Elastic Fantastic

Photo 14-06-2018, 06 49 35
A sermon on Deuteronomy 31:1-3

Today is a very important day according to the calendar on my phone, for today is the day that tickets to The Prince of Egypt The Musical go on sale for its West End run and I am desperate to get my hands on some for what I’m sure will be the theatrical event of the century. For those of you unfamiliar with The Prince of Egypt, it is the classic 1998 Dreamworks film which tells the story of Moses and his life from Egyptian prince to heroic leader of God’s people out of slavery, ending with a triumphant parting of the Red Sea, all with a stellar voice cast, spine-tingling soundtrack, and for some unknown reason, an animated whale or two just casually swimming in the Red Sea.

Unfortunately, there has been no sequel to the film and as we come to the end of Deuteronomy, you can kind of see why. At this point in the story of God’s salvation history, Moses doesn’t get quite the triumphant ending that Hollywood loves so much. After all he has done to help bring God’s people out of Egypt, in verse 2 we read that the Lord has told him that he will not get to crossover into the promised land and that the time has come to pass on leadership to Joshua who will  see the promised land. God’s people are now in a time of transition, Moses and Joshua are in a time of transition, things are a-changing.

Transition seems quite a pertinent theme to reflect on at the moment. For many of us here, we are in a time of transition, as courses come to an end, moving dates get firmed up, and evangelicals try to have better success with chasubles than the hot priest in Fleabag did. In amidst all the excitement of following God where he has called us, it understandable that there might be a not inconsiderate amount of worry and nerves and oh flip, what on earth have I got myself into moments.

In these times of transition where things are uncertain and our grip on the day-to-day is frustratingly weak, Moses has great words of comfort for us: ‘Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.’ ‘It is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.’ What an encouraging and joyful truth that is, that no matter what it is that we are entering into, the new chapter before us, God goes with us and he will not fail or forsake us.

This is not just a throwaway line from Moses. In Chapter 30 he has extolled God’s faithfulness to his people, during everything they have gone through and what they will go through. He says ‘the Lord your God will…have compassion on you… Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back.’ So, for whatever lies before us, God goes with us, he will not fail us or forsake us. You maybe anxious, you maybe uncertain, but you can also be strong and be bold because ‘It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’

I’m pretty good at transitions myself; I’ve always been enticed by what lies ahead: leaving secondary school meant no more Maths and the joy of the humanities abundant life, leaving my job to come here meant the end of writing funding bids which are even more painful than Michael’s jokes, and if my housemate, Emma’s preparations for curacy are anything to go by, leaving here means I’m going to get to own a sick new vacuum cleaner. Who doesn’t love a new chapter, a clean slate, a fresh start?

This time last year I went through another transition. As many of you may know, I was a member of the Community of St Anselm, a modern, monastic-inspired, ecumenical community set up and led by my close personal friend, Justin Welby.* It was a brilliant year; transformative, challenging, joyful, full of the unexpected. It is the best thing I have done after giving my life to Jesus. Last June as our time together as a community started to draw to a close, I had a gut-wrenching realisation: I wasn’t ready to leave. For the first time I could remember, I wasn’t ready for one chapter to end and another to begin. On our final night together, as I walked out of the gates, I could hold it in no longer, and I wept. I wept and wept and wept. I think about my St Anselm brothers and sisters every day. I love them with a force so intense it is impossible to adequately articulate. And leaving St Anselm has been a bereavement. As those of you who have been bereaved will know, there is the positive grief of having loved and lost and the grief where it is still so raw, so painful, so utterly discombobulating that it threatens to tear you apart. It has been a year and my grief is still predominantly the latter. Sometimes the pain is so much it is like someone has reached a hand down my throat and is trying to turn me inside out.

Leaving St Anselm is the best transition I have ever done. Because leaving St Anselm was an elastic transition. Over the course of my time as part of the community, I allowed each person to grab hold of part of my transformed stretchy heart so that wherever they or I go, wherever God leads us, we are still in someway bound to one another. This elastic transition does not mean that we will ever be all of us together again in the same place this side of the eschaton, but it does mean that we are still one body as Jesus calls us and transforms us to be. Having your heart stretched around the world, through the highs and lows of life, is costly because it is painful but the joy, the unity, the fresh revelation of Jesus you get from truly sharing your lives with one another as the image of God bursts forth from them, is a treasure beyond compare.

We are none of us called to Wycliffe for an infinite amount of time. We are here for a year, two, three, longer if you are staff but just because this is our temporary home, doesn’t mean we should treat it as such. After all, our home as part of this creation is ultimately temporary, and God has pretty clear instructions for how, whilst we are here, we are to show up, get involved, and not be a numpty. It can be so tempting to treat our temporary homes as just that, temporary, so inconsequential, why bother getting involved, getting along, getting to know and getting known?

My life would be so much easier if some of you weren’t in it. And trust me, I know, that for the vast majority of you in here, your lives would be so much easier if I was not in it. But if I am missing you, then I am missing God. And if you are missing me, you are missing God. We may not have been called here forever, but we have been called here at this time and with one another. And while it is costly to the dive into community living, to truly know someone and be truly known, to have someone away your chains and take hold of your heart, the revelation of God’s love through the acts of community will hold you and sustain you as you transition to whatever is next.

Slightly painful transitions are a part of what it means to be human beings made in the image of God; loving and investing in others is why Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death, celebrated in Cana, burned with betrayal in Jerusalem, and showed such exquisite mercy on the cross. Yes, it’s costly, yes, it can hurt, but to treat wherever God calls us, however temporary the place might be like it’s the last place God will ever call us is a sure fire way to encounter God’s riches of love and grace and beauty and joy and comfort and peace. The Israelites being in the desert was only ever meant to be temporary, but it was Moses’ final place. In being in the present place where God called him, he experienced such revelation of God it has filled several books, multiple films, and is now a musical.

So, for those of you transitioning away from this place: ‘Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.’ And for those of us who still called to this wonderful, frustrating, glorious, confusing, temporary home: let us make our hearts stretchy and elastic as commit to one another and Jesus calls us to, let’s know each other and be known, and let us love each other so fiercely that grief when we leave is as certain as God’s faithfulness.

*This is an in-college joke.

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