The Liberation of Spiritual Ambition
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
22 August 2010, 10:30 (Trinity 12)
Can I start by saying how good it is to be back in the Cathedral after my sabbatical. Over the past three months I have travelled a thousand miles by train, five thousand miles by car, seven thousand miles by plane, and two thousand miles by bike (a thousand in training and a thousand on one epic journey).
I have read 35 books, written 30,000 words, interviewed 47 people, been away from home for 52 days out of the last 100, and eaten more energy bars than any sane human being would ever want to.
At the start of my sabbatical all of our children were living at home, now only one is. At the start of my sabbatical there was a Labour government, now I’m not sure what sort of government we’ve got. At the start of my sabbatical hope sprang eternal for Wayne Rooney and the boys. Now ....
And, of course, at the start of my sabbatical my father was still alive.
So a lot has happened in this time. It has for me been an incredible journey, a simply amazing three months, and I want to thank everyone who has played even the smallest part in making it possible. No doubt my sermons for months to come will be peppered with references to what I have learned through my sabbatical and through my cycle ride. Please humour me. And tell me to shut up, when I become a sabbatical bore.
A couple of people naughtily dared me to preach today without mentioning my cycle ride. Well, I’m not going to, or indeed my sabbatical at all. Shock, horror, I’m going to preach from the readings set for today, or more specifically the gospel reading Luke Chapter 13, verses 10 – 17.
This passage is about the healing of a crippled woman on the Sabbath. The woman in question was suffering from a form of spondylitis which had bent her hideously and, no doubt, over the course of 18 years this would have had a huge psychological effect as well. Our modern Western minds may struggle with a phrase like “Crippled by a spirit”, but it is a graphic description of what her reality would have felt like, a life bent and moulded, constrained and trapped by a deformity.
Jesus sees her, calls her forward (and I’ll come back to that phrase later) and releases her from the physicalandpsychologicalprisonthatshehadlivedinfor18years. AndhedoesthisonaSabbath.
The impact of this story in its day, like so many others that surrounded the activity of Jesus, was myth- busting. It exposed the shallowness of institutional religion and it offered the extraordinary possibility of a transformation beyond people’s wildest dreams.
Nothing much has changed in 2,000 years, except that Christianity has now become the institutional religion in danger of stifling the transformational power of God in ordinary people’s lives.
Let me explain why and how I think this story retains such relevance for us all these years later. I mentioned earlier that I interviewed 47 people as part of my sabbatical research. Terrific people, all of them. Wonderful, shining examples of Christian faith. But the most remarkable person I met wasn’t on my interview list at all. She ran a bed and breakfast I stayed at for one night just north of Barnsley and her name was Jennifer Garwood.
Jennifer had been brought up on a deprived estate in Manchester. Her father had left when she was very young, her mother became mentally ill and her brother and sister were both taken into care. But Jennifer was brought up by her grandmother.
As a young girl she got jobs wherever she could. She had a paper round at the age of 10, she was cleaning windows by the age of 13, she got shop work at the age of 15. She left school at 16 with no qualifications whatsoever, but she had this amazing entrepreneurial drive and a desire not to be defined by the life that trapped and ensnared her.
At the age of 19 she was working in a manual job on a low wage, but she took the momentous decision to borrow three times of that annual wage and she bought a house in downtown Manchester for £8,000, taking advantage of a scheme that allowed her a £1,000 grant and she went on to refurbish that property single-handed, teaching herself all of the skills she needed as she went along. A year later she sold the house for £15,000, a healthy profit. She used that money to buy another property and repeated this exercise three times more, training as a driving instructor at the same time.
Every time she made some money she invested it in the next property, often living in caravans while she did them up. Eventually she bought an old and derelict pub just north of Barnsley, knocked it down and sold on two of the three plots that the demolition created, using the money to build her current bed and breakfast on one part of the site. This she did by a process of self build. She oversaw the whole project herself, hired builders on day rates, sacked them if their work wasn’t up to scratch, all the while she and her husband and three children lived in a caravan on the site. Now she has this amazing property and her next project is even more ambitious and, given that I met her back in May, she may well already have completed this.
She was planning to buy a £1 million site, a mile away from her home, which had planning permission for a number of houses, and then to oversee a 14-house self-build development, buying the site and selling 14 oven-ready plots on the very same day, in order to avoid having to borrow the money. All of this in the teeth of the worst recession in the construction industry for the last 20 years. She has liaised single handedly with architects, solicitors, surveyors, banks, land remediation agencies because they have to survey for coal seams in that part of Barnsley, and she has done all this on her own without a single qualification to her name.
I was in the middle of researching poverty and deprivation in urban areas when I met Jennifer. Part of that poverty is to do with aspiration and ambition, and the question I was left with, after meeting her, was how could I bottle this woman’s ambition, drive and determination and pass it on to others. The example of Jennifer Garwood is about rising above those things which might normally trap us or contain us.
Just recently Gill has put up in a prominent position in our house a picture of Rowena Cade, another remarkable woman who almost single-handedly, and in to her 80s, built the amazing Minack Theatre, carved out of the south Cornish coastline at Porthcurno. Rowena Cade’s story is an extraordinary one of resilience, single-mindedness and determination, much in the same spirit as that of Jennifer Garwood. These two women refused to allow their personal circumstances to become a prison that constrained them.
We can become trapped by many things in life, our upbringing, other people’s expectations, or indeed lack of them, our own sense of ambition, physical circumstances, ill health, poverty, inertia. There are always a hundred good reasons why we simply have to live within these constraints, accept the limitations, play the hand that life has dealt us. Today’s Gospel reading challenges this.
Remember, I mentioned that Jesus called this woman forward. Unlike another woman from a different story, healed of her bleeding after she secretly touched Jesus’ cloak, this woman was different and diffident. She held back. ‘This cannot be for me’. Jesus called her forward – I love that phrase. It is so natural for us to hide in the crowd, to run with the pack - Jesus called her forward.
I don’t think Jennifer Garwood would necessarily recognise the call of Christ in what happened to her, but I do. I doubt if Rowena Cade attributed her achievement to Jesus, but I do.
All of us will experience moments in our lives when Jesus calls us forward, asks us to step out of the comfortable circle of our lives, and experience the liberation of a new adventure. Can we, will we, rise to the challenge and trust in the possibility of transformation.
Two weeks ago our best friends emigrated to New Zealand. Josh is a Brummie, born and bred, and for all of his 55 years he has never moved more than 3 miles from the house in Acocks Green where he was born. It was what he knew and was safe. It was comfortable. But he knew that in many respects it constrained him as a human being. He yearned for one big adventure. So two weeks’ ago we waved Josh and Kim and their two daughters off at Heathrow Airport. Jesus had called them forward and they answered his call to step beyond the constraints of their lives and risk themselves to an adventure that will transform them.
It is the easiest thing in the world to allow our personal circumstances to provide us with an excuse for inaction, to accept the prisons that life builds around us. It is much harder to allow Christ to call us forward and step into that exposed and uncomfortable space where real liberating and life- enhancing transformation can happen.