June 17, 2012

 

ON SIMPLY BEING

                                                            Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                                 at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 17 June 2012 

                                                                 Reading for the Gospel: Mark 4: 26-34

At both my pre-ordination retreats, the Archbishop of York, Donald Coggan, said words something like this: “Gentlemen, never lose the vision of a world won for Christ.”  I have borne those words on my heart and in my mind ever since.  And they are words that all who claim to be followers of our Lord and Saviour should bear in their hearts and minds.  Our role as followers of Jesus Christ, the Anointed Saviour, is to so live out our lives in this world that the world is won for Christ.  That is our vision, the world won for Christ.

And we must ever keep in our minds that we are followers of Christ, and so we are called to be what he would have us be, which will lead us to do what he would have us do.  But the very first lesson is to realize that we are followers of Christ, and so we must of necessity listen to what he tells us to do, even though we might not understand the why of our having to do it.  So there may well be times when we might want to ask, “Why am I in this particular place at this particular time?”  And we should not be upset if the only reply we receive, if we receive one at all, is, “Because this is where I want you to be!”

In a very real sense, we are like the grain that Jesus talks about in the parables today.  The grain does not, indeed cannot ask, “What am I doing here?”  It is simply there, simply being grain, placed where the farmer wants it to be, doing what the farmer wants it to do.  In another parable about grain in another Gospel, Jesus talks of the grain having to die before it can become what it is meant to become.  In human terms, this means that we are to surrender our wills and our willfulness to the will of God.  Of course we say that every time we say the Lord’s Prayer – Thy will be done – but how often do we really mean it?  We would far rather have things done our way, and some members of some congregations have plotted and schemed to have things done their way, and this has usually led to division within the Body of Christ as the will of man gets in the way of the will of God.

Let me tell you some stories – and I make no apology if some of you have heard some of them before.  I have been called to spend much of my life travelling around the world to preach the Gospel, and I have been called to bear witness to Christ in some very unusual places.  Often, at the time, I did not perceive any reason for being where I was at that particular time, and it is only later, and sometimes very much later, that I have seen what God was seeking to do. 

One evening I was in the airport at Casablanca and the customs official asked to examine my hand luggage.  When he opened it up, there, right on the top, was a book about Genesis.  Now he was very upset since he thought that it was a Bible, and being a Muslim he was not about to let yet another Bible be found in Morocco.  I told him that it was not a Bible, but a book about a book of the Bible, but he would not buy that notion, so he summoned his superior, who just happened to be a Christian!  And this Christian explained in French, the lingua franca of Morocco, to his Muslim subordinate that Christians not only read their Bibles, but they read books about the Bible in order to understand better what the Bible has to teach them, unlike many followers of Muhammad who merely learn the words of the Quran without understanding what the Prophet was saying.  So my bag was closed and I, belatedly, made my way into the city and to my hotel, where I unpacked my bag and took out the Bible and Book of Common Prayer that I had put at the very bottom of the bag, and I said the evening office.  Had I not been there in the airport in Casablanca that evening a Moroccan Christian would have had no reason to bear witness to his  Moroccan Muslim fellow-worker.

One afternoon I and the British Ambassador to Laos were arrested at Wattay Airport in Vientiane since I was seeking to enter Laos without a visa.  The visa had been issued some days earlier, but the issuing office had not sent it to Bangkok so that it could be stamped in my passport.  The immigration official wanted to deport me, but he could not, because not only did I not have a visa, I did not have a passport.  And I did not have a passport since I had surrendered it to the British Ambassador who had passed it on to someone else who knew where the visa was to be found.  (A British passport is the property of the British Government not of the passport holder and must be handed over to an official of the British Government when ordered to do so.)  So with no passport and no visa the immigration officials detained us.  “What are we going to do?”, the Ambassador asked, and I said that to start with we would invoke the protection of the Holy Trinity, and that in order to do that we would sing lustily, the Ambassador being an Irishman, Saint Patrick’s Breastplate – I bind unto myself this day the strong Name of the Trinity.  Maybe that was why we were placed in a locked room without air-conditioning with an armed guard!  Eventually, some three hours later, the Vice President of Laos drove out to the airport and directed that we be released and he escorted us in procession to the British Embassy.  The next day we celebrated Easter, and because word had got around of what had happened, practically every Western European turned up and we had the biggest congregation that I had seen to date in Vientiane.  It had been the Holy Spirit that had given me the words to say to the Ambassador that led him to demanding my passport, and it was the same Holy Spirit who directed me to invoke the protection of the Name of the Holy Trinity.  I was simply there, simply being a witness for the Holy Trinity.  It was God who led the Ambassador and me through, and it was God who encouraged others to come and share the Eucharist on that Easter Sunday morning, many for the first time in years, many not even Anglicans. 

