Sermon: Be Still

Will’s sermon from Choral Evensong on Sunday 4th February has been reproduced below by popular request:

I think it’s interesting that in the passage from Luke we’ve heard tonight we get two seemingly unrelated stories – the calming of the storm and then the story about the demoniac and the Gadarene swine. Why does one follow the other? I think it’s because often in the Gospels context is everything.
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Let’s begin by picturing the scene.  Jesus and his disciples cross what we call the Sea of Galilee but which is in fact a large inland lake. And storms there can blow up very fast, without warning. And so it happens. But Jesus, tired out from dealing with the crowds, is fast asleep in the boat, and the terrified disciples shake him awake. And he rebukes the wind and the raging of the water, and they fall back and there is a great calm. Luke doesn’t quote the actual words used, but St Mark does: ‘Peace! Be still’ and the wind and the sea obey him.
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And so they arrive safely on the other side, only to meet a ‘madman’. He must have cut a wild figure, wearing no clothes and living in the tombs outside the nearest village. And all that is evil in him recognises the Son of God for who he is, for evil cannot bear to be in the presence of good. And that evil – personified in the story as a whole tribe of demons – hastens off to find security in animals who will presumably be oblivious to the gaze of the Son of God. But even the pigs know evil when they smell it, and in a panic they charge off over the cliff and into the sea. The locals hear about it, and find it quite outrageous. They prefer the security of property – represented by the pigs which, as Jews, they shouldn’t have been keeping in the first place – to the riskiness of the Son of God, and so they puff up the hill to persuade this joker who has caused all the trouble to clear off, and stop disturbing respectable folks. And of course the message is not hard to find: the world has gone on preferring pigs and property to the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, ever since: that is, preferring the illusion of security now to the sure gift of eternal life.

So the joker who has caused such a fine sense of moral outrage in Gadara goes on his way. But if we have the eyes to see and the hearts to understand, we will discern how, once again, he has turned the accepted order of things upside down, and poked sheer ludicrous fun at our solemn, blinkered, pompous selves. As one commentator reminds us – the Pharisees (who would have won prizes for solemnity and pomposity) – decided they simply had to have Jesus put down. He couldn’t be allowed to go on standing everything on its head, and making them look ridiculous. What rubbish he kept coming out with: camels going through the eyes of needles; or being swallowed easily by people who would choke on a gnat; people with logs in their eyes; prodigal sons being given the all-star treatment when they returned home penniless; churchmen sounding trumpets before they put a pound in the collection plate; idlers who had done only an hour’s work being given a full day’s pay. What had all this nonsense to do with religion? It was flippant, and it was irreverent, and it would undermine morals – and that would never do.

So, as that writer puts it, the Jester had to be crucified: crucified ‘before the contagion of eternal love showed up the whole solemn system of moralism and religiosity as a complete knock-about farce.’ But what the great and the good of the time didn’t anticipate was that the Jester would pop up again like a Jack- in-the-box, and start dancing about more vigorously than before, and even more compellingly. People here, there and everywhere fell under his spell, and they still do. And we can laugh with joy because the Kingdom of God has drawn near, and we know that the laughter will continue in heaven, for heaven, as Julian of Norwich said, is ‘right merry’.

It’s good to reflect on the laughter of the Kingdom of Heaven. At the moment there is little reason for laughter in the world, and there seems to be little laughter in the Church too. We bring to the Church all the habits of our life at work or in the home: busyness, anxious activity, full diaries, endless rushing around. Churches on Sundays reproduce the tensions and the stresses of the week, and so often fail to send their members out with a lightness in their step. Why do we find it so hard to get rid of everything that is weighing us down?

As I go to various church meetings, locally and nationally, I sit and listen to the great and the good describing their strategies: financial awareness campaigns and the deployment of clergy; new plans for mission and the latest legislative requirements – and the picture painted is for all the world like that circus act where a man tries to get more and more plates spinning on poles, and rushes round and round in ever decreasing circles to add one plate here and stop another falling there.

The Lord of our hearts, says to us all tonight ‘Stop. Don’t imagine that you will bring the Kingdom of Heaven any nearer by all this storm of activity. Don’t reproduce in the Church the frantic pattern of your daily life. That way madness lies. Peace. Be still. Be still and know that I am God. Progress into dependency. Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ The gospel writers saw clearly the parallels between the stilling of the storm on the lake and the stilling of the storm in the troubled man’s heart and mind. And Christ’s touch still has its ancient power.

So perhaps we in our churches can be bold enough to make the first priority in our strategy a desire for God, and a longing to be with him, and to know his love pouring into our hearts. And the second priority will be to pray before we act, and to pray as we act, and to sanctify all our doing with prayer, so that it won’t be anxious human rushing around like the circus performer with plates and poles, but it will be the Lord’s work and he will be in charge.

And the third priority must be this. When we pray, we must not rush into it as if it’s yet another job to be done, but to be still before God, and to listen to him, and be glad because we are meeting a friend, and be happy because he is so pleased we have come. God wants the simplicity of our surrender, our dependence, and if we surrender ourselves to him then the dialogue of prayer will take care of itself. Remember the old Frenchman who spent hours in church, and when asked what he was doing replied ‘I look at God, and God looks at me.’

Sometimes we do so much talking in prayer because we do so much talking all the time, and we cannot break the habit, not even for God. But the Lord who turns all of life upside down says ‘Peace. Be still’, and he stills the storm of activity and stress and worry in our hearts.

Please remember this: we are most fully ourselves, we are most fully a human being, when we sit in silence with God. As the great Catholic writer von Hügel, put it, ‘Man is what he does with his silence.’ In the silence we are never alone, for praying with us is the whole company of heaven. If we listen, we will hear the laughter of that ‘right merry company’. And if we watch, we will catch a glimpse of our heavenly Father himself, and there will be, and there is nothing better than that.

Amen.

One thought on “Sermon: Be Still”

  1. Dear Kate, Thank you for quick response sending me Will’s “Bill Still” sermon. A wonderful and thought provoking sermon.
    Yours sincerely, Ken.

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