Gen 15.1-6; Ps 33.12-22; Heb 11.1-3,8-16; Lk 12.32-40

+ In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

One of my favourite books when I was a young teenager was Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel On the Road, a tale about his search for truth and self, set against the backdrop of hitchhiking adventures, poetry, jazz and madness. The endless movement, the constant quest for the elusive, the disquiet of the prose all resonated with my adolescent restlessness, and, long before we could even drive, my boarding school friends and I poured over atlases and road maps of the States, planning the road trips we would take across the country, dreaming of camping out under the immense starry skies of the flat heartlands of America.

I didn’t see it then for what it actually is: ‘a book of broken dreams and failed plans’ (Ted Gioia, The Weekly Standard).

We are all well-acquainted with that sense of longing that sadly doesn’t go away even after we reach adulthood. The feeling remains through much of our lives that who we are, where we are, what we have, what we do is not enough. Searching for a way out of discontent is so much a part of the human condition that Western literature is full of epic journeys in which the protagonists ‘find themselves’ through their quest and in the process discover (or sometimes fail to discover) the place of safety they can at last call home.

The Christian narrative is itself a series of journeys. Journeys of Abraham to Canaan; Moses out of Egypt towards the Promised Land; the Israelites into exile and back again; Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem; the Magi to the stable; Jesus to Jerusalem; Paul and the apostles throughout the Roman Empire.

So it’s unsurprising therefore that we often use the language of journey when talk about our lives of faith. We talk about our ‘faith journey’. Our journey ‘to faith’. Our journey ‘deeper into faith’. But so often, we speak about faith as though it is the acceptance of a set of propositions, as if what God is really demanding of us is that we, like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, believe six impossible things before breakfast. Our ‘journey’ then charts our movement from disbelief to belief, from doubt to certainty.

But the writer of the letter to the Hebrews presents a different picture of faith: ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’, he writes. And placed alongside example after example of those who have responded to God in faith are Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham and Sarah set out for the land which God would show them, not knowing where they were going. Yet along the way, God makes promises – that they will have a son, that they will arrive in the Promised Land, that their descendants will be as uncountable as grains of sand. And as they continue their journey, God begins to fullfill them.

It is not a journey of faith. Faith is the journey itself.

Like Abraham and Sarah, God calls us into the unknown, and at times this journey takes us too across the desert. As we travel towards the place God is leading us, we have times of feeling exposed and vulnerable. We look around us and see the landscape changing every time the wind blows. We feel the heat of the sand searing our feet. Our souls thirst.

The desert is a dangerous place. But it is also a place of night time visions and encounters with God whose promises are as numerous as the stars in the night sky.

And so we journey onward because like Abraham and Sarah and all their other descendants we long for a homeland. We feel the impatient desire for something beyond us, for something more than this world can give. We feel the restlessness that can’t be assuaged.

That longing, that desire, that restlessness are faith.

The Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe writes: ‘Faith is not something we possess. It is something by which we are possessed. … It is the inkling that we are meant to be divine, that our journey will go beyond any horizon at all into the limitlessness of the Godhead. Faith is not our power to set out on this journey into the future. It is our future laying hold on us. It is the crucified and risen Christ gathering us toward himself.’

When we talk about our journeys, we often do so in a very individualistic way. Each of us has very personal stories to tell of the time we have spent wandering like Abraham and Sarah. Yet we are not alone. We follow in the footsteps of those who came before. We draw our strength from the stories told of the matriarchs and patriarchs, and our journey becomes a part of theirs as we carry on towards the land God will show us. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock’, Jesus says. ‘For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’

As we know, many stories of epic journeys are, like On the Road, tales of broken dreams and failed plans.

But despite the frailties of humankind, our protests and complaints, our wrong turnings and mistakes, our misdirected desires and misplaced hopes, God’s promises are continually unfolding. We are always loved. Faith is our journey ever deeper into that love.

Frederick Buechner writes: ‘Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp’. By that hand, we will be guided on our journey to our true homeland in the heart of God.

