I Samuel 16:1-13
From the First Book of Samuel, that great story of the calling and anointing of David. I’ve always really loved this story. It’s a kind of Cinderella story. Here are all Jesse’s sons lined up in front of the prophet Samuel. He looks at each one in turn: which one has the Lord chosen to be king? The first one, Eliab. He’s tall and good-looking. He must be the one! But no, says God. Never mind about his appearance or his height – he’s not the one. Nor the next one, nor the next one. But surely, God, this one looks perfect to be king. No, says God – never mind what he looks like. “For the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
And none of his sons are chosen. Are you sure there’s no one else? Well, says Jesse, there is the youngest (or in Hebrew it can also mean the smallest or the shortest). It couldn’t possibly be him! – and anyway he’s out with the sheep. Bring him in! I need to see him! He comes in, and immediately Samuel knows‘This is the one!’ And he anoints him with oil in the presence of all his brothers, and we read “The Spirit of the Lord came mightily on David from that day forward.”
Well, it’s a great story, and the reason I think I’ve always loved it is that I’m the youngest son in my family and I’ve got two older brothers. Growing up I was always younger and shorter than them. Playing football (soccer) with them and their friends, they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re too small. You can go in goal. I hated being in goal and just standing around. Boring! You couldn’t run around with the ball.
In my thoughts and prayers right now are our Brothers David, Jonathan and Nicholas and the 39 pilgrims who are with them in the Holy Land. On Monday they will be by the Sea of Galilee, which for me is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The Sea of Galilee has a particular power and spirit because it was there and in the surrounding region that Jesus first called his disciples to follow him. It is the cradle of Christian vocation.
“He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
He saw James and John who were in their boat mending the nets. He called them and the left their father Zebedee and followed him.
He called the rich young man and said, “Sell everything that you haveand follow me.”
I Corinthians 1:18-25
Eighteen months ago, during my sabbatical, I spent a week in southwest France at Lourdes. I’d wanted to go to Lourdes for many years, to see what it is like and to try to understand why so many people have found it a place of healing and hope. I could talk for hours about my experiences there, but there was one thing that moved me more than anything else. It was the sight of hundreds of men and women in wheelchairs, being pushed with such respect, kindness and tenderness by mostly young men and women, some students, from all around the world. What was so clear, and really wonderful, was that here at Lourdes, those who were weak, sick, broken, disabled, were honored and really given pride of place. In most places in our society today, where power and wealth and success are trumpeted, the sick, the broken, the weak, the disabled, are so often marginalized and even hidden away. But not at Lourdes.
It made me think back to my late teens when I was considering Christianity. What most attracted me to the Christian faith was that it could embrace and make sense of suffering, sickness, failure and weakness. Humanism really couldn’t explain it at all – they rather got in the way.
Worshipping with men and women in wheelchairs, laughing and joking with them over a glass of Guiness, listening to their stories of faith and trust, and frankly getting in touch with my own weakness and need for healing was, I think, at the heart of the extraordinarily Suffering sense of holiness I felt there. It was unforgettable.
I sometimes reflect on living the monastic life – how all-consuming it can be. There is always the next thing, and it can be very demanding. But the other week I was talking to my niece Katharine. She had a baby last year and she adores him, but she was telling me what hard work it is – day and night looking after a young child, on call 24 hours a day. Many of you will have had that experience and know exactly what it is like.
I remember a remarkable woman in my parish in England. She had five young children. When I used to visit there it was a maelstrom as they all came bounding up to the front door to greet me. So much energy! So much noise! I said to her once, “Gosh, how do you manage? How do you cope?” She said, “Well, I’ll show you.” We went into the hall and she opened the walk-in cupboard under the stairs, where most people stored their vacuum cleaners. I looked in, and there was a cushion on the floor and a candle. She said, “Every morning I go in there for 20 minutes, and spend time with God.” The children all knew that that was Mum’s special time. In fact, she put a sign on the door when she was in there. The children would never disturb her for those precious 20 minutes. “And that,” she said, “is what keeps me not just sane, but actually very happy.”
I recently spent a day of retreat at Emery House. I sat in a simple hut deep in the woods – and all day long I watched the gently falling leaves. It was a beautiful and melancholy experience. Those falling leaves seemed to pick up the feelings at this time of the year: a sense of letting go and of loss. A time to remember. In church we remember all Saints. We remember on All Souls Day our loved ones who have passed away. This past week we have remembered those who lost their lives in war.
A couple of days ago in London at the Royal Albert Hall there was the annual Festival of Remembrance. I love to watch it, because of what happens at the end. After all the music and the singing, the huge crowd stands in silence as a million poppies fall, gently and silently – in remembrance of all who died in war – “we will remember them.” I love that moment – with that strange mixture of sadness, yet of hope. As the autumn leaves fall, and as the poppies fall there is sadness, but something else – a sweet sorrow. Solomon in his wisdom, put it like this: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction. But they are at peace.” (Wisdom 3:1-3)
But there is I think more going on at this melancholy time of year than just remembering those who have died. There is something about this season of falling leaves and bare trees which speaks profoundly to our souls and invites us to also experience a dying. “For unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)
What do those enigmatic words of Jesus mean?
I think there is a clue in the reading from the Gospel of Luke we have just heard: the story of the rich young man. He comes up to Jesus and asks how he might inherit eternal life. He rattles off all the commandments that he has kept: he’s full of self-righteousness, and full of money. And Jesus looks at him in all his fullness and says to him, “You lack one thing – sell all that you have, and give the money to the poor.” (Lk 18:22)
The man asked for life – eternal life – and Jesus replied by saying – if you want life, you have to die first. Just as the tree needs to let go of its leaves in order to have room for new life and growth – so the rich man had to first shed his self-righteousness and wealth, to leave room to be filled with the fullness of God.
