Picnic in Paradise

a sermon preached by Imogen de la Bere


St Saviour's

St Albans, England

March 19th 2000

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The other week, when it was still winter, I woke up in a hotel room somewhere, I'm not quite sure where it was, but outside the window there was a fine vista of fields and little hills, covered with snow. Very rural except for the motorway pounding in the distance.

In the fields was a tree and under the tree a mob of sheep, about thirty of them. They had been sheltering under the tree, huddled together all night. Then the sun came up, and something in their sheepy brains told them it was a good idea to warm up. So the whole mob of them were running across the field in a sort of truncated oval - a few at the front, the bulk in the middle, a few stragglers at the back. The leaders went about fifty yards, then stopped and turned round and the whole lot then turned round, where they stood, and ran back again under the tree. They stopped for a few seconds, then the leaders set off again, and ran the same fifty yards, stopped, turned round, and ran back. They went on doing this till I got bored and went down to breakfast.

Now the effect of this morning exercise was this: the front sheep and the bulk of the mob got a reasonable workout. But the sheep at the back - well you can imagine - they see the other lot start off, they amble after them, and just when they might speed up, they see the whole lot coming back, so they too are forced to stop, turn around and wander back under the tree. The three at the back never even made it out into the sunlight. They didn't have a clue what was going on, though they kept on starting on a bit of a trot, in a half hearted way, before they were stopped in their tracks by their returning fellows.

We are thinking today about the concept of following and those hindmost sheep had one way of following - trailing along behind others - unclear on the concept - changing direction when the others do - getting no benefit from the activity and yet finding no contentment either. There are times when I feel just like the sheep at the back of the mob. How about you?

But there's another way of following. Your friend suggests a picnic. A picnic at a perfect place he's found in the woods. You need to take two cars to fit in everybody and the picnic stuff. You set off more or less together. Your friend has given you a rough idea of where the perfect picnic spot is, and has drawn a bit of a map, but it's in one of those woods which don't have signposts. You drive off together, but the other car gets ahead at a roundabout and you soon lose sight of it. But that doesn't matter, because you know the general direction to head in. You drive on. The friend's car is nowhere to be seen, but you have confidence in the directions you've been given, and confidence that your friend will wait at any point where the route is not clear. He said so, after all.

After awhile you begin to get a bit anxious. It's further than you expected. The map isn't drawn to scale. You seem to have been driving for ages without seeing a single signpost that mentions the wonderful wood your friend described so glowingly. The surroundings don't look very promising, an industrial wasteland. Perhaps after all you are on the wrong road?

You wish passionately you could call your friend and check. You stop for a while, consult the map, discuss things, and then decide there is no choice but to follow where you think your friend has gone. Off you go again, and then, round a bend, at a crossroads, there he is waiting. Of course he would wait, you think, of course. How could we doubt him? He sets off , and you follow him. Sometimes he gets out of sight, but always, you catch up and there he is. Inside the wood it's confusing - tracks everywhere - but he never gets too far ahead. As you get closer to the end, you get to follow ever more closely behind, and then almost together, you wind up at the wonderful spot under the trees, by a stream, part sun, part shade, a paradise. As you pile out of the car, exclaiming at this wonderful place he's led you to, you wonder what you were worried about, back there on the road.

Two images of following - the sheep unclear on the concept - or the picnic expedition. Which one more accurately represents the way you are following Jesus?

The sheep at the back of the herd and the travellers lost on a back street have this in common - they are disoriented. Many of us, in the course of our Christian way, suffer from this sense of dis-orientation. It all seemed so simple at the beginning. The message of Jesus seemed so obvious, the call of God so clear. You set out with an absolute sense of knowing where the Christian life was leading you, you knew what following Jesus meant. But then as life became complicated, good people turned out to be malicious, good intentions turned sour, love lavished on others seemed to be wasted, doing one's Christian duty turned out an arid waste of time, God seemed curiously slow to answer prayers or give directions. We arrive at this stage, and we feel lost. If you feel like this or have felt like it, do not be alarmed - you are not alone. You feel lost, but that does not mean you are straggling about at the back of the herd going to and fro without purpose. It is much more likely that you are indeed on the right road, and God who has never been one to hang around unnecessarily, expects you to keep right on following. You know the direction, you know where you're heading, and ultimately you have to trust him not to let you down.

Feeling lost and unsure, in itself, does not mean you are a sheep wandering around cluelessly. Feeling lost and unsure is part of the condition of the journey. For you see one thing that is sure about following is that you are moving - you cannot, by definition, follow unless you move. And one thing about moving is sure - things do not stay the same. As you move, the landscape changes, the conditions change, people who are static get left behind. You follow, you move, you change. And as you change, you become, for a while, disoriented. It can't be helped. Change by definition means new surroundings, literally or metaphorically. You have to look around, find your bearings again. Sometimes it seems as if God is rather slow to point out the right direction, and it's natural to get angry or depressed because the road forward is not indicated for us with flashing neon signs reading This Way to Paradise! or Last Stop before Highway to Heaven. Why doesn't Jesus make it easier to follow him? Why do we feel lost sometimes, and aimless, even though we set out with such clear intentions and a good map, to follow the way of our saviour?

I don't know the answer to that question. Christians have been asking it since the beginning. The writer of the psalms was asking it long before. O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer, by night also, but I find no rest . I don't know the answer, but I know that Jesus did not promise us any easy road. Every time Jesus talks to his disciples about their following him he talks in terms of hardship. Take up your cross and follow me, he says. Sell everything that you have and follow me, he says. Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. and 'Teacher,' said a scribe to Jesus, 'I will follow you wherever you go.' Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.'

If we find the road hard, we cannot complain that we were misled. We might have fooled ourselves that it was easy, because it seemed so easy to set out, when he was at our side. But he never once suggested it. He suggests that we will be wonderfully rewarded, in ways we had not dreamt. He tell us that his burden is easy and his yoke light. He tells us that he will always be with us, even to the ends of the earth, but he does not suggest - anywhere in the gospel - that following him will be an easy road.

Why should we do it then? Why try to follow him? It's hard work, and we spend much of the time feeling lost, and who knows if we ever will get to that wonderful place he promised us. Why not relax and have a pleasant time of it? Why not indeed?

I'll tell you why not. Because the ones who have taken that course, the ones who have given up on the hard road, or not set out on it at all, are not sitting in deckchairs in the sun. The ones who are not even trying to live the life of the gospel are running about at the back of the herd, to and fro, to and fro, aimless, confused, unclear on the concept.

It's your choice.