Tuesday, 6 April 2021

The Mystery of the Everyday

 A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

11th April 2021

Luke 24.13-35

Listen to this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/the-mystery-of-the-everyday

I love cooking, I love welcoming friends and family to our house, I love visiting other people in their homes, and I love going out for a meal in a pub or a restaurant - nothing too fancy, you understand, just some good food and some good company. 

We’ve tried a few Zoom meals with friends over the last year, eating our respective dinners in front of computer screens balanced on our dining room tables, and whilst the company has always been good, and the food perfectly edible, it really hasn’t been the same.

And if I’m honest, I feel a bit the same about our monthly communion services - as we have shared bread and wine as a scattered community. It’s been OK, and it’s helped keep our community together, but it really isn’t the same.

Interestingly, I’ve often thought that the words of the institution of the Lord’s supper, as we find them recorded in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, take us beyond the world of the monthly liturgy of a sip of wine and morsel of bread.

Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 11.26, ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes’, and this little phrase ‘as often as’ has always seemed to me to imply more than a monthly service of a sacrament.

In the context of the situation in Corinth, it seems more likely to me that Paul meant by this, ‘as often as you eat and drink together’. And so we’re back to shared meals, to community, to fellowship, to that mysterious ‘something’ that turns up as we sit around a table, to feed our bodies and our souls in equal measure.

And this, of course, was the experience of Cleopas and the other traveller on the road to Emmaus, who I like to think might have been Cleopas’s other half, as they sat at the meal table with their new friend, to discover that in a moment of shared food, the resurrected Christ was made known in their midst.

Which makes me wonder what my expectations are, what our expectations are, about how and where we might encounter Jesus?

Many of us have been conditioned to expect to meet Jesus in certain buildings, or through the enactment of certain rituals, such as going to church, or saying our prayers, or reading our Bibles, or ‘hands together and eyes closed’.

If you had a similar early Christian journey to me, it might be that you were told that if you didn’t have your daily ‘quiet time’, you wouldn’t encounter Jesus in your day, and then the whole thing takes on an element of failure and guilt if you didn’t do the things that you had been told that you should.

But what if the truth of it, is what the travellers on the road to Emmaus discovered: that Jesus is encountered not just in Jerusalem, or the Temple, or the upper room; but along the way to somewhere else, in the face of a stranger just-met, or around a meal table over shared bread and wine?

What if Jesus is primarily present to us, not in the holy places or the sanctified moments, but in the mystery of the everyday?

What if the fact that we haven’t been to our church building for a year, or that our communion services have been conducted over Zoom, or that our choir has had to sing their separate songs to be stitched together afterwards… what if all these pandemic-related disappointments have actually been whispering to us all along that Christ is with us, present even if often unnoticed, in our lonely homes, in our support bubbles, in our socially-distanced walks, in our times of solitude, and in our confined families?

What if Christ is primarily always with us in the midst of dashed hopes and the ordinariness of life?

There is a form of prayer called the Examen, which originates in the 16th Century with St Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuit order, and it is something he encouraged people do at the end of each day. It’s an invitation to find the movement or presence of God in all the people and events of our day.

One Jesuit teacher, Fr. Dennis, calls the prayer of Examen “rummaging for God.”[1] He likens it to “going through a drawer full of stuff, feeling around, looking for something that you are sure must be there.” And he says that this is a great description of what it’s like to pray the Daily Examen. We look back on the previous day, rummaging through the “stuff,” and finding God in it.

Sometimes at Bloomsbury we use a version of the Examen, asking people to reflect on where, for them, that day, has God been especially present, and where, correspondingly, has it felt like God has been absent. Sometimes, reflecting on these experiences can help us to highlight areas of sin or neglect that we might need to address, but also it can take us into a deeper and more personal experience of God in the mystery of the everyday.

If you haven’t tried this form of praying, I commend it to you. Interestingly, many people beyond the Christian church use a form of daily Examen, with journaling techniques often encouraging people to reflect on their day, and to write down and capture those moments of positivity, of grace, and of hope, as a way of combatting the feelings of negativity that can so often overwhelm us.

Which brings me to the question of why it might be that we, like the couple on the road to Emmaus, can sometimes fail to recognise Jesus, even when he is staring us in the face?

Let’s go back and revisit the story from Luke’s gospel.

It was the afternoon of that first Easter Sunday, and these two disciples had left Jerusalem for Emmaus, about a 12km walk, and were making their way along the road, discussing the horrific and confusing events of the last few days, from the crucifixion to the mystery of the women’s report of the empty tomb.

And Jesus came to them on the road, and Luke tells us what happened next:

‘Jesus said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad.’ (Luke 24.17)

They were so lost in their sadness, that they could not see the source of joy that was before them. They were telling stories of loss, of deficit, of defeat, and were missing the story of life, gain, and hope that was entering their lives.

And just as the prayer of Examen invites us to review our days, to find Jesus in the mystery of the everyday, I wonder if we too need to review our language, to ask ourselves what it is that we are discussing?

What stories are we spinning into existence in our midst? Are they stories of life, gain, and hope; or are they stories of loss, deficit, and defeat?

Are we missing the resurrecting power and presence of Jesus in our midst because we are too busy retelling to ourselves the stories of Good Friday? Do we miss the significance of the reports of the empty tomb, because we have become so focussed on the emptiness itself, rather than what it signifies?

Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin in the Fields, uses the language of asset and deficit to describe congregational life. He suggests that that ‘Christianity is fundamentally about cultivating the assets of grace and joy, and only secondarily about eradicating the deficits of sin and death.’[2]

The challenge here for us, is that too often we get stuck at the cross, we lose ourselves in stories or theories of how Jesus saves us from sin and rescues us from death.

When instead we should be telling the world about the gifts of faith, hope, and love that are waiting to infuse every area of our lives, bringing meaning to the mundane, and joy to the everyday.

At a practical, congregational, level, there is a direct challenge to us as to how we frame the stories of our community.

Do we tell stories of decline, deficit, and defeat, or do we speak into being the stories of a hopeful, loving, joyful, faithful future, that echo from the empty tomb into the realities of our lives?

Over the next few months we have a task ahead of us, friends, as we will be living through change at all levels of our lives - from the personal, to the congregational, to the societal.

There will be challenge and difficulty, there will be loss and grieving, there will be stress and anxiety.

What will worship and witness look like in the future? We don’t know yet.

What next shape will our community and congregation take? We don’t know yet.

How will we address the financial pressures that are upon us? We don’t know yet.

But we do know that we need to be careful not to fall into the pattern of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who were so stuck in their stories of deficit, that they risked missing the good news of the empty tomb that was standing before them.

So let us tell, above all, the story of the Gospel.

Let us faithfully live into being the good news of resurrection, of new life, of new hope, of joy, of peace, and of love.

Let us face the challenges and uncertainties of the future with faith, looking always to Jesus, and finding him in the face of the other.

And as we do so, day by day, meal by meal, conversation by conversation, we will discover that Christ is truly with us, in the mystery of everyday.

[2] Samuel Wells. A Future That's Bigger Than The Past . Canterbury Press, Norwich. Kindle Edition.

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