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Sermon: From Boyhood to Neil Young

Sunday 31st August 2014
Jeremiah 15:15-21
Acts 18:1-16
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In the film Boyhood, a teacher says: What do you want to be, Mason? What do you want to do?


Those questions of identity, purpose and calling are not so much at the heart of the film, rather they provide the pulse.  Filmed over 12 years, the Boyhood captures a series of moments as life unfolds:  the present vanishes, turning into nostalgia, heart ache or renewed purpose; the future never is.  Rather than seizing the moment; the moments seem to seize him, as one Mason's college friends puts it.

Boyhood subverts the whole notion of a coming of age movie. There's no one moment when the protagonist gets it; or when you're assured of the conclusion.  The genius of Linklater's film is that in paying absolute attention to the particular he lifts the veil on the bigger picture.  We journey alongside Mason, taking in the curiosity of his six year old self to and the open countenance of the college student he becomes. 

Along the way there's the first best-friend, first camera, first beer, first love, first break-up, first Bible, first suit, first car.  Are watching Mason grow into and beyond adolescence or are we looking back on ourselves? The things from childhood continue to resonate within us; the things of adulthood continue to challenge us. Time passes.  Maturity is not so much an absence of confusion; but perhaps a greater resilience; a greater capacity to forgive and love; to act with wisdom and determination. 

Linklater doesn't gloss over mistakes, character flaws or disappointments; he surprises us with glimpses of transformation and love. To be human is to love intensely, deeply, lightly; although we keep thinking there will be more, this is life: seized by moments; becoming who we are; letting go of life in the hope of resurrection. 

Our scriptures provide us with assurance in the midst of the minutiae of our lives: wherever we find ourselves on that particular trajectory, we are held within the unfathomable mystery of God's love.  Our readings are particular moments, taken from the hundreds and thousands of stories about human beings figuring out what God wants them to do, and who they're called to be; they are particular moments of God's self-communication to us, about what we are created for and how we are called to live.

Within the perspective of God's will and purpose for us, and all creation, the disappointments and changes, are reshaped. God's gifts of love and freedom, forgiveness and re-creation, mean that all that we are and all that we have is transformed, and becomes transformative. We are called to share in that divine economy, moment by moment, until God draws all things to himself.

Becoming who we are called to be means no less particular when we are held in this epic, indeed cosmic, narrative of God's purposes. Rather, every moment and gesture and word becomes full of infinite potential and worth.  Every breath affords an opportunity for compassion or self-control; forgiveness or hospitality.  That doesn't mean that life is devoid of frustrations and anguish; but it does mean we have a different perspective. 

Jeremiah's intense personal dialogue with God is a case in point.  He is pleading with God. He wants to see some sense of vindication in the face of insults and threats, which he endures for the sake of God.  How can God be indifferent to his situation?

Boyhood is full of Mason's delight in photography, seeing the world creatively and attending to the detail of the mundane and beautiful.  Jeremiah's suffering makes him call to mind his initial joy and delight at being called to speak of God's justice and compassion to God's people.  Being nourished by God's words became a joy and the delight of my heart; he rejoices in his calling.

Mason had to face up to the reality that innate ability and passion weren't enough to fulfil his dream; he had to work hard and face criticism.  Jeremiah balked at the cost of his calling.  The people did not delight in the commandments of God as he did: compassion and mercy were at odds with the intentions of the merrymakers.  He finds himself socially isolated.  His inner life is troubled. He complains that his pain is unceasing; it is like an incurable wound, refusing to be healed.  And just as the teenage Mason rails against his parents and the advice of his teacher, Jeremiah blames God: human insults lead him to think that God is unfaithful like a deceitful brook or waters that fail.

God's words of assurance are not cheap comfort.  He doesn't meet Jeremiah's disillusionment by offering him an easy way out, or by allowing him to give up.  Instead he brings him back to focus on his original calling.  He tells him to continue to be a prophet; to continue to utter what is precious. Rather than speaking popular and worthless words, he must keep speaking the challenging words of God's expectations of justice.  If he keeps holding before God's people the vision of who they are called to be, they will turn to him.  The wicked and ruthless will not prevail. God says:   I am with you to save and deliver you.


I am with you are the words that Paul hears when he too is need of assurance in Corinth.  The picture presented to us in Acts is one of stability and turbulence.  Paul has been called to witness to the good news of Christ Jesus in the commercial and cosmopolitan city of Corinth.  There he finds security with Aquila and Priscilla.  He has financial independence and a workshop located in the heart of the social marketplace; he has colleagues who, because of their trade contacts, open up new networks for proclaiming the Gospel; his proximity to the synagogue gives him the opportunity for testimony and debate.

When Silas and Timothy arrive, they find Paul bearing witness to the life changing, and world changing, reality that Jesus is the Messiah. This message of hope is met with opposition and challenge.  He doesn't persuade the whole community; Paul acknowledges that individual hearers take responsibility for their own response.  However, among those who hear and believe and who are baptised are Titius Justus and his entire household. 

At this moment of wholehearted response in the midst of rejection, Paul receives assurance.  Like Jeremiah he is told not to be afraid; he is encouraged to continue to speak; he is reminded that in the complex, bustling city of Corinth God is at work. It is his world; his people. There is no territory outside of the love of the living God.

Yes, there will be future disturbance and the threat of expulsion as Paul is attacked and accused. Yet there is also the gift of time; of moments unfolding one after the other; opportunities for dialogue and deepening relationships. 

Here on Stag Hill, dialogue and relationship are central to our witness; like Paul we find ourselves in vibrant town with opportunities for creative engagement; we have a presence and we are called to speak. Our public lectures are one part of that.    In our own contexts we are called in the power of the Spirit, to bear witness to the generous and transforming love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

Our lives, as they unfold, are shaped by God: who we are called to be and what we want to do flow from his love of us.  We don't do this in our own strength; for when, in the words of the psalmist, we languish comfortless in the face of judgement, the steadfast love and faithfulness of God gives us life.  Our hope is in God's word: calling us, challenging us, encouraging us and, in Christ, being with us. 


There will be things that make us wonder; things that we don't understand.  There will be moments when the joy of God's love floods our hearts and minds; when we delight in the work, relationships and service entrusted to us.  There will be other times when we want to break free; seeking the apparent liberty of following our selfish impulses, or when we feel disillusioned and fearful in the face of inhumanity. In all this we need to be seized moment by moment by the love of God. 

Neil Young's album Psychedelic captures something of our human capacity to reminisce and wonder; to dream and seek understanding.  In Driftin' Back,as in Boyhood, there's the enigmatic pulse of our childlike wonder and delight weaving moments together; opening up space in our adulthood for the eternal to break in; a sense of timelessness in time.  Paul and Jeremiah witnessed to the faithfulness of God's word, an overarching epic within which our lives are held and reshaped; within which nothing is lost.  Perhaps Young puts into words what they, and we, know but struggle to articulate: In the face of failure, where there is love, there is always hope.

What do you want to do?

Utter what is previous.

I am with you says the Lord.