Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Starting out
March 13, 2011, 4:21 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , ,

A sermon preached at Holy Nativity, Knowle, 13th March 2011

I seem to be preaching in a different church almost every Sunday in Lent, so not much chance of continuity with other priests! But for my own benefit, I am taking the theme of “pilgrimage” overall, and today my theme is “starting out.”

We are used to the idea of pilgrimage, to Walsingham, Glastonbury, the Holy Land, Rome or wherever. Pilgrimage is making a journey to a special place, with a special aim in view. It is a religious idea: the special place has religious significance, and the special aim is to honour God in that place. We are also used to the idea of our whole Christian life as a pilgrimage, “from this world to the next,” as they say.  The two kinds of pilgrimage are brought together in the words of a hymn I am sure is familiar to many of us (the reference is to the saints):

These stones that have echoed their praises are holy,
And dear is the ground where their feet have once trod,
Yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims,
And still they were seeking the city of God.

These words pick up a thought in the Letter to the Hebrews, where it is written that Abraham “looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” He and many others “died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” It is quite wrong to suggest, as some do, that our calling is to build the City of God on earth. The City of God is not something that we build, but which “comes down from heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband,” as the Book of Revelation says. It is God who lays the foundations and builds up its walls. We, if we are willing, may be able to furnish it and decorate it and complete its adornment.

I digress a little: we are, here below, on pilgrimage to the City of God. Last Sunday, at All Hallows, I was talking to the children and used as an example a little book I was given for my seventh birthday, “The Land of Far-Beyond” by Enid Blyton. A small classic in its way, it re-tells the story of Bunyan’s “Pilgrims Progress”, in outline if not in detail. A group of travellers set out from the City of Turmoil, a place of selfishness and strife, to seek the City of Happiness in the land of Far-Beyond.

Today only the beginning of that story need concern us. The pilgrims set out only after a mysterious stranger has visited their homeland. He is grieved by the unhappiness and unkindness he sees all around him, and tells the children, and some grown-ups who are listening, about another city, the City of Happiness, where things a very different. The children wonder how they might go there, but the stranger said it would be difficult for them to be happy, even in the City of Happiness, because of the terrible burdens they carry.

The children are puzzled, because they cannot see any burdens they are carrying. The stranger explains that these loads are invisible, within their hearts- the burden of selfishness and unkindness and laziness and greediness. Some of the grown-ups scoff and don’t believe him, so he offers to show them. As he speaks, they feel something like great sacks appearing on their backs. The children’s sacks are not very big, but some of the grown-ups’ loads are very heavy indeed. They demand that the stranger take them away, but he explains that he can’t- the loads are part of themselves. Only in the City of Happiness may they find someone who will take the loads away.

You and I understand what he is talking about:  Enid Blyton, like Bunyan, was an Evangelical Christian and she and he mean that the root of all human unhappiness is Sin, a failure- indeed a refusal- to live according to way of life intended for us by the Creator. We want to go our own way, do our own thing. When this leads to frustration and worse, we wonder why. It can’t be us, it must be something else. As Douglas Adams wrote of the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, if there is any discrepancy between what the Guide says and reality, it is reality which is wrong.

The first step to salvation, the first step towards the City of God, is the realisation and acceptance that it is not reality which is wrong, it is ourselves. At least part of the reason for our frustration and dissatisfaction with life is within us. We carry invisible burdens, which no human power can take away. But we should by no means despair, because there is a divine power that can change us. We begin to see that we are not really, as we thought, citizens of the City of Turmoil, smoky and grimy. We are only exiles in it, we really belong to that far-off City of which we have heard and which we hope to see.

In Bunyan’s story, the Pilgrim loses his burden quite early on in the story. In Enid Blyton’s version it is not so simple: the travellers carry their loads all the way to the end, and only lose them as they enter the City. This is truer to our experience. Even though we have been on the Christian way for many years, we know we still carry our loads. They are (in a way Enid Blyton makes clear) in some way part of us. We cannot rid ourselves of them, but Christ is able to do so, re-creating us in the divine image. On earth, every day and every year is a fresh stage on the total journey. “One more step along the world we go.” Each Lent offers us the chance to set out again, to leave behind the past and press on to the future.

On this First Sunday in Lent I invite you to start again the journey to God. I also ask you to have particularly in your prayers Fr Keith Newton and those who, from this church and across the country, are making a special pilgrimage this Lent to establish the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, which is intended to be a fresh expression in our land of English Catholicism. Mainly, though, let us concentrate on our own personal journeys. Lent is the Spring-time of the Church.

New every morning is the love our wakening and uprising prove…
New mercies, each returning day, hover around us while we pray;
The trivial round, the common task, would furnish all we ought to ask,
Room to deny ourselves, a road to bring us daily nearer God.

Every little act of patience with the follies of others can be an offering to God; every little act of kindness towards the needs of others can be our sacrifice. Each day we can draw a little nearer the heavenly City.

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