A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday)
Picture: Ladders of Light, an installation by Mary Branson
Reading 2 Timothy 4.1-18
In a scene from Alan Bennett's The History Boys, the offbeat, inspiring Mr Hector tells his students about the joy of books.
The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
I think two such hands reach out to us from the Second Letter to Timothy, one to invite, one to warn.
But whose hands? The letter begins, ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus’, but the style is different from the letters we know are by Paul, and some things it mentions fit better with conditions in the church a generation later. How to explain this? Some say it is because Paul writes this letter when he is very old, while most think it comes from the pen of a follower of Paul, writing in his name as an act of homage (not uncommon in those days) and to defend Paul’s legacy.
The letter mentions several people by name. Some, like Tychicus, we know from elsewhere in the New Testament; others, like Crescens, occur only here. The names are significant. Paul was in a struggle against those whose vision of the gospel of Jesus was less generous than he thought the truth of that gospel required, but he was not on his own. The letters attributed to him contain over seventy personal names – something unparalleled in ancient literature – and together they form a picture of friends, colleagues, comrades – some diamonds, some wobblers, and the odd chocolate teapot – a picture we can recognise.
The hand that takes ours here wants to lead each of us in the direction of experiencing the church not as a valuable organisation you subscribe to and perhaps go to – a sort of National Trust at prayer – but as a community of encouragement. This is worth saying on Mothering Sunday: the godly task of encouragement goes far beyond the limits of biological parenthood and family; it is intrinsic to the people of God.
Our world is of course unimaginably different from that found in this letter. Once it had been written, it would have travelled no faster than the speed of horse or ship. Even a millennium later, when St Bernard, on this last day of March in Vézelay, called for a second crusade, how long did that news take to reach England? By contrast, when British MPs do more indicative voting tomorrow, any modern-day inhabitants of that French town who are interested will be able to watch them in real time.
Other things don’t change, though. Paul and his followers never heard the phrase ‘confirmation bias’ (not even in Greek) but they knew all about what it describes. This is another hand that reaches out and takes ours, as we hear about those who ‘accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires’. In their world, as in ours, the temptation was to listen to people who told them just what they wanted to hear, and to forget that truth is sometimes inconvenient. In their day, the controversy was about the belief and life of the church; for us it is about the direction of our nation.
Our Ladders of Light express the hope of a connected society, but – whichever way votes go tomorrow or later in the week – we are in danger of splitting into two mutually uncomprehending camps, taking in only what will reinforce our view, while the angrier of us stigmatise or demonise the others. If you think I exaggerate, read our MP’s latest column in the Salisbury Journal, quoting two Brexit-related emails he has received. One says,
I have two degrees…have managed billion-pound contracts, worked across Europe on large collaborative projects…And my vote counts for no more than Tony the taxi driver who mouths off regularly about immigrants...
The other says (in shouty capitals), ‘I AM DISGUSTED WITH YOU AND YOUR FELLOW TRAITORS.’ Both could do worse (as could we) than follow the example of a candidate for ordination I am working with, who sees it as part of her Christian discipleship regularly to read a newspaper she would not naturally choose.
Lent is a timely season for this, to be (in the words of our reading) ‘convinced’, even ‘rebuked’, to cultivate a teachable heart, and not just as personal hygiene for the soul, but for sake of the world for which Christ died. This prayer, quoted by our Bishop in our recent Salisbury Conversations, might be one to make our own:
From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
from the laziness that is content with half-truth,
from the arrogance that thinks it has all truth,
O God of truth, deliver us.