5 thoughts on “sermon: searching for home

  1. I follow Fr Kelvin’s blog and noted your own ordination as priest. Congratulations. I am a lapsed Anglican in Northern Ireland in love with all things Scottish, with a particular soft spot for the SEC. At the moment I am struggling with the question of God’s existence and have tried to forge a spiritual practice through a local Zen group. I regularly sit zazen and this has really helped me with a number of practical issues in my life. However, I am still drawn to the Christian story, it seems to make more of an emotional connection with me than anything else. However, in Ireland, as you may know, there is a lot of baggage attached to the Christian faith that I simply cannot have. When I read some of your sermons I felt again that strange emotional tug, especially with your references to Buechner, whose book – The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale – was so important to me in finding an expression of Christian faith that I could put faith in.

    I was wondering what you, as a newly ordained priest, would advise to someone walking in this particular wilderness?

    Thanks and all best wishes in your new role.

    Yours

    Steven

    1. Hi Steven,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m so pleased to hear that you’re Buechner fan as well. I love Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, and often have in mind its challenges to the preacher as I write my sermons.

      Have you read Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite? If not, given your interest in Zen, I’d certainly recommend it.

      It is hard to know exactly what to advise, but I will say a couple of things: You are not walking the wilderness alone, and you are not the first to be in the wilderness. I don’t say that to downplay your experience at all, but rather to say that where you are now, other people have been before and have passed down the wisdom they have gained from being there. Poetry, theology, the spiritual memoirs of people I admire all remind me when I am in the desert that huge parts of the Christian story have taken place there, and it is often in the desert that we feel the longing towards God most strongly. So I would advise you to embrace the longing and look for companions in its midst. Seek out other writers whose expressions of faith or retellings of the Christian narrative draw you deeper into the longing and give you a glimpse of what you might be longing for. Some of my favourites are Augustine (especially Confessions), Herbert McCabe, TS Eliot, Denise Levertov and Barbara Brown Taylor.

      Sadly the weight of past hurts will continue to follow the Church for some time, and I don’t think the shadows of that pain will ever disappear. There are a lot of us out there who are deeply sorry that that is the experience people have had and continue to have, and we want to share with people the love of a God of abundant grace and constant surprises, the God who wants to bring all of us new life and healing. That is not a glib way of saying the journey through the wilderness is easy, however, because it’s not.

      That’s probably enough for now, but if you’d like to continue this conversation via email, my contact information is on the Old St Paul’s website (osp.org.uk) in the About section.

      1. Dear Kate

        Thanks so much for your prompt and helpful reply. I was not expecting a response so soon to my random query!

        Funnily enough I have just recently received a copy of Merton’s book as I am fascinated by the cross-over between Zen and Christian faith, especially with the mystics and some Quaker spirituality.

        First of all, to be clear, I have not been harmed in any awful way by the Church. I have just found that, in most churches in Northern Ireland, there is little space for asking big questions [like what is the point in praying if you don’t think God really works like that or “is” like that] and there is a set of cultural, political and social attitudes that are simply presumed. I simply could not find a place to simply be with any degree of integrity. No doubt I brought my own issues as well and they have surely contributed to my “loss” of faith. I take your point that my experience is not uncommon and I do believe that we have to abandon our “god” in order to find our God – if that makes any sense.

        After a long period absent from all things Christian I have started to re-engage and have been surprised that, again, the same things are connecting with me, giving me glimpses of that which I sort of know to be the heart of the tradition but which is so hard to articulate let alone replicate.

        I will email, if you don’t mind, to continue this dialogue further. Thanks again for your really helpful response.

        Steven

  2. Hi Stephen, sorry not to reply sooner. What you say about being discouraged in the past from asking the big questions resonates with my own experience of growing up in the American bible belt (though to their credit, my parents did allow lots of questions). I was lucky that when I came to Scotland, I found a community of people who encouraged questions and real engagement with the Christian faith, though it took many years to overcome a lot of the issues I had with parts of the Church. Finding that kind of community is so important, and though social media allows for a certain amount of conversation, it’s not quite the same. But it does offer a sense that you’re not the only one exploring these issues. I keep wanting to invite you to Old St Paul’s or for a coffee so we can have a proper chat, and then I remember you’re not in Scotland! I’d be interested in hearing more about what it is about the Christian narrative that you’re connecting with. Again, feel free to email if you’d rather not discuss it on here. I look forward to hearing from you.

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