Many years ago, I heard part of a talk given by Bishop David Shepherd, Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, who had been an international cricketer (and captained England on a couple of occasions). So it was not a surprise that when he looked for an example of what he was saying he turned to cricket. He referred to Mike Brearley, who was then captain of England’s cricket team, who was known for his careful field placings – moving fine leg a little closer and a little squarer, moving cover point a little further out and a little finer; and when he had finished placing the field exactly as he wanted, he always looked up at the sun, as though he was moving the sun a little finer or a little squarer. And Bishop Shepherd commented that we would perhaps all like to be able to make the sun do as we wanted – and I suppose after the last couple of months, if we could even make the sun shine for some time each day we might be very pleased. But, he said, God has not given us that amount of power; instead, God calls on us to make best use of the powers and talents that he has given us. If we were able to do so much more, then perhaps we would be less responsible with what God has already given to us; and perhaps our limitations will help us to recognise the ways in which we have been wasteful.
With that in mind, when we recall the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading, we may be struck by the fact that he starts off by giving orders to the islands, just as Mike Brearley might have seemed to give orders to the sun. But then we notice that, while God has given Isaiah great power to do his will, the prophet himself seems to think that he has been a failure. God says – you are my servant, in whom I shall be glorified; whereas the prophet thought – I have toiled in vain, and exhausted myself for nothing.
So how is it that the prophet’s understanding of his work, of all that he has been able to accomplish in God’s sight, has been so much at variance with God’s own understanding? I think that part of the trouble, for the prophet, is that he was expecting to do too much all at once: he was looking for immediate results, or at least that matters would be very significantly better after a few years of work. But God doesn’t look for the quick fix: God’s timespan, unsurprisingly, is eternal, and so what to us might seem an appreciable amount of time (the fourteen years that I have been in this parish, for example), to God is just the blink of an eye.
But towards the end of the passage from the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard today, there is another explanation. God and Isaiah have rather different ideas of success. So Isaiah’s field of view is the nation of Israel, and his idea of success is ensuring that the nation is settled in the land, has sufficient food and drink and shelter, is well governed according to God’s laws, worships God in his Temple, and is safe from attacks from other nations. God’s objectives for Isaiah, however, are rather grander: “It is not enough for you to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel; I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
So I wonder what our ideas of success might be for ourselves as a christian communion. Bishop Ellis, who was Bishop 50 years ago when I first came to the Nottingham Diocese, had very clear ideas of success: building schools – which he considered was more important than building churches. Young parishes would usually have goals, in terms of the money needed to be raised to build a Church for themselves, and success would be first of all when the Church was built and they moved in to their place of worship, and then when the had paid for it. We had to do some fundraising in this parish a few years ago to pay for the extension of the Parish Hall and painting and refurbishing the Church – and again we could congratulate ourselves when the loan was paid off a year ago. Missionary Orders of priests often take it as a mark of their success when young men from the region where they have been working join the Order and are ordained priests; and perhaps that could be an idea for parishes in our own diocese – to mark success by having an ordination to the priesthood, or at least to the diaconate, in the parish.
But that is all rather inward-looking – equivalent, perhaps, to Isaiah’s aim to ‘restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel’. Does God, perhaps, have a different set of objectives for us, which are more to do with the Church in this parish being ‘a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth’? And if this is what God is calling us to achieve in this parish, and in this Diocese, how are we going to plan for the future so that this will become our objective too?
Last week I raised a few questions which perhaps relate both to this community as the Catholic community in this area, and to the mission of the Church as a whole, to be a light to the nations and to bring salvation to the poor. Perhaps these same questions could be a focus for reflections this week as well.
Shall I take part in the course for catechists?
Shall I come to the safeguarding training?
Shall I form or join a prayer group – whether in Church or at home?
Shall I help in some way in Church, to assist in the celebrations of Mass at weekends, for the greater glory of God?
Could I visit someone who is ill, elderly, or housebound?
Could I join the SVP, or consider becoming a eucharistic minister?
Could I work for justice and peace, or for CAFOD, or in some way help those in the world much less fortunate than we are?
How would this parish maintain itself as a christian communion
without a resident parish priest?
if we had to relocate elsewhere?
Bishop Malcolm asks us all to reflect on such questions, and to pool our thoughts so that he can discharge his responsibility to make appropriate and wise decisions for the whole diocese.