Sermon: Sunday 25 May 2014
The Revd Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler
It’s been a long wait! Frustrating at times, seemingly endless and a feeling of powerlessness – unable to move things along or influence anyone to come to a decision. But we got there in the end! The real chapter now begins.
Preaching a sermon on Richard III, given the circumstances, seems almost irresistible – and yet I am going to resist it! There will be plenty of opportunities to explore Richard themes over the coming months. A recent conference here entitled ‘Continuing Bonds’ had archaeologists, doctors and myself exploring the interface between death and life, burial practices, human needs and how the King Richard story speaks into that arena. For myself it was a spiritual exploration – you can find it on Pete’s blog if you have a mind to! So I’m not going to go over that this morning. But waiting…
We spend a lot of our lives waiting. Think about it. I’m sure during the last week or two many here have waited in a queue somewhere, or killed time in a waiting room, or hung around waiting for someone to turn up. So many situations and places where we find ourselves waiting – hospital, airport, waiting for the outcome of an interview, an operation, a birth, a death…
Waiting time is not easy. It can be stressful – whether a delayed train or the results of a medical test, the implications will differ but the feelings are not dissimilar: powerlessness, insecurity and unknowing. The feeling of being in limbo, of being unable to move forward, of putting things on hold and of watching the rest of the world rush around outside of your particular ‘bubble’.
Yet sometimes waiting time can be positive. When I was working up in Nottingham, the traffic down the M1 was grindingly depressing. And yet I discovered I could use that time productively: I would debrief myself on the day past while sitting in a traffic jam, with the result that, by the time I arrived home, I’d laid the working day to rest and could address home life with energy. Many people use travelling time as a buffer between the two time zones of work and home.
However I’m conscious as I say this that the same cannot be said of all waiting time. Where we can apply this thinking and use the time to our own advantage, we should. My husband, for example, is having a grand time working his way through some interesting books on WW1, while receiving cancer treatment. This is to be applauded. But there is also waiting time which feels very much like a void.
Maybe you’ve seen the play Waiting for Godot? It’s a play of few characters, of whom the main two wait endlessly and in vain for the unknown Godot. They and we have no idea what is supposed to happen when and if Godot comes. It’s a widely-acclaimed play, open to all sorts of interpretation. But at its core is the futility of existence. These two people are just meaninglessly waiting.
In contrast our Christian understanding reminds us that there can be a meaning in the waiting – it’s not like waiting for Godot. ‘But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.’ – words from the prophet Micah.
For us and for God, waiting time can have its own quality and value. We may deplore the time lag between a job interview and hearing whether we have been successful; but we may have usefully taken stock in the meantime. While waiting for medical results we may be understandably on tenterhooks, especially if the condition is life-threatening, yet that time can be an incredibly precious, personal and intimate time where deep issues are explored and true priorities reaffirmed. Waiting time has the capacity, even in the seemingly most negative of circumstances, for reflection and creativity, acting as a springboard for a differently ordered future. When my mother died and we were waiting for the funeral it felt like time had stopped still, and yet the inactivity (aside from all the practicalities) enabled me better to process things, rather than brushing them aside, as I might have done.
Why am I saying all this? Because we are on the 6th Sunday of Easter and it feels very much like waiting time. In Churchy terms we’ve done the Resurrection and we’re kind of just there – hanging out. Next week is Ascension and after that Pentecost, and then things move on. But right now we’re stuck with Christ’s intermittent appearances and the disciples not doing very much. Or so it seems! A waiting time for both them and us. But a waiting time pregnant with meaning.
Let’s look at it from their perspective for a moment. A death and a Resurrection – but what do these mean for their lives? They’re still processing it: they kind of want the old pattern to continue – Jesus walking and teaching among them. But he’s disengaging: he’s no longer pursuing an active ministry but, instead, encouraging them to find theirs. ‘Feed my sheep’.
In the Gospel stories we only have a few points of encounter with the risen Jesus, and those are pregnant with theological meaning. I can’t think there were a wealth of other experiences which have not been recounted, so I would suggest that these treasured moments represent an intentional withdrawal on his part. In the various jobs I have done, I’ve only been able to hand over positively when I have consciously withdrawn prior to leaving, thus enabling my successors to step into new roles. I still remember very vividly from nearly 30 years ago my feelings when, having headed up a huge and vibrant department within a school, I realised that my presence, other than teaching my lessons, was superfluous, and that the department ran like clockwork without me. Time to go!
The new Director of the Visitor Centre across the road is currently appointing staff. He has a clear plan and structure in his mind, knowing what roles he needs filling and the kinds of people he needs for those roles. Not so for the early Church, whose history we read almost as if it were a given. Jesus emphatically left no structure behind him, merely his hugely powerful leadership by example and the command to go forth and make disciples. But his immediate followers had no blueprint and it’s not rocket science to realise that once they spoke out for the Resurrection and Christ everything would be blasted wide open.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that a time for adjustment was needed, time to make sense of passages like our Gospel for today. Time to grow into new roles and a different mode of being. So often when something definingly major happens in our lives, we rush into the next phase without taking the time to reflect. We’re too easily ‘I can do it, I can fix it’ people and yet we would do well to remind ourselves that we should not try to run ahead of God. That it takes some things a huge amount of time to germinate and grow. Paul in Galatians talks about living by the Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit, with a clear sense that these and the inherent underlying spiritual wisdom take time to develop.
Core Biblical history speaks of waiting. To name but a few stories: Abraham and Sarah wait into old age for the desired child; the Hebrews are nearly derailed in their impatience to reach their destiny; and Lazarus’ re-emergence into life requires a wait of some days. God requires us to sit lightly on time as we know it, and instead, slip into an understanding of his time. When God wills is not a negative concept, but one which acknowledges that, as with Narnian time, there is no correlation between our chronological obsessions and the measures of eternity. ‘A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone.’ – well-known hymnody taken from Psalm 90.
We have waited a long time for the news we received on Friday. And it is welcome. But in that waiting many things have been accomplished and, I would suggest, we have metaphorically journeyed to places we never envisaged visiting and, in the travelling, both learnt and grown. Whatever the waiting situation we find ourselves in, let us endeavour to treat that precious waiting time as an honoured guest in our lives, one who beckons us both to reflect and, like the first disciples, to delight in and draw from the presence of Christ and the promise of his Spirit, to uphold us in whatever the future holds.
© The Revd Alison Adams