Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 7 August 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Trinity 11 HM
Sir Thomas More, when condemned by Henry VIII’s judges to be beheaded, was asked whether he feared death. He replied ‘Death comes to us all, my Lords. Yes, even to Kings he comes.’
Death is, in a sense, the moment which makes sense of all that has gone before. Yet, as Jesus observes in our Gospel, it catches some unawares; to some it comes, literally, like a thief in the night. So, he urges, be always prepared, try to be ready to meet God. Perhaps that exhortation rang in the ears of Fr Jacques Hamel, murdered at the altar recently; it must surely also have occurred to the Parish Priest, for whom I understand he was covering that Mass, and whose daily self-examination must have taken on a new urgency.
That exhortation, to be always ready to meet the Lord, has been the stuff of fiery mission preaching for centuries, and can lead to over-scrupulous neurosis. To be prepared does not mean having perfected everything one wanted to accomplish. It means having been true to one’s responsibilities in the present moment to the best of our ability. That requires thoughtful self-examination and discipline but not self-flagellation. It is about commitment and faithfulness, and it is about acknowledging failure and accepting forgiveness.
There is a school of thought that suggests that happiness lies in having no commitment, no one to answer to, no one whose needs or problems will ever tie them down. That is true in one superficial way and a terrible untruth at another deeper level. The Roman poet Martial, to whom I devoted several years of my life before reading theology (and who I’ve always wanted to get into a sermon), put it like this:
If you wish to avoid bitter experiences and guard against gnawing sorrows, don’t make friends: you will have less less grief, but also less joy.
[si vitare voles acerba quaedam
et tristis animi cavere morsus
nulli te facias nimis sodalem.
gaudebis minus et minus dolebis. 12.34 vv. 8-11]
It isn’t true that detachment from relationship makes us happy. A person’s happiness and fulfilment lie not in freedom from connections but in acceptance of their consequences.
We are to strive to live fully and intensely, making the most of the present time wherever we are, not waiting for illness or disaster to bring home to us the fragility of life, for ‘sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof’. Some of us are made in such a way that we cling to life very tenaciously; others of us are more careless or indifferent to our length of days. But it is a theological truth as well as a cliché that none of us enjoys this life indefinitely, for ‘here we have no lasting city’.
It would, of course, be satisfying if when death came all our work was done and all our tasks complete. But the moment of death, and the manner of it, is usually hidden from us. Jesus reminds us of this in order to show how it is not how or why we die that matters so much as how we live. As Mother Theresa said,
‘We are not called to be successful, only to be faithful.’
That is the challenge put to us by the Gospel today, clarified by the first two readings. Abraham is understood by Paul and the writer to the Hebrews as the prototype and progenitor of faith (Christ being the author and finisher of it, Hebrews 12.2). We sometimes forget that faith, as modelled by Abraham, is about demonstrable faithfulness. It is not a theoretical construct, available only to the mega-holy. It is an achievable commitment to which we are invited by God, in the person of Jesus, a commitment by which we sinners may grow into saints. We can describe it more concretely like this: faith is a commitment to someone or something, the formation of a relationship based on limited knowledge. That makes it an analogy for all our human relationships. It involves an unconditional acceptance of, and trust in, the other.
Commitment is not highly-valued in our age where so much has come to be seen as provisional. Unconditional acceptance and generosity is the model of love offered by all Jesus’ teaching. We all have a deep need for unconditional love. Yet unconditional acceptance is less and less common in human relationships. I have suggested to you before that those of us who have not always experienced it from our own parents find it especially hard to believe that God really loves us like that. We tend to believe, and may even have been told, that God loves us only if we are good. God loves us, not because we are good but because he is good.
Faith is the formation of a committed relationship based on limited knowledge. This refers to actual and particular relationships, not social or theological constructs. The power of developed and particular relationships, which are all based on faith, to supersede tribal and ideological differences, lies at the heart of the Christian project. The Church itself is brought to birth and exists on the basis of that principle, but perhaps needs to relearn it.
Faith gets us into relationship, into all relationships except those into which we are born (and even there it remains essential if a relationship is to flourish); without it, as independent adults, we remain impoverished islands. We learn this in our relationships with people; those relationships, all based on faith, give us an analogy to build a relationship with God. Jesus came to show us that by doing it himself.