One of my favourite writers, Anne Lamott (Travelling Mercies, 2002), has helpfully reduced the Daily Office to its bear essentials. Just one word is needed for Morning Prayer, apparent: ‘whatever’. And just two for Evening Prayer: ‘ah, well…’. I would also add my own version of a Midday Office – and here again, just one word: ‘Help!’.
Though he is not named amongst the twelve apostles, Barnabas is clearly one of the leading figures of the early New Testament church. His name is associated with provision, love, leadership and encouragement; indeed, he is the Patron Saint of Encouragement. And if you remember nothing else from this sermon today, then I urge you never to under-estimate the power of encouragement. Not just words of encouragement, either; but deeds. Manifest words and ways of saying ‘well done’, ‘keep going’ and ‘thank God for you’. Barnabas practiced encouragement in word and deed; Paul testifies to his words, but we also know that he sold his whole estate to help kick start that unique and ‘still-work-in-progress’ project we now know as ‘the church’. A Levite from Cyprus, he was martyred in AD 61 – after a tireless and itinerant ministry.
So what of love, provision, leadership and encouragement? Especially as we prepare to bid ‘fare well’ to Leavers, and begin the perennial task of re-forming our community; making new space for hospitality, learning, love and growth – even as we still ache from the parting that we must face each and every year. Well, let me start with a reflection on food – or more particularly, on the provision of God, and why we should always be encouraged. The only miracle to feature in the same way in all four gospels seems to go out of its way to stress God’s unexpected bounty. The feedings of the five thousand and four thousand stress the plentiful nature of God’s provision. But each account by the four Evangelists leaves the teasing footnote – namely that there are baskets of left-overs as a result of this miracle.
So much is provided and multiplied that there is an element of waste; food that might now have to be discarded. Or perhaps stored and horded; but leftovers, nonetheless. More is given than is needed. God, it seems, is excessive, abundant and exuberant – and we mostly can’t cope with his odd style of catering. You’d expect him to be more economic. But he isn’t. He seems to do far too much with far too little.
Moreover, God begins these miracles with rather unpromising ingredients. A few loaves and some fishes: hardly a feast, even by the standards of first century Palestine. I mention this because, whether you are preparing to leave, or returning next year, we all face the same conundrum: what exactly is God going to do with us?
I think the answer to this is that is more than you can ask or desire. And that he doesn’t waste anything either – even the apparently weak, foolish and fallible parts of our lives he seems to find a use for – and makes do with these abundantly. God does not mind what kind of material he works with, as long as it is supple. In other words, open to being used. We see this in Jesus too. Even in the resurrection – arguably an overwhelming demonstration of God’s abundant power over life and death – Jesus returns bearing his scars. The wounds survive the resurrection, because God’s wisdom and abundance is sufficient to even speak through the searing pain and reminder of Good Friday.
If I may be allowed a short autobiographical reflection for a moment, I think what we sometimes encounter as failure is in fact only abundance that has yet to reveal itself. Some of you will know that I applied for a post here in 1992. I was at the point of completing my doctorate, rather fancied myself as a theological polymath, and therefore thought of myself as an eminently suitable candidate to apply for the vacant post of lecturer in doctrine. I was not even short-listed. It went instead, to a much better and far cleverer candidate, who has done the job far better than I ever could have managed. And was much better for the place than I could have been. So God knew what he was doing for the collective, even though this individual was profoundly disappointed.
So it was a failure on my part, yes. But it also left open the possibility of coming here later – of being in the same institution in a completely different way. I could not have imagined that. God, I think, does things with our failures – if we are supple enough to yield rather than grasp. It is the case, as St. Paul says, that ‘all things work together for the good for those who love him’. All things. Even the failures.
Our God is an economic God: he uses the weak, the foolish, the scars, the leftovers, the failures…nothing is waste to God. Barnabas, our Patron Saint of Encouragement, would have easily understood this. He would know, instinctively, I think, that everything, when it is in God’s hands, be it bread and fish, or my apparent failures or manifest weaknesses and shortcomings, are capable of being transformed.
It reminds me of a famous ‘Peanuts’ cartoon by Shultz, in which Lucy is explaining to Charlie Brown that God uses our failures and disappointments for higher purposes. Charlie Brown seems very unsure about this, and starts thumbing through his personal history to check on Lucy’s theology, before finally wailing ‘but in my case he’s got too much material to work with…’. But he can use it all.
