Sermon preached at Bristol Cathedral (unspecified service), 11 October 1987
Almighty God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless
until they find their rest in you…
Alan Bennett’s famous sermon which begins so unhelpfully,
“but my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I, I am a smooth man…”
contains nevertheless certain grains of truth about our human dilemma. Life is likened to a tin of sardines, and we are always searching behind the kitchen dressers of this life for the key. Many of us think we have found it, don’t we? We roll back the lid on the sardines, and we begin to enjoy them. But there is always little bit in the corner which we can’t get out.
Now this speaks to me of both restlessness and longing. Will I ever be really satisfied? Prayer goes dead, and faith grows dim, and I just hang on grimly in the dark. There remains the deep instinct that life really should be fuller, deeper and richer – somehow more whole.
It is easy to lurch unsteadily from one pleasure to another, to hunger for newer and more exciting experiences, for the greener grass which is always on the other side.
The collect of the day reminds again of Paul’s words that
“We are citizens of no abiding city…”
…ever on the move as pilgrims through this barren land. Perhaps it means that one day we’ll all get to heaven and it will be all right. Stop and rest and relax; but that seems uncomfortably close to the idea of heaven consisting only of angels’ wings and harps and an eternity of boredom – a Paradise, I hope, for ever Postponed!
I suppose when you think about it, this sense of belonging elsewhere, and of longing to be there comes from an inner emptiness. There is something missing, and without it nothing really satisfies or fulfils.
Now we have here in the collect a clue to the answering of the dilemma.
The call to service – of God and one another – and you probably can’t get to the first without going through the other. The Christian Gospel proclaims that God creates us the sort of people to whom love and service is natural –
“God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in him.”
and is therefore an affirmation of our real selves.
“The angel that presided o’er my birth
Said, ‘little creature, form’d of joy and mirth,
Go, love without the help of anything on earth.'”
God’s love is inseparably bound up with our whole human experience. It is like this because it is incarnate, and we are restless for God because his divine spark was woven into our creation.
This love is God giving his “is-ness” to you, and thereby offers you the opportunity to be a person who really loves. When people say that you act charitably towards somebody, they usually mean that although you hate his guts you manage somehow to behave as though you didn’t.
That is not honest, of course, and it seems to imply that God really cannot change your personality at all, but expects you to perform feats which don’t belong to your natural condition. If you love or serve only for recognition of your deeds, then you are in fact withholding your gift until payment – the gratitude – is exacted.
Service is really more than simply doing things for others. It is more an embrace of the person. It is an openness and a willingness to offer all in your personality to the disposal – laying down your life, in fact – of another. It is a generous flowing of the self to another.
It is the remedy for the sense of emptiness and lack of satisfaction. It is a paradox that the more you empty yourself for others, the more filled – fulfilled – you become. You get it right sometimes, and at other times it seems impossible to do. Don’t worry. We can’t become gods in a day. Take courage that when God says,
“You will be perfect as I am perfect,”
it is not so much a command as a promise.
The restlessness will continue but it is transformed into a kind of positive energy that can turn your hostility into hospitality, your loneliness into a joyous solitude, and your longings into prayer.