A Sermon given in Wesley House on 22nd June 2012 for the End of year
Given by The Revd Dr Jane Leach
Mark 4.35-41 & 2 Corinthians 6.1-13
I am sure that it will not surprise you to hear that I have found these readings hugely personally resonant this week as I’ve worked on them for this sermon. The story of the disciples’ overwhelming in the boat; the waves coming like body blows against the sides; the water threatening to overwhelm them; their temptation to panic and to draw back from whatever faith they had, their desperation to wake Jesus up, their anxious cry, ‘Does it not matter to you that we are perishing?’
Likewise, I have also identified with the reading from Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians, ‘We are treated as impostors, 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.’
It would be tempting this evening to allow the impending decisions of the Methodist Conference to dominate our thinking – and we can scarcely ignore it, but this is not our only context – tonight is an important moment in the life of this community and in the lives of those particularly who are leaving. And this moment needs honouring – it will not come again.
But, still our context is also larger – it is national in the midst of recession as people lose their jobs and their homes, and global, as day by day communities are swamped by rising sea levels, by economic forces beyond their control, and fear of violence. And in all these contexts the verse I want to draw our attention to, is the last phrase we read from 2 Corinthians, when Paul says to the Christians there: ‘be enlarged’.
That phrase, ‘be enlarged’ comes from a difficult couple of verses to translate. They would make a good question 4 for the Greek paper:
‘Now for a recompense in the same, (I speak as unto my children,) be ye also enlarged.’ (Alfred Marshall)
‘In fair exchange then, (if I may speak to you as a father) open your hearts to us.’ (REB)
‘In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.’ (NRSV)
Platunthete – ‘Be enlarged’ – what does it mean, for those facing economic or environmental disaster, for us at Wesley House as the Conference draws near, for those preparing to leave this place – what does it mean?
I remember my own leavers’ service from this House. I sat over there. I remember my own eagerness to leave (I had been here five years) and yet my fear of the unknown. I remember the way in which I stopped being able to think much about anything else… I was supposed to be finishing my PhD but somehow all I could concentrate on was packing boxes and trying to imagine what it would be like and how I would get on…looking back, my world was getting smaller and smaller and more and more focused upon my own survival… It would have been good to hear those words, ‘be enlarged’ – and they would have perhaps helped me to stretch my horizon beyond my own anxiety, beyond my own fear of overwhelming… it took me all summer to get to a different place…. I remember going to the parish church in Swaffham Prior the weekend before I moved, feeling paralysed by all that the next few weeks would entail – how was I going to get from here to the first of September when I would be ‘the minister’ preaching my first sermon and presiding at my first communion? And then, at the communion rail in this ancient church, suddenly it came to me that all I was being asked to do was to love these people who were being entrusted to my care.
At the communion table my heart was somehow enlarged beyond my preoccupation with myself, to focus on the face of the other… to recall that ministry is about being in relationship.
‘Platunthete – Be enlarged’
In the context of Paul and Timothy’s relationship with the Christians in Corinth, this instruction was addressed to the Corinthians. And in the REB translation you can almost hear the gritted teeth through which Paul is begging the people to hear him in good faith: ‘we have opened our heart to you; there is no constraint on our part; any constraint there may be is in you… in fair exchange then, open your hearts to us…’
Paul knows that ministry relies on relationship, and not simply a working relationship but a willingness to be moved… ministry will not take place through superficial relationships which cost us nothing. The point is underlined for us by Paul’s use of the Hebraism, en tois splagthnois, in the guts, indicating the visceral effects which both conflict and compassion have on us when we are enlarged enough to feel the humanity of another, like Jesus faced with the sick and the crowds who were like sheep without a shepherd.
And so Paul talks about the way in which the relationship between him and Timothy and the Corinthians has caused his own heart to be enlarged. The going has been tough. And when the going gets tough it is easy for us to withdraw from relationship and focus only on our own needs, and our own hurts and our own fears.
