Sermon for Lent 2
Tuesday 6 March 2012
When I was a university chaplain I occasionally came across academics with a decidedly atheistic outlook. On one occasion I was collecting for Christian Aid outside the Senior Common Room and was approached by one of the lecturers. He asked me what I was collecting for and I told him it was Christian Aid. “I’ll give you some money,” he said, “so long as it doesn’t aid Christians!” Another time I was at a party and got chatting to one of the professors. He asked me what I did. I told him I was a university chaplain, to which he replied, “well we all have our cross to bear!” Jesus’ words about the need to bear a cross has made me think about the quality of the lives we lead. How would you describe your life? Good or bad, easy or hard? For most of us I suppose it’s a bit of a mix. We here in England, in Weymouth, generally have it pretty good, especially compared to some of the poor people of our world. To some extent how we evaluate our lot depends on our mentality, our disposition. Some people are basically optimistic in outlook, other people pessimistic. Are you a glass half full person or a glass half empty? Even in the teaching of Jesus we find both strands. On the one hand he speaks of the need to take up the cross and follow him; on the other he tells us he comes to bring life in all its abundance. He speaks of the importance of following the narrow way, but also talks of his yoke being easy and his burden light. Even among early Christians there were those who emphasised his words optimistically and those who cast them in a pessimistic light. Down the centuries Christians have been sharply divided in the way they think of human nature. Some have seen it as deeply flawed. They have even used that terrible phrase ‘total depravity’ to describe the human condition. Others have had a much more optimistic vision, emphasising the fact that we are described in the Bible as being created in the image of God.
As we pass through life there are times when we seem to bear a heavy load, when we do indeed have a large cross to bear. There are also times when we are enjoying life in its abundance. Some seem to have more misery than others, some more happiness. But I am minded to agree, as I am so often, with the wisdom of William Shakespeare, who, from the mouth of Hamlet, tells us, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Although the condition of our lives is deeply affected by whether we are sick or well, whether our relationships are satisfactory, whether we have enough money and so on, a great deal is also contributed by the mental attitude we have towards our existence. If we can face life with magnanimity, with fortitude, with stoicism, we can do much to convert the difficulties we face into challenges that may be born and even overcome. To quote the Bard once more, we must endeavour to “bear free and patient thoughts” even in the face of great adversity. Or, as Kipling taught us, we must learn to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”. Of course the development of this kind of sanguine attitude to life isn’t easy and it comes harder to some than to others. To do so we must make a conscious act of will. We need to determine to have an outlook on life which accepts its ups and downs. I am not calling for a naïve optimism, a kind of Micawberish attitude which assumes that “something will turn up” or that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Rather I believe we need a threefold approach, one which rejoices when things are going well, puts up with things going badly and one which is always working for improvement, above all in the lives of others worse off than we are. When fortune favours us we need to be thankful. When it does not we must be patient. And we need to labour to make life better, for ourselves, yes, but more importantly for those who have much worse to bear than we do. We are called to be active, not passive, in the face of adversity. This threefold approach is, I believe, a Christian moral outlook and calling. I am not saying it is easy, though I do believe in the end it will be rewarding. The way of the cross, the hard and narrow way, is not inimical to abundant life, or the easy yoke, it may indeed be the way to it. The words of Julian of Norwich are for me a guiding light, “Sin is behovely, but all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Lent 2 | Tuesday 6 March 2012