Fear, Truth, Growth, Shame

A sermon preached by me, Revd Rachel Noël, at Westcott House, 4th May 2023.

John 14:1-14

1 Peter 2:2-10

When I first prepare for a sermon, I tend to print out the readings so that I can scribble on them. I circle the words that jump out at me, and write down words that the readings evoke in me.

My first doodle of this for today had the words fear and truth, growth and shame… and then as we get closer to today, I find that I’m preparing to preach tonight, as more stories are starting to be shared about Soul Survivor and Mike Pilavachi. And those words – fear, truth, shame and growth feel particularly pertinent.

If I’m honest, part of me wanted to print out the readings again and see if I could find some different words, because this is really tough – I suspect all of us have been impacted in some ways through what is coming to light this week. It is really uncomfortable. For some of us personally, our friends or families, our churches, our faith may have been deeply formed through this ministry. For all of us, we are part of the wider church in which this has taken place.

It hurts.

It is disappointing and shocking, it is disorientating and discombobulating.

What does it mean for us, preparing to be church leaders in this institution?

In our gospel reading, I have some affinity for Thomas and for Philip – for their questions…I think their questions are from a place of fear… they want to get it right… Please Jesus, just tell us – how can we know the way? Lord, show us the father and we will be satisfied… please just tell us, give us clarity, give us certainty.

What I imagine they might be thinking…

Please don’t make us have to do the hard work, please don’t make us have to discern, to think, to work it out – please make it clear, make it certain, in bright shiny lights.

I can relate. Certainty and clarity are attractive.

I was shocked to find in Brene Brown’s research on vulnerability, that people would “prefer to be miserable and certain, rather than to live wholeheartedly and uncertain.” (The power of vulnerability audio book)

I wonder what it would be like to let that sink in…

Certainty & disappointment are more attractive to people than the courageous choice to live wholeheartedly with uncertainty.

In our two readings, which is more attractive to you – the questions that Thomas and Philip are asking – seeking certainty…

Or the exhortation in Peter to be like newborn infants, longing for the pure, spiritual milk – so that by it you may grow into salvation.

Do any of us actually want to choose the vulnerability of the newborn? The pain of learning that goes with growth – of exploring in uncertainty, of trying and failing, of stumbling and finding our way that newborns have to go through…

And we’re then invited to come to Jesus – a living stone… – not a static rock… but a living stone….

To allow ourselves to be like living stones – to be changed, to grow, to be built into a spiritual house…

I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with stone… (one of my ADHD passing hobby interests) stone carving is hard work, shaping stone is a brutal exercise, involving hammers and chisels.

Being a stone that is being shaped, that is being built…

That sounds painful… and it sounds like hard work… do I actually want to be a living stone, to let myself be shaped and built into a spiritual house… I wonder if perhaps we actually are wanting the comfiness and wish we were asked to be living fluffy cushions instead.

Honestly, I’ve been doing this church stuff for a long time, I’ve been going to church since before I was born, as, I suspect have many of you. Part of me doesn’t really want to feel like a newborn on spiritual milk… I want to be on solids… I want to think that I’ve ‘got it’, that I’ve grown up… all those studies that I’ve done, all the studies that you’ve done, that you are doing…

what are the expectations on you, from the churches that you’ve left behind… from the churches that you are going to… are they expecting you to come back with all the answers sorted.

What are your expectations on yourself?

Do you have the courage to go back and say that you are like a newborn infant, still longing for spiritual milk… still learning, still growing, still being formed

There are so many people’s expectations on us in ministry…

Many are wanting us to provide certainty to them…

Certainty would be nice…   it can feel attractive

And then we spot the word shame in our reading from Peter…

Brene Brown tells us that “Shame forces us to put so much value on what other people think that we lose ourselves in the process of trying to meet everyone else’s expectations.” (I thought it was just me: women reclaiming power and courage in a culture of shame)

“That we lose ourselves in the process of trying to meet everyone else’s expectations….”

The irony is not lost on me, saying those words here in a theological training college… where many of you have been through BAPs or carousels and panels, where you’ve had to fill in so much paperwork to show how you meet a particular list of expectations…

And now you’re at college… with more expectations and assessments and grades…  and some of you are writing reports about those expectations and how students meet them.

Then ordination and curacy with yet more expectations from bishops, from dioceses, from training incumbents and parishes…

And if you don’t meet the expectations at various points in this process, which goes on for years… then that might mean significant changes to what is possible in the future, for jobs, for homes, for you, for your family, for ministry…

Where is it safe to be real? To be vulnerable?

And then you read the vicar job ads, where they are still looking for strong, energetic, dynamic leaders, who will be excellent communicators, and confidently lead us … the strong, heroic leader…. More expectations

Where is it safe to be real?

And all this is taking place in an institution that is so deeply fearful for the future, that is craving certainty and success….

A reminder:

‘shame forces us to put so much value on what other people think that we lose ourselves in the process of trying to meet everyone else’s expectations’.

It’s as if we’ve literally designed a system that can so easily deliver shame…

Trying to meet everyone else’s expectations

An institution where vulnerability so easily gets mistaken for weakness, where those having the courage to speak out are so often met with the silence that fuels shame and hurt.

But our reading from Peter tells us – “those who trust in him will never be put to shame.”

What does that mean for us, and the institution that we are a part of.

How would we design our institution, so that we could say:

Those who trust in him will never be forced to put so much value on what other people think that they will lose themselves in the process of trying to meet the institutional expectations.

What would it look like to be a holy nation, to be God’s people, believing in him and not being put to shame?

In a church fuelled by fear and craving success, do we have the courage to be vulnerable, to be real, rooted in God?

How will we hold ourselves accountable, to keep doing the hard work of spiritual formation, to know God, to be known by God, to be formed and shaped like living stones…

In both our readings, there is a call to be faithful, holy people, a call to truth and to growth.

They are calling for us to be real in community, to know God, and to be known by God as a people.

Believing in God, knowing Jesus, and through knowing Jesus, knowing the father.

How do we find ways to live in truth, –  the way, the truth, the life’

Truth – the autistic version of truth – that deeply values honesty, integrity and justice – not the more ambiguous or silent version of truth that the church often seems to prefer.

Who will hold the mirror up to us… when we allow our gifts to become distorted… when our shadow side takes over…

Will we allow ourselves to be in community, to be in relationship with people, to allow ourselves to be seen and known, to be shaped…how will we stop  our egos distorting that truth?

When we see others stumble and fall, people that we thought we could trust…

When we want to find that certainty in people in lieu of God..

When we want someone else to give us the certainty

What would it take for us to keep turning to God, to choose holiness,  to choose to keep longing for the pure, spiritual milk, to keep living with the uncertainty that allows growth, learning and formation.

What would it take for us to have the courage to speak up, to challenge each other, to voice concerns… even if it means we risk losing other’s support / not meeting their expectations….

What would it take to have the courage to be vulnerable with each other, to be real, to challenge the expectations themselves

or will we also crave quick success… to meet other’s expectations…

I’m going to end with an extra reading, this time from the Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams.

Who in articulating what it is to be real, I think is also speaking deeply about what it means to be holy.

Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams.

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘it’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.’

‘does it hurt?’ asked the rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the skin horse, for he was always truthful. ‘when you are real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘it doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the skin horse. ‘you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’

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