Sermon at evensong on 11 June, St Barnabas – by The Revd Canon Dr Jeffrey Heskins, Prebendary of Luda
Tobit 4: 5-11
I was fourteen years old when I first thought that God might be calling me to be a priest. I remember that first moment quite vividly. I wasn’t afraid. I was just a bit bewildered. How could I explain it to my mates or anyone without losing credibility? My mother was quietly proud though she told all her friends in the Mother’s Union who then went on a mission to find as many collarless shirts as they could in the pick of the jumble. My father was more measured in his response. He took me aside and spent a whole morning trying to talk me out of this act of lunacy. The world was a harsh place and there was a rat race out there and I needed to get a proper job. I should reconsider. When he saw that this had no effect on me his tactics changed. I would need to improve my manners because clergy were refined. He would start sentences with words like, “If you want to do what you want to do…” and so began the siege on how I conducted myself. Never before had I ever thought of trying to eat peas on the back of my fork!!
Looking back on it all I think the whole thing was at best an uncomfortable attempt to help me explore what my values really were and that is probably no bad thing for any Christian to do on a regular basis. This certainly happens for Barnabas the apostle who we are celebrating today. A native of Cyprus, given the name Barnabas by the apostles, meaning Son of encouragement or consolation, he seemed to be quite gifted at reconciling people to each other as we heard tonight. He also had some significant land and property which he cashed in and gave to the Jerusalem parish giving scheme. He had a big heart, a big wallet, and big values. He had a calling from God that took him on a journey into the unknown.
But it is not Barnabas I want to focus on tonight.
Our first reading tonight was from the book of Tobit. Technically, it is a work of fiction, but I don’t care. I love it. It is the story of Tobit and Anna, two aging parents who, along with the entire nation of Israel have been deported from their homeland. But they love God and won’t give up on him. Tobit is blinded in a freak accident courtesy of some sparrows who drop an unwanted message in his eyes while he is asleep, and as their family fortunes spiral downwards, he remembers some money he had put aside in the old country of Media. He and Anna eventually decide to send their only son Tobias on the dangerous journey back to the that old country to retrieve the cash and bring it back. Tobit prays for God to protect their son. Meanwhile in the old country of Media a young woman called Sarah is in a spot of bother with a jealous demon who, every time she get married, murders each of her seven husbands on their wedding night. She is more than a bit fed up with this, and if I was a single available man in that town I would be keeping a fairly low profile! She prays to God as well. God hears the prayers of both Sarah and Tobit and sends his angel Raphael to protect Sarah and Tobit’s son Tobias as well. The story has a happy ending – spoiler alert, so, go read it for yourself.
In tonight’s reading though we are nowhere near the end. The journey is just about to begin. Tobias has no idea of the adventure that lies ahead, nor that he will meet an angel and a faithful little dog who will travel with him all the way. But the adventure will be his. It will be happening to him. The adventure will not be happening to Tobit and Anna. They will be waiting, and it is the values of their faithfulness that will be tested in the waiting. The spotlight of the story will focus on young Tobias and Sarah and Raphael and even the little dog, but it is the blinded Tobit and his lovely wife Anna who steal my heart away in this story and particularly in the passage we read tonight. Tobit gives his son Tobias a little pep talk before he sets off on the journey to Media. Once he lets him go there is nothing else he can do for the boy. Every parent knows this feeling when they have waved their child off from the station as they leave home for the first time. I have done this every day for the last three weeks as my child has made his way out of my car and into the examination room to sit his GCSE’s. It is an agony.
Tonight, in this congregation there are a group of individuals who have each given their life to God in preparing for ordination. They will not know where the adventure will lead them, but there will be others in their lives who will be waiting, powerless to do anything but love them and pray for them and be rooting that they will be steeped in the values of God. And that is what Tobit is doing in his little speech to his son before he sends him off. Remember your values, he tells him, be faithful to God, but show that faithfulness in the way you treat other people. This is not just about they way you hold your fork when you eat peas in polite company, but about noticing need when it is all around you. Be generous in your giving, he tells the boy, and don’t be begrudging when you give. Old Barnabas got this when he made his pledge to the early Christians in Jerusalem. Don’t get weighed down with a love of money and possessions. Treat everything in proportion so that you control it and not the other way round. When you give, let go and don’t look back.
Then, and only then does Tobit let go of his only child, Tobias to the adventure of life that lies in front of him. And he does it because he knows that this is the way with the God who lets us go and then waits for us. John Milton, who would have identified with the blind Tobit in many ways wrote a well-known poem about his increasing loss of sight in which he concludes with the words, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” The waiting is hard, but it is still faithful service and sometimes that is the most important thing that God asks of us. So, Lord, keep us faithful and help us in the agony of the waiting.