Thursday, September 03, 2015

with all your heart

In September 1978 I walked down from West Park Road in Blackburn in my new school uniform to Blackburn Cathedral. With me were friends from Peel Park Primary School in Accrington who had also made it to the grammar school. Ian and Duncan. When we got to the cathedral, I saw my Mum there, and Ian's too. We were all rather overwhelmed by the whole thing.

I still have the order of service from that rainy Thursday. The preacher was Philip Hacking, who certain people might recall as a rather conservative evangelical Anglican of that period. I don't remember anything of the service itself.

Today, I didn't walk. I was driven with the Headmaster from the school to the Cathedral, and I was the preacher. It's the first time I've preached in a Cathedral, and how lovely that it should be at a service for the school where I came to faith. 

It was a great experience. I was made very welcome by the Headmaster, by the Dean of the Cathedral, by the whole school & Cathedral staff. There was one member of staff there from my schooldays, and a couple of staff who were students when I was. 

I got to choose the title, and the text. So I chose words from Jeremiah 29 which I heard spoken by our chaplain all those years ago, and which played their part in my coming to faith. Here's the Scripture text, and beneath it, my sermon for those really keen...

Jeremiah 29: 10 - 14
This is what the LORD says: "...I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations ..." declares the LORD.
A Hope And A Future
I first walked down from West Park Road to this Cathedral when I started at QEGS in 1978. 
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, that’s a very long time ago, and it set me thinking - about how different things were in the past, and how we could never have guessed what the future might hold. 
For example, In 1978, the school had no computers; count them - not one. 
In 1978, the school had no swimming pool.
In 1978, half the girls in school left all at once. But then we only had girls in the sixth form, and I think the thirteen or fourteen that left in 78 were the first girls who ever came to QEGS.
It was a different school. It was a different world.
This is how different: In 1978 the Queen overtook her grandfather George V to become the 13th longest reigning monarch on the English throne. The 13th longest reigning monarch.
As I sat there (point at south transept) in 1978, I had no idea that I’d come back and stand here in 2015 less than a week before the Queen becomes our longest reigning monarch ever. 
1978 to today has been that long!
In 1978 we really did fear that the world would end with a nuclear war between the USA & the Russia. The school Debating Society held evenings with titles like, “This House Would Rather Be Dead Than Red”. We genuinely thought we might be invaded by the Soviets.
We never dreamed we might one day have a family holiday in Croatia - 
mostly because in 1978 we’d never heard of Croatia; it was still called Yugoslavia, and it was still run, as it had been since World War Two, by a chap called Marshal Tito.
Actually, Fred Bury, Deputy Head in 1978, had been an RAF pilot in World War Two, and when Tito died in 1980 I seem to recall Fred telling a packed school assembly an amazing story about flying Tito to a secret conference in Italy... That’s what you (indicate Deputy Head) have to live up to: we had Second World War RAF pilots who flew future Iron Curtain leaders on clandestine missions.
Here’s a list I made of things we could never have imagined in 1978 - just so you might begin to realise how impossible it is to begin to work out how your future will look in 40 years time. 
We’d never have imagined so many girls in school.
We’d never have imagined having a phone in our pockets with more computing power than frankly we could ever have imagined.
Actually, we’d never have imagined having a phone in our pockets. 
We’d never have imagined the internet. So no Facebook. And no Google. Or Amazon. We had to actually go shopping for everything. That’s what school lunchtimes were for.
In 1978 we’d never seen MacDonalds.
We couldn’t have imagined Ant & Dec. 
Or Saturday evening TV without Bruce Forsyth or Cilla Black; thank goodness Doctor Who keeps going...
We couldn’t have imagined two Iraq wars; or ISIS; or refugees and migrants pouring across the Mediterranean, locked in vans in middle Europe and desperate to get across the Channel. 
Writing to a people far from home, in a world two and a half thousand years ago where everything was changing & no-one could tell what the future would bring, the prophet Jeremiah wrote two things that still hold true today. I’m going to ask you to listen just a bit longer as I tell you what they are. 
Because all of us always face a future that is normally beyond our control.
I mean - There are small things we all have power over.
If you’re in the cricket team, you know when a ball comes at you whether you should play a defensive shot or whack it out of the park. But not till it’s coming right at you.
If you’re in the school play, you rehearse and rehearse and you know your lines and think you are ready but till there’s an audience out there, you don’t know if you’re going to smash it or what it will feel like when you do.
And those of you facing GCSEs and A levels this year already have the power to shape next August. It’s not just your summer brilliance in the exam hall, it’s choosing to be your best you now that makes the difference. 
But at the end of the day, these are the relatively small things we have some power over.
The truly big things - from our own health to world events - are not in our own gift. 
We face a future that is always uncertain and frankly normally beyond our control.
Jeremiah writes to us, as to the wandering and lost people of his own nation so very long ago:
First he writes: “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
You may not know what the future holds, as I didn’t when I sat there in 1978; but you may know who holds the future. Again: You may not know what the future holds, but you may know who holds the future. That’s the amazing assurance of Jeremiah’s message. I’d never heard anything like it till I heard it here at QEGS. 
I didn’t know that there was an alternative to ignorance or fear or arrogance or apathy. I didn’t know. But suddenly I heard that in the midst of everything, we could know the One who holds the future. The One who has plans to bring us hope even when everything else is so uncertain. Hope. Such a precious gift.
In Emily Dickinson’s beautiful words:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

For Christians, this Hope is one of the key changes that first the birth and gloriously the Resurrection of Jesus makes to the world. Let me speak from my very long experience from 1978 to today: Hope changes the darkest day. As you all sit here on the threshold of your future, it’s a gift God offers to each and every person in this place.
How do we receive such a gift? Well, I remember sitting in school assembly one day and hearing our then chaplain, Brian Underwood, speaking about words from this same passage of Scripture. This is the second thing we’ll take from Jeremiah today. He tells us that finding hope isn’t about keeping the rules or fulfilling expectations or being outwardly religious or making a fortune or having thousands chanting your name.
Jeremiah writes, This is where hope is found - 
God says: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
Look: Do not fear the future, and do not try to control it. No point. Do your best with the things within your power, and for the rest, seek to find trust and hope wherever you can and you will be people who bring trust and hope into this world.  
And seek God with all your heart, because when you do, you will find a future filled with more hope than you can begin to think or imagine.