Home » Sermons » Rev. Patrick Taylor, Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, 29th May 2016, Genesis 4: 1-16; Mark 3: 7-19: Doing the right thing

 
 

Rev. Patrick Taylor, Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, 29th May 2016, Genesis 4: 1-16; Mark 3: 7-19: Doing the right thing

 

Worcester College Oxford

29/5/16

Genesis 4. 1-16

Mark 3. 7-19

Doing the right thing

 

The 400th anniversary this year

of the death of William Shakespeare

has meant that it’s been a pretty busy time

in Stratford-upon-Avon the last few months.

 

We’ve found ourselves to be the focus of media attention

from around the globe,

have hosted royalty and stars of stage and screen,

all wanting to pay tribute to

Stratford’s most famous son.

 

There’s no evidence of

the actual dates of Shakespeare’s birth or death,

but what we do know,

are the dates of his baptism and his burial-

because they’re both recorded

in the Parish Register of Holy Trinity Church.

His baptism took place in the church on

26th April 1564

and his Burial

25th April 1616

 

It may seem an odd coincidence

that these dates are so close to each other.

-in fact the assumption has been made

that he was born and died on the same day,

23rd April.

 

But a possible explanation is provided by

an entry in the dairy of one of my predecessors,

the Vicar of Holy Trinity at the time,

 

suggesting that Shakespeare’s death

at the age of 54

was caused by a fever

brought about by drinking too much

whilst out celebrating his birthday with his friends.

Let this be a warning to us all!

 

400 years later, the popularity of Shakespeare’s work

continues to grow.

Over 250,000 people come every year

to visit his grave in Holy Trinity Church

and his plays continue to find

new audiences across the world.

 

One reason for this is surely

that Shakespeare’s drama

engages with the most fundamental

of human emotions and experiences:

love, hate, revenge, jealously,

mistakes, regret,

humour, joy, sorrow, victory, defeat.

Whether it’s a comedy, tragedy or history,

all of human life seems to be there, laid bare.

 

Our first lesson this evening,

from the book of Genesis,

contains some pretty raw human emotion

that wouldn’t be out of place

in a Shakespearean tragedy.

 

Between two brothers,

Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve,

there is at first jealousy,

then anger,

deception, murder

and finally a curse.

 

It’s not clear at first why,

but Cain gets things disastrously wrong.

Whilst the offering of his younger brother

is accepted by God,

Cain’s “fruit of the ground” is not received.

 

Cain’s failure to do the right thing

leads to his life unravelling:

he becomes homeless, without means

and estranged from his family.

 

The story of our own lives

might not be quite so dramatic,

but doing the right thing

-or rather a desire to avoid making a mess of things-

must surely be important to most of us.

 

But how can we know

what we are to do with our lives,

what decisions to take,

especially then they will affect our future?

What does it look like

for us to be doing the right thing in our lives?

 

 

 

 

A palliative care nurse

who counsels the dying in their last days

recently recorded the most common regrets

people have expressed at the end of their lives.

 

She observed the phenomenal clarity of vision

that people gain in these moments,

and put her observations into a book called

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

 

One of the regrets was: I wish that I had let myself be happier.

 

Apparently, fear of change causes

people to pretend to others,

and to themselves, that they’re content,

when deep within,

they long to laugh properly

and have silliness in their life again.

 

But the most common regret she records is this:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life

true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

 

How, then might we achieve some clarity

about how we should live our lives,

before it’s too late to do anything about it?

 

One answer lies in our second lesson.

Jesus has an important decision to make

which will profoundly affect the future.

 

He needs to get this right,

because he’s to choose his closest companions,

those who will continue his mission after he’s gone.

But before he calls his disciples

he goes up a mountain.

Mountains are important in the Bible,

they have a strong symbolic value.

Think of Moses on mount Sinai

and the giving of the ten commandments,

The sermon on the mount.

The Transfiguration, and so the list goes on.

In cultures where God was believed to dwell in the heavens, that it is the sky,

going up a mountain signifies being closer to God;

seeing things as God sees them,

finding a more expansive perspective

than our usual human experience allows.

