Sunday, 26 June 2016

Finding Faith in Uncertain Times: A Post-Referendum Sermon

'Finding faith in uncertain times': this phrase has been buzzing around in my head for the last few days. I don't know whether you voted Leave or Remain, or in fact if you voted at all, but one thing I think we can all agree on now is that we live in uncertain times.  There is much that we know that we don't know; to take one obvious example, we don't know who our next Prime Minister is going to be. If you've been following the news over the weekend, you'll have seen that the list of uncertainties seems to be getting longer and longer all the time. For some, these uncertainties bring about hope and optimism for a better future; for others, they bring dismay, fear and a real sense of loss.

One thing to be very clear about: as a nation, some of our uncertainties are shared, but others are specific to particular communities and individuals. The uncertainities that the people of Cornwall are facing over their financial future are very different to the uncertainties that the people of Northern Ireland are facing over their political future. The uncertainties that a person working for a large international corporation in London is facing are very different to the uncertainties that a retired person on a state pension is facing. The uncertainty that a confident Leave voter feels now might be very different from the uncertainty that a confident Remain voter feels now. that Strangely enough, it might turn out that the uncertainties that members of the Labour Party and members of the Conservative Party are facing are rather similar. Suffice to say, at this time of great uncertainty, our prayers must be with our leaders, and with those lives are most directly affected by this decision which we, as a country, have taken.

Finding faith in uncertain times is also something that many of us have to do as individuals and as a local community, too. I know that some of you face uncertainties over your health, and over your finances. These uncertainties are real, and please be assured that I keep your uncertainties in my prayers. As a local community, too, and as a church within it, one of the challenges we face is how we respond to the great many changes that have taken place during many of your lifetimes. One thing I hear regularly is 'It's changed so much round here.' There might be positive aspects to the changes that this community has seen over the last sixty or so years - we've got an M&S Food Hall now! - but I know that for many, there is a real and painful sense that so much, too much has changed, and that with those changes comes a sense of loss and of real uncertainty as to how this community holds together. I believe that for us to meet this reality of a changed world, with all of its uncertainties, is our great task as Christians.

It's comforting, then, to realise that the story we inhabit as Christians - the story of the Bible - is one of the people of God living through times of uncertainty and change over and over again. The Old Testament tells of a beleaguered people, a people under threat from the Philistines, the other tribal groups around it that all seem to have names that end in Ite, the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Romans. Is there any moment in the Bible, I wonder, when were the people of Israel ever truly secure in their homeland? Even at the time of David and Solomon, the closest that Israel ever came to being politically secure, there were threats and insurgencies. We've hear this morning the end of the life-story of Elijah, who lived at a time of great uncertainty, and, as we talked about last week, carried Israel through some of its darkest days. This morning we have heard the dramatic, but bewildering sense of uncertainty as Elijah is taken up in his chariots of fire. I don't know if you noticed the question that Elisha, upon whom the mantle has now fallen, asks: 'Where is the Lord?' It's a question that many ask during times of uncertainty; where is God when everything changes around you?

Well, forgive me if this sounds too simplistic an answer, but I believe that the answer to that heart-cry is what it has always been: God is here, in the midst of his people, in the midst of us. Our Psalm this morning reminded us of God's unchanging love. Everything around us could change. Much around us has changed over the decades. Much has changed this week. But God never changes, and finding faith in uncertain times means remembering that; our faith cannot ultimately be in social stability or political strength; it can't ultimately be in our health, our homes or our bank accounts. All of these things can change, sometimes beyond our control and against our will. But God, who is described in the Bible as the rock on whom we can find firm foundations, will never change.

So how can we respond, as Christians, during times of uncertainty? I think that there are three responses.

The first is to shut out or deny the reality of our uncertainties. Oh, everything will be fine, we tell ourselves. Nothing's changed. This is tempting, because shutting out reality means that we don't have to take it seriously. This might be a useful survival strategy for us at times - we all need to kick back, and relax sometimes. More poignantly, one man I know whose beloved wife died cancelled his newspaper delivery in the week after her death. He was too sad, he told me, to read about the sadnesses of the world. I think that was a wise self-preservation move. However, if we all live like this all the time, for one thing, ignoring them won't make the uncertainties go away, and for another, we will miss out on being part of positive change, and we will miss out on seeing what God is saying and doing during these times of uncertainty.

The second, and opposite, response, is to become engulfed with the awfulness of uncertainty. There's a time for everything, says the teacher in Ecclesiastes, and many have felt overwhelmed with sadness and bewilderment over the last few days. If you don't feel that yourself, it might be hard for you to understand - remember that our uncertainties are not all the same - but this sense of grief is real for many. I know from my funeral ministry that the only way to get through grief is to go through it; it can't be short-circuited, otherwise it goes underground and becomes something even more painfully entrenched. But like the first response, the denying of an uncertain and changing world, this response, hopefully, is a relatively short term one, and what will emerge out of this grief, for those who feel it, will be a sense of hope for a different, but viable future.

The third response, an the one which I believe is most deeply Christian, is to look uncertainty in the eye, name it for what it is, and meet it with faith in our unchanging God. Our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that Jesus himself lived a life of constant uncertainty - 'foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests', says Jesus, 'but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' He makes it clear that following Him means moving away from those things which give us a sense of stability and normality, and following him into an uncertain future - following him in the way of the cross. It's a big ask, and this morning's Gospel contains some of the most challenging of Jesus' sayings; no wonder that many people who were impressed by his miracles and who enjoyed his parables didn't stay with him all the way.

So the challenge for us this morning is this: Will we walk, with Jesus, the way of the cross, through uncertain times? Will we trust Him to lead us? That doesn't mean passively trotting along behind him; it means, as we walk with Jesus, allowing Him to show us what part we can play in forming communities and countries where the values of the Kingdom of God - the values we heard about in our reading from Galatians - love, joy, peace, generosity, patience, kindness, faithfuless, gentleness and self-control, are the way in which we live. We can't do this on our own - Elijah learnt that lesson the hard way, as we heard last week. We have to work together, and help each other, and when our faith falters, as it will at times, to lend each other the faith to walk confidently into an unknown future. We need, as Elisha asks for, a 'double share' of faith to meet the challenges of our uncertain world, and we need to be generous in sharing our faith with each other.

I am going to finish by reading a short reflection which is often read on New Year's Day, but it seems very apt as we start out on a new phase of national, and international, life.

 I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness
and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than the light
And safer than a known way!”
So I went forth and finding the hand of God
Trod gladly into the light.



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