Setting our bearings

Preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at the Welcome Service to the new staff and students of Ripon College Cuddesdon on Sunday 24th September at All Saints’, Cuddesdon.

Readings: Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20: 1-16.

‘“Bilbo used often to say that there was only one road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. It’s a dangerous thing Frodo, going out of your door, he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”’


So says Frodo Baggins as he and Sam begin their adventure in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, and whether you have realised it yet or not, we have all embarked upon a new and exciting adventure.  For some of you this will feel very real and raw as you have literally stepped out into the road and left homes, and jobs to be here and may be wondering where indeed you have been swept off to.  For others, this place is a staging post, the last homely house before the wilds of ministry.  And for others it is the Shire, home, with its leafy lanes and sunlit fields.  For those of us who work and minister here this is the cornfield, the vineyard to which we have been sent for a period of time to do the Lord’s work.  Today is a very significant day for wherever we are on our journey we have all come together.  We do not journey alone but form our own fellowship of faith.  But as Tolkien’s story reminds us, this fellowship is not to be taken for granted it can so easily be betrayed and broken.


It is this fracturing of fellowship that we see within the young community of Christians at Philippi.  Paul writes from his prison cell to a church which was struggling upon the rocky road of persecution.  Fear was beginning to make people act out of ‘selfish ambition’ and seek security for themselves through personal ‘rivalry’.  It’s not a pretty picture but one that none of us is above, especially when we find ourselves in the murky places on our journey, lost and far from home.  Into this situation Paul gives his community a compass, humility.


Like many people we often spent our holidays in Cornwall, just south of St Austell.  When the children were small we went there a number of years running and started to really get to know the area.  One year we made a return visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the children were delighted that when we bought our tickets to get into the gardens we were given a mini compass.  It took a while to explain what it was for and how to use it but we set off on a bearing of south by south west to explore.  Initially I thought it a rather quaint way to amuse the children, how could you get lost in the garden?  We had a super map and anyway we had been there before and knew our way around.  However once we had left the formal gardens and descended into the jungle paths and lost valley, that little compass became more and more important in us getting back onto the right paths which would lead us where we wanted to go.


Paul gives to his little lost community the compass of humility.  Unfortunately most of us, when we think of the virtue of humility immediately think of that odious figure Uriah Heap in Dickens David Copperfield who goes around pretending to be ‘ever so ‘umble’ whilst constantly plotting the downfall of his employer.  Thankfully he is unmasked and gets his comeuppance in the end but so haunting is this figure that he has come to embody the very worse of humility.  Of course in the figure of Uriah Heep Dickens is not caricaturing the virtue itself but rather its abuse.  For those who know their latin, humility does not mean subservience or humiliation.  The word comes from humus meaning soil or earth.  The person who is humble therefore is someone who is simply down to earth.  How easy that sounds, all of us know how to be realistic, honest and truthful about ourselves and yet it is possibly one of the hardest tasks we are presented with on a daily basis.  Augustine may have believed that original sin was passed down from generation to generation through sex but that first desire to become as gods which tempted both Adam and Eve is played out every day as we struggle to be rooted in our true earthly selves rather than be deceived by the lie of our own divinity.  A wise monk warned my husband when he had made that difficult decision to respond to the call to priesthood to be careful, for now would come temptations like he had never known before.  He is right, there is nothing like the priesthood to truly test you in the virtue of humility.


So what can we do, how can we keep ourselves rooted and grounded in that proper understanding of who we truly are in the eyes of God.  St Benedict gives his equally fractured community, not a compass but a ladder with twelve rungs.  On this ladder he says ‘we descend by exaltation and we ascend by humility’.  There is always that novel idea that somehow the further we are along the spiritual road the more we are perfected as Christians.  Pride can so easily whisper into our ears “What rung of the ladder are you on”.  Of course experience has all taught us that it doesn’t work like that and Benedict’s ladder is more like a game of snakes and ladders where we rise and fall daily.  Rising to only know more fully our need of God and falling to realise his merciful love.  So Paul instead of giving to his friends a way of life to follow reminds them that their compass is not what they themselves can do or achieve but rather is a person, Christ himself.  He is our compass, not because he gives us an example of humility which we should try to emulate but because through his humble love he is daily with us as the one who guides us to fresh pastures and hauls us out of the pit.


I was cleaning out the car the other day and found tucked behind Thomas’ seat the compass we had been given at Heligan.  How quickly it had been forgotten or lost when it seemed that it was no longer needed.  Hold onto your compass, hold onto Christ and set your bearing of humility daily so that you may say along with Paul ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ you lives in me’.  Amen.