A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury, on the second Sunday before advent.
2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13
Luke 21: 5-19
It’s about to be the time of year when “Your Guide to the Season” becomes a staple of colour supplements. Acres of print and armfuls of images will be devoted to telling you how to curate the ideal family Christmas. There will be recommendations for hand-knitted wrapping paper to transform the appearance of your gifts, suggestions for decorations that will be the envy of your neighbours, and recipes for canapés and cocktails the like of which you have never heard of.
So I offer this sermon in the spirit of those colour supplements. How might we best survive the weeks ahead?
Context is everything, and the liturgical year will end next Sunday with the bold and hopeful proclamation that Christ is King. And when the year ends, we will end the reading of Luke’s Gospel with which we have been occupied over the last twelve months. The compilers of the lectionary have reserved until these last weeks of the year the apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus as he teaches in Jerusalem before his arrest, when he speaks of the turmoil that will engulf the earth before God’s Messiah is ultimately and unmistakably revealed. So in a piece of liturgical theatre we hear what he says in the dog days before we acclaim Christ as King.
But not for the first time, the drama that will play upon the stage is full of irony, unwitting and delicious. Jesus speaks of the wars, insurrections, famines, and plagues that precede the great revelation: might he equally be speaking of a nation in the tumultuous grip of a General Election campaign? Those cocktails might be more important than ever as we navigate the speeches, the promises and the opinion polls before the December 13th dawns and a new Parliament is ultimately and unmistakably revealed.
We live in the era of which Jesus speaks, for we live in a world which is not yet made perfect. But the turmoil of a national poll makes us particularly conscious of that reality, even if we look forward to its resolution with rather less anticipation than we do to the ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of Heaven.
In St Paul we have the ideal companion for these weeks. This morning we have heard him writing to the church in Thessaloniki, offering them his very own Guide to the Season. The authorship of the letter is disputed but for our purposes that matters little; what matters is those to whom he is writing and the situation he appears to be addressing. This is extraordinary, as he acknowledges: "For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work". It seems that some among the Thessalonians are convinced that the waiting is over, that the days of turmoil are behind them, and that the long-anticipated era has arrived. The Kingdom of Heaven has come; the normal rules no longer apply; there is no need for the rigorous disciplines of work that were vital in the pre-millenial age. It's as though Paul is a Parliamentary candidate who discovers three weeks before polling day that his team has stopped knocking on doors, shoving leaflets through letter-boxes, and stuffing envelopes, has added the initials MP to his letterhead, and has put down a deposit on office space in Westminster.
This does not appeal to Paul, who points to his own history and example as a Guide to the Season. "We were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labour we worked night and day". The Thessalonians idlers need to imitate him. The world is not yet made perfect; the era of turmoil is still upon them; the disciplines of daily living - including hard work - must continue.
Unscrupulous authors of twenty-first century political manifestos might find much of value in Paul's response. He exhorts his readers to an enlarged sense of personal responsibility; he extols the virtue of hard work; he defends the tradition that he has inherited. But he is no survivalist, no rugged loner who is with these words encouraging those who read him to dig moats and build battlements, to raise the drawbridge and pursue a ruthless policy of "Me First" (to coin a phrase).
Paul's disgust at the idlers and his commitment to supporting himself through work is born out of his absolute conviction of the interdependence of his people. He did everything he did, he writes "...so that we might not burden any of you". His idleness adds to another's labours; his failure to feed himself diminishes another's ability to do so. There are no islands or ivory towers. Everyone depends on everyone else. This is a Guide to the Season of utter mutuality and radical solidarity.
And it's the Guide that I am offering you. It’s neither profound nor original. I'm sorry about that, but I can't advise you to go to bed tonight and re-emerge on Christmas Eve; I can't advise you to invest in ear defenders against the din of the campaign; I can’t advise you to take refuge in gin and the third season of The Crown until the storm has passed. This Guide to the Season is the only Guide to the Season available to us if we are to be authentic companions of Paul and disciples of his Lord. We must live these days acutely conscious of our responsibilities to our neighbours and for our neighbours, constantly aware of our relationships with one another, ever alive to our deep connectedness to one another. This must guide the way we live and, ultimately, the way we vote.
But just as the colour supplements will often have a quiz for their readers so I have a challenge for you. Is it just me, or is it the case that in the last three years our public life has been so self-obsessed that we have given little real thought to the ongoing reality of environmental degradation and its impact on global poverty? The Charities Aid Foundation UK reported this year that key measures of charitable giving in the United Kingdom showed a decline for the third year in a row. So it’s not just me.
This season we could do something about that: install some bird-feeders, plant a tree, invest in Salisbury Community Energy, buy gifts in a charity shop, subscribe to Christian Aid or increase our subscription. We could do something that Paul would recognize, something that removes a burden from the shoulders of others, something that speaks of unity in a divided world, something that offers hope in our darkness. Isn’t that what we are called to?