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Lost Causes? – The Reverend Canon Peter Moger (Precentor)

The Reverend Canon Peter Moger (Precentor/Acting Dean)

Sunday 28 October 2018 10am Sung Eucharist 

(St Jude) [458]

In the name of the living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

A few years ago, Heather and I were taking a short break on the island of Iona off the West Coast of Scotland.  It’s a favourite place of ours, as those who came on the pilgrimage earlier this year will know.  On this occasion we were walking to the south of the island along one of the beaches.  It was a windy day and the wind was blowing sand into our faces.  Heather got some sand in her eye and took out her contact lens to clean it.  Along came another gust of wind and – you’ve guessed it – the lens was gone. There we were, miles from anywhere with no replacement lens, and no glasses either!  And so we started to search.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried looking for a contact lens on a beach – don’t!  It’s one of the most frustrating things imaginable.  45 minutes later, we were still looking.  It seemed a totally lost cause.  And so we prayed to St Jude, who is the patron saint of lost causes.  And in a few minutes, we found the missing lens, sitting innocently on the sand.

Today is the feast of St Simon and St Jude.  They were among the 12 Apostles called by Jesus and are named in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Simon was known as Simon the Zealot – presumably because he belonged to a resistance movement of the time which opposed the Roman occupying forces.  Jude (or Judas) is described by Luke as ‘son of James’ – though the Letter of Jude calls him the ‘brother of James’.  It’s likely that Jude is the same person as Thaddaeus.  Simon and Jude are celebrated together, on the same day, because there’s a tradition that they both evangelised in Mesopotamia.

Because Jude’s name is similar to that of Judas Iscariot – who betrayed Jesus – Christians tended not to pray through him.  It seems likely that he then became a sort of ‘last resort’ when all else had failed.  Hence, Jude became known as the patron saint of lost causes.

Well, it certainly worked for us in the case of the contact lens.  But is there really such a thing as a lost cause?

Some Christians have a tendency to say – if something doesn’t quite work out the way we thought it should – ‘ah, it’s all part of God’s plan.’  I often feel this is one of the worst of religious platitudes.  Most of us will have had situations in our lives when things haven’t necessarily gone the way we were hoping (or expecting), and on looking back, we can sometimes see how, over time, something else happened which in the end proved to be a better option.  Hindsight is a great thing.  But did God really plan it like that?  Are our lives mapped out to the nth degree, and is our job as faithful Christians really to try and stick absolutely to God’s plan – whatever that might be – making sure we don’t put a foot wrong?

I recently watched again the film About Time in which Tim, a young man, learns that he has the ability to travel back in time, and therefore to re-live episodes in his life – changing his past so as to improve his own future and that of others.  The plot centres around his relationship with Mary, and by continually re-visiting encounters from the past, he is able to engineer events so that they end up together.  It’s great entertainment – but it does beg a number of questions:

‘Is there really a single right path?’

‘If we ‘go wrong’ – can we put things right, or are we a lost cause?

And what, if anything, does God have to do with it?

If we look at the Bible, we see two strands of thinking there.  On the one hand is the omniscience of God.  God is presented as all-seeing and all-knowing.  The writer of Psalm 139 muses:

O Lord, you have searched me out and known me;

you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

You mark out my journeys and my resting place
and are acquainted with all my ways.

For there is not a word on my tongue,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.  (Ps 139.1-3)

Jeremiah speaks of God’s plans to those who had been taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  (Jeremiah 29.11)

On the other hand, is the metaphor of walking with God.  This uses imagery such as paths and ways.  The Psalmist prays:

Make me to know your ways, O Lord,
and teach me your paths.        (Ps 25.3)

The early Christians spoke of their new-found faith as ‘the Way’.  When Paul (or Saul) was still a persecutor of Christians, he

went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9.2)

Later in Acts, Luke records that the Roman governor Felix was ‘rather well informed about the Way’ (24.22).  This resonates well with the Hebrew Scriptures.  Isaiah reassures the people of God by saying:

When you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’  (30.21)

So, on the one hand, an all-knowing God with a plan; and on the other a God with whom we walk in a personal relationship.

So does God have a plan for you and for me?  The danger of swallowing this wholesale is that we can easily be convinced that if we depart from it, everything becomes a lost cause, and ultimately we become a lost cause.  And so we can be driven either to excessive caution or bleak despair; or we simply adopt an attitude of resignation in which everything must happen because it’s God’s will.

One of the central beliefs of Christian faith is that God has given human beings free will.  That sometimes means that while we might know exactly what we ought to do – how we ought to behave – we don’t.  Hence the heartfelt cry of the BCP confession:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.

But our free will is a gift from God – it is what distinguishes us as human beings, and is one of the marks of humanity that derives from the fact that we bear the image of God.  God expects us to use our free will: to think about our actions, but above all, to continue walking with God.  God has, not a plan for us, but a purpose – and that purpose is that we keep on walking in the Way.  As we walk, we hope and we pray that we will stick close to God, as in Psalm 119:

Blessed are those that are undefiled in the way :

and walk in the law of the Lord. (Ps 119.1)

Some of the time, we’re good at this.  We keep in step with God; we’re aware of his being with us at all times.  At other times we’re not: we’re more like the proverbial sheep who have gone astray – each to our own way (Isa 53.6).

But when we go our own way, and stray from the Way, all is not lost – we are never a lost cause.  God is still there, because Jesus – through whom we know God – is himself the Way.

The final chapters of the Gospel of John include some of the profoundest teaching about the closeness of this relationship.  Jesus talks to the disciples about being the vine, and them the branches, with God the Father as the vine-dresser ensuring that there is good fruit.  These are reassuring words for all of us.  They speak of us being ‘rooted, grafted and built’ into the vine.  We are to ‘abide in him’ as he abides in us.

St Jude himself asked Jesus a question:

‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us….,?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14.22-23)

Earlier I quoted from Psalm 139.  The Roman Catholic priest and hymnwriter Brian Foley re-worked that Psalm as a hymn.  I leave us with his words:

There is no moment of my life,

No place where I may go,

No action which God does not see,

No thought he does not know.

 

Before I speak, my words are known,

And all that I decide,

To come or go: God knows my choice,

And makes himself my guide.

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