Sermon for Evensong – Sunday October 19th 2014 – ‘Of inheritances . . .’

Sermon for Sunday 19th October 2014

Proverbs 4:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:12

‘Of inheritances . . .’

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight;
for I give you good precepts:
do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father,
tender, and my mother’s favourite,
he taught me, and said to me . . .

As most if not all of you know, when in England I was a very keen walker of the Lake District fells – knowing most of the 200 of them well enough to be able to wander around them in the mist without map or compass. The irony is that I had grown up very close to the Lakes but only rarely ventured out upon those hills in my youth, even though amongst my prized books were beautifully hand drawn guides to all of those hills. It was only when I lost contact with them, moving away for college and work, that I started to feel their draw.

And how much those sentiments echo what we all to often sense in remembering ‘those whom we love but see no more’. Of late my thoughts have returned often and with increasing frequency to the person of my father – and specifically to the months, days and hours leading up to his death at the age of 63, and it ha been a journey of unearthing treasures I had not seen, or seen and discounted.

Six months before his death, my father had major heart surgery. the surgeon had intended to do a triple bypass, but on closer inspection ended up bypassing all four coronary arteries. He also noted some severe damage to various valves. My father recovered very well from this surgery, so well that his own doctor expressed her great surprise with how well he was doing. So it was that he was fit and able to come to my maternal grandmother’s 80th birthday celebration. I was there too, but very very unwell . . . which as it turned out was no bad thing.
I had been, and to some extent remain a not untypical ‘eldest son’. And as the scriptures remind us, the relationship of the eldest son and the father, from Adam on through, Esau, Absalom and of course the characters in Jesus’ parables, well they are not always the easiest. My father was a very frequent business traveller, and especially in my teenage years his absence allowed me space to flex my muscles as the Alpha male of the pride, taking over the territory. Many of my memories of my father in that period are of him being very tired, and of how his return frequently led to small scale, but not insignificant conflicts as we battled over the space.
Thus I at least had had difficulty being in any sense close. And it was at my Grandmothers’ party the Lord kindly supplied me with a fairly drastic dose of food poisoning, brought on I suspect by a large plate of whitebait. Thus incapacitated and weakened, my father came to sit with me, and with my strength for a while subdued managed to speak with me in a way I suspect he had often wanted to. How much we need to be weakened to truly hear.

I remember how he told me, he wished he had made much more of his Christian faith as he told me he had seen me do over the years. Foolish pride blinds you to many things – I was heart blind and so I confused gentleness and deep humility for weakness. My father’s comments strengthened my pride and reinforced my self perception as the stronger of the two of us. I never stopped to ponder ‘Where did my faith come from? What was its root?’

Less than two months later, he was dead. I still remember that night, more than 20 years ago now, in great detail . . . but that does not mean that I had necessarily attended to the details.

It was about 11:30 on the night of August 5th, 1993. I’d gone to bed as usual at about 10:30. I wrote up the day in my journal (which I still have) – pondering God’s movements in my life, reflecting on the scriptures I’d been reading, and wrote some words, about the NT reading we had this evening to which I shall return momentarily.

I was on the edge of sleep when the phone rang. It was my mother and the tone of her voice told me something was terribly wrong. My parents had been out for an evening walk in the Dorset countryside – there had been a somewhat unusual encounter which I may relate at another time, but they had not made much of it – they had returned home – my father had read the paper, gone upstairs, knelt down by the bed to say his prayers as was his custom, got into bed and suffered a massive heart attack which killed him almost instantly.
It was very difficult to say much – I remember saying I’d come straight down, and hanging the phone up. Immediately the Alpha male kicked in. I remember saying to Sarah, ‘big brother time’ – now was the moment that my life thus far had prepared me for. I was the one who was to run things, and of course first of all I needed to be the one to see to my mother’s needs and to look after the funeral details.

I remember lying in bed, praying. And the most profound Gift, God saying clearly to me ‘It is OK’ – I KNEW in that instant something of the Joy which passes all our understanding – which keeps our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ – followed by a terrifyingly intense sense of the profoundest grief and loss – but how oft do incohate sobbing and howls come from places we have not yet explored?

