Onward and Upward
Given on Sunday 25th July 2010 at The Abbey by The Reverend Graeme Hartley
Many things have fascinated me during my life; perhaps that is one of the reasons I chose science as my first career path. When I was younger, one of my passions was biology. At one point I seriously considered becoming a doctor, marine biologist and a botanist – all in that order. I was particularly fascinated by the phenomenon known as metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is a word formed by the fusion of two Greek words meta and morphē and means ‘to change form’. Metamorphosis is the process of change by which hairy caterpillars transform into beautiful butterflies and ferocious fish-eating pond larvae turn into the most beautiful and graceful dragonflies which dart in and out of grasses and rushes near ponds. But what especially spellbound me as a teenager was frogspawn. As it appeared, almost by magic, in our garden pond, I would hastily transfer some of it into an old fish tank which I kept in my bedroom in order to study it more closely. Inside each clear gelatinous capsule there would be a black speck. And each speck with time would elongate slightly, sprout eyes and a tail, flatten out and grow legs. Again with more time these little frog embryos developed fully into tiny froglets. The process was one of constant change. And although some stages of metamorphosis are temporary (like a tadpole’s tail) they all contribute to the finished article – a beautifully crafted baby frog. Indeed, with this kind of change everything builds upon everything else.
Change is one of the laws that God has built into the universe. Whether we like it or not change is inevitable. Everywhere we look we see it. From the slow mechanisms of cosmic evolution to the quick blink-of-an-eye life of atoms: everything is on the change. The impetus of change pervades human lives too. St James discovered this while he sat amongst the stinking fish nets with his brother John and father Zebedee under the Galilean sun.
It must have been a day just like many other days when the nets needed tending and more general maintenance was required to be carried out on the boats. Out of the corner of his eye James may have seen a fellow Galilean from Nazareth making his way along the shoreline. The man stops by the brothers Simon and Andrew who are beach-casting their nets. James cannot quite make out the words the itinerant man says to the brothers. But strangely they pull in their nets and leave them on the sea shore and follow him on his way. They must be barmy, James thought, a fisherman’s whole livelihood depended upon his nets and much time had to be invested in their care and maintenance. Why have they abandoned them in such a carefree way?
James, now full of curiosity, gives his brother John a sideways nudge. John is startled and jabs his finger with his netting needle before shooting James a disapproving look. But John notices that James’ face is set towards the three men coming towards their boat. John recognises Simon and Andrew, but who is the third? They come closer. The third man hails them. ‘Come and follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ Although his voice is calm there is a sense of urgency; and although his voice is urgent there is too a sense of irresistible invitation. James springs to his feet and vaulting out of the boat lands on the shore in front of Jesus ready to take up this new adventure.
The wonderful thing about God’s call is that he makes use of all that we are. Notice how Jesus says to Simon and Andrew in our second lesson ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ [Mark 1:14-20] Jesus from the start puts them at ease by relating their current work to what he wants them to do. They were fisherman who caught fish; now they were to be fishers of men. Strangely enough, I have found on many occasions that my previous experience in industry as both a sonar research engineer and computer software engineer have served me well in my ministry as both a deacon and a priest. God has found very interesting situations in which all manner of thought patterns and skills learnt throughout my life have been brought to bear in my present ministry. I have met many people who, through the lens of hindsight, have seen God’s purposes being worked out even in the most obscure parts of their lives – obscure that is at the time. But just like froggy metamorphosis all these events, either joyous or painful, work together for our common good if we love and trust God [Romans 8:28].
On this, the evening of my last service and preaching engagement as an Assistant Curate in the Abbey, I am very aware that discipleship is a kind of sacred metamorphosis. It takes what we are and transforms it for the better. Over the past three years I have undergone spiritual metamorphosis and I am quite sure many of you will have noticed changes here and there as the process has unfolded – I certainly know that I have! The budding biologist in me has often wondered if the creatures that undergo metamorphosis feel pain or joy at their various stages of transformation. Who knows? But I know that during my curacy I have felt both pain and joy. Pain at sitting at the bedside of a dying person while their loved ones look on in vigil and as I hold them all before God; and joy in the faces of people who I (in my priestly role) have joined together in holy matrimony or whose child was baptised into the family of God. But I know that my metamorphosis into a model disciple of Christ is far from finished. I kid myself not: this metamorphosis will continue as I take up my next post as Rector of Milborne Port (Milborne Wick) and Goathill with Charlton Horethorne and Stowell (I really must find a shorthand name for that string) and as I become both a fledgling Vicar and Rector. Whether we are lay or ordained the pattern is the same: God will take what we are, transform us and move us on to the next stage.
This may all seem grand and noble – which indeed it is. But we must also remember that we cannot pay God lip service and expect him to do all the work of transforming us. If we obsessively hanker after past times we are like the ploughman in one of Jesus’ illustrations: we look longingly behind us, and then look back in front to find that we have veered off course – or worse – have crashed the plough. And in another warning Jesus tells us that if we seek to put our own concerns first and lead a comfortable life we will lose the whole point of life. But if we lose our life for the sake of others and their needs we shall then realise the whole point of life. We participate with God in a transformation of self that is ever onward and ever upward – upward towards the goal of becoming more like Christ. God in Christ is our template; Jesus is our example!
As I have said many times over the past few weeks, I am merely jumping the garden fence into Somerset and into another diocese – albeit a daughter diocese of the ancient Diocese of Sherborne, as the Vicar would insist! I do not like goodbyes: they are too final and too loaded with a cutting finality. Besides with all I have said over the past few minutes it would be foolish of me to pretend I could sever all ties with my time here – even if I wanted to! But with all said and done I shall carry the experiences of my ministry in this wonderful benefice, and its people, forward into my next post and beyond that into the future adventure that is the winding road of discipleship. And for all of that, thanks be to God.