Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity 2017
Start Date 9th Jul 2017 11:15am

The Reverend Mark Birch, Minor Canon and Sacrist
If we have ever been tempted to despair of ourselves, spare a thought for St Paul.  From today’s second reading:

‘I do not understand my own actions – he writes - For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’

I feel your pain – we might be moved to say
Get a grip – others may reply!

This comes within a long and complicated discussion of the place of the Jewish Law within the life of the new Christian community.  St Paul is painting a very gloomy picture of human nature, I hope we might agree; too weak-willed to actually do the good that we know to be right.  Sin has the upper hand, and has us enslaved.  The Law, among other things, makes this predicament unmistakably clear to us, by making explicit the good that we know to be right, but find hard to do.

The point of all this, for St Paul, is to remind the Roman Christians, Jews and Gentiles, of the all-surpassing gift of God in Jesus Christ, and the freedom from sin that we are offered in him – ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death’, he goes on to say in chapter 8.  No need to despair – thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

And yet, throughout Christian, if not the whole of human history, most of us have found cause to despair at ourselves.  St Augustine put it succinctly in his Confessions - Mihi quaestio factus sum – I have become a problem to myself.  As if the problems coming at us daily from the world, from our places of work, from our nearest and dearest; as if they weren’t enough, even greater problems seem to emerge from within.  Even if we develop significant skills and experience in dealing with other people, dealing with ourselves remains a challenge for most of us, as we discover at moments where there is nothing but ourselves to deal with – on waking in the silent hours of the night, or whenever we try to stop and pray.  Even in that longed-for bit of respite from the needs of others, on holiday or a precious free evening, suddenly we may find our own company far from congenial or comfortable.  The problem of ourselves emerges unbidden.  Mihi quaestio factus sum.

At these gloomy moments, when tempted to despair, we would do well to turn to the words of the psalmist, as we heard earlier:
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
long-suffering and of great goodness.
…The Lord upholds all those who fall
and lifts up all those who are bowed down.

We would do well to heed this voice.  But, more often than not, it will be a different voice we listen to: a voice of irritation and impatience, even anger with ourselves for being so problematic, so useless – useless to ourselves and to others.  

To take an example, when we can’t sleep, it is hard to escape the realisation that this is only going to make any problem we may be facing even harder – there is nothing in life that can’t be made more difficult by the addition of fatigue.  It is hard then not to be irritated with ourselves for somehow making our own lives even more difficult.  And there is nothing like mounting irritation for making even the most comfortable mattress feel like a bed of nails.  We toss and turn, and sleep doesn’t stand a chance.

Those who live with chronic pain or disability, or even common-or-garden old age also know what it is to feel like you are of little use to yourself or to others – a problem, draining time, energy and resources with no prospect of any significant improvement or resolution.  This is, to say the least, difficult to accept with any degree of equanimity, and in many of us it invokes a brutal tirade of self-criticism.

Within each one of us, even if we are in the rudest of physical and mental health, there are voices, like tools and weapons, that can be wielded against ourselves to the most devastating effect.

Which is one of many reasons why we need Jesus; specifically we need Jesus, who comes to us, in words from the Book of Zechariah, as our ‘triumphant and victorious’ king , yet ‘humble and riding on a donkey.’  History doesn’t record many humble kings – humility doesn’t win wars and battles, on the whole, and so a humble king is generally held to be a rather useless king.  Yet he is the king who ‘commands peace’, who ‘will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem.’  He is the humble king who DOESN’T pick a fight, but rather disarms – disarms our enemies; disarms us.  The best chance for peace is when no-one is brandishing weapons at each other, and when it comes to our own inner peace that must include the weapons, the wounding judgements we brandish against ourselves.

But what about judgement – surely having a stern inner judge helps to keep a proper perspective on ourselves as sinners?  Indeed I suspect many of us assume that the stern, rather merciless voice within us IS the voice of God.  In the words of the song, ‘it ain’t necessarily so’.

And if it were, what, then, of the psalmist?

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
long-suffering and of great goodness.
…The Lord upholds all those who fall
and lifts up all those who are bowed down.

What, then, of the Lord who, in the humility of Christ, even in the powerlessness and uselessness of crucifixion, is the humble and victorious king who ‘sets us free from the law of sin and death?’

What, then of:  ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’.  

The burden of despair afflicts so many, probably all of us at some point or another.  It is hard to manage ourselves with any degree of compassion, especially when we are tired, in pain, or feeling useless.  But thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shows us a compassion that we could never earn, and who rather wishes we would leave the judgement to him alone; who would rather disarm us so that we no longer attack ourselves, compounding our woes; so that we cannot be other than at peace with ourselves even in the midst of the weariness, pain and uselessness that we all face at some point.

Mihi quaestio factus sum – I have become a problem to myself, St Augustine groaned.

And it might end there – although it certainly didn’t for St Augustine, or St Paul.  Their example suggests that becoming a problem to ourselves might be an important, even a necessary realisation; an opportunity, perhaps a break-through moment, when we might leave behind the old law of condemnation, and move towards the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus; the yoke that he promises is easy, the burden that is light.  Dying and rising is, after all, the pattern for those who are baptised into Christ.  Despair of ourselves may yet become the death that leads, perhaps rather slowly, haltingly, and with many a u-turn to life; to discovering the divine compassion that is raising us up, and that is transforming us in ever greater compassion for ourselves and for the world.  

Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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