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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Title of sermon: Living Christ’s Story
Date/time/service: Sunday 7th March 2021 – Evensong
Passage of scripture: Exodus 5.1 – 6.1 & Philippians 3.4b-14
‘The Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas a Kempis, written in the 15th century, is a spiritual classic about the interior life which I read a very long time ago. The title of this book came to mind when I sat down to write my contribution to this series of short homilies on what it means to ‘Live Christ’s Story’.
There is a danger when we talk about faith in relation to books like ‘The Imitation of Christ’, and the invitation to ‘Live Christ’s story’, that we mistakenly believe that faith is all about trying to be something or someone we are not. That faith is all about striving to imitate or be someone else. I think this is profoundly unhelpful and dangerous.
In one of his books Rowan Williams said this, ‘At the day of judgement …… the question will not be about why we failed to be someone else; I shall not be asked why I wasn’t Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa, but why I wasn’t Rowan Williams.’ p. 95
From the age of about 14 all I ever wanted to be was a parish priest. In pursuit of this ambition I got a degree in Theology and then went to Theological College. By the time I was thirty I was a parish priest in a large village. By that time I also had a wife and a child. Everything had fallen into place. Everything, including my faith and my theology, was relatively neat and tidy – my one remaining ambition was to try to be a really good parish priest. Then something happened which resulted in me becoming the chaplain of Helen House, the first Children’s Hospice. I began spending time with children and families who were living the nightmare of dealing with the terminal illness of a child and, within a short while, I was taking funerals for those families. As a result I discovered that my neat and tidy faith and theology were not fit for purpose. In addition my picture of priesthood was profoundly challenged.
Most of the families I met at Helen House had very little or no church connection, so I had to talk with them about the profound challenges they were facing without relying on them knowing much about the bible, and without being able to talk with them about God in the neat and tidy ways I had learnt at University and Theological College. Quite quickly I had to learn to re-interpret my faith, understanding of God and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, so that I could engage meaningfully with those families in conversations and in taking funerals for them. The truth is that since that time I have never been able to reconstruct a neat and tidy faith. Despite all this my faith, to date, has always been strong and profound, it is just that it is untidy, incomplete and will ever remain, a work in progress.
Mother Frances Dominica, the founder of Helen House, once said this,
“What can we do as we accompany children (and families) through dying and bereavement? …. again and again we feel inadequate to the task and I believe it is right that we should. But we … can be alongside as ourselves, as paid-up card-carrying members of the human race. If we are to have anything worthwhile to offer then we need to be in touch with that which is deepest within ourselves. In the midst of the struggle and the unknowing in myself, there I find God. …… The ground on which we walk in the home or hospital or hospice is holy ground.’
Put simply, what I learnt at Helen House was that in order to be an effective priest I had to be, first and foremost, a human being. I had thought that ‘Living Christ’s Story’ was, for me, about using all that I had learned at University and Theological College, and using the authority given to me at ordination, to lead people and communities through the joys and sorrows of life while all the time proclaiming the good news of what God has done for us in the life of Jesus Christ. At Helen House, I was forced to learn that simple humanity and human connection has to come before any of this. I had to meet people first and foremost not as a qualified and proficient priest but as vulnerable Michael.
Of course, as I read the gospels I now see what I was missing. So caught up in fulfilling my ambition of becoming a qualified and proficient priest I was missing the fact that Jesus was born a vulnerable human being, engaged with everyone he met first and foremost as a vulnerable human being and died as a direct result of being a vulnerable human being. By baptism I become an active part of Christ’s story, but not fulfilling a role, not playing the part of ‘qualified and proficient priest’ in that story. The best and worst part about living Christ’s story is that we are not in it to play a role, we are in it to be ourselves, our true selves. We are in it to become the people God made us to be. We can play games. We can try to hide behind masks and personas we create, but when we truly live Christ’s story those masks and personas have to be rejected to reveal the real person beneath. The person God made us to be.
I am not a huge fan of reality TV, primarily because it isn’t reality, it is a manipulated and edited version of reality. I am not a fan of reality TV but I am a fan of reality faith. Living Christ’s story has to be all about reality faith.
If I am not facing the challenge of Living Christ’s story as the real me in my real, everyday life then I am not living Christ’s story at all, I am just living my own story and that is ultimately a story of vanity and ultimately, isolation.
Let us pray
Lord Jesus, who did empty yourself of your eternal glory and became a little child for love of us, empty us wholly of all vanity and pretence, that we may love you truly as you love us infinitely, and serve you faithfully with grace and in truth. Amen
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