'.  But as one real wag has put it, 'If only circumstances had been different, I would have been  the same person'.  For it is not so much what happens to us that determines who we are as it is how we react to it.  And that brings us back to right here and now at the Queen's College, Birmingham.

I suspect many of us looked across the fence, so to speak, at the prospect of coming to a theological college with great anticipation.  Here was where we were going to find a truly committed Christian community, united in purpose and vision.  Here was where we were going to be equipped and built up for our future ministry, building a superstructure of skills an knowledge upon the solid base of our life and faith, gaining the confidence to express a clear and cogent reason for the faith that is in us.

But the experience of many of us, including members of the staff in our own theological college days, as well as many of you who are students right now, has not been like that.  We have come into a community far more diverse in outlook than we had expected, often far less unified in expectations than we had hoped for.  We have come with at least some degree of confidence that we have truly understood the Christian faith, that we had grasped the scriptures, that, in some sense, we were all right, Jack!  And then we found that in many areas our confidence started to crumble.  Much of what we had taken for granted as being solid stone foundations seemed to be attacked with air hammers wielded by the teaching staff and sometimes even by our own familiar friends. It doesn't seem like what we thought we came for, and we feel that we don't need anyone to tell us to get lost, for we have already gotten lost, right here and now.  Perhaps we look across the fence, so to speak, and wonder if we shouldn't instead have gone to an all-Methodist college or an all-Anglican one.  Well, I went to an all-Anglican college, and I experienced exactly the same thing, so I really do not think that that would help at all.  For, unless I am very mistaken, this experience is a well-nigh universal one that is simply par for the course.

And I would go even further and say that I think it is a right and proper experience, an experience that is quite properly and even necessarily a part of our theological education and ministerial formation.  Let me explain.

We come to college with a set of beliefs and practices that have undergirded our our lives in Christ.  They have given us a sense of wellbeing, a sense of confidence, a sense of purpose, a sense of vision, and a sense of competence.  They buttress our lives and hold us together.  They give us a sense of self-identity and enable us to cope with life.  Or. to use an image from "Peanuts", they are our Linus blankets.  As long as we remained as ordinary lay persons, they not only were quite adequate for us, but I would even say that, in general, for the most part, it would be wrong of me to bring them into question.

But now you have responded to what you believe to be a call from God to set-apart, recognized and authorized ministry in the Church.  And the basic nature of that ministry is that you are to become what I would call normative enablers.  If it is the job of every Christian to help others to live more fully and deeply, that is, to be those who enable others to know God's love in their lives, then you are the ones who are called to be the normative enablers.  You are the ones who are called to set the normative example.  You are the ones who are called to have a normative grasp of the life in Christ, a normative grasp of the Christian tradition in terms of the witness of the Scriptures, Christian worship, history, theology and the like.

And furthermore, you are the ones who have been called and who will be called to minister to the whole of a Christian congregation and beyond.  You may well have, as each of us does, a way of understanding the Christian faith and all that it entails in terms that especially make sense and appeal you.  But if you are to minister to all of the people whom God loves, then you must be helped to grow in the ability to get alongside them not where you are, not where you wish they were, but where they are, with their own pattern of belief and practice.  With St Paul, your calling is to become all things to all people - not in the sense of being wishy-washy, but in the sense of helping them in terms that they can understand and affirm, to see the grace, the demand, the opportunities and even the judgements that face them in their own situation in the light of the Gospel.  Starting from where they are, your calling will be to deepen and extend their vision and commitment.  And not all that you do will be clearly church activity or overtly Christian.

So if it is not to become nebulous and even shapeless, then you - and all of us - need to be helped to see what is the core of the Gospel that lies behind our individual patterns of belief and practice that we have brought to the college.  And then we need to learn how to express that core in other words and patterns of practice.  We need to learn how to listen to others whose patterns are not ours in order that w may hear what they are trying to convey about life and the life in Christ, what they understand and what they hold dear.

In order that we may do this, in order that we may enter into this right here and now, is why we are here at Queen's.  As Christopher Nankivell has expressed it, we are involved in a rite of passage, for we come as fairly ordinary lay people and we go out with our feet well set on the road of ministerial formation.  And in every rite of passage there is inevitably an element of dying before the new life can emerge.  There is a substantial amount of 'letting go' to be done, of 'letting go' of old securities, a breaking down of old buttresses, a losing of old Linus blankets.  So be prepared to 'get lost'; be prepared to 'Get lost -right here and now'.  And if that seems a fearsome prospect, let me assure you that it is part of the Gospel.  For he who seeks to save his life will lose it, because it is only the one who loses his or her life for the sake of Christ and the Gospel who ill save it.

As I have said, this sense of becoming lost is, in my experience, par for the course.  But the sense of being found again is also par for the course, so hang in there.  When I was in seminary everything seemed to fall apart, especially during my second year.  I told this to my parish priest, who laughed and said that he had gone out at the end of his first term and tried to join the U. S. Navy.  But then suddenly everything fell into place and I was able to make a whole out of it, and for the first time I was able to hear people for what they were saying in their own terms, and then I knew indeed that I was where God wanted me to be.

And then I had the odd experience of hearing two of my fellow-students arguing.  One was an Anglo-Catholic and the other was a Liberal Evangelical.  The funny thing, perhaps more accurately, the pathetic thing, was that they were both trying to make exactly the same point.  But they were doing it in two different ways, using two different sets of images, vocabulary and background - and neither one of them could hear the other.  I see it as my calling in Christ as a member of The Queen's College, to help all of us to get beyond that point, and so I invite you yet again to 'Get lost - right here and now'.