A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 22 August 2021, 11:00am
1 Thessalonians 2:1-18 and Matthew 7:7-12
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Personally I had so many plans that now have had to be chucked out of the window that I am determined to make something better out of this time. These teenage years are meant to be amazing. I’m 16 and the highlight of my last three months has been watching crap movies on Netflix party with my friends.
But I believe one good thing that will come out of this is that my already trampled on generation will be evermore resilient. We will be aware of how lucky we are to spend time with our friends because we will know what it’s like to live without them. And by God we will treasure our freedoms and we will fight for them in the name of all that is good.
…My brother Robert is holding out for medical geniuses to invent a vaccine. I am holding out for the geniuses who invent the vaccine to also be climate change geniuses.
Then we might have a future.
…now maybe we will realize that we have to stop being poisonous to each other and the world.
This is an extract from Ali Smith’s novel Summer. Published last year as the final one in a seasonal quartet, the book has been widely praised as the one of the first novels to address the Covid crisis. The character speaking is 16-year old Sacha Greenlaw, a rather serious and high-minded, idealistic teenager, who is writing in the first months of lockdown to an immigrant she’s heard of, called Hero, who is in a detention centre. Sasha’s words remind me of how I- and many of us- felt, especially in those first months of lockdown, when many of our plans, as she says, simply fell by the wayside.
But her words also speak of the power of hope, hope for the future. They hint at a bigger truth that Covid-19 has taught us, and one that’s often noted especially by younger people: that- rather than just a very large collection of individuals, each going all out for ourselves, or nations with our own interests- we are one humanity facing common existential challenges. None of us can run away from the responsibility for the one planet we occupy. We must build a better future, and a better world, together.
In August, we’ve been preaching on the five “marks of mission” of the Anglican Church. So far, we’ve considered the Gospel imperative to tell others about our faith, “to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom”. And last week Canon Ed spoke about the second one, “to teach, baptise and nurture new believers”. This week’s, the third, is “to respond to human need by loving service”. Serving others is not some optional extra for Christians. Showing compassion, loving our neighbour- whether near or far- working together for the good of others: these things are intrinsic to our faith. And if “loving service” isn’t optional, neither is it somehow second best as an idea compared to telling others about our faith. Proclaiming and serving are two sides of the same coin. “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you;” the first letter of Peter tells us, “yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16). Be ready to explain why you are a Christian, what it is about faith that compels you, and why you believe what you believe is true. But combine it with empathy for the other person, and with trying to do them good.
Living out our faith, responding to God and to human need in loving service, is the vocation of every Christian. Yet the reality for all of us, and perhaps especially for clergy, is that we often fail to practise the faith that we preach. The history of English literature is full of examples of clerical hypocrites- Mr Elton, the seemingly well-mannered but self-serving young vicar in Jane Austen’s Emma, or Mr Brocklehurst, the pious yet mean and self-righteous supervisor of a boarding school for orphaned girls in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 novel, Nathan Price, a Southern Baptist missionary and his family relocate to the Congo, yet Nathan, in his determination to “save Africa for Jesus,” does a huge amount of damage in trying to persuade the Congolese men to convert to Christianity whilst completely failing to listen, or to learn their culture. It’s easy to say we should serve others, but not always easy to do. As an old poem puts it:
I’d rather see a sermon than hear one, any day;
I’d rather one would walk with me than merely show the way.
Thankfully in Christianity there is forgiveness. And this is the point. The Good News of the Kingdom that we proclaim is the extravagant, genuine, and forgiving love and grace of God that we can only ever receive. We don’t serve others or do good works to earn God’s favour. Christian service is not a matter of a few rules made up by a heavenly bureaucrat or policeman, or of us appeasing a wrathful or vengeful, judging God. The “labour and toil” in which the Thessalonians are engaged in our first reading, their work of faith and labour of love, comes not as a desperate attempt to be accepted, but as their warm response to the new acceptance they have found, of the love and steadfastness of hope of the Lord Jesus Christ, their good deeds a matter of reflecting God’s glory with every part of life.
That’s not to say that the practical love that the Thessalonians are being called to show in the community won’t be hard work. The service God is calling them to is demanding. But Paul encourages them like a good friend strengthening someone facing a daunting task, urging them, in verse 12, “to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory”. The Hebrew origin of the word translated here “to lead” literally means “to walk”- in other words, each of us having integrity and authenticity in our behaviour, walking the Christian message that we talk.
We can’t deny that each of us is capable of being selfish, aggressive and competitive, rather than altruistic, empathetic and cooperative. This isn’t helped by the highly individualistic view of the world that is pumped to us through social media advertising. Historically, the advertising and marketing industry, a profession whose success depends on an in-depth understanding of those it seeks to influence, has been founded on an overly pessimistic view of human nature- of individuals obsessed by the money and possessions, and the lure of fame and status. Yet there are starting to be some signs of a shift in emphasis, from “I” to the collective power of “us”. Covid has shown us the compassion we are capable of- that so many people have wanted to look after and befriend others. We can all identify millions of acts of kindness to neighbours that have marked out every community’s response to the crisis.
A time of crisis causes us to think about how we can act differently in the future. It was fantastic, here, to host the vaccination centre, with all the many good things that have come out of that. But we also learned during that time that, for many of the local people who came, it was the first time they had been inside the Cathedral. This poses a challenge- and an opportunity- for us to build on the new relationships that we have made, in the wider community - and to join in with others who share a common aim of reaching out to and serving others.
In the same letter from Ali Smith’s book Summer that I quoted at the start, the sixteen-year-old Sacha goes on to say: “I have a vision that the modern sense of being a hero is like shining a bright light on things that need to be seen.” In the Church of England, we face many of the same challenges that many young people like Sacha are most concerned about - how we can rebuild after Covid; how we can save the planet and protect everyone against disease; how we, in our societies and institutions, can create a world that is fairer, and less racist and homophobic. There are practical things that we can all individually do to play our part helping to bring about change rather than waiting for it to happen or for others to make it that way- creating a culture in the Church that is healthy and welcoming of all, more inclusive and diverse, as well as eco-aware.
Every time we pay attention to the needs of others, or act with compassion- suffering with another person in pain, and taking action to help them- we are shining a light in the world’s darkness. We have the choice, either to be rigid and intolerant, lacking in compassion, or to have compassion and live out the faith we proclaim by showing the radical love of Jesus in acts of loving service. Covid has made us begin to realise how deeply dependent we are on each other. Now is a time to come together with our eyes fixed on a common goal: to show the radical love that lays down its life for others.