Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 19 October 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Proverbs 4: 1-18; 1 John 3: 16-4.6
The Book of Proverbs is part of that collection of Old Testament writings called the Wisdom literature. Our passage tonight is not part of the collection of proverbs, from which the book takes its name, but one of a series of poems in praise of wisdom as a gift from God.
The Jewish wisdom writings have a good deal in common with similar literature in other ancient cultures. The origins of some may lie in the education of young men to serve at court; as the civil servants of kingdom or empire: so think of Solomon’s prayer for wisdom and the education of Daniel and his fellow-exiles to be officials in the Babylonian Empire.
But wisdom was also something passed down from generation to generation; from parent to child, as we heard in this evening’s reading:
“Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching.”
The father speaks to his children of how he, in his turn, had learned from his parent who said to him:
“Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments and live. Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you.”
Wisdom is both a gift from God and of the parent to the child or the teacher to the pupil, and something which has to be seized hold of, if the one being taught is to live not only long but well. True wisdom is not just about to get on in the world; how to make it to the top of your sphere of life: a “How to succeed in business” manual. It has a moral content:
“I have taught you the ways of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness.”
If we think this just something from the past, or is something limited to a private morality, we might think again in the light of recent events. We might consider the effects on our public life of the erosion of the ethic of public service and professional integrity in business and public life, finance and the media, in recent decades.
The book of Proverbs sets before its readers two alternatives: Wisdom and Folly. Both call out to those who pass by. Wisdom says:
“Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on.”
Let’s think of wisdom being handed on from generation to generation. Last weekend, I was preaching at a nephew’s wedding in Wales. At the reception, both our nephew and his bride spoke of the positive example of their parents and grandparents. But we know too that the example of teaching of an older generation is not always positive and for the good. So let me put before you two examples of parental teaching; one by a fictional character and the other by a real historical one.
If you know Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” films, you will know that the Godfather, Don Corleone, passes on to his son Michael, the “wisdom” which has allowed him to survive and prosper in the world of organised crime. He teaches his son to, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” There’s a proverb, but its purpose is not to teach him to love his enemies but to defeat and kill them. Michael had wanted to break free from this life of crime, and part of him goes on wanting to, but he is drawn inexorably into it. Schooled by his father’s advice, he too becomes very successful by guile and ruthlessness. But all this takes its toll in death and estrangement. He does not find happiness, his marriage disintegrates. Even his efforts at the close of his life to secure it are blighted by the death of his beloved daughter.
For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; for they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.”
The writer of the First Letter of John writes to a small and rather embattled Christian community; one riven by disputes over teaching and what is true Christian knowledge. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
How are they, how are we, to decide between competing voices; alternative claims to wisdom? How are they and we to test the spirits; to know the “spirit of truth” from the “spirit of error”?
The criterion he puts forward is this;
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”
We do not know if the Letters of John were written by the Gospel writer, or by a disciple in the church associated with him, but there are clear links. At the very beginning of the Gospel, Jesus is spoken of as the Word, the logos, the reason, the wisdom of God. That divine wisdom, as Paul also says, is demonstrated not just in the teaching of Jesus, but in his life and death:
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
This is immediately given clear practical application: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother in need and yet refuses help?”
“Little children, let us love, not in word and speech, but in truth and action. By this we will know that we are from the truth…”
That brings me to my second parental teacher, the historical one. Last Sunday evening, Fr. Julian ended his sermon by quoting words of the great Spanish Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love.”
This evening, I want to end with the woman who enlisted John in her campaign to reform the Carmelite order, to return it to its original pursuit of prayer and holiness: Teresa of Avila. Last Wednesday was her feast day, and to mark it, I took up her little book, “The Way of Perfection.” She wrote it in response to the request of her spiritual daughters, the nuns of her convent of St. Joseph in Avila: “Mother, teach us to pray.” Their request echoes that of the disciples to Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.” And in her response, she bases her teaching on the Lord’s Prayer.
But before she goes through it clause by clause, she speaks first of the life of the community and the qualities of mutual love, humility and detachment from worldly things, necessary for the community’s life. Prayer is not just about saying prayers, it is rooted in their life together. This is not just a matter of good order; of keeping the peace among a group of people living in a confined space within a monastic enclosure. Anyone who thinks that life in a monastery is a blissful escape from the stresses and strains of “real life” is mistaken. Imagine being confined in a monastic enclosure with a dozen or so members of your family, day-in—day-out, year after year. The peace of a monastic community depends on constantly renewed mutual love and care.
Teresa quite deliberately set out to establish small communities, never more than a couple of dozen sisters in each, so that they could be a family, whose communal life would underpin the life of contemplative prayer to which they had been called by God. That life involved not just long periods of liturgical and private prayer, but hard work – there were no servants – and mutual friendship and fun in the daily periods of recreation. Teresa had no time for dull and sour-faced nuns. Their love for each other would be vital to their prayer life which could not grow without it.
What is true in microcosm for a community of nuns is true by extension for all Christian communities; for this one. If our prayer and worship is to bear fruit, is to bring us closer to God and to each other, then it must be founded on that mutual self-giving which we see in Jesus Christ and which is the very life of God and the wisdom of God. Anything else is not of the Spirit.