The questions are what matters

Sermon preached at the Community Eucharist
All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane
The Revd Dr James Grenfell, Director for Mission Engagement, Us
5th February 2015

The questions are what matters argues Samuel Packiam, the Director of the Henry Martyn Institute in Hyderabad in India. And he maintains that it is the quality of those questions that are particularly prized in Indian theology rather than the answers. To illustrate this he tells the story of a tutor at a theological college, about to set out on a journey, who summoned three of the ordinands to him. To the first, he said, ‘I am going on a journey, here are five questions for you to consider in my absence.’ To the second ordinand he gave two questions, and to the third he gave one question.

After some time the tutor returned and summoned the ordinands to him once again. The first ordinand said, ‘I have thought about the questions you gave me. They were difficult but I have thought hard about them. I do not have the answers but you gave me five questions and look, I now have five more.’ ‘Well done, my good and faithful ordinand,’ said the tutor, ‘enter into the joy and blessings of your college.’ The second ordinand then presented herself, ‘You gave me two questions which I have struggled with,’ she said, ‘and now, look, I have two more.’ She too was commended by the tutor for her efforts. Finally, the third ordinand came to his tutor looking slightly sheepish. He said, ‘I knew you to be a demanding tutor and I knew that the question you gave me was a difficult one. I buried the question and chose to ignore it, her it is back again, it is yours.’ ‘You lazy ordinand, said the tutor and then calling the others said, ‘take him, bind him, throw him to the church, let them make him a bishop!’

A theology that knows how to treasure questions is but one example of the many gifts that the Church in India has for us here. In an interfaith context in Hyderabad in which Christians are a small minority, Samuel Packiam has come up with his own five key questions: Where do I place God amongst other gods? Where do I place Christ amongst other saviours? Where do I set the bible amongst other scriptures? Where do I put my church amongst other places of worship? Where do I put the Kingdom of God amongst other kingdoms? It is this kind of reflection with such rich, generative questions that is an important corrective to the highly pragmatic culture of our present church life. You can’t imagine the Church of South India coming up with the Green Report.

This sense of questioning wonder about creation is characteristic of the wisdom tradition in the Scriptures and it is the wisdom tradition that lies behind both of our readings this evening. The eighth chapter of Proverbs describes wisdom, personified as female, delighting both in God and humanity, collaborating with God in the work of creation. In the prologue to the fourth gospel, we find an immensely right description of Jesus as the Logos, the Word of God which draws amply upon the wisdom tradition.

There are two features of the wisdom tradition that I think are particularly important. The first is its conviction of the need to look deeply and attentively into the detail of God’s creation, trusting that the truth about God will be found there. The second characteristic of the wisdom tradition is related to the first and it is wisdom’s willingness to look outside of its religious or cultural tradition in order to find truth. So, for instance, those who compiled the book of Proverbs drew upon the rich traditions of wisdom sayings in the ancient Near East and indeed the eighth chapter bears some striking similarities to the Egyptian work, the Instructions of Amenemopet. In a similar vein the author of the fourth gospel draws upon traditions of Hellenistic philosophy and gnostic thought to enrich our understanding of the significance of Christ.

The United Society, formerly USPG, is the oldest Anglican mission agency and for over 300 years now has been working with churches throughout the Anglican Communion in the service of their wider communities. Part of the role of the Society is to enable the wisdom and riches of the global church to be received and understood in Britain. And so to that end we find opportunities for lay and ordained people of all ages to serve as volunteers for between two and twelve months with our international church partners. This is not an opportunity to inflict upon other the ‘benefit’ of their skills and expertise but instead an opportunity to treasure wisdom. Spending time with the church in a very different context provides the chance to learn from a different culture and to acquire a valuable perspective on our own. In other words, learning to look intently, and generous, at all of God’s creation. And like the good Ordinands in the parable, our volunteers frequently return with more questions than they went with.

One of the striking changes in the Church of England since the 1990s has been the growth in the importance of mission. But what has been equally striking has been the narrowing of the definition of mission which is now frequently viewed in exclusively local, parochial terms and is tightly bound up with institutional self-preservation. I’ve served as a parish priest in inner city and outer housing estate ministry and I know and understand those pressures. But our churches and those who lead them are called to reflect more than a collective anxiety and frenetic activity of a church struggling to recover confidence in its role and position in society.

To be deeply and authentically catholic is not merely about the preference for a certain kind of liturgical tradition, nor identification with a particular group within the church, nor even the adherence to an understanding of spirituality. Etymologically, and ultimately, catholicity mean understanding the universal dimension of our faith – that our vocation, discipleship, ethics, prayer, worship, and lives of service are shaped by our identity as members of the body of Christ, which is a global body.

The wisdom tradition teaches us and our church an attentive and generous view of our world and a capacity to treasure questions. It’s a tradition which finds expression in the United Society’s work of connecting people across the Anglican Communion. It’s a tradition which takes us to a far richer place than the narrow confines of Mission Action Planning. So, whatever talent pool you might find yourself in, be confident in the wisdom tradition, allow it to teach you to be authentically catholic, and to delight in the questions and where they might lead you.

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