In the language of the calming of the storm, it is easy to become timid, to stop reaching out towards the other who has perhaps rejected us, or whom we fear will do so, and in that sense Paul is preaching to the Corinthians what he has learned for himself, ‘platunthete’ – be enlarged. Even when in hardship and distress, even when over-worked and sleepless and starving and misunderstood and fearful… – do not fold in on yourself, do not become self reliant, do not become self absorbed, rather continue to seek to be in relationship – be patient, be kind, and keep on speaking the truth by a love unfeigned and in a holy spirit.
And here is another interesting phrase for the Greek paper: en pneumati hagio.
In a spirit of holiness?
By the power of the Holy Ghost?
By the gifts of the Holy Spirit?
Whether we translate ‘Holy Spirit’ with a capital H or not, it is clear that to keep your heart open to the other, even when afraid, is a holy thing. And note the passive voice – it is not something we can do for ourselves, it is something that happens as we allow God to work in us. In that sense enlargement, whenever it happens, whether we know it or not is a work of the Holy Spirit, a work of the God whose purpose is always embrace; who ever seeks to be in relationship with us even at deep cost to himself; a desire we see, in Irenaeus’ image, both in the arm of compassion extended to us in Jesus Christ and in the sending of the Holy Spirit as comforter and guide.
And to be enlarged, is not simply to be open to the other, but in doing so to be open to God. So Jesus in the boat with the disciples is exasperated with them for the smallness of their vision: ‘How is it’, he asks, ‘that you have no faith?’ For they had become overwhelmed by the immediate danger to their immediate situation and had lost sight of the enduring purposes of God. So it can be easy – even in ministry – when we feel under pressure, to back off from the faith we have into a practical atheism because we are overwhelmed by the immediate circumstances in which we find ourselves – to stop praying; to stop believing that God cares, to shrink – even from the enlargement of being open to God.
Platunthete –Paul says to the church in Corinth – be enlarged. And he is able to say it because he is himself still in touch with the large vision of God, with the generous embrace of God… with God’s purposes for the whole inhabited earth.
And ironically, that leaves him open to extremes of emotion, to overwhelmings – to situations in which all there is to do, with Christ is to lament the folly of the world – or of the church, yet never ceasing to love it; and never ceasing to rejoice that God’s grace extends to us and all the world, even then..
I remember hearing John Hull speak to the Diaconal Convocation some years ago of the 360 degree awareness which is the awareness of God. To help us understand it he built it up: a stone pillar is unaware of its stoneness; an ant is aware of it as it crosses a different surface from the grass or the soil; a dog is aware of not only the pillar but of its smell as it sniffs it and leaves its own mark; the human being looks at the stone and knows its geological origins and its human story – can read the marks engraved into it – can get in touch with the sorrow of the death that it marks and the hope of resurrection, and God, aware of all these layers, and more, for this grave stone and the next, and the mass grave that contains those who killed these soldiers, laments with the whole inhabited earth and keeps faith with it.
So, to be in touch with God’s love for the world, is to be enlarged, and to be willing to be overwhelmed by sorrow and by joy.
For although life and ministry is about balance – it is about balance, not in the sense of keeping everything in check – no extremes – but in the sense of riding a bicycle – whether slogging uphill or freewheeling down the other side, we shall only stay balanced if we keep moving, keep being moved, keep learning, keep praying, keep reaching out in faith.
Platunthete, Paul says to the Church in Corinth, be enlarged. Platunthete God says to us today: in our global context and in our national context and as we prepare to take our leave of one another and as we seek to remain in full connexion with a Conference that may choose things we find hard to understand:
Do not shrink from the realities of the world;
Do not shrink from the cost of compassion;
Do not shrink from the pain of connection even with those who cannot hear you;
Do not shrink from the overwhelming by joy that comes of love;
Do not shrink from the God who ever searches for you;
But be enlarged
Rainer Maria Rilke put it like this:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
And make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand. (I,59)