Sunday 21st June 2015, Trinity 3, morning

2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

by Revd Chris Palmer

Walter Ciszek was an American Jesuit who was sent to work in Poland in the 1930s. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 he escaped into the Soviet Union and worked underground as a priest until he was arrested in 1941. He spent 5 years in prison and then 15 years in forced labour camps. The Jesuits in America had no news of him and had declared him dead in 1947. In the early 1960s he was allowed to write to friends in the United States, and eventually returned there in 1963, 25 years after he’d left.

He wrote two books about the experience. The first tells the story of the external life, what happened, what forced labour camps where like, and so on. The second book, tells the story of his spiritual journey. And in it re returns again and again to the question, What is God’s will? He tells how he came to see God’s will not as some abstract idea to be painfully discovered, but simply as the circumstances of life here and at this moment:

“God’s will for us was a the 24 hours of each day: the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time… we had to learn to recognize his will in the reality of the situation… The trick is to learn to see that – not just in theory, or not just occasionally in a flash of insight grant by God’s grace, but every day.” [1]

That’s quite a hard message, and one that is especially pertinent to those who have little control over their lives. Where we have the privilege of being able to make decisions, we do have to ask about God’s will in a further way too. But, I still think that what Ciszek is talking about is relevant to all of us.

We rail against the reality of our lives, harbour resentments, and are eaten up with irritation or anxiety about circumstances far less extreme than those of Walter Ciszek or many others. And learning acceptance, is key to living with a sense of hope, joy, and life. And that’s the point; living in terrible circumstances and still having hope is to see a deeper reality than what is on of the surface. This deeper reality is simply God and his goodness towards us.

It seems to me that this is really what both St Paul and Jesus are saying in our readings. In the first reading Paul details the hard circumstances of his life: ‘afflictions, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labour, sleepless nights, hunger...’ But then he goes talk about how the true reality that hidden below the outer appearance of his living: ‘We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.’ That is naming God in the actual situation we face.

The stilling of the storm is the same. Jesus’ disciples are cross and unaccepting; they are annoyed that Jesus stays calm, that he can sleep through the storm. ‘Don’t you care that we’re dying?’  And Jesus response is, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ I think it’s important that we don’t interpret this story to mean that faith is believing Jesus will solve all the problems we face. That’s obviously not true, and it’s the kind of faith that crumbles when problems don’t’ get fixed. I think the point rather is that even the storms of life are nothing to fear, because they can’t rob us of God.

Discovering this level of faith comes always as a grace, a gift. Walter Ciszek only discovered when he was in a forced labour camp, and then in conversation with another priest. Paul only discovered it in the face of hostility and danger – he’d had years of angry non-acceptance. But whilst it is a gift, is grace, it is one we can put ourselves in the way of, if we choose.

Today Eva will be baptised.  The gift of baptism is simply the gift of that grace – and when young children are baptised it especially expresses the reality of grace as gift; as what we can’t achieve. She’s too young to have laboured in Christian discipleship, to have learnt to pray, to have studied the scriptures, or to have learn about God or Jesus.  God embraces her and welcomes her because she is rather than for what she does. That will stay true throughout her life, even though society will inevitably judge her by her achievements. The trick, as Walter Ciszek says, is to see the inner reality, God’s acceptance of us, every day and not just in occasional moments of revelation.

Some of you know that we recently conducted an online survey of our congregation around various areas of our life. Quite a lot of you completed it. In response to the question, ‘What one thing would you like to do that would make your relationship with God stronger?’ a lot of people wrote about needed to pray more or more deeply: ‘Pray for often; be more contemplative; spend more time listening to God; more regular prayer time; make more time for daily prayer…’ and so on.

This reflects a really common truth, that we know prayer is important, but getting in the habit feels hard.  But encouraging ourselves to form the habit is a worth striving for.  Because prayer is putting ourselves in the way of God’s grace.  And the key is to discover the prayer that is possible for us. For one person it will be quiet contemplation; for another if will be actively choosing gratitude; for another praying Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer each day; for another meeting each week with friends to pray; for another it will be singing; for another it will be prayerfully and slowly reading the psalms, and so on. 

Earlier in the year we offered our congregation resources for developing life-giving habits: our ‘Rule of Life’ project. Whilst this is about many aspects of life: family, work, money, self-care, volunteering, and so on, unless prayer is front and centre of our Rule of Life, the rest will feel like our striving to achieve, rather than our being open to God.

In three of the coming weeks, I have invited three members of the congregation to share a little of their how developing habits of Christian living have worked for them. And we offer you these reflections to encourage you in putting yourself in the way of God’s grace. Today we’re going to hear from Fiona Totty. Click here for Fiona's talk

[1] Information about and quotation from Walter Ciszek from A Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, James Martin SJ.