A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
The Fourth Sunday before Lent
Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
Sunday 10th February 2019
A few days before this sermon was preached, a young man named Lejean Richards was stabbed to death in a nearby street, the second victim of knife crime in the parish in as many years.
An unknown priest arrives in a new parish. He is not welcome. He suffers from doubts. He is lonely. He suffers from isolation. He thinks his work is futile. He clashes with other clergy. He broods over his dysfunctional family. He is clumsy and socially awkward. He suffers from stomach cramps, owing to his meagre stipend and the consequence for his diet. They debilitate him and give him a dislike of his own body.
In terms of his ministry, he feels himself a failure. When he shares the good news in his sermons he feels like he is play-acting and cliched. He feels powerless in the face of suffering and ponders the absurdity of prayer. He thinks his parishioners are bored, boring and petty, gossiping about him as a secret drinker and womaniser. But he tries his best to love them nevertheless.
The effect of all this is that the priest suffers from disillusionment. He wrestles with his own sense of vocation. He is restless, like “a hornet in a bottle” is the way he describes it. Reflecting on his weakness he struggles with an ominous sense of failure. “My best is nothing” he writes. “Am I where our Lord would have me? Twenty times a day I ask this question.
Before you worry for my wellbeing, this is not autobiography, although there is much many a priest, myself included, will recognise. This is in fact the story of the unnamed priest of Ambricourt in Georges Bernanos’ 1936 novel Diary of a Country Priest. And it could be the story of almost anyone who seeks to take their faith seriously, because doubt, disillusionment, self-questioning are common elements in the journey of faith. Indeed, they perhaps are most often signs of a genuine faith, not markers of a failure of faith. More of that in a moment.
Such self-questioning form part of each of the two/three readings set today. In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah has a vision of God in the temple. “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” This most poetic prophet, whose word have inspired so many, including Handel in his Messiah, cannot find the words in the face of God.
St Paul, who as Saul is the great persecutor of Christians, is plagued with regret. As he writes of the resurrection in our Epistle reading, he says “I am the least of all the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle. Throughout his writings, seven times in all, Paul recalls how he imprisoned many disciples, dragged them to Jerusalem for punishment, expended his energies in an attempt to force them to blaspheme, argued for the death penalty for them, and opposed the name of Jesus with all he had. But, even though he repudiated all of this in later life, he can still lament – in the present tense, not the past note – “I am the worst of sinners, the least of the apostles”. Paul writes elsewhere about the unlimited patience of God, which is the only thing that can allow him to get beyond the regret and the unworthiness.
And then there’s good old Peter, often favoured by people over Paul simply because of his more obvious humanity. Fisherman Peter works all night in our Gospel reading but catches nothing. But when Jesus encourages him to try again, and an enormous haul of fish emerges, and as Peter grasps something of the gulf between God’s extraordinary power and his miniscule ability to trust, he recoils in fear: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” We know more of his biography too: “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus says elsewhere, his threefold denial of Jesus leads to bitter weeping just before the crucifixion.
The upshot of these three brief character studies, and the message of Bernanos’ novel, is that human sin, inadequacy and failure are not obstacles to the call of God. Being a messenger of God never requires a perfect messenger. There’s something important and necessary in being able to acknowledge that we are fallen people with deep contradictions and doubts. Although there’s a risk that it is seen as such, and although some Christians do fall into self-hatred, being self-aware of our own weakness and inability is to be open to what God can do. So, Isaiah, the man of unclean lips, can then say, “Here I am, Send me!”. So, Paul, who is the chief of sinners and the least of the apostles, can say, “By God’s grace, I am what I am.” And so, Peter, who cries, “Depart from me Lord!” can pull his boat to the shore, leave his nets and follow Jesus.
To dread-filled Isaiah, to guilt-ridden Paul, and to fearful Peter, God whispers the words Jesus speaks to the last of these three, “Do not be afraid.”
Fear, of course, is in the minds of some of us today, and for many people living on the Surrey Lane Estate. The second knife murder of a young black man in as many years, will cause people to feel worried, not just for their children but for the wellbeing of their community. Lejean Richards had his whole life before him, as did Malachi Brooks, who was killed in March 2017 only a hundred yards away. There’s clearly a particular poignancy story behind Lejean’s mother Lavern’s words that her son was ‘a young man determined to turn his life around.’ When I read those words in the paper I couldn’t help thinking of how many of us have perhaps had a moment in our lives when we realised that the path we were on was not right for us, and we had determined to try a better way. How cruel that this crime denied him that chance, because, as we have seen from the Scriptures today, God goes with those who determine to choose a better way. He did so for Paul and for Peter, and he would do so for Lejean as well. Bishop Richard rang me yesterday to find out about what was happening and to assure us of his prayers, and he told me of another South London community where the local churches were wondering what they could do. Like Bernanos’ country priest, all of us wonder whether we can make a difference when it seems that this is becoming far, far too common in our communities. So, like the churches of Brixton as the Bishop mentioned to me yesterday, perhaps what we can do is to be determined to say that things like this should never become normal in our community, that whenever violence is reported, we should never simply shrug it off as nothing to do with us. Churches in Brixton met to pray at the sites of such crimes as a way of saying ‘no’ to such violence. The least we can do is to express our shared determination with people of goodwill from all faiths and none that this is not something that should ever become normal in our community. That’s the minimum we can do for Lejean, and his family, for Malachi, and his too.
By the end of Diary of a Country Priest, the priest of Ambricourt has a keen sense of history and of his own obscure role to play. His elders advise him to persevere amidst his questions: “Keep saying your lessons. Go on with your work. Keep at the little daily things that need doing, til the rest comes. Concentrate. Think of a lad at his homework, trying so hard and his tongue sticking out. That’s how our Lord would have us be when he gives us up to our own strength. Little things—they don’t look like much, yet they bring peace. Like wild flowers which seem to have no scent, till you get a field full of ’em.”
“Keep marching to the end,” they encourage him, “and try to end up quietly at the roadside without shedding your equipment.” When the priest dies of stomach cancer at a young age, we realize that Bernanos has painted a portrait of a genuine saint. On his deathbed at the end of the book the priest confesses, “Does it matter? Grace is everywhere.”
Go on doing the small things. Wrestle with, and live with the questions and the doubts. But know that God is working his purpose out through you and me, in all that we do.