The world feels more uncertain right now than it has for a long time. Old allegiances are challenged and the deep wisdom of our religious heritage is scorned by many. Faith is often caricatured as a kind of feeble appeal to an external, unquestionable authority and even the wisdom of scientists and experts is dismissed as mere opinion. When faced with a barrage of philosophical speculations like these, Voltaire’s character, Candide, replies with a disarmingly simple piece of advice: ‘Il faut cultiver le jardin’ – we must dig the garden. Christians would do well to heed his advice, for the turmoil of our world requires patience, not panic, wisdom, not slogans. Candide’s advice is that we should tend to the basic elements that make it possible for life to flourish, that we should see to the simple and deep stuff, not the shrill and superficial stuff. It is tempting to react to overwhelming challenges with elaborate schemes and eye-catching innovations or, worse, with simplistic judgements that propose winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. Faith, by contrast, urges a different response; a patient tending of the garden, trusting in the growth that is given when we seek to make good the conditions that make for growth.
This is beautifully expressed in words from today’s Epistle where Timothy is urged, in the RSV translation, to ‘present [him]self to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.’ I prefer this to the translation we heard a few minutes ago where the work is seen as an intellectual, interpretive endeavour. In this version, Timothy’s work as teacher and pastor has value when it is seen in terms of the rightful handling of the basic material of the spiritual life. He is an artisan who treats the stuff of his trade with respect and care. And what is the basic material of the spiritual life? Well, it is nothing less than the stuff of life itself. What is praised here is not elaboration, not sophistication, but endurance. In other words, the spiritual path is not one where we present an idealised version of life, but one in which we choose to stick with life’s path, whatever it throws at us. The spiritual life is simply life.
The world of faith is not abstract but concrete: how do I respond to this setback? How do I live with my limitations? How do I live with the reality that whatever choice I make in this situation comes with difficult consequences? What can I do in the face of a challenge that is far bigger than my own limited sphere of influence? How can I love when that love may find no reciprocation? Christian faith is profoundly realistic when it comes to such questions. I confess to feeling a degree of impatience when people suggest that religion offers easy answers for the simple-minded. It does not. It offers clarity but not easy comfort, encouragement but not escape, penitence, not self-justification. Above all, what faith offers us is perspective. It urges us to see beyond the immediate and towards the ultimate, beyond the self and towards the whole, beyond the perishable and towards the imperishable. And it offers us concrete strategies to make this possible.
If Christian faith is a matter of tending the garden of our lives, then its practices and insights are ones which require persistence, confidence and hope. Gardens are not the work of hours and sometimes not even the work of one lifetime. When Timothy was encouraged to see himself as a workman rightly handling the material of his life, he was given a pattern for such a way of life. Firstly, a workman like this must die to self, die with Christ. I was urged last week to say something radical in my last sermon with you, and here it is. We must die with Christ. This means nothing less than a complete re-centring of our lives so that they do not revolve around self-concern but are lived in radical freedom, abandoned to the greater truth of life in Christ, life in all its fullness, life that is free from the compulsions of success, recognition, status or domination. But this is also a life that is free from self-loathing, blame or condemnation. As Timothy was told, the Word of God is unfettered, free, abundant.
There are many practices and disciplines that allow us to tend the garden of our lives and the greatest among them is our practice of unceasing prayer, the prayer of the heart. But today’s Gospel offers another, perhaps less obvious one, and that is the practice of gratitude, of giving thanks. Here, an outsider receives the gift of health from Jesus, but he receives even more when he responds with gratitude. The other nine lepers are also freed from disease, but only he is freed to embrace life because he has discovered its fundamental truth, and I can let you into its secret: life is a gift! There’s another radical statement for you today – life is a gift! And what do you do when you are offered a gift? Well, you might do two things. First, you receive it. Second, you give thanks. The first movement is related to my first radical suggestion to you this morning – receiving a gift requires a kind of death to self. To accept a gift is to relinquish control, to be open-handed and open-hearted. It is a kind of vulnerability because it says that I do not have all that I need in myself. It says that I am willing to express my insufficiency and my place in the great chain of life. Our life is not our own creation but a gift from God.
The second movement is the heart of Christian worship – thanksgiving. The very offering we make Sunday by Sunday, the offering of the Eucharist, is an offering of thanks. We say that it is right to give our thanks and praise before the priest goes on to give thanks, in our name, to God for the gifts that make us who we are. When we give thanks, our relationship to the things for which we give thanks changes. They are no longer instruments of our purposes but gifts to be relished. This simple act is what gives us strength to endure. This is what makes it possible for us to handle rightly the material of our lives.
Today I give thanks for seven wonderful years of life with you all. We have shared much and I am humbled by the privilege of doing my little bit to cultivate the garden of our life together. Keep on digging, planting and watering with patience and with gratitude. I give thanks for you and I give thanks to God, the giver of all good gifts, for he is faithful and his mercy endures for ever.