This (pdf) is the first sermon I can find of Sam Wells, the former dean of Duke University Chapel, preaching at his new church, the famous (and beautiful!) St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in London. He was installed a couple of weeks ago.
All of us go through times of life where we lose the joy just a little bit; perhaps we lose it almost altogether. Maybe you’re in one of those seasons right now. Whether because of another’s cruelty or rejection, unexpected misfortune or disappointment, or our own failure, frustration, or foolishness, we can forget the taste of the release, freedom, and companionship of God. Ideally, this is when the church embraces us and we feel for ourselves a joy that goes beyond happiness or pleasure or entertainment.
The painful truth is, as I’m sure everyone here’s experienced, that sometimes the opposite is the case; and, far from being the conduit of joy, the church is the obstacle of release and freedom and companionship, and even the cause of pain and alienation. The amazing thing is that at these moments God continues to send us angels, invariably in the form of those worse off than ourselves, to shame the church and restore in us the joy.
Is there a difference between saying Jesus is the source of joy and saying Christians are somehow better than other people? Is evangelism any more than self-assertion and boasting and intolerance of different views?
It’s a good question. Paul says, ‘Yes, there is a difference – because look, I’ve been given a thorn in my flesh; a constant reminder of the difference between joy and simple emotional and bodily comfort. I’ll boast of that thorn. I’ll tell the story of how God made something very beautiful out of the mess that I am.’ That’s at the heart of vocation. It’s the opposite of one-size-fits-all. It’s about how God makes something beautiful out of the unique story of your failures, disappointments, hurts and setbacks – otherwise known as your thorns.
I wonder what your thorns are. I wonder how the Holy Spirit is gently, slowly, twisting those thorns into a crown. Live the joy that God has made out of the particular shape of your story. That’s vocation. Strive to be what only you can be.
Towards the end of the sermon he discusses what his vision for the renewal of his church looks like.