I was once in Moscow at the beginning of November.  It was a grey evening when I arrived and I did not want to have to wake up to a rainy day the following morning.  So, in my prayers that night I asked God not to let it rain next day – and he heard my prayer.  It had not rained – it had snowed, a very early snow even for Moscow.  I was duly picked up at my hotel and taken to see the officials with whom I was doing business over the next few days.  They brusquely apologized for the weather and explained that the snow might curtail our programme somewhat.  I explained that it was not their fault, but mine, since I had not been specific enough in my prayers.  Being Communists they all sneered a little, and then they sneered a lot when I declared that the snow would end by lunchtime and the evening would be bright and clear.  No, they assured me, this was the start of winter and winter in Moscow did not end for five months.  Well, by lunchtime it had stopped snowing, and around four in the afternoon there was a gorgeous sunset, which I pointed out to my official escort, a young lady from the Republic of Georgia.  She politely nodded, and said it was all a coincidence.  But not so her boss, for a few months later he was posted to the United Nations Office in Nairobi where I worked and he became a close colleague.  One day he asked me how I knew it would stop snowing that afternoon, and I told him that I did not know, but that I had prayed and that God who is faithful answers prayers addressed to him through our Saviour.  I simply bore witness.  I do not know if he became a believer, but let me tell you one more story about a Russian who did become a believer. 

His name is Andrei, and he was sent to Nairobi by the Soviet Government to work as a translator.  I was his supervisor and I had seen his résumé beforehand.  So I knew he was a committed Communist.  He would not have been sent to Nairobi if he were not.  I also knew that we had a lot in common.  We had both served in the Air Force, although not in the same Air Force, doing the same work, and we had both held the same rank and had attained that rank at an early age.  All this helped us to be more than just colleagues, co-workers.  Andrei watched me – that was part of his job – and he saw that a Bible Study group met in my office one lunch hour each week and that a Prayer Group met there on another day.  He asked me what that was all about, so I told him.  Weeks later he turned up for the Bible Study and watched as a group of staff members of different nationalities, different grades and different opinions could all study together, on first name terms, and then all pray together.  In due course, Andrei’s tour at Nairobi was ended and he returned to Moscow.  We kept in touch at the end of each year, my Christmas, his New Year.  Then one day, in the middle of the year there was a letter from him.  He had resigned from his job with the Government and had been baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church.  What a step he took!  He thanked me for what I had shown him about Jesus and how a relationship with Jesus works itself out in relationships with other Christians.  He told me that I should not keep in touch by letter as his mail was being watched, but I keep Andrei in my prayers even twenty years after that last letter.  It is all that I can do. 

Four stories.  I could tell you more, but that is sufficient.  I was like the grain sown by the farmer.  I was just there, just being.  I did not have to plot and scheme in order for the work of Christ Jesus to go forward.  I simply had to be, to be open to those promptings of the Holy Spirit that bring forth fruit in due season.  And although I am in Holy Orders, each of these stories shows that it was not as a priest – in each case I was not wearing my dog-collar – that  I was being asked to bear witness, but simply as a Christian, being a Christian – so I can affirm that should any of you find yourself in such a position as have I, you too can simply be what you are called to be, a living witness to Christ our Lord.

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