Sermon for the Second Sunday of Trinity 2018

The Revd Canon Prof John Rodwell, 10 June 2018, Lancaster Priory

Worth a Detour

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Trinitytide, Lancaster Priory

Jim Garbett RIP  20.2.1931-25.5.2018

In his later, still energetic, years, Jim Garbett, for the repose of whose soul we prayed here on Friday, laying his earthly remains to rest … Jim developed an enthusiasm for visiting small towns:  Gainsborough, Llandeilo, Droitwich, Barnsley even.  It wasn’t that he thought he had done full justice to the bigger, more famous and further flung places, of which he had seen many of course in his much travelled life; nor that he thought himself especially clever in this new programme.  There wasn’t an ounce of self-satisfaction or that sort of boastfulness in Jim. It was rather this – that, apparently beneath notice, these small towns had delights and surprises to offer and, as always, he was very pleased to tell you about what he had found there, at length, in detail, with humour.  They were, these places, as it says in the well-thumbed Michelin guides that Jim delighted in, ‘Worth a detour’.

It seems to me that Jim leaves us a late gift there – a theological lesson, something we can learn about how God sees things. Look at today’s Old Testament lesson (I Samuel 15,34-16,13). The troubled reign of Saul as king of the Israelite peoples is coming to a melancholic close.  Samuel, a servant of the Lord, a man chosen to point up God’s will in the affairs of the world, is instructed by God to find and anoint another man as monarch. He is sent to the house of Jesse, a farmer who lives in Bethlehem, to look over his sons for the chosen candidate. As they parade before him, at worship in the temple, Samuel thinks it could be the first, Eliab, but God tells him no. Then maybe it is the next, Abinadab? Wrong again, says the Lord. Or perhaps Shammah?  Sorry, not.  Then who could it be?  Well, the seven sons seen, there is only the youngest left, says Jesse, but he is not here because he is minding the sheep.  And it is him, he is the one chosen by God: the youngest, the least significant, the one beneath notice, the one for whom it was worth a detour beyond Samuel’s expectations.  For the Lord does not see how mortals see.

And ‘the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward …’ it says in the Old Testament lesson.  And from David’s line, from the root of Jesse, down many years, springs Jesus. Jesus is himself born in Bethlehem, a small place among all the towns of Judah, as the prophet Micah says (Micah 5,2), words so familiar to us in the recitation of the Christmas story, yet a birthplace beyond our expectations for the one who is revealed as the anointed of the Lord. ‘But isn’t he just the carpenter’s son’, the bystanders scoff when they hear him preaching in the synagogue (Matth 13,55). What’s so special about this man, so ordinary, so familiar, that we should we take any notice of his words?

Look, says Jesus, in this morning’s Gospel (Mark 4,26-34): Look, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  It is so small, so insignificant, it slips through the fingers, it escapes notice.  Yet it can grow into a great bush, sheltering birds, giving shade.  In the cherishing of the small thing, in its nurture, Jesus tells us, lies the secret of the Kingdom of God.  Look: the lost sheep, slipped from sight; the lost coin, fallen from our grasp.  In their finding comes the joy of complete fulfilment, as if we now had all. The man who is jostled out of the way at the healing waters of Siloam; the Samaritan woman too anxious to come to the well; the little children thought unsuitable to come close for a healing touch. These out of the way people, these unforeseen opportunities, these things that so easily escape notice: these are the places, the moments, the people in whom the Kingdom of God lies waiting for discovery. For the Lord does not see how mortals see.

And it would take a divine eye, wouldn’t it, to see in the motley assembly of the disciples, not exactly the brightest and best of the sons of the morning after all, to see in them the capacity to tend that message and grow it into the Church beyond anyone’s expectations?  St Paul, an apostle come lately, is an altogether more complex person than them, moving out into a wider and more sophisticated world.  But the core of his conversion is the same shocking perception – that someone beneath notice, beyond the edge of religious propriety, indeed a man condemned by the Law Paul held so sacred himself; that the man Jesus should be the one who could give him life and establish the Kingdom.  On the road to Damascus, he was blinded by this realisation that God does not see how mortals see.  From then on, as we heard in this morning’s Epistle, part of his Second Letter to the Corinthians (II Cor 5,6-10 & 14-17), from then on ‘we regard no-one from a human point of view’, but gain the privilege of divine sight ourselves.

This gift determines who we are and how we go on in our daily lives – how we should behave with others, at work, at play, in intimacy, in business.  It determines how we should react to a wider world, in our neighbourhood, through our political involvements, in our attitudes and response to what we see and hear from afar. And it determines, this gift of seeing as God sees, how we should live with ourselves, in our inner life.

Whether we see as God sees, or take as given the values of the world, how it sees things, what is important, what not – this provides a test of how real and effective our Christian belief actually is. Do we prefer the respectable, those with influence and swagger, as our company and exemplars, setting our goals and standards?  Or do we see, do we hunt out and bring up those whom society calls small, those written off as beneath notice and insignificant, those who are, for example, ‘just’ a refugee statistic far away or a nameless person, low down beneath our sightline, sleeping in a doorway? Do we seek the familiar and predictable always, the secure life, or are we open to being surprised still by what we may learn, about the world, about life, about how God sees things?

The word I would use to describe Jim Garbett and to treasure his memory is that he was an ‘educator’.  Of course also an ‘educationalist’, one familiar with the theory and practice, the business of education, its administration in an establishment like St Martin’s College as was. But primarily he had something to tell us and, like all good educators, he went on being a learner himself, always willing to explore, always looking for the thing beneath notice, always willing to be surprised, until the end of his long life. May he rest in peace, Jim Garbett, a man himself ‘Worth a detour’.