Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 13 May 2018, United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 13 May 2018, United Benefice of Holland Park
On my return from sabbatical, someone from the parish kindly gave me Richard Holloway’s new book. He is the former bishop of Edinburgh and his book is entitled, Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on life and death.  It’s Bishop Holloways musing, in his ninth decade, about death, and a pleading to reacquaint ourselves with death. It got me wondering whether this parishioner knew something about my immediate destiny that I didn’t. Perhaps I should go for a medical check-up?
Holloway writes beautifully: nuanced and thoughtful. Reading it got me re-acquainted another book of his called Leaving AlexandriaThis traceshis journey and describes someone who has lost his childhood faith. Faith for him has been a constant struggle with doubt and a sense of the profound absence of God. This sense of God’s absence was something Jesus’ disciples had to get used to following the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday, 40 days after Easter. The disciples were now going to be living in a world without Jesus – or, at least, living in a world without the physical Jesus they had known and grown to love. 
The few weeks after Easter had been both frightening and exhilarating. The disciples had been amazed and confused. They had almost got used to the possibility of meeting Jesus in unexpected faces and places. From the Ascension, however, things are going to be profoundly different. Jesus’ physical absence was about to change things. And they must have felt deeply disoriented and no doubt rather fearful. 
With Richard Holloway, perhaps we too know what it’s like to live in a world where it seems as though God has withdrawn and left us to it. Whilst this may feel deeply uncomfortable, it’s an important part of our spiritual development. For the early disciples, it stopped their compulsive desire to control, to own, to pin down. Or, like Mary at the tomb, wanting to hold on to Jesus. We too might want to hold on to him, to help make us feel safe – which is entirely understandable yet not good for healthy maturation. 
Just as we have to grow up physically and emotionally, we also have to grow up spiritually. For example, one would be rightly concerned if a child still clings to a parent’s leg or comfort blanket at age 30.
I’ve met many people who describe how their view of prayer has changed during their spiritual pilgrimage. They often start with the belief that prayer always changes things in the real world. That prayer heals diseases, prevents car accidents, feeds hungry children in far away countries, fends off nightmares, prevents premature death, and ‘stops the bad people’. This God is available at our beck and call. Usually around early teenage years, this view often collapses under the weight of life experience. We realise that some diseases don’t get better, car accidents still happen (and happened to good people, people even doing ‘God’s work’); we hear of young people dying, and ‘bad people’ oppressing ‘good people’.  Growing up spiritually means recognising that we live in a much more complicated world and that God isn’t Santa Claus. It’s often a traumatic journey and I’ve met many people who have lost their faith in the process.  
The Resurrection-Ascension dynamic helps us on this journey. God isthere. God ispresent, but not in the way we might initially want. The Ascension teaches us that God isn’t there to fill the gaps, solve all of our problems, to fit in to our terms. Rowan Williams writes, as ever, with profundity:
God is the depth of energy out of which every single thing comes. If we can’t instantly ‘see’ God in the world, perhaps it’s because he is like the air we breathe, so all-pervasive that we can never pin down its presence as if it were an object.
That’s the first point – the Ascension liberates Jesus from our tendency to pin him down like an object. And that experience, growing up spiritually, can be disconcerting, uncomfortable and yet liberating. 
The second point is that Jesus promises not to leave them alone, abandoned. He promises to fill his friends with his Spirit. To breathe the same air as he breathes, as it were. 
At Pentecost the Spirit comes to inspire, liberate, empower, comfort, heal. This is important to us who, unlike his disciples, have never seen or heard or touched Jesus. We have been offered a relationship in which we are able to turn in complete trust to God as Father in the way Jesus did. We can also respond to the apparently God-less world with something of his compassion and his transfiguring energy. This is what we await for – Pentecost. 
Returning to where we began, with God’s absence. How might we respond to the very strong and profound sense that God is absence – a world without God? Where children daily die in poverty of preventable diseases, where tyrants use their power over suffering populations. We live in an unjust and unfair world. It certainly feelslike a world without God, and we need the honesty of people like Richard Holloway in acknowledging that it’s no use pretending that things are all right. 
We may acknowledge this, yet we may also dare to be willing to bring hope by what we may offer individually and as a community. The famous prayer of Theresa of Avila: Christ has no hands, no feet, no eyes… but yours.
And as we await for the coming Spirit, may we also be inspired to offer compassion and hope to those feeling lost or in despair, love and comfort to those in distress. With the disciples we are encouraged to be living sacraments – visible signs – of God in the world.
So, if we are challenged as to where God is in the world, our answer must be to ask ourselves how we can live, pray and act so as to bring to light the energy at the heart of all things – to bring the face of Jesus to life in our faces, and to do this by turning again and again to the deep well of trust and prayer that the Spirit opens for us.