And that is my point. God works through our strengths and weaknesses. This is part of what it means to try and cope with his abundance. He can even use our imperfections for his glory. Clever stuff. This sometimes requires a special wisdom. To see what God can do with the dark (because it is not darkness to him); and also weakness (which of course he loves to use, to shame the wisdom of the wise). What looks like failure to the world is merely an opportunity for God; a hairline crack or gaping through which abundant life and grace can pour.
This is one the great lessons of the Old Testament. There is deliverance, salvation, success, a moral code to live by, a kingdom established – but then also exile. And God is in all of these. And it is tempting, sometimes, to see the exile as the failure, and representing the absence of God. ‘By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, remembering Zion…how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’. Yet the exile is also part of God’s abundant purpose; just a more difficult lesson.
The church, of course, will do is utmost to get out of the exile and back to Promised Land, and as soon as possible. And in so doing, sometimes forgets that God has laid this proscribed period upon us in order to allow us to reflect; or perhaps to become leaner; or maybe even to chasten us. In Babylon, you can hear the Anglican voices of compromise, innovation and modernisation whispering in the ears of the priests. ‘Of course, I’m not saying abandon Jehovah…it’s just that the Babylonians are doing very well, and well, we could give their gods a bit of a try – see how they work for a bit…no harm done’.
One presumes that the Israelites struggled with the same indices of success in relation to their faith that the church wrestles with. Losing numbers, falling congregations? Why not try a spiffy post-modern relation ‘basics’ course that draws people into church? Don’t hit them with doctrine; woo them with pasta, chardonnay and fellowship. Or, just update your message and ditch all the complex and irrelevant jargon. Say less about judgment and confession: stress love. You’ll pack ‘em in.
The Old Testament prophets, though, will have none of it. Their message to us, in the face of apparent failure and interminable exile is simple and uncompromising. In many ways, that message can be summed up in one word, and indeed it also sums up the Old Testament: wait.
Yes, wait. Wait for God’s good time. Learn the lesson from apparent failure. Try and see history and destiny through his eyes, not ours. This, of course, requires a special patience. To wait – sometimes in darkness – for his timing and light, is no easy task. For it sometimes means being with a community or individuals that are apparently diminished, yet being the leader that holds out the vision for replenishment and plenty.
Here, we are to be the ministers who remind God’s people that there are losses and gains; but that in God’s economy, and given patience, even the losses will be transfigured. We have to wait for God’s goodness and completeness to gestate; for he surely feeds us even when we struggle to see the manna in his hand. So be encouraged.
Barnabas, of course, would be no stranger to these sentiments. He worked well with Paul – but also parted from him in the end. But out of that wound of separation and failure came the evangelisation of Cyprus. Nothing is wasted, you see. You can here the words of Julian of Norwich speaking through to us here: ‘all shall be well, all shall be well: and all manner of things shall be well’. Barnabas, as an encourager, would say that you cannot go far wrong if you give it all to God. He’ll even use your failures and pain. So please, just hand it over. Don’ be shy. He can see it already, and he is waiting to use it.
I mention this only because sometimes we get caught up the church between a culture that plays it safe and makes sure that it makes no mistakes, and one where we take too many risks. We need to strike a balance, of course. Between God’s patience, and taking a risk; between his slow work in us all – but sometimes the call to take a leap.
So let me encourage you. If we are rooted in God, our ministries will become safe places that can afford some risks – maternal and paternal spaces that can cope with pain and some failure. As one writer, John Macmurray, puts it (Persons in Relation, 1970),
‘it is often necessary to make a distinction between real and illusory religion. The maxim of illusory religion runs: ‘Fear not; trust in God and he will see that none of these things you fear will happen to you’. But that of real religion is quite contrary: ‘Fear not; the things you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you; but they are nothing to be afraid of’.
So let me encourage you. It will turn out fine if you are turned over to God. All you need to do is give back some of the love that has already been shown to you. Love is the lesson. As William Langland puts it in The Vision of Piers Plowman, (c. 1370):
‘Counseilleth me, Kynde’, quod I, ‘what craft be beste to lerne?’
‘Lerne to love,’ quod Kynde, ‘and leef alle othere.’
Just as our gospel today says, unequivocally, ‘love one another as I have loved you…you did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit; fruit that will last….I am giving you these commands, so you may love on another’ (Jn. 15: 12-17).
So let me encourage you. There is nothing you can do that will make God love you any less or any more. God’s love for you is complete, abundant and overwhelming. The mystics say that even God has one flaw – a frailty from which grace flows, which will teach us all we need to know about power made perfect in weakness. God’s heart: it is too soft. And it is from his open heart that we learn about his open hands and embrace. God loves you and has called you to share and proclaim that love. So you have every reason to be encouraged.