Sermon preached at Belfast Cathedral
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA
Second Sunday in Lent
February 20, 2005
Readings: Genesis 12:1-4; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
The Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you." Thus, the Lord directed Abram: he told him to leave home. Home can mean many things. It might mean a place that is familiar and secure. It might refer to a pattern of relationships that support and sustain us. Home might mean a structure of attitudes and perceptions that allow us to make meaning and determine our place in the world.
Conversely, home can be a place of continual unsettlement and dis-ease. In some instances home can mean a perpetual state of uncertainty, into which threat and chaos are free to enter at a moment's notice.
As well, home can be a national or cultural or ethnic or religious identity by which we define ourselves, often over against those whom we perceive as "other."
Home, therefore, can carry with it a wide range of both positive and negative associations. Home shapes and forms us in ways of which we are both aware and unaware.
In today's first reading, Gods bids Abram to leave home – to leave the safe and familiar and identifying shelter of his "father's house" and to set out toward a destination yet to be identified, toward "the land that I will show you." To be sure, Abram did not sally forth without family and "all the possessions that they had gathered." He did not set out free of all that he had acquired – all that had shaped and formed him. He took his past with him, into a future yet to be determined by the divine imagination of the One who called him forth. Trusting in the Voice who had called, Abram went, as he was bidden.
A willingness to leave home has been a characteristic of genuine faith and authentic discipleship down through the ages – home understood not only as place but as attitudes and perceptions as well.
Here I am put in mind of particular saints. Because I have the joy of being in Ireland, for however brief a time, I am put in mind of a great saint of this land, Patrick. His story of call and resistance is recorded in his own words in his Confession. It is a story you quite likely know better than I, and one that bears repeating in the context of our thinking about Abram and his call.
Born into a Christian Romano- Briton family, Patrick was kidnapped at the age of 16 by Irish raiders and sold into slavery. For six years he tended sheep, most likely in the west of Ireland. Exposed to the elements and bereft of human companionship Patrick, until then a lukewarm Christian, was riven through by the Spirit. As he tells us: "The land opened the sense of my unbelief that I might remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God." With a profound sense of God's mercy and all-embracing care, Patrick listened with the ear of his heart to the Voice of the Spirit, who like the wind blows with the sovereign freedom of the Trinity and speaks where it wills.
And so it is that Patrick is addressed, much as Abram was, and instructed to escape from servitude and return home. He does so and is warmly received by his parents. The story might well have ended here with the happy reunion. As we know, however, this was only the beginning. By virtue of his encounter with the Spirit in the hills of Ireland, the Patrick who returned to Britain had already left home.
His dis-ease increased when he had a vision. The Spirit took the form of a man and addressed Patrick in the name of the Irish saying, "We ask thee boy, come and walk among us once more." Overcome by self-doubt, and a profound antipathy toward those who called him to walk among them once more, Patrick resisted the insistent Voice. Finally, after 18 years, he relented, worn down by the wind of the Spirit who had never ceased to blow through his consciousness and to tell him that his true home was among those he feared and despised. The Spirit was attempting to speak a word to Patrick, a word such as this: Patrick, your true home – where you will find your true self – lies beyond your pre-occupation with your limitations of mind and spirit and rustic inadequacy.
The rest is history. And, through the strange and sometimes wild workings of the Spirit, faith overcame fear and love replaced disdain for the people from whom Patrick had once so eagerly fled. Home is where the heart is, and in this case it was only after a long struggle, which involved self-knowledge and surrender, that Patrick's heart found its true home in this land.
A willingness to leave home, to quit the known and familiar, and to go where the Spirit might lead, or where one might quite literally be blown, was a characteristic of early Celtic monasticism. In a text, probably from the seventh century, that describes three kinds of martyrdom we are told that the first kind of martyrdom, white martyrdom, "is to man when he separates for the sake of God from everything he loves, although he suffers fasting or labor thereat."
It was this notion of martyrdom that caused stalwart souls to set out to sea in curachs or coracles, to be tossed by the waves and blown by the wind to a place of the Spirit's choosing, to live and pray among the puffins, or to preach good news to the poor in distant lands.
In a poem entitled The Choice Kuno Meyer captures something of the interior struggle occasioned by attraction to this form of martyrdom. Addressing Christ, he asks:
Shall I choose, O King of Mysteries
After the delight of downy pillows and music,
To go upon the rampart of the sea,
Turning my back on my native land?...
