A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Sunday 11 July 2021, 16:30, The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
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Attention can wander in sermons. If you're honest, yours may be straying to a particular London postal district, depending on the type of ball that interests you. If your sphere of choice is small, hard and red (sometimes white) you may be lingering on yesterday’s one day international in London NW5. If you go for softer and yellower, it will be the events unfolding, as I speak, in London SW19. And if you prefer something altogether larger, your mind may be drifting ahead to London HA9 (aka Wembley) in three hours’ time. If it’s all three, you are probably taking in nothing that I say.
Otherwise sensible people watching sport – it’s a mystery to many. Why do we do it? Perhaps it’s the thrill of competition (we have evolved as animals that like to win); it may also be that the court, the track, the pitch are arenas in which – unlike other parts of life – you stand a fair chance of getting what you deserve. The famous level playing field.
Terrible accidents happen – the huge crash early in the Tour de France or Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest on a Copenhagen football pitch – players cheat, umpires err; but, over a match or series or tournament, training and talent, intelligence and courage often get their due reward, if sometimes by ‘a tortuous path’ (to quote Gareth Southgate in a press conference). And we like that. It’s how we like the world to work.
Our first lesson feeds those instincts. You’ll find the book of Ecclesiasticus on the substitutes’ bench of holy scripture. The churches of the Reformation do not give it the same authority as the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament (though the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches do), but we still read it, as the 39 Articles say, ‘for example of life and instruction of manners’.
Our reading portrays the wisdom of God as a sage woman you should fall in love with. Your relationship will take you along ‘tortuous paths’ (that phrase again) but if you stay faithful to her she will reward you. Underlying the reading is a conviction that the world is held in existence by God, and God is wise and just. Do as Lady Wisdom’s says – Ecclesiasticus says a lot about duties to those who are poor and oppressed – and you are going with the grain of reality: this is how, deep down, the world is; and this is how it will end, with peace and right and reward.
But is this true? You don’t have to look far to see that callousness and perversity make a good living in our world. Do you feel that grain of fairness in life as you live it? Perhaps it depends on where you stand. When the writer says to care for the poor or oppressed, it sounds like his audience are neither of those things. And if you are either of those things, the world may not look such a reassuring, you-reap-what-you-sow sort of place. Your playing field is far from level. You do not get what you deserve.
That’s why, alongside the Ecclesiasticus view of life (which tells the truth but not the whole truth) the scriptures have much to say about what a radically unfair place the world can be. And here we turn to the other Jesus. The first is the author of Ecclesiasticus, Jesus son of Sirach, writing perhaps around 180 BC. The second is the one that ‘BC’ refers to, Jesus son of Mary, the one whom Paul in our second lesson proclaims as the Christ. So alongside the sunny view of Ecclesiasticus, ‘those who seek Wisdom from early morning are filled with joy’, we set the story of Jesus, especially his arrest and execution – callous and perverse in equal measure – his deep sharing in what is the reality of millions on the underside of history and of our world today.
Someone who has lately reminded us of these things we may see tonight. Marcus Rashford embodies the teaching of Ecclesiasticus, ‘Do not let your hand be stretched out to receive and closed when it is time to give.’ During a poor childhood he received, largely from his mother, Melanie; and now that he is no longer poor, he gives generously. More than that, he has recalled our nation and government to the callous and perverse way that our system can treat children in poverty.
If he comes on to the pitch you will probably see him make the sign of the cross. Several Italian players will do the same. Their minds will be on the immediate task, but the sign they make will be apt. It is the sign of a faith that takes suffering and injustice seriously; that has discovered that the loving wisdom of our God really does supply the grain of reality, but that grain is gnarled and twisted, and tortuous indeed; a faith that sees God ceaselessly at work in every arena of life, however uneven, callous or perverse; and that trusts God’s promise to give us (now in part, and fully at our final coming home) more than we desire or deserve.