A sermon preached by the Very Reverend June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury
Romans 7: 15-25a; Matthew 11: 16-19
A last sermon, last words are such a very great temptation. They can be invested with special significance: especially when someone has gone to the trouble of decorating the pulpit from which they are preached with Welsh leeks. Let me thank our flower arrangers and especially Susan Branch and Michael Bowyer who lead them for this cheeky sign of their affection. They do a fantastic job for us week by week in decorating our building. Several of them have just returned from Barbados and the World Flower Show so like all our Cathedral volunteers they don’t let grass grow under their feet and I’m tickled pink by the Welsh theme.
If you know anything about my preaching, and most of you have been listening to it for long enough, then you’ll know that I’m wedded to reflecting on the set readings; I believe in the habit of regular reading of the Scriptures and what it does to us. So my response to this, my last visit to this pulpit as Dean, has to be to reflect on today’s given readings.
It so happens that I couldn’t have chosen better and I very much like this morning’s readings because they’re both about the inconsistency of human behaviour. First the Apostle Paul and then Jesus have described for us how perverse human nature is – not as a matter of exception but routinely. Paul applied it to himself ‘I do not understand my own actions’ and Jesus played it back to those who practised perversity in their reactions to him. You’re like children he says. Your judgments are contrary, cantankerous and capricious. You criticised John the Baptist for his aesthetic lifestyle, his austerity and now you criticise me for my liberality of lifestyle.
When I was about 10 years old I was learning to pray for the first time. I was not brought up in a church going family and daily prayer was something new to me. I can remember clearly a prayer I prayed one night as I was going to bed. ‘Please God rescue me from cant.’ It now sounds so unlikely and pretentious that I’m embarrassed to admit it. I’ve no idea how I even knew the word ‘cant’ which as you know means hypocrisy or sanctimony. It was about the time I was first attending church regularly so perhaps I’d met an affected piety.
Yet that moment has stayed with me and it’s true that I’ve never had much time for insincerity, things done for show and pretence, humbug. I’ve sometimes put this down to being Northern but it may be a more personal trait. So this honest recognition in Romans and Matthew that human beings are not only complex but also perverse really appeals to me. Between them Jesus and Paul go on to illustrate what that means.
· Paul is clear that for him and for all of us our desires are disordered. ‘I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’ Well that’s a fair summary of my life but also of the stories I’ve heard from you over 22 years. The enormous privilege of sharing your experiences has drawn me into what it feels like for you to have ideals you can’t live up to, addictions from which you wished you could gain liberty, love for the wrong people, identities you find it hard to own, anxieties about things not worthy of our concern. All of them realities which feel as if they challenge your faith in God because they’re not easily compatible with the ideals we promote. Our desires are perverse.
· And so is our behaviour perverse. Paul goes on to say ‘when I want to do good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind…’
I have marvelled in this community at your capacity for kindness and generosity. We’ve seen the same instincts at work recently with the response which quickly followed the terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower with people far and wide wanting to help. The Lent Appeal here in the Diocese this year responding to the current humanitarian crisis in our beloved South Sudan has exceeded all expectations and Ian Woodward has not long returned from seeing how that money is being spent. Food banks responding to the cruel effects of poverty in our land began here in Salisbury with the founding of the Trussell Trust. Kindness is not a feeble word, and woe betide a society which talks easily and stridently about justice but which neglects mercy. But the fact is, as Jesus was recognising, that alongside our capacity for generosity resides an equally prevalent capacity for meanness and nastiness, of pettiness and peevishness. We’re each of us and as a country perversely capable of extraordinary kindness and shameful small mindedness at one and the same time.
· The third illustration from these passages of the strengths and weaknesses which weave together perversely in human behaviour is the combination of courage and cowardice with which each of us struggle. Jesus says, it isn’t only the wise and the intelligent who access the truest meaning of life: often ordinary souls, simple lives, the unsophisticated get their priorities right and find a nobility and dignity in what they suffer which sometimes escapes those of us who are clever or whom the world applauds. I’ve been inspired beyond measure in my years as Dean by the extraordinary courage which you’ve shown in carrying your heavy burdens and in remaining faithful when weary or tested.
The only situations which have truly pained me are those where people run away from who they truly are or from the needs of others, when pretence has used all means, including the language of religious faith, to deny what needs facing and so avoid the possibilities of God’s grace. Pretence that our desires are rationally ordered and under our control. Pretence that we always behave humanely, or pretence that life can be addressed without the necessity of courage.
So here’s one of my last words: never deny, even for the sake of peace and quiet, your own experience and convictions, perverse though they be. Never pretend.
But the perversity of human experience isn’t the whole story of these passages because both of them speak of how God rescues us from the inconsistencies of our errors and flaws.
Paul asks rhetorically ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ and he answers - ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’
Or Jesus’ invitation ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’
In other words: God is good. God is faithful. God calls you to live an abundant life.
The task of this Cathedral Church is to make a difference for God and each one of us is asked to play our part in making that happen, to awaken in others a sense of their value to God. Whether that’s the people sat around you this morning or a tourist who comes through this place for only a matter of a few hours. We can only be that transforming force through our habits of behaviour.
· Through our hospitality and welcome because in welcoming everyone on equal terms we convey something of the radical love of God.
· Through our gentlessness and being humble of heart.
· Through sharing one another’s burdens.
· Through saying ‘yes’. I’m so very proud that the instincts of this place are to say ‘yes’.
It’s time to end.
One of my great heroes is Dag Hammarskjold who became Secretary General of the United Nations about three months before I was born and remained in that crucial role right through the Cold War era, putting before nations the quest for peace and justice in a post-colonial world. John F. Kennedy described him as the greatest statesman of the 20th Century and he was awarded posthumously the Nobel Peace prize. Dag Hammarskjold believed deeply that God is good, that God is faithful, and that we are asked to live abundantly, enabling others to also live abundantly.
He once said that God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason. His journal ‘Markings’ is still inspirational for those of us who know that the project is to build the kingdom of God.
If I might lay claim to perhaps his best known entry into that journal:
“For all that has been – thank you.
For all that shall be – yes!”