A New Frame of Mind – some sermon notes for Easter 5A

Keep calm 2

Sermon notes for Easter 5A for St Thomas’ Ellesmere Port & St Lawrence Stoak

We often hear the angels say “do not be afraid”. Jesus takes up their heavenly strain. He says “Do not let your hearts be troubled”. It’s as if the whole heavenly host are trying to strengthen us and encourage us.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

The many dwelling places are places made ready for us to live in, places for us to dwell, abiding places, where we may be where Jesus is.

It is such a well known passage that some of us might know it by heart (it’s certainly good that we should take it to heart). It’s a passage which is often used at funerals – and that has had the effect that apply the passage to our post-mortem state. But what if this isn’t about when we die but is more about where we live?

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to crucifixion and resurrection. That is the preparation of a place for us – and it’s a place which is opened up for us in life, not just in our death.

Suddenly we are given a choice. Jesus is saying to us “your place or mine?” – the choice is between the place in which our hearts are troubled, and the place opened up for us by Jesus where we can be where he is. There is another space, another place for us to live.

Have any of you seen the sculptures by Anthony Gormley at Crosby? It’s called Another Place. It is interesting how the mood of the sculptures changes with different circumstances. Here is the calm – a warm day, just right for a paddle. There are other days, when the tide is high, when the sea is stormy, when these sculptures look like they are drowning, clinging to life.

Put a fence in front of them and the mood becomes very sinister, particularly as the fence divides us from them. They look like prisoners. Are they enemies? Is there a reason we need to be kept safe from them?

My point here is that we have another place – a dwelling place which Jesus has prepared for us where we may be also, day to day in which our hearts would otherwise be troubled.

This has come home to me only recently. I was asked to do a funeral. The person who had died had a really difficult life in which he had suffered from severe mental illness from an early age but had hidden it from everyone except his closest family. His children had to keep the secret. Neither parent could work. They were too proud to claim their rightful benefits …. You can perhaps imagine the very mixed emotions of the family when he died.

They chose the passage we have read this morning for the funeral, presumably for the hope they had for their father. But what if Jesus hasn’t just prepared a place for those who have died, but also for those who grieve? And not just as a consolation in terms of “there is a place in heaven” but in the sense that a new space is opened for us to move into in which we find a more compassionate understanding, a kinder understanding, a gentler understanding, a place generous and forgiving in which we can see our troubles in a new light.

This is a space prepared for those whose hearts are troubled. Those not knowing how to make ends meet. Those who don’t know where to turn. Those who are overwhelmed. Those who know their need of God and a world of his making.

We have a choice. We can let our hearts be troubled, or we can accept Jesus’ invitation and the Spirit’s urging to that other space – the space prepared for us.

This is a space we move into in prayer, or retreat, or moments that just open up for us in which we experience the strengthening and encouragement of God. Prayer and discipleship is how we inhabit the space Jesus has prepared for us.

Our reading from Acts (Acts 7:55-60) describes the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

StephenThe Tiffany window showing the Stoning of Stephen focuses on Stephen’s appearance. His face is shining. That is what those looking at Stephen noticed. “They saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15)

I would like us to take this in for a moment. This is what happens when we move away from the space that brings trouble to our hearts into that space where we see our troubles in a new light. One of our prayers this week was (the Collect for Julian of Norwich)

Most holy God, the ground of our beseeching, grant that as we are created in your nature and restored by your grace, our wills may be so made one with yours that we may come to see you face to face and gaze on you for ever.  Amen.

A person who survived Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl, has this to say:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

He remembers: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread”. 

They made their choice in that misery, to not let their hearts become selfish, but to live charitably, even to their last piece of bread.

We also have a choice for the time being. We can choose one place or another. We can choose the place prepared for us by Jesus, or the place that is so troubling. It is the same life.  We don’t escape the troubles. After all, Stephen was stoned to death and Jesus suffered on the cross.

But there is a space that is opened for us to live with a different frame of mind, a different choice of attitude, that chooses to trust the one who doesn’t want our hearts to be troubled. It is on that that we need to dwell.

PS If you’ve read so far (thank you) you might be interested in this Blessing of Many Rooms by Jan Richardson

Making connections for International Happiness Day

Today is the International Day of Happiness, a day dedicated to happiness by the United Nations. The International Day of Happiness website makes the point that our “happiness is part of something bigger”, wanting me “to create more happiness in the world around me”, “to connect”, “to help make the world a more connected place by sharing something positive with others”. My contribution to that is to share the brilliant TED talk by Martin Seligman on “positive psychology”.

Happiness is something to aim at, but the selfish pursuit of happiness will be self-defeating and will thwart personal happiness. My guess is that the UN intention is that we should be concerned for everyone else’s happiness – and that we should make that our business. The General Assembly passed this resolution on June 28th 2012:

Conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal,[…] Recognizing also the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples, Decides to proclaim 20 March the International Day of Happiness, Invites all Member States, organizations of the United Nations system and other international and regional organizations, as well as civil society, including non-governmental organizations and individuals, to observe the International Day of Happiness in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities

Many people have written about happiness and how we find it. Christopher Jameson, Abbot of Worth Abbey and author of Finding Happiness, finds happiness in the way of life based on the Rule of Benedict. He writes:

All too often, happiness is narrowed down to mean feeling good. There is of course nothing wrong with feeling good but such a narrow definition leaves little room for the delight of virtue and the joy of grace. To find happiness, we need to broaden our definition so that feeling good is put into the wider context of doing good and knowing good.

Where do we find happiness? Viktor Frankl was a leading psychiatrist in Vienna, working at the Rothschild Hospital. There he risked his life and career by falsely diagnosing those who were mentally ill so that they would not be euthanized by the Nazis. He had a visa to move with his new wife to America, but, by then in 1941, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews to take them to concentration camps. The focus was on the elderly and Frankl knew that it wouldn’t be long before his parents would be taken away. He had to decide between a new (and “happy”) life in America, or staying to be with his parents so that he could help them adjust to the trauma of camp life. He decided to stay. He survived the camps and found there much that confirmed his theories of meaning in life (logotherapy). He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. He describes his work in the camps as a continuation of his work in Vienna, working, for example to establish suicide prevention centres for young people. It was all about helping people to find meaning in their lives, helping them to discover what they wanted to live for. For Frankl, happiness ensues – it comes after meaning.

What sets people apart is the pursuit of meaning. Happiness without meaning is shallow, selfish and short-lived because it depends on “happinings” (I just noticed the “pinings” in that word). I think this is what the United Nations intend: that we find happiness through (in the words of Christopher Jameson) “knowing good” and “doing good”. To underline that the UN Foundation and Pharrell Williams are inviting people to sign the Live Earth Petition to persuade world leaders to commit to tackling climate change.

Happiness is blessing. It is the subject of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5. For Jesus there is no happiness without meaning. Happiness is life giving, not life-taking. He begins many phrases with the words “you are blessed when ….. you’re poor in spirit, when you mourn, when you’re meek, when you hunger and thirst for righteousness, when you’re merciful, when you’re a peacemaker ….”

PS There is a rare clip from 1972 of Viktor Frankl delivering a powerful message about the the search for meaning.