Shall I launch my dusky little coracle
On the broad-bosomed glorious ocean?
Shall I go, O king of bright heaven
Of my own upon the brine?
The faith of the questioner is found in the question itself. Shall I choose to go? This could have been Patrick's question, and it can be our question as well. Shall I choose to go? There is faith in the willingness â however reluctant or questioning, to let go of the self we know – the sum total of past experiences and past hurts. There is faith in the relinquishment of our need to control and to launch out upon the "broad-bosomed glorious ocean" of God's longing and loving desire for our full flourishing and that of the world around us.
In the gospel reading for today Nicodemus, "a leader of the Jews," approaches Jesus by night, safe and unseen in the darkness in order to query this teacher and doer of signs. A conversation follows in which words, as is characteristic of John, have double meanings: born again also means born from above; wind also means Spirit; sound also means speech. It is in the interplay of meanings and different levels of understanding that the ways of the Spirit are revealed. The wind blows where it chooses; the Spirit speaks and calls us forth in the loving freedom the Spirit shares with the Father and the Son, a freedom into which we are drawn as we are "born from above" by water and Spirit in baptism.
Though baptized into a Christian household, his father a deacon and his grandfather a priest, Patrick's awareness of who he was in Christ as a limb of Christ's risen body developed over time, mediated by the circumstances and struggles and challenges that confronted him. His growing to maturity in Christ was a developmental process, as it is for us, in which nothing is wasted. All can be used by the Spirit who forms Christ in us and conforms us to the image of the Son. Even our sins can be used to teach us wisdom, compassion and humility.
Looking back on his experience of slavery, Patrick declared: "I Patrick, a sinner, was captured when about sixteen years old. I did not then know the true God." Looking back Patrick could see how even the most seemingly inauspicious, if not hostile, circumstances can be used to break us open to the miracle of a grace which is always sufficient.
And as the risen Christ made clear to St. Paul, Christ's power, beyond our wildest imaginings, is made perfect, that is comes to full term, at the very heart of our limitations and weakness. A loss of freedom and home became the narrow door through which Patrick was obliged to pass in order to come home in grace and truth to himself.
We have here the gospel paradox, which only makes sense in the living of it: it is by losing ourselves that we find ourselves, and it is by clutching and clinging and trying to control that we lose.
Lent is a season in which we are obliged to ask ourselves personally and as communities of faith: how defended am I – how defended are we – against the unrelenting yet loving gentle breeze and sometimes gale force wind of the Spirit? How defended are we against the Spirit whose work is to guide us into all the truth, as John's gospel tells us, by drawing from what is of Christ, who is himself the truth?
One aspect of "the truth as in Jesus" is love, love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit enabling us to pray with answering love, "Abba, Father." This love, which is the very life of the Trinity, is worked into us by the Spirit thereby making us fully alive and expanding our hearts to embrace the whole creation. We find ourselves overtaken by a compassion, which because it is of the Spirit and not the result of our effort or imagination, knows no bounds and can enfold all persons and all things. It is a compassion which, in the words of St. Isaac of Syria, embraces not only humankind but the birds and the beasts, the enemies of truth, those who wish to do us harm and, he adds, "even the reptiles," which may be seen as representing those slithery aspects of our own humanity which we are loathe to admit to the company of our âbetterâ selves and therefore often displace onto others as evil.
What understanding of home might I, might we, leave behind? What attitudes and opinions and notions of truth are we perhaps being called to set aside? How are we being called forth, possibly into a season of vulnerability and loss? How are we being made ready, as Abram and Patrick were, for a future of God's own imagining â a new season of grace and truth, of healing and reconciliation? Are we perhaps being invited in new ways – by the King of bright Heaven – to push off in a dusky little coracle upon the broad-bosomed glorious ocean of God's fathomless compassion? Are we perhaps being drawn beyond ourselves, and our anxious self-constructions, into the realm of God's terrifying goodness, which the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews can only describe as a consuming fire? I believe the answer is "yes." Yes, we are so called. We are always so called.
Therefore, may we be given the courage to leave home, to push off, not in our own strength but in "the strong name of the Trinity" and may we remember always that God's power "working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine."