3 March 2012
18.30 Choral Evening Prayer
The Third Sunday of Lent
Genesis 28.10-21; John 1.35-end
Directors of Ordinands, when they get together, are sometimes known to share stories of the most unexpected things that prospective priests have said to them in their exploratory conversations. A few choice examples have stuck in my mind. “You look so much more attractive in real life than in your photograph on the website,” was the opening remark made to one colleague of mine.
Or, to a female colleague, from someone who did not believe in the ordination of women, “Well, the Church might still change its mind: who knows whether either of us will be a priest in ten years’ time?” “I’m pretty sure I do,” was her icy reply.
But the one which has stayed with me most strongly is a tale of encounter between a vocations explorer and a priest who lived in a rather nice house in a very deprived area. Having been ushered into the large study overlooking the church, the rather troubled young man settled himself in a chair, stretched out his arms and legs with all the satisfaction of a well-fed cat on a warm window ledge, and said, “If I were vicar here, I would sit down in this chair each day and think, “I’ve arrived!”
When Jacob paused on his way towards Haran, I don’t suppose that he thought for a moment that he had arrived anywhere. A fugitive running away from the conflict of the past with only uncertainty ahead of him, he was anxious and troubled. Having stolen the blessing which rightly belonged to his brother, he himself appears far from blessed. As he settles down for some snatched rest with a stone under his head there is no arrival, only a brief stop off; no satisfaction, only turmoil; no sense of entitlement, only desperation.
And yet God meets him there. At this site which Jacob will call Bethel – the house of God – God transforms both a place and a person, and the stone which Jacob took for his pillow marks this life-changing encounter.
Perhaps this is a story which you recognize yourselves. In the last few years, I have heard many people, seeking to respond to God’s call on their lives, say that it is when they feel completely empty, when they feel that they have absolutely nothing to give, that God takes hold of them, and confers upon them a mark of encounter and transformation. If the Church of England currently seems exhausted by debates about sexuality and gender, then it may be that we are also due for a time of sleep, where God takes our exhaustion and the emptiness of our tired arguments, and brings about change. It’s not that we’ve “arrived” when we experience such a moment, but rather that we’ve been take apart. We see how our own conflicted story can somehow contribute to God’s gracious purposes for humankind. In these moments of encounter, God gives us, like Jacob, his promise, his blessing, his companionship, and his homecoming.
God’s promise, it is revealed, is for all generations. As it was for Abraham and Isaac, so it is for Jacob and will be for his heirs. Jacob may have stolen a blessing, but the promises of God can’t be absorbed or possessed: they run dynamically through time and creation. And so it is with us: we don’t inherit the church as a legacy to keep in our bank account. At our baptism, we become part of a living, moving, unfolding community, through which the promises of God might be channeled. If we are called by God, then it is not to be keepers of his promises, but bearers – carrying them forward afresh for new generations.
It’s the same with blessings. The radical thing that Jacob learns is that there is more than one blessing. If he can put aside his self-interest and grasping after power, then he will be able to be a source of blessing to others. Jacob’s offspring are described as being “dust” – but the word also means topsoil, that layer of earth which supports growth. The complexities of our family histories and even the sin of our past choices can’t prevent us from being transformed by God so that blessing may germinate in us.
Jacob is not sent off on his own to accomplish this: God’s promise includes his companionship until the point of Jacob’s homecoming. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land: for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” When we say yes to God’s call on our lives as Christians – whether that call is to some kind of public ministry or to one of the myriad ways that we can be servants of the gospel – then we can respond with confidence that God will continue working within us, until we finish our time of exile, and find our homecoming in him.
These things – promise, blessing, companionship, and homecoming – are to be found at a place of encounter which becomes for Jacob the house of God. I believe that God offers the church, the house of God, the same possibility of encounter today. Yet it feels to me that, while many wonderful individuals are encountering God and responding to his call, the church more widely finds it difficult to hear and receive the transformation which God is offering. We know that we need transformation if we are to learn how to live as exiles in a culture in which talking about God has come to seem strange and alien. But we aren’t quite sure what we will have to do to see ourselves and our church transformed.
Although we’ve taken many steps locally towards reimagining the church and releasing new kinds of ministers who can be channels of God’s blessing, there still exists a hankering after the days when there was a vicar for every parish and everyone knew what a vicar and a church was for. It’s as if we are trying to possess and set in stone the promises of the past, rather than discovering the blessings of God growing abundantly around, through, and beyond us, calling our church into new partnerships and possibilities. And while we still carry the pain as a church family of perceiving that God’s blessing in episcopacy belongs only to the male line, it will continue to feel to many of us that a blessing has been stolen, rather than being available to be freely disseminated for good through all God’s children.
So there’s a vast work of reimagining still to be done in order that new blessings might be encountered. I think it matters deeply that it takes a time of exhausted dreaming for Jacob to be able to move beyond the rational, established world of powerful self-interest, and to allow the unsettling intrusion of God into his life. Dreaming opens up what’s beneath the surface, it upsets the status quo, it undercuts the compelling but false narratives which are used to justify how things are. Dreaming brings Jacob a new sense of wellbeing, but it demands a complete reorientation of his life, defined by God’s promise.
If we are to discover more of our vocation – of our individual vocation and of our vocation together as a church – then we will need to dream. However much we want to be able to say one day, “I’ve arrived,” the truth is, we will never arrive until we reach our final homecoming in God. The exhausting debates with which we’ve recently been preoccupied will need to give way to a deep dreaming, in which God interrupts our controlled management of reality and brings us to the miracle of new life.
As we continue to journey and live out our calling as Christians, I hope and expect that God will interrupt our careful plans with unsettling times of dreaming and encounter. In these unexpected moments we will need to remember the promise which God made to Jacob, to be his companion, to keep him safe, and to bring him back to the land of both his ancestors and his heirs. And I pray that we will be able to promise, with Jacob, to bless and honour God in this place of encounter:
“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.” Amen.