Farewell Sermon (Evensong)
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
27 April 2008, 15:15 (Easter 6 (Rogation Sunday))
Genesis 12:1-9; Luke 9:1-6
‘Take nothing for the journey, neither stick nor pack, neither bread nor money, nor a second coat.’(Luke 9:3) Some words of Jesus from the ninth chapter of Luke’s gospel.
By a happy coincidence Luke’s account of the sending out of the twelve disciples by Jesus re-connects me to the Rochester pilgrims of 2004 and all of us to St Francis of Assisi.
If St Francis had not heard those words 800 years ago this year, in the year 1208, and acted literally upon them, it is unlikely that we would ever have heard of him. But one day, at an early morning mass in the almost ruined little church of St Damian in Assisi, these were the words that transformed the way he lived. He sensed Jesus speaking personally to him from the crucifix saying, ‘Go, Francis, and repair my house’.
Francis took this as an instruction to rebuild that church, yet it gradually dawned on him that his instruction from the Lord was not merely to be a church-builder, but to live a simpler life, more devoted to God. Here was the challenge of simplicity – a life of total obedience and dependence upon God. And so exactly 800 years ago he set out on his own to preach, walking barefoot from place to place, with only the single tunic he had on, penniless, but full of a desire to share the good news of Christ’s love and to heal the sick.
Church-building in Norwich, in Cambridge, in West Yorkshire, in Central London, and most recently in Rochester has filled my life for the past 33 years as an ordained priest in the Church of England. But now, like Francis, I feel beckoned, called, led in a new direction.
Those who have journeyed with me here know that the Rule of St Benedict (and the Community of Benedictine Sisters at Malling Abbey) has given me the stability to persevere and to remain centred on God’s generosity in prayer, in the daily study of the scriptures and in the celebration of the sacraments. But those who know me best know that Franciscan joy and recklessness has persistently challenged me to live adventurously, to be outward-looking, and to burn with holy fire. And, of course, Francis’ reputed fondness for animals has also struck a particular personal chord!
The evangelical simplicity and poverty of Francis’ life finds its root for me today in the chastening instruction of Jesus to his disciples when sending them out on their preaching mission – ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics’. As a call to the challenge of simplicity, it is unmistakeable.
The point of all this will be to learn to be more, rather than less, dependant upon God, and it was dependence upon God that Jesus taught his disciples. It was dependence upon God that Francis wanted and why he followed the instructions of Jesus so literally.
So none of you will be surprised to hear, as I take my leave of you today, that I am setting off in a few days’ time to walk the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in stages, beginning in the Massif Central of France. I am making this pilgrimage to catch a further glimpse of what simple living is really like. I need to learn a little more again about life at its most basic and to sense something of the release (or freedom) that comes from such basic living which lies, I believe, at the heart of the Jewish and Christian understanding of God and finds its source and inspiration not in green pastures but in the desert lands.
The danger of remaining an ecclesiastical dignitary, of being materially and spiritually blest in every possible way as a residentiary canon in this place, is to begin to lose touch with God and reality and to lose one’s sense of creatureliness.
When sent out by Jesus with such limited tackle, his disciples could not forget their creatureliness. The simplicity of their life-style left them defenceless. They were not in charge of their own destiny. They had to face an experiment in giving themselves away, in offering their message with only the strength and grace of God to rely on.
When we forget that we are creatures, we begin to forget what love, compassion and companionship are all about – those sustaining and recreating forces in our lives. All flow from dependence upon God.
‘In 1946 I was going to Darjeeling, to make my retreat,’ wrote Mother Teresa of Calcutta. ‘It was in that train, I heard the call to give up all and follow him into the slums to serve him amongst the poorest of the poor. I knew it was his will, and that I had to follow him.’
I am grateful to Roger and the choir for leading us into evensong this afternoon with these words of Mother Teresa set to music by Barry Ferguson – the same words with which the choir also launched the diocesan pilgrimage in Rome in 2004. Mother Teresa did not have tickertape across her mind or voices in her head. She simply had a conviction, which she could neither deny nor resist, that her life had to go in a new direction.
Another who heard God’s call was St Andrew, to whom this cathedral was dedicated until the Reformation. One of the very few things we know about him was that he was with Peter by the Sea of Galilee and Christ asked him to follow him – which he did without delay. Whether Andrew had met Jesus before this or not, we cannot say. All we know is that at some crucial point Andrew recognized, like Abraham, like Benedict, like Francis, like Mother Teresa, that in and through Christ God was speaking to him and calling him on from the familiar and the comfortable to the rugged adventure of faith.
Well, perhaps like Abraham, it is time now for me, with Ellen, Ben, and Charlotte as travelling companions, to let go of the warmth and security and fellowship of this ‘homeland’ in obedience to God’s call, and to ‘journey on by stages towards the Negeb’ - the desert, the wilderness, the far country. There is no suggestion in the biblical narrative, as I read it in the Book of Genesis, that Abraham should break his journey and seek to settle in the land of Canaan. For the land of promise, glimpsed in passing, has to be left behind. The journey continues, towards the wilderness, and any attempt to depict its outcome is rendered impossible by the fact that the only glimpse of the promised land afforded Abraham now lies for ever behind him.
The unfinished character of the journey of faith is what differentiates the language of hope in the Christian life from the language of either optimism or despair. Both optimism and despair know the answer and are clear about the outcome. They prematurely complete the story. They know too much about the future. The language of hope, however, is the language of faith. We have no way of describing or predicting the outcome of our journey, of knowing for sure what lies ahead. ‘By faith Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going,’ writes the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (11:8).
That is my hope and I know that I am in good company. ‘All journeys have secret destinations’, wrote Martin Buber, ‘of which the traveller is unaware.’ We cannot predict how our lives will continue to be touched by the living God, and (by God’s grace) changed by Christ into what must be a growing, deepening, maturing relationship with him. Christian faith in God and his promises necessarily retains the character of a venture, of a risk undertaken in obedience to a command: not a leap into the dark, but a pilgrimage of faith.
John Henry Newman always spoke of faith in these terms. And to a correspondent who objected that the concepts of ‘risk’ and ‘venture’ were quite inappropriate for the Christian faith, Newman replied: ‘But, my dear Sir, did not Abraham make a venture when he went out, not knowing whither he went?’