As the days unfolded, I was wondrously upheld – there was in some sense an incredible joy that made no sense at all to me, but was very real. In the midst of grief Joy. As my brother and I did the rounds of banks and funeral directors – making arrangements, tying up knots – both of us knew something which seemed to flow out of us and at times had a profound impact on those we met. One poor young bank teller having to flee the room in tears. In a sense we’d lost so much, yet in that emptiness, God seemed to flow out like a river.

It was actually only two or three years later, looking back in my journal that I uncovered some of the treasure. The night my father had died, as I said, I had been reflecting on the passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians we heard tonight. Where Paul describes the Apostolic life thus : We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing . . . I had written ‘I am not sure I know the reality of this in my own life’ Searching back over the chronology of the evening, I realised that I had been writing and reflecting on that passage as Dad had died . . .

Of late as I have been connected back to elements of the faith of my youthfulness – I have been forcibly reminded once more of my own weakness, that this isn’t ‘my faith’ as much as something that has been granted to me as gift, and that God used my father in ways I had not seen in that specific regard.

Just this last week I was out praying, in particular over this stage in the life of our church, I having a cup of coffee and reflecting that my father had constantly told me, ‘The Lord will provide – he always has done – he has never left us destitute’. His gentleness – his humlity had made his life very very uncomfortable – he was ‘a businessman’ – hence his frequent overseas trips and so much of what he encountered in the world of business grieved his soul. Despite his amazing gifts, he could more than get by in a wide range of languages from French to Arabic, from Swahili, to Greek –  he never ‘got on’ in the business world, precisely because of his Christian faith. At one juncture he knew that he would have to leave his job. What was being demanded of him, he could not do. But as he said, at that very moment, God sent a visiting African bishop to our church. He needed a lift to a nearby town and my dad on an impulse went to visit someone he hadn’t seen for many years, who told him ‘I don’t know if you are looking for work, but my company has something that may very well suit you . . .’ God always provided – he always does. I know that deep within, otherwise we would not be here, but where does that faith in me come from??

As I further reflected I went back in my mind over the events of that night in 1993 . . . they had returned home – my father had read the paper, gone upstairs, knelt down by the bed to say his prayers as was his custom, got into bed and . . . I was stopped in my tracks. I had always known but not Known, always seen but was so blind ‘he knelt down by the bed to say his prayers as was his custom’ – And I saw him there, 63 1/2 years old – doing what he had always done – kneeling by his bed to pray . . . and I thought of how many times he must have gone to bed wearied by his eldest son, and prayed . . .

And I saw that I’d been blind. For the first time for many many years, I saw him in a completely fresh light, and my heart was filled with deep deep gratitude for my father, which as I left the coffee shop I was expressing to God in prayer. Turning towards home . . . I lifted my gaze to see a red sports car, registration THXDAD. And I rejoiced in a gift that cannot rust or fade or be stolen by thieves . . .

As I wrote these words, my mind went to words of St Paul to his ‘true son in the faith’, Timothy – I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. Where did that faith come from? From my father – on who’s knee I learned to pray, who’s last act was the act of his life, to kneel in gentleness and humility, and to pray

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight;
for I give you good precepts:
do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father,
tender, and my mother’s favourite,
he taught me, and said to me . . .

What did he say? What is your inheritance?

Through the Bible in a Year – April 16

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Deut 29-31; 2 Thes 3; Psalm 120-122

Tradition is to some a dirty word.

Literally it means nothing more than that which is handed on, but for some it has come to mean ‘dead religion’, or ‘praying by rote’. It has in some circles come to exemplify lifeless religion – except properly understood this cannot be so, for what do we have that we did not receive?

Paul here interestingly speaks of tradition in a way with which we might be unfamiliar. We might think of tradition in terms for example of liturgy, or hymnody. Perhaps if we are a little more biblically alert, we might think of it in terms of doctrine. But Paul here has in mind something more profound than this. He speaks of tradition in the light of his way of living. This for most of us is an alien way of considering tradition, and certainly viewed in this light makes it far from ‘a lifeless thing’.

Essentially that which is passed down is a life, the Life of the Risen One. This life is communicated through the laying on of hands, through baptism, through the liturgy of the church, all means which the Spirit uses to impart the Life of Christ.

It is perhaps no surprise that when Paul again commends ‘tradition’ [remember that the letters to the Thessalonians are the earliest of Paul’s letters we have], in 1 Corinthians 11, it is the handing on of the Tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper, the Tradition of the ‘life imparting heavenly manna’.