Your Word is a Lamp Unto My Feet

Homily at the Celebrate Catholic Family Conference in Cardiff, 2 May 2015 – using the readings for St Athanasius, I Jn 5:1-5 & Mt 10:22-25

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”

John Henry Newman was in trouble. As a young Anglican minister, he travelled to see the great churches of Italy, but just before his return voyage he became ill and was bedbound for three weeks. Desperate to return to England, as soon as he was well enough he managed to start his journey home on a cargo ship bound for Marseilles – only for the wind to drop and for him to be stuck on board this ship for a whole week, going nowhere fast. During this enforced pause at sea, Newman’s mind turned to poetry. Knowing that God’s plans were not our plans, he channelled his frustration into writing the lyrics which became the hymn, Lead Kindly Light.

Another holy man who knew that God’s plans seldom run in straight lines was the saint we celebrate today, Athanasius – a man born in Egypt just before Christianity became legal. Athanasius was deeply convinced of who Jesus was: Jesus was God in human form, and Son of the Father. But in these days when Christian ideas could be openly debated for the first time, there were many opposing voices who said Jesus was not quite equal in stature to God-the-Father. These debates even became the stuff of politics. Successive emperors took different positions. But Athanasius never wavered – which meant that sometimes he found himself at odds with the Emperor, and other leading bishops.
This was a perilous situation for him, since he had become the Bishop of Alexandria. Five times, Bishop Athanasius was exiled. The first exile was to Rome! Later, he fled to a desert monastery! And some say that his final exile included four months in his father’s tomb. Yet five times Athanasius returned from exile, truly earning his nickname, “Athanasius Contra Mundum ” – “Athanasius versus the world!”

We human beings like to know where we are going – we usually make decisions by looking at the likely consequences. But God asks us for faith. We are to trust that God knows where we are going, and will lead us one step at a time.

There’s an Indiana Jones movie where Indy has to be guided by ancient riddles, that he can only survive by being penitent, walking in God’s footsteps and taking a leap of faith. He can’t see all the dangers ahead, but kneels down where he is told to be penitent – and deadly arrows sail harmlessly over his head. When he is told he must walk in God’s footsteps, picking out the Name of God from random letters on the floor helps him find a safe path. And at the end, it’s only by jumping into a seemingly bottomless chasm that he finds the hidden bridge to the end of his quest.
For each of us, there are times in our journey through life that we will only succeed by following God’s instructions. And these we find in God’s Word, which is a lamp unto our feet. Now God’s Word is first and foremost a person – Jesus, our Master, our Teacher.
Who can overcome the world? Only the man who believes that Jesus is Son of God-the-Father.

Do you believe that Jesus is God in human form? This is a gift, a gift of faith, which only God can give. To have this kind of faith is to be ‘begotten by God’. The world around us is happy to recognise Jesus as a wise teacher  – the world has seen many of those – but Jesus is much more than this. If Jesus is God walking among us, then his words have a weight and a security which no other teacher can match. Are you secure in knowing that Jesus is God? If not, my challenge to you this morning is to put the question back to God. Only God can teach your heart this truth. Ask our Heavenly Father to show you who Jesus really is!

And yet, even if we know this, we waver. For half a century Christianity wavered between saying that Jesus was God, or the heresy that Jesus was merely quite similar to God-the-Father, a near-perfect reflection if you like. For this, Athanasius suffered exile five times. In a more practical way, we waver about putting our trust in Christ’s teaching rather than our own understanding of the big picture.

God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet. In the Bible, we have God’s word in human language. Some things in the Bible guide all of us with equal weight. Other things, God shines a spotlight on for certain people at certain times. Athanasius wrote the life-story of St Antony, whom he met in the desert. One day at church, Antony heard the Gospel in which Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Antony realised that message was meant for him in a very literal way, so he sold his home and went to live in the desert, becoming the first monk.

And let’s face it, following Jesus’ teaching is not easy. We are not all going to be summoned to be monks in the desert, but it’s hard enough keeping the teachings which apply to all of us. In his own day, Jesus told his disciples to be ready to be persecuted, and if that happened, just to move on to the next town.

In our day, if we follow Jesus’s teachings, we will be called at best, old-fashioned, and at worst, bigoted.

Some of you have chosen to follow the Church’s teaching to the full in the way you conduct your married life. This is not easy, and no-one gives you affirmation for this. So I say here and now, in the name of the Church: Thank you for your faithfulness.

Some of you have chosen to have large families in our world where there’s an increasing vibe that more than two children is ‘more than your fair share’. For this, you have endured put-downs from your neighbours and colleagues, but I say to you, in the name of the Church: thank you for receiving the gift of life, made in God’s image, and for the daily sacrifices you make in raising your children.

Some of you have worked through difficulties in your married life and stuck together, for the sake of your faith, when the world around you might have said ‘why bother’. In the name of the Church – thank you for your faithfulness to your vows to God and to one another. And remember that the Church is here to walk with you through the dark times, and there are retreats and courses which help couples to renew and deepen their married life together.

Each one of us is called to follow Jesus, and the Gospel gives us the marvellous message that ‘we are called to be like him’! But that does not mean we will be clones. Rather, God has equipped each one of us with a unique mix of gifts and skills. What does God want you, personally, to do? A big clue is to look at the gifts he has already given you. And don’t be shy! We can fall into the trap of a false modesty. We know that as Christians we shouldn’t show off, or seek to impress others for the sake of it. But Jesus also taught us not to hide our light under a jar. There is nothing wrong with going to your parish priest, or a project leader in your church, and saying – ‘actually, I am good at accounting’ or ‘I used to run a playgroup’ – your parish will thrive when each member places their gifts at the service of the community. If the leaders do not know what gifts are present, how can they do that? Don’t be afraid of being prominent for doing something you are good at – true Christian humility is to accept that this will happen when you serve as you should, but to offer your gifts anyway.

Pope Francis says each of us is called to be a missionary disciple, placing one foot in front of the other, following Jesus in the place where we are called to be. For Newman, that meant resigning as a vicar, becoming a Catholic priest and placing his scholarship in the service of the Catholic Church. For Athanasius, that meant sticking to his teaching that Jesus was God, even when that meant exile. And for you – well, God has a plan for you too, each of you individually, for no two of you are called to do the same works.

God’s plan is not like a SatNav. On  a SatNav you can press a button and see the whole route planned out before you. But God’s word does not show us the route – only the final destination, which is Heaven, and the next turning on the narrow and winding path from here to there. God’s Word is a light to our  feet, not a sun illuminating the whole world. There are times when this is frustrating – just ask Newman, becalmed, or Athanasius in exile. But we are disciples, learners, and just as we cannot do our GCSE, A-level and degree all in one go, so the Lord teaches us the path of life one step at a time.

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”