A Sermon from Sherborne

Listening to God’s plan

A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 15 April 2018 by The Reverend Sister Ann-Marie Stuart FJ


Listen to me my people, give heed to me, my people, my salvation shall be for ever, my deliverance never ended. (Taken from Isaiah 51)

Moving is a very complex experience, very stressful and never more so believe me than when you move abroad, to the wilds of the South West of Ireland. So this little quote from the first reading settles us down a bit and reminds us that come what may, our God has a plan, which we can trust. If we take Scripture seriously it seems that our Salvation, our belonging, our safety, our future does not reside in the arrangements we make for our own lives. There is a plan!

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those people who believe that God will tell us what to do at various points in our lives. On the contrary all my many years of studying theology teach me that God respects our humanity too hugely for that. He respects our ability to discern the way forward using all the gifts of mind and heart that he has gifted us with, and for which we need to remember to give thanks. Sometimes the plan seems obvious but at times it seems very cloudy and bumpy indeed, and sometimes we certainly get it wrong.

Just over 20 years ago Isabel and I stood outside the Vestry here waiting to follow the choir on the day that Bishop David Stancliffe ordained us. The night before I had hardly slept. You see, I had researched the Vatican archives and discovered hidden there all the ordinations of the women in the early church right up to about 880 when they began to be phased out.

But in retreat I hardly slept wondering how on earth I could tell the Bishop that I just didn’t think I could go through with it. Scratch a clergy person and I bet they will admit to a similar experience. Change, you see is difficult no matter what form it takes.

However, there is another text which has always inspired me ever since I was a small child who loathed learning things by heart, because I was sure I would forget them, and it’s this: ‘the old order changeth and yieldeth place to new, and God reveals himself in many ways.’ [From Morte d ’Arthur by Alfred Lord Tennyson].

I thought that this was wonderful, so I’ve never forgotten it. If you put my two texts together, then yes, things will change, Ireland is a new world for both Isabel and myself, my family from County Clare; Isabel’s from the big city of Dublin, both of which will have changed radically since she was born there. The old order might well change, but what matters is that His deliverance, His salvation will never go away, if we but listen to him, he will reveal himself again, and again.

And listening to Him is hugely important for us as clergy, but only so that we do not forget to remind you too to listen with the ears of your hearts to that living, dynamic, fiery presence deep within all our hearts if we are to understand the plan, and work with it, flow with it, allow ourselves at times to be carried by it or pushed along by it like an avalanche.

By now you will want to know more about this plan! Well in the second reading we hear more about the plan: ‘we know that the one who raised up the Lord Jesus will raise us up also and will bring us with him into his father’s presence.’ And the text continues, Yes everything is for His sake, so that grace as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.’ In the end the plan concerns the ultimate gathering of all peoples from East and West and North and South, even from Sherborne and Kerry as we are all gathered up into the greatest party of all time, the great Parousia of the end times.

So many matters concern us, quite rightly so because we live in such a conflicting and competitive world with really unhelpful models in public life. That’s why we need to listen to that still, small voice within, which if we listen carefully enough, will remind us about what really matters, and that all will be well and all manner of things will be well in the end.

This year I have been researching for Bristol University the link between evolution and spirituality, and the energy of love that the scientist and spiritual writer Teilhard de Chardin wrote about. My job has been to evaluate his work and it’s been fascinating. So I will leave you with the most significant idea that I have discovered so far, even though my research is not yet complete.

Teilhard had an innovative take on the vow of Chastity that we nuns take. He extended the idea to those called to marriage or the single life. No, don’t panic he didn’t mean that you should avoid sex, not a bit of it, instead he believed that those in a committed, viable relationship should gradually learn through their love to offer one another the kind of love that Christ offers us. He broke from his Roman tradition by refusing to accept that marriage was just for procreation. Instead he believed that God was best pleased, and that this furthered God’s plan, when both partners worked to be ever closer in love until their love gave birth to an aspect of the living God between them, and that this constituted the healthiest environment in which to raise children.

Some people disagree with his theories. Some people believe that scripture takes sin more seriously than love, perhaps because they assume love is woolly, insubstantial, and lastly perhaps because we are not very good at it at all, at all.

Which brings me neatly back to my first quotation, ‘Listen to me my people, give heed to me, my people, my salvation shall be for ever, my deliverance never ended.’ When we imagine that we have to prove ourselves by our efficiency, our learning, our caring and/or the way we compete with others, we need to remember this: our Salvation lies in the fact that we are loved. Salvation means that someone loves us. Paul reminds us at the end of the second reading this evening, ‘we look at what can be seen but that’s temporary. It’s what cannot be seen that matters because it’s eternal.’

As Isabel and I leave here tomorrow, we will take with us the love that you have offered us, to do all in our power to share it with our new parishioners. And if anything holds us all together as we go, it is the knowledge that God’s plan is for us to be gathered together one day, in the greatest of all parties at the end times.

After this service I believe Bob Eccleshall has arranged a little taste of what is to come, a little hint of what that party might be like. So stay and enjoy. Amen.

The Reverend Sister Ann-Marie Stuart FJ 15/04/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne