Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 26 June
26 June 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
The sea and its storms have often gripped religious imagination. It’s a place where God and God’s purposes have become luminous. The story we joined half way through, in our second reading, described St Paul at the mercy of the sea: a prisoner on a ship driven by natural forces beyond his control - yet also, for him, somehow, a place where God’s purposes were being worked out. The sea and storm became a further step on a journey to Rome which eventually spread Christian faith into new places and transformed human history. At the time the experience might have seemed just random, storm-tossed, noise, and froth: but looking back we are asked to see an extraordinary thread of divine purpose being woven through it all. In other words, a story of Providence. Four centuries later St Augustine also found himself driven by a storm towards Rome, and he too famously reflected on this experience as a work of Providence. As Paul wrote elsewhere, God does ‘work things together for good’: both in the great sweep of history and in individual lives, God is working his good purpose out. And our purpose? It is to find and follow this divine purpose. In a society now which champions personal choice, which encourages us to invent our own purposes in life, it may not be instantly appealing to talk of God’s purpose for us. Yet this instinct of faith is deep and will not go away: self-made purposes do not satisfy in the same way that a given divine purpose can.
But can we really believe in such a purpose? - especially when caught up in those forces beyond our control, which may bring suffering, and which can seem to contradict all sense of any good divine purpose at work.
One thing which may help is to understand what providence really is in biblical faith – and what it’s not. It is not the same as belief in progress. Progress is the expectation that the history of the world, or of our own lives, proceeds by inevitably getting better. It is a myth embodied in all sorts of scientific, social, medical, economic programmes, a myth given huge impetus in the Enlightenment. It is palpably false. War, AIDS, exploited labour of the poor to support the greed of the rich, terrorism, stress, family breakdown? These are not just evils of the past but of the present. Although they may not be signs that society now is worse than the past, they are surely signs that it has not become uniformly and progressively better. What’s more, a blind belief in progress is not just false: it can also be dangerous. It can actually cause some of these horrors, if it sees them as the eggs which have to broken for the sake of the utopian omelette: if it justifies them as necessary means to a necessary good end. Think of Stalin’s ruthless social programmes; or a drive to gain complete genetic control of nature and humanity whatever the cost.
God’s providence is different. It too works for good ends. But by a different and longer route. It allows that because of our freedom, our sin, the complexity and contingency of our lives and this universe, God’s good purposes cannot and will not be forced on us. So things may at times get better or worse, a roller coaster of advance and retreat, real and false dawns. Providence allows that even a people chosen for a special purpose (the people of Israel) may have to experience, as they have, a 4,000 year history of ups and downs, wilderness wanderings and exile, coming home, then near genocide, another coming home, and who knows what next. Providence accepts that the new Israel, the Church, may also have to experience, as it has, its own 2,000 year history of initial growth, decline, its Reformation divisions and Enlightenment scepticism, growth again in Africa and the far-east, further decline in our plural western world - and so on. This Abbey has itself seen a great deal of all this chequered history in its own walls. Providence allows this pattern may also be echoed in each individual life. Individually we may know success and failure, shafts of joy and dark nights of the soul: not in any straight line but in a patchwork of ups and downs. Providence allows all this. But it also makes this huge promise: in and through this whole patchwork God is always accompanying us, and is always fulfilling some final good purpose, however slow and hidden it may be at times, and sometimes only visibly fulfilled the other side of death …
So yes - it may be hard to see and believe sometimes. So much so that even armed with this knowledge I can still find myself forgetting the nature of providence and expecting progress instead: and then feeling deep doubt when things are not getting better. Sometimes I think there is a conspiracy of silence in church teaching which fails to prepare us for this. We should remember that even Christ himself once felt, forsaken, doubting, when faced with the perplexities of his own journey through life. But - divine purpose was at work for Him. And is for us too. And the very fact that Paul, Augustine, and the events of Christ Himself, show it at work even in those difficult times, the fact it’s not a cheap faith won in easy times, helps keep us in this faith.
As should the experience of so many others, many of different faith or even no faith. People in different world, using different pictures and stories, yet still sensing that there is a given good purpose at work. So Jung Chang, in her monumental history of 20th century China, Wild Swans. She leaves us with this picture. Having tracked the lives of three generations of Chinese women through the chaos of revolution and famine, the narrator ponders just this question. Has there been any purpose in it all? Walking slowly on summer nights on the banks of the great Silk River she comes to this same conclusion: yes -there is always a purpose, of love. She may not have known or named it as the love of Christ. But she sensed it and followed it. It is the picture of the river, not the sea, which expresses it for her. The river which, like the course of history or our lives, may twist and turn and meander, but through it all the waters still flow to reach their goal. Just as the good purposes of God do thread their way through all our lives and histories, whatever turns we take…