St Stephen's Lewisham

Sunday, 8th July 2001

 

I WAS once told the story of a young priest who had many of the gifts that go to the making of a preacher. He was eloquent and earnest, and took great trouble over the preparation of his sermons, but he was miserably conscious that his preaching had no effect on the lives of those who listened to him, and that he was failing to win souls for Christ. One day, feeling quite desperate, he went to another priest who was himself an effective preacher, and said to him: "What is wrong with my preaching? For all my efforts I donít seem able to influence people at all." "Your trouble, my dear fellow," said the other, "is that you have mistaken your audience. You are preaching not to the man in the pew but to the man in the moon." "Whatever do you mean?" said the young priest. "I mean," said the older man, "that the questions you discuss are not human questions; the problems with which you deal are not human problems; the language you speak is not human language. Give up preparing your sermons on the assumption that the man in the moon will be the only person present, and talk to the man in the pew in his own language about his difficulties, and his temptations and his shortcomings and his opportunities, and you will soon find a response to your message"

For this and the next three Sundays I am going to follow that older priestís advice. I've spent some time recently in asking the Man in the Pew what he's interested in hearing about. However, If I've been talking to the wrong men-in-the-pew, and youíre not interested in these matters then it would be a great help if you would say so afterwards and, I will modify my programme accordingly.

What most worries the Man-in-the-Pew today is best thought of in the form of a series of questions. These questions are as follows:

 

 

So letís look at the first of these questions this morning: Does it matter what I believe?

Let me begin with the case of Arthur Blenkinsop Ė a real person, but not his real name:

One Monday, in May, Arthur Blenkinsop was due to go to a job-interview in Sussex. He's seen the job advertised in a specialist professional journal. He had the necessary qualifications; and if he landed the job, as he thought he well might, it would change his whole financial position for the better, not to mention the scope for further promotion at which the advertisement seemed to hint. So he made an appointment with the firm in Brighton and took the trouble to look up the timetable at home and decided that he would catch the 10:30am train at London Bridge which would get him to his destination with one change at East Croydon in good time for the interview.

Unfortunately that Monday turned out to be the very day the Summer timetables came into force. The 10:30 train was retimed to leave London Bridge at 10:15, he missed his connection and by the time he got to his destination the job had gone to someone else.

So, in Arthurís case what he believed, really did matter. Because he believed the wrong thing Ė that the train was due to leave at 10:30 rather than 10:15 Ė he lost his chance of that job. It was a very natural mistake to make. Hundreds of other people must get caught out every year by the changeover to the Summer Schedule, but that doesnít mean their mistaken belief has no consequences, more or less serious, for each one of them. Neither does the fact that hundreds or even thousands of other people have mistaken beliefs make the slightest difference. The important thing is that our beliefs, yours and mine, should be true, and if, like Arthur, we happen to believe things that are false there's no knowing what misfortunes may come upon us as a direct result.

Come to think of it, it matters a great deal more than most people realise whether their beliefs are true. If you believe a bottle to contain lemonade because thatís what the label says, when it actually contains weedkiller it matters. Whatever the label says, itís the real contents of the bottle which are important. But the critical point the moment at which it can literally be a matter of life or death only comes to pass when someone actually puts their beliefs to the test. You can see a bottle labelled Lemonade standing on the shelf a thousand times over and believe that the label on the bottle really means what it says and no harm will result. It's only when that mistaken belief is acted upon that the full horror of believing it becomes apparent.

So beliefs matter, none more so than our beliefs about God. It's not enough simply to believe that he exists. Arthur Blenkinsop believed that that trains existed which make it possible to travel from London to Brighton. In this respect his beliefs were quite correct. What was wrong, the thing which may have blighted his whole career, was his false belief that a particular train was due to run at a particular time to a particular place, when it wasn't.

"But surely," you may say, "whilst rail timetables may indeed change, and, as anyone who has tried to catch a train recently will tell you, they're more like works of fiction, fairy-stories, if you like, than the truth; but God is changeless (as we're always being told by our preachers and teachers) so how can the truth about him change?

We shall look closely at this question when, on Sunday week, we consider how we can know what God is really like. Meanwhile, however, perhaps the following may go some way towards answering this question.

Imagine that you've gone to live in a non-English-speaking country. Sooner or later it's going to be a good idea to learn the language. You begin with simple words and phrases like please, thank you, where is, how much, station, ticket and, perhaps most vital of all, the toilet.

To know just a few important words is enormously better than knowing none at all; but nobody in his senses would claim that he could "speak", let alone "understand" French or German or Spanish or Chinese simply on the grounds of knowing a selection of useful words or catch-phrases. Really to "speak a language" involves something more than that. Curiously, it's very often children who are the best at picking that "something" up. Let them loose with a bunch of kids of their own age and you'll be surprised, perhaps not always pleasantly surprised at what they've picked up in a day or so.

They won't of course have learnt the real intricacies of the language Ė spelling and grammar and idiom have to be learnt the hard way. But a week or two in the company of someone whose native language it is and someone moreover who isn't afraid of pointing out when we get things seriously wrong will do wonders for our understanding of so many of the things which in our own language we have simply taken for granted.

Now, learning the truth about God is a bit like that. We begin by learning a few simple catch-phrases so to speak: God is love; Jesus is God; he died for our sins and he rose from the dead. To know and believe those facts is more than most people do. But if we remain content with catch-phrases we shall soon discover how little we understand. If we really want to know what people are talking about, and how to carry on a conversation with them, then we shall have to learn, for instance that whilst in English we use the word "in" for such phrases as "in London", "in England" and "in the house" in French there are three quite different words for "in", only one of which is appropriate in each of the above cases.

Now London and England and houses don't, on the whole, change. But our way of speaking about them can, and should. It's not that our French-speaking friends will be offended if we say dans France instead of the correct en France. They will merely conclude, correctly, that we're as yet not very well acquainted with their language. But what's far more to the point is that you and I will be acutely aware how little French we really know. We shall feel awkward, and embarrassed, and afraid to open our mouths for fear of making an exhibition of our ignorance.

But doesn't that last sentence describe precisely what we feel about our knowledge of God? Let me read it to you again: "We shall feel awkward and embarrassed and afraid to open our mouths for fear of making an exhibition of our ignorance"

How often one has met churchgoers of whom that was true! It's not that people are unintelligent Ė indeed the average level of intelligence of most of us here this morning is well above the average; it's not that the questions people are likely to ask are particularly difficult to answer. No, the real problem is that we've never learnt to speak the language of God properly, and, being aware of this shortcoming we profess ourselves to be ignorant and lapse into an embarrassed or embarrassing silence.

How different it is for children. Remember that glorious self-confidence which you and I used to have in our teens and twenties when we knew all the answers and were only too glad of the opportunity to make everyone else aware of it too?

Well, of course we didn't know all the answers, and we shall never know all the answers about God; but there's a world of difference between knowing a few catch-phrases on the one hand and being able to carry on an intelligent conversation on the other.

Come to think of it, might that be one of the reasons why some of us find talking to God in prayer so difficult? Perhaps we've never got much further than knowing how and when to say "Please may I be excused?" Important, yes, but not, surely, the only thing God wants to hear us saying to him all the time".

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