Sunday, September 20, 2015

obedience, humility, and St John Kolobos

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Epistle and Gospel today both speak of the importance of humility. Our Lord takes his disciples to task for arguing among themselves which of them was greatest; and St James rebukes those he writes to for their selfish ambition. But such pride is not the Christian way; ours is to be a life of humble service. This is exemplified in the life of Christ – God became man, the son of poor parents, lived the life of an itinerant preacher, and then, in obedience to the father, endured a humiliating death. And if a life of humility is preferred by God the Son over that of worldly glory, then so it must be for us.

But how to achieve such humility? It is not easy in a world that us endlessly how fabulous we are, and deserving of only the best that money can buy. And knowing that we are told this not because the ad-men believe it to be true but because they wish to manipulate us and persuade us to spend our hard-earned money on products thar are often shoddy and seldom needed does not make it any easier to resist their flattering words.

This, in fact, is not a problem of the modern age. From the beginning of the Church Christians sought ways to resist the temptations of the world, temptations that made it difficult to lead a Christ-like life. The Desert Fathers, in fact, went to great lengths to cultivate the humility Christ had called them to – humility that they hoped would not only help them save their souls, but aid them in saving the souls of others also who would learn from their hard-won experience.

It may help you a little to hear the story of one such Desert Father. St John Kolobos was born around the year of our Lord 339 and was by all accounts a cranky and quarrelsome youth. This may have been due to the fact that he was very small in stature and people can often be cruel to those who are a little different – and he was so small that he is also known as John the Short or even John the Dwarf. At any rate he seems to have realised that being ill-tempered in his dealings with others was not a help to his spiritual development – you will recall, no doubt, our Lord's teaching that to be angry with your brother was a breach of the commandment 'thou shalt not kill' and a sin you would be held accountable for on the day of judgement … and the words of St James that to have a foul tongue was a wicked thing indeed – and he took himself off into the desert region of Scetes in Eygpt and placed himself under the spiritual authority of St Pambo, another of the Desert Fathers.

St Pambo must have been a man of remarkable discernment. He knew that one of the best ways to develop humility in a person whose soul was in his care was to teach them unquestioning obedience. And so he set St John what will to most of you at first hearing I am sure seem a very peculiar task. He set a dry rod in the ground – a stick, a piece of wood really – and gave his pupil the task of watering it twice daily. Pointless, but not very arduous you may imagine … until you recall they were in the desert. In fact the nearest water was 12 miles away. And so St John had to travel to the well twice a day and back – around 48 miles in total – to water this dry stick. A great deal of walking, you will agree, for someone whose legs were not long to begin with; almost two full marathons each day in the dry and dusty desert.

How long would you remain obedient to such a seemingly unreasonable instruction? A week? A couple of days? Would you refuse to do it even once? St John endured for many days, for many weeks, for many months – he was obedient to his master's command for three long years, each day making that double journey there and back to the well to fetch water to pour into the ground beneath a dry and dead old stick. But at the end of those three years something strange and wonderful occurred. The dead stick began to develop green shoots and in time it grew into a tree which bore fruit. And St Pambo pick some of this fruit and offered it to the some of the other monks of his community saying 'take, eat of the fruit of obedience.'

Now perhaps there are not many here who would think St John Kolobos' obedience a good thing, even if at the end it was rewarded with a near miraculous event – an event, may I point out, that should echo in our minds as a mirror image of the disobedience of our first parents in the garden. But the point is not that the tree blossomed, or that it bore fruit. The point of the story is the persistent obedience of St John.

Does three years of obedience in carrying out a hard task seem a very long time? If it does, consider your life – it has already been much longer than three years for most here; and most, I suspect, hope to be spared for at least three more – most for much more – and for many that is quite a reasonable expectation. But however long each of us has left, at the end of that time there waits something even more miraculous than a dry branch restored to life – there is eternal life in heaven.

The humility to be obedient – to those in spiritual authority over us, trusting that they have been called by God to this task, and most particularly obedient to God himself, not only when he speaks to us by in Sacred Scripture, but also through the Church his Son our Saviour established – such obedience is necessary for our salvation. I pray that all here will not only seek that humility, but learn to live it out in obedience; and not as some chore, grudgingly done, but joyfully, knowing that it is part of the way that God helps his children find their way to him in heaven. Amen.

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