And each season of fall reminds us again of Jesus’ invitation to us to an autumnal experience of letting go and of dying – if we want to truly live, and be filled with the fullness of God.
It is the pattern of dying and being reborn, of crucifixion and resurrection, which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. It’s the pattern at work in all the saints. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians wrote, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things.” (Phil 3:8)
And so with the rich young man, Jesus was saying to him, with great love, that if you don’t empty yourself, I can’t fill you – there’s no room!
So when Jesus looks at you and me, with great love, and longs to fill us with his life, who does he see? Does he see someone too full already? It could be just too much stuff: possessions can suffocate us, possess us. Or we may be so overwhelmed by busy-ness that we cannot attend to the things of God.
Or maybe God can’t find room to fill you, because you are filled with anger, or resentment, or an inability to forgive – emotions that can consume us and overwhelm us. Imagine Jesus looking at you with love, and saying gently, “let it go, let it go.” Let it fall away like the autumn leaves.
At times we may feel the burden of sin. Things we have done or said in the past which still haunt us and fill us with guilt or remorse. There’s a wonderful line in our Rule which says, “We cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ, who goes before us if we are encumbered by guilt.” I love the image of Jesus running ahead of us and looking back and saying, ‘Come on!’ And we say, “I can’t keep up! I’m weighed down by guilt, or my possessions, my anger, my resentment, my fear…!’
And Jesus saying, ‘Let me forgive you. Let me take the weight off you. Let them go, and become light and free … and come follow me.’
I love this time of year – the season of fall. Things seem to be falling and dying. But Solomon knew a deeper mystery: “In the eyes of the foolish,” he said, “they seemed to have died.” And we who follow Jesus know a deeper mystery. We know that those bare trees, which seem so dead, are just waiting silently and expectantly for the mystery of spring and the glorious bursting forth of new life.
And so with us. Jesus calls us every day to live into that mystery in our own lives. To let die all that does not give me life. To empty myself of all that weighs me down: possessions, anxieties, resentments, sins: whatever it is that stops me following Jesus.
Let it go. Learn from those gently falling leaves. And let it go.
Jane was a member of my congregation when I was a parish priest in England. She was a remarkable woman with great faith, but who had suffered so much over the past years as her husband struggled with cancer. She was brave, courageous, resilient, but it was clear the light had gone out of her life. But I remember, on one New Year’s Day, she came up to me in church and said, “Geoffrey, I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution – or rather a new year’s prayer.” I remember thinking, O good – maybe she’s going to travel or get a new job. “No, she said, not that. I’m going to ask God for JOY again in my life. I want the gift of JOY.”
I’d never heard anyone say that to me before – but I can honestly say that God did answer her prayer, and as the year went on, I saw her come alive again. God gave her the gift of joy. It was beautiful to see.
On this day, in 1961, there was a plane crash in Central Africa and it took the life of Dag Hammarskjöld, who was the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was an extraordinary man, and in the calendar of the Church we keep him on this day. He is kept as a memorial in the Church firstly because he was a man tirelessly committed to the cause of peace, who was willing to undertake the greatest personal sacrifice on its behalf. In fact, the plane which crashed in Africa was taking him on a very dangerous mission and most of the people in the UN didn’t want him to go, but he was very brave. He was going to negotiate a ceasefire between warring factions in the Congo.
The second reason Dag is remembered and honored in the calendar of the Church is because of what was found in his apartment in New York shortly after his death. It was a manuscript and it was full of journal entries. He wrote in it every day, and there were poems, and they (i.e. the journal entries) covered a period of several decades and revealed a rich, hidden life. No one knew it existed – and no one knew that this was what was going on deep within this man, within his inner life. They revealed a man of deep faith, whose courageous life of self-sacrifice was a direct result of what went on in those times of silence, often very early in the morning – times of passionate (prayer), sometimes wrestling (with God), sometimes commitment to God.
“All good things come to those who wait!” My mother used to say that to my brothers and sister and me when we were growing up – and I hated it! “No, can’t I have it NOW?” – we’d plead. “Please, can you buy me a Chelsea football shirt?” “No, you’ll have to wait till the end of the month.” “O no, why can’t I have it now?”
In our Western society, we hate having to wait. At the supermarket, deciding which lane will be the shortest. You make a choice, and it’s the wrong one. All the other lanes are moving much faster. Shall I swap? If only I’d chosen the other lane: now I’ve got to wait. Or you are driving, stopped at a red light, that’s been red for ages – and then it goes to green, and the car in front doesn’t seem to have noticed – O come on! Or at the airport: you look at the board for your flight, and see the dreaded word ‘DELAYED.” O no, I’ve got to wait another hour.
Isaiah 52:7-10 / Psalm 98 / Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12) / John 1:1-14
It’s Christmas Day. I love Christmas – and I love singing at Christmas! Christmas is a time for singing: everyone and everything seems to be singing. Have you noticed when you are in a really good mood, or at a birthday, or you’ve just heard a wonderful piece of news, you want to sing, or ring bells, or jump up and down – you can’t help it – it’s just joy! Particularly at Christmas, the Scriptures are full of singing. Our Psalm today: “Sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvelous things – lift up your voice, rejoice and sing.” And not just people, but the whole of creation: “Shout for joy all you lands, lift up your voice, rejoice and sing … let the sea make a noise, let the rivers clap their hands … let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” (Psalm 96) At Christmas, it is as if the whole of creation is singing with joy!
They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes… Isaiah 35:1-10
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me…” Matthew 11:2-11