 

One of the good things about living in Stratford

is that the Cotswold hills are not far away.

I love to sand on the western edge of the hills

looking out across the expanse

of the plain of the River Severn

towards the distant Malvern hills the other side.

 

The small details of our lives

especially the things that weigh us down,

can seem less of a burden when we look out

from a great height.

 

With our perspective opened up

we can perhaps more readily perceive

what is the right thing to do.

 

Many people encounter

as sense of being nearer to God

in these high places,

where the veil between heaven and earth seems thin.

 

In these moments,

we might recall the words of tonight’s psalm:

“mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee”.

 

I also find it helpful

to recall some words of another psalm:

“Be still, and know that I am God”

 

When we need to make a decision

about the right thing to do,

 

when we seek to know more clearly

who we are meant to be,

then we need to find a mountain moment.

 

And if you don’t happen to have a mountain

close at hand

then try using those words

to focus your mind and heart on God.

Be still, and know that I am God

 

You can use this simple phrase as a spiritual exercise

which helps us to discover the truth

about God and about ourselves,

by gradually shortening the phrase.

 

Be still, and know that I am God

Be still, and know that I am

Be still, and know

Be still

Be.

 

 

Our fundamental calling,

is simply to be.

To be, not in isolation,

but to be

in perfect relationship with God and with others.

 

We see this in the calling of the disciples

in our second lesson.

It’s another three chapters before Jesus actually sends the apostles out to do anything.

Until then they remain with him,

discovering what it means to be fully alive

and in relationship with God.

 

So it turns out that doing the right thing

begins with being not doing.

 

Even in those times when we’re hard pressed

with tasks to be done,

-perhaps exams to sit

or a looming deadline,

we still need moments when we can just be,

time to recall that

who we are

and what we must do

begin with God.

 

The classic film Chariots of Fire

with that famous scene of the athletes

running along a beach

to the music of Vangelis,

tells the story of the Scottish athlete Eric Liddel,

who competed in the 1924 olympic games.

 

 

Liddel, devout Scottish Presbyterian

declares

“if I win I win for God”.

 

Later on he says:

“God made me for a purpose.

When I run I feel his pleasure”

 

Ultimately our fulfilment is to be found when

doing our own thing

is the same as doing Gods thing,

when God’s pleasure becomes our pleasure.

 

When Cain offered his work to God, it was rejected. Perhaps he had failed to understand

what God wanted of him.

The land on which his produce grew

had previously been cursed by God,

following the trespass of his parents

in the garden of Eden.

Perhaps Cain might have sensed

that his offering was not right

if he had given himself some space

to be still and focus on God.

 

When we’re faced with decisions

about who we are to be and what we are to do,

there is no better place to start

than to recognise

the presence of the God who loves us as we are.

Be still, and know that I am God

 

By developing habits of prayer,

creating those mountain moments

which can be anywhere, any time,

we can discover

who God created us to be,

and what God created us for.

 

We find our true fulfilment

when being true to myself

becomes the same thing

as being true to God’s purposes for me.

 

I don’t pretend for a moment

that this is easy or straightforward.

 

When I was an undergraduate

I felt sure I was meant to be an engineer.

Eventually I realised that this was not the path

I was meant to take,

but it took me a while to work it out!

 

We nudge forward trying to make sense of

the unpredictable drama that is our lives.

The tragedies, joys and sorrows we experience

can often feel more like stumbling in the mist

rather than enjoying the view

from the top of the mountain.

The Christian spiritual writer Christina Rees,

reflecting on the story of her own faith, puts it like this:

 

“There has been no sense of arrival,

just the sense of knowing myself

to be on the right path.

I have no idea where the path will continue to lead,

only the confidence in the One who is leading.”

 

Whether or not our lives reflect

the drama of a Shakespearian play,

if we wish to have the courage

to live a life true to who we are meant to be,

rather than the life others expect of us,

then our story must begin and end with God’s story,

with the one who created us,

his Son who redeems us

and the Spirit who sustains us:

 

Be still, and know that I am God.

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