A sermon preached by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Any of you who use any sort of electronic communications or social media platforms on any regular basis will have experienced the cold fear that runs through your veins the moment after you hit send on an email, a text message, or a tweet or Facebook comment, and then you realise that you have sent it to the wrong person. Or indeed hit “Reply All.” When the revolution comes the first thing I would do is ban Reply All as a possibility anyway. The embarrassment that one has to go through then retracting the email, or explaining the circumstances that have led to you telling your grandmother something that was really very particularly meant for your girlfriend is considerable. My best one so far was when I stubbed my toe very hard in the vicarage in my last post, quite late at night, thought that I had probably broken the toe, and Emma living at that time in Southampton having moved down here for work, really felt the need to vent my spleen at someone about this potential toe calamity, and sent a very ‘to the point’ text message containing I’m afraid to admit some fairly unsportsmanlike language, to what I thought was one of my best chums Canon Adrian Daffern. What I only realised after the mobile telephone made that little zipping noise that means the text is gone, was that I had instead sent it to Canon Adrian Slade, director of social responsibility for the diocese of Gloucester.
The next day I saw him in a meeting in Church House in Gloucester, where he simply asked me over coffee very gently, “how’s your toe, Tom?!”
Sending a message to the wrong person can be embarrassing. For the Christians of the high mediaeval period it seems that there were even more dangers inherent in accidentally sending a message to the wrong person. Poor old Saint Jude, whom we celebrate today together with Simon the zealot, carries the dubious title of being the patron saint of lost causes. They languish here in the dying weeks of an old Christian year, for a number of reasons. One of the interesting things is that on all four of the lists of the various Disciples of Christ which appear in the synoptic Gospels, and in Acts, Simon and Jude invariably appear in 10th and 11th place, with precedence only over poor old Judas Iscariot. Simon is described as the zealot, and he only turns up in the New Testament in those four lists. There is absolutely no account of him doing anything at all. Poor Jude, who is probably the same person as Thaddeus, who also crops up in some of the lists, very quickly develops a cult of not being prayed to, except in cases of desperate need because of the fear that having sent your prayer to Jude, it might get miss-filed, or opened by accident by Judas Iscariot, who might end up hearing your prayer instead! I have this wonderful picture in my head of all the apostles living together in a big manor house or something with a big oak table in the entrance hall where all of the post gets put, and Judas perhaps beating Jude down to breakfast one morning accidentally opening the envelope addressed to Jude and deciding to do something devious with the prayer request inside. Quite what our medieval brothers and sisters thought the mechanism of prayer was like, and also what they thought Judas might be able to do with your prayer if he got by accident beggars belief really, but there you have it.
Actually I think it is the lists of the apostles which offer us the most help when trying to work out what to do with Simon and Jude. Because the whole point is that the Saints are a communion. Individual saints have more or less to inspire us depending on who they were, how much we know about them, and so on. We have a veritable menagerie of saints to choose from here in Salisbury, for we have altars currently in this building dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Martin, Thomas and Edmund, Margaret of Scotland, Lawrence and Michael. There are half a dozen other chapels scattered around whose altars have since been removed. So we may think that there would be little that Simon and Jude could add to our already bursting smorgasbord of inspiring early Christians. But I think what we take most importantly from the lesser known, or the historically dubious, or the almost anonymous saints of the calendar is exactly that they exist in communion. They are reminders to us of the nature of family.
Very unusually I had yesterday off. I usually work Saturdays, but I didn’t yesterday and so I did what I love to do in such an instance (and I guess next month might have rather more time to do!), and I made a pot of coffee and read the paper from cover to cover. And you know I had in my head the fact that I was preaching this morning as I read the paper, and this thing about community just kept popping up. Because the vast majority of the lead stories in yesterday’s paper, and indeed the vast majority of the ones nearer the back as well, were about what happens when community breaks down. There was the story of the naming of Philip Green by Lord Haine, and the opening up of a conversation about the silencing or bribing or otherwise paying off of employees, and the use of nondisclosure agreements in alleged cases of bullying and harassment. There was another set of stories about whatever on earth went on in the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Turkey, and how on earth a man who went in to get some marriage papers ended up disappearing, almost certainly murdered and disposed of by a group of people who may or may not have hard or soft links to the leadership of Saudi Arabia. There was more on Donald Trump’s attacks on the media following the apparent delivery of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats. And then just as I was finishing this sermon last night there was the story of another mass shooting by a gunman, this time in a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
We need to ask ourselves whether the currency of community has any value any more. I think it does, and I think there are moments, like the attacks on our own city earlier this year, when community really does manifest itself, and something that we might want to call faith in each other and in our identity as a group of people issues forth like those paper doves spilling out of the Close and up the High Street. But what seems to be frightening to me is the fact that you have to look quite so hard sometimes for those examples, and that more and more the world seems to be defaulting back to a model of society where the individual is more important than the group, and the individual’s identity is often largely comprised of, or defined by, the ways in which we are better, stronger, louder, richer or more successful than someone else. And actually where the other, the other people or person against whom we define ourselves becomes almost dehumanised, and in some cases a legitimate target for in the worst cases murder, or hatred and abuse, bullying, discrimination, or even increasingly in a discourse largely dominated by tweets and social media, disrespect and lack of courtesy. Communicating in a set number of characters is not usually the best way.
Simon, Jude, the altar saints of this Cathedral, the saints of the churches and chapels of this diocese; they are there to remind us that we are a family. A community. A communion, even. Look again at the words of today’s epistle. Note the nouns: citizens, saints, members, structure. Note some of the verbs: joined, grows, built. The Christian is never alone. The Christian is always surrounded by the communion of saints. Some of them great, some of them anonymous, some of them pretty dodgy to be honest. Some of them with international patterns of veneration, like the Blessed Virgin. Some of them almost unknown. Some of them who didn’t get on with each other: Barnabas and Paul for example. Or Peter and Paul. Or actually pretty much anyone and Paul!
A month ago I preached at Dedication Festival and I said that the Cathedral really only exists as a shelter for the family who worship within it. One Thursday as I’m sure most of you know a bit of the fabric of this shelter was attacked by a man with a hammer. What the Dean said on the news later that evening was all about the way in which the community of this Cathedral reacted. Bravery was shown by members of this community. Also communication and teamwork. And, albeit 15 minutes late, Evensong was sung as usual. The Dean would like us very much as a cathedral in the coming years to challenge the prevailing culture in which conversation is largely aggressive and derogatory. He would like us to explore ‘common ground’, for this to be a place where we can disagree well, and respectfully. Where we can hold very different viewpoints, and still love one another. I hope that you welcome our Dean’s vision, as I hope that you welcome the fact that you are in a family that extends backwards and forwards in time as well as all over the globe, and in which we can stand with Simon, Jude and all the Saints and resist the temptation to give up the community, and to stand against the prevailing tendency to settle for something so much less than communion.