Trinity 1. 7.6.15.
Worcester College, Oxford.
Jeremiah 6.16-21; Romans 9.1-13
May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let me begin by thanking the Chaplain for his kind invitation to be here. It is a great pleasure and a privilege to be preaching in a chapel that was an important part of my life for seven years. I bring you greetings from Derby Cathedral.
Who do you think you are? Perhaps that sounds like a rude question, so let me recast that by saying that I am referring to the television programme in which well known people explore their family histories. In my family, it was my Great Uncle Arthur who was the custodian of the family archives. He was convinced that his Aunt May had a black box containing documents that would prove the family links to royalty. When she died and no box was found, he was convinced that she had left a clause in her will that delayed the release of the black box for ten or twenty years. I stand before you a commoner – no black box has ever materialised.
Who do you think you are? It’s a good question. Who are we? Do we know who we are? Both of our readings from the Bible this evening direct us to this question. Jeremiah urges his hearers to “ask for the ancient paths where the good way lies” and warns of dire consequences for those who refuse to do so. There are resonances here of warning that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana). And St Paul in our second reading takes part in the practice, common in the Bible and beyond, of retelling the history of the people of Israel, trying to make sense of what God has done in the life of the people he called.
Paul’s puzzling over what God has done in the life of his people, may find a parallel in our own puzzling over what God has done in our own lives, and what God might be calling us to in the future. I want to invite you this evening to take some time and look back over your own life, to notice things, and to try and gain some understanding about what God was doing in and with you. And as we look back at our lives, the first thing to notice is how much there is to celebrate. For Paul, as he looks back through the history of Israel, there is a whole list of things to celebrate: the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, the Messiah. Sitting here in this chapel, there are many things in our lives to celebrate: those who have loved us, the opportunities, the achievements, the victories, the friendships. Take some time in the coming week to identify at least some of the things in your life that there are to celebrate, and give thanks. There is much to give thanks for in this place, may God be blessed for ever.
So notice what there is in your life to celebrate, and give thanks. Then notice what there is to surprise you. As Paul ends his list of celebrations, he moves quickly to tell a story with twists and turns. The birth of a son to a couple in their nineties, the reversal of importance in that son’s children. God, it seems, rejoices in surprising us, in taking odd, unimportant and surprising people and working through them. Think of Abraham and Sarah, called by God in old age to leave their home and have a child. Think of Jacob, the liar and trickster, who wrestled with God and gave his new name Israel to a whole people. Think of Ruth, foreigner who broke the rules and came to be the ancestor of Kings and of Jesus. Think of David her great-grandson, eighth son and shepherd boy who became the great king of Israel. Think of Mary, childless girl in an unremarkable town, who became the mother of Jesus. There is hope for you and for me yet. God who can find great value in these unlikely people may yet find value in us.
So notice what there is to celebrate, and notice what there is that surprises you. And then notice where you have been weak, or failed, or hurt. Paul performs his historical survey from a place of “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”. We might not all know that, but in all of us there are wounds and failures, weaknesses and sorrows. And it is in those places, that God can be at work beyond our strengths and our defences. J.K. Rowling, writing of the darkest time of her life, when she considered herself to be a failure at life, says that “failure meant a stripping away of the inessential … Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way”. In my own life, I bear witness that my deepest wound – a bereavement when I was nine years old – is also the greatest source of compassion that I have. I would not for a moment want to go through that again, but it has made me the person that I am. St Paul knew this too. In his second letter to Corinth he describes a “thorn in the flesh”. This was an affliction Paul had, but we don’t know precisely what it was. He begged God to remove it, but could only conclude that it enabled God’s work in his life. He concludes: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12.10).
So find some time to look back at your life, and notice what there is to celebrate, notice what there is that is surprising, and notice the times of weakness, failure and hurt. See how God has been at work in you through them. But the point of this is not the looking back, however insightful or interesting it might be. Rather the point of this is to look forward. Jeremiah in our first reading, takes us to the crossroads and tells us to stand there and “ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it and find rest for your souls”. Jeremiah is not telling us just to find the ancient paths, this is not an advertisement for reading history (or even theology). Rather, we are to look to the ancient paths, to look to our own histories, to find the paths that are good ways. Those are the paths we are to walk in.
So what is it that God has worked in your life thus far that will take you on into the future? What kind of a person has God made you to be? The American journalist David Brooks recently wrote of two kinds of virtues: résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. The former are the skills we bring to finding a job, the latter are the things that will be spoken of at the end of our lives. The former are about our accomplishments, the latter are about our character. In the rush of the need to develop a CV, don’t forget the sort of person you are, the person that God made and calls you to be.
So take a moment, perhaps stand on the apron outside the college – it is as good a crossroads as you will find – and ask that question, who do you think you are? Then look for the way forward that will build on that. The future, just as much as the past, will have much to celebrate, much that will surprise you, and times of weakness, failure and hurt as well. Look for the good way and walk in it and you will find rest for your soul. Amen.
 J. K. Rowling, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination (Sphere, 2105) pp. 32, 34.
 David Brooks, ‘The Moral Bucket List’ in The New York Times, April 11, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/david-brooks-the-moral-bucket-list.html