Sermon for Evensong & Benediction, Trinity 4 Sunday 9 July 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Luke 19.10 The Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.
One hundred years ago, in July 1917, Father Mackay, the Vicar of this parish, drew back his curtains at 8 in the morning and looked out into the courtyard. It was a lovely summer day. There he saw a most unusual sight. Emerging from the Church, before the end of the morning mass (celebrated by the curate), into the bright sunshine came a private soldier in full kit, uniform, puttees, haversack, the lot. Father Mackay deduced that this was a soldier changing trains in London, with just time to catch a mass, before boarding the boat train to France. In the Parish Paper Father Mackay made the sort of neat point that any Anglo-Catholic priest might make. Here was a soul, fortified with the bread of life, setting out with Christ, possibly to give up his life for others, as his Saviour had done. But Father Mackay didn’t leave it there. He went on to have a little dig at his own church and congregation. His people missed the significance of that little scene because of their “self-expectant religious emotion”. A hundred years isn’t long in Christendom; I’m carrying on where Father Mackay left off.
Because we quite rightly have the Blessed Sacrament in His little house or tabernacle, because we rightly guard the sanctuary as a place where treasure is stored, it is all too easy to start seeing the treasure as ours. Something for us, a body broken and blood shed for you and me. Life-giving food, given to us, the people of God. What’s wrong with that? Nothing really, except that our personal religion is then all about us getting better, restored to full vigour by the manna which reaches us in each of our wildernesses. With a bit of will power, we are going to be better people, we think. But it never quite works out like that, does it? If you’d come to mass with that young soldier on that July day in 1917, and you were aged 20, and you attended mass here every day for the next hundred years, and you are now sitting out there aged 120, I think you would confirm that you are more or less the same person. That could be a disappointment.
The truth is that our attendance at services and all our religious practices are not a way to reach Christ, us storming the gates of heaven. They are rather our response to an encounter which has already happened, the conviction that we have tapped into true life, and that the face of love has been shown to us.
I think the root of our problem is that we ourselves have become the starting point of our faith and we have tied this to our own personal development as human beings. That is a misunderstanding of Christianity. The cult of the individual is all very well, but in Christ’s world we are not here to find ourselves; we are here to lose ourselves. We lose our selves in God because we can trust him. The body of Christ is not the holy part of our life. We are the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is not trapped inside the body like a ghost, which we then release to shake up the world. The body is in the Spirit. We participate, join in, the reality of God at work in the world. The sacraments, including Communion and Benediction, are signs of our active experience of God in the world. If we’re better people because of this, that’s fine, but in the real world we design our lives, we make right and wrong choices, we suffer the random hits of misfortune, we make mistakes. The bread of life, the body of Christ, is Christ walking with us through all that, encouraging us, drawing us forward into His life, and at the end holding our hand at death. How do we recognise God at work in the world? In what he has done, and in what he does. We know God in the love which draws people closer, in the healing and forgiveness which has been the basis of every relationship that ever was, in the hope that takes us into the unknown, in the creativity of family life, in the creation of art and the wonders of nature, and in so much more, in every human soul. And we know God in the selflessness which can settle even on you and me, when we find that we also are called to seek out and save what was lost, to call back those who despair, to calm those who fear.
We shall never know whether the soldier who left this church in July 1917 was killed in the third Battle of Ypres in the summer or autumn of that year, or whether he returned many years later and sat where you are and recalled the day he came out of mass in his uniform and looked up at the vicarage window to see the surprised features of an Anglo-Catholic clergyman in a dressing gown. In a way all of us are called to be that unknown soldier, Christians whose lives, in full, are known only to God, cleansed from sin to serve a purpose greater than any of our own concerns. Piety, particularly Anglo-Catholic piety, can be a great discipline, a way of teaching a steadiness in the faith which all of us need. But piety can divide our lives when the willpower fails and it can hide from us the real treasure each of us has been given. God’s gift, his treasure, is the Heart of Jesus, beating in each of us, as, forgiven and free, sought out and saved, we walk out into the sunshine. Gratitude and compassion reveal God; our willpower, our “self-expectant religious emotion”, hides Him. That, I think, is more or less what Father Mackay wanted us to know.