A was commissioned as a Local Preacher on Sunday 9 August, and asked me to preach at the service, which I was delighted to do.
From Deuteronomy chapter 33 and verse 27: “Underneath are the everlasting arms”. “Underneath are the everlasting arms.”
I think this verse is one of the loveliest in the Bible, particularly on an occasion like this. For while we as a circuit are rejoicing in the admission of a new local preacher – something that really doesn’t happen very often, according to our Plan the last time was in 1997, so you see, it is very special – I expect A has rather mixed feelings. Joyful, yes, certainly, but who could blame her if she also felt rather scared? I know I did, when I was accredited all those years ago. Quite apart from the practical considerations – I remember worrying about how on earth I was going to say “With God’s help I will” several times without sounding like a complete plonker? – those promises? Am I ever going to be able to keep them? For the rest of my life? Okay, one can resign as a local preacher, but few of us do; we are aware that this call is for life. Whether or not we go on to ordained ministry, as some of us do, or whether we stay ministers of the Word, our calling as one of Mr Wesley’s preachers – I like that description of us – is for life! That’s scary. And then there’s that sneaky feeling we all get – at least, I get, and I’m sure I’m not the only one – that somehow or another They, whoever They are, will discover I’m nothing but a great fraud!
Well, of course I am. We all are. If you think preachers, or even ministers, are anything other than ordinary people with ordinary emotions who get just as cross and tired and fed up as you do, think again! We’re exactly the same, it’s just that this is the work God has given us to do, whereas you will have been called to do something different. It’s like that great myth we perpetuate on our children that there is a such a thing as a grown-up! We go on feeling exactly the same inside as we did when we were 12.
But the thing is, whatever it is we are called to do, whether that is preaching, or teaching Sunday School, or being on the Church Council, or doing flowers, or whatever, we can only do it with God’s help. Actually, really, even though we might make a pretty good job of being human by ourselves, if we are to be fully and truly the people God designed us to be, we need God’s help to be that.
About ten days ago I went up to Trafalgar Square. You might know that there is a project going on at the moment where ordinary people spend one hour on the Fourth Plinth, doing whatever they like up there. I went up because a Methodist minister planned to celebrate Communion that day, which duly happened and was very moving. But the point is, because people are standing up on that plinth for an hour at a time, day in and day out for several months, they have put a safety-net round it. And when I saw it, I thought, “Underneath are the everlasting arms!” If a person were unlucky enough to fall off the plinth, he or she wouldn’t fall far, because of the safety net. And it’s the same, I find, for me as a preacher, and I’m sure A will find the same, too. She probably already has found it!
You see, all we have as preachers is words. Sometimes we’re happy with our words; we know our thoughts have lined up correctly and make sense. Perhaps we even have three points beginning with the same letter! Other times, though, we know we’re struggling. We aren’t at all sure that we have teased any sense at all out of the passage; our arguments don’t hang together. Did we start a red herring and not come back to draw it into the rest of our thoughts at the end? Isn’t it most frantically dull? I remember once that I was about to preach on the fruit of the Spirit, and it was an all age worship service, and I wasn’t any too sure about the sermon as it was. I’d bought a bowl of fruit along to act as a visual aid – and the last straw was when I sat on the banana in the vestry! I burst into tears and said “I can’t go on, I can’t do this!” but, of course, I had to. And do you know, it wasn’t that bad?! Fifteen years or so later I can laugh about it, of course, but it wasn’t funny at the time. But underneath were the everlasting arms – and God took that squashed banana, and the words of that sermon, and lifted them and did something with them, as I have to trust he does with all my sermons, and as all of us preachers have to trust he does, week after week. Underneath are the everlasting arms. My job, A’s job, is to supply the words – and to let God take care of the rest. One minister once pointed out to me that even that isn’t always the case, as God sees to it that people only ever hear what He wants them to hear, anyway! Underneath are the everlasting arms.
Like many of us, I have magnets on my fridge. Some are a bit random, but I have six butterflies that I found in one of those kitschy shops they used to have in Clapham. I like the butterflies, because they remind me of growth and change, and how scary that can be. As you know, a butterfly, like many insects, starts life as a tiny caterpillar, and then pupates and becomes something quite different, before it is born anew as a butterfly. The actual butterfly bit is a very tiny part of its life; some species last no more than a day or so, if that. Mayflies, for instance, don’t even have mouths – all that they are interested in is reproducing themselves, finding a mate, laying their eggs, if female, and then dying. And the whole cycle takes two years or so to fulfil.
And when they actually go to become a butterfly, or mayfly, or dragonfly, or whatever insect they are due to become, the caterpillar has to pupate. That isn’t just a matter of hibernating, like a dormouse or bear; they have to be completely remade. While they are in the pupa, all their bits dissolve away, and are made from scratch, from the material that is there. It’s not just a matter of rearranging what is there, it’s a matter of total breakdown and starting again. The insects are quite literally born again!
Wouldn’t it be frightening if that sort of thing were to happen to us? Of course, in one sense it will, after we die, when we’re told that we will be raised in a new body. But it’s not necessarily about death. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says “The person who loves his life will lose it, while the person who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Now, I don’t really think that this means quite what it says on the tin – what sort of God would we serve who condemned us to lose a life we loved, but to keep one we hated? In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, you often used very exaggerated expressions – if you wanted to say you preferred apples to pomegranates, for instance, you would say that you loved apples, and hated pomegranates. Remember how God allegedly said “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”. Same thing – just meant Jacob was the chosen one, not Esau. And it's like that when Jesus says “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
He doesn't mean to actually hate them, of course – how could he? Not when he tells us to love one another! But the idea is to put Jesus first.
And similarly, in this passage, he doesn't mean it's wrong to be happy! We aren't meant to hate our lives and loathe ourselves – again, how could we, when we are commanded to love our neighbours as we love ourselves? It's fine to be happy, it's fine to enjoy life, it's fine to love, and to be loved. But, if we are to be Jesus’ people, we do need to keep a light hold on things. And we need to be prepared to change and grow, as God calls us. If our caterpillar never turned into a pupa, it would never turn into a butterfly, either.
Today is a major step for A along the path that God is leading her. It’s a happy, wonderful occasion. It can feel quite normal, too – you know you’re doing the right thing, the thing God wants for you. It’s normal. But at the same time, it’s a step into the unknown, a step in the dark. I remember feeling that I wasn’t ready to be launched on to Full Plan yet; I couldn’t do it all by myself. But I didn’t have to, and A won’t have to. Underneath are the everlasting arms.
Pray for A, and for me, and for the other preachers in this circuit. We need your prayers, in fact, we rely on them. We know we are doing the work God has for us, and in that we rejoice – but we are still ordinary human beings, and we still need your prayers.
My father tells a story of a man who fell down a cliff, but was lucky enough to catch on to a tree-root part of the way down. And he was stuck, and scared, and in danger. So he prays “Is anybody out there?” And the voice comes, “Yes, I am God, and I am here. Just let yourself fall, and I will catch you!”
So the man thinks about it for a few moments, and then he calls out “Is there anybody else out there?”
I imagine that for A right now this minute, it feels as though she’s about to step off a cliff! But underneath are the everlasting arms, and God will catch her, as he caught me, as he has caught so many of us. Amen.
Alsace Trip, 30 March
1 hour ago