Festal Evensong, Te Deum and Benediction Sunday 6 November 2016 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Festal Evensong, Te Deum and Benediction Sunday 6 November 2016

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr George Westhaver, Principal of Pusey House 
Readings: Isaiah 66.17-end    Hebrews 11.32-12.2[1]

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.

This well known text from the Epistle to the Hebrews is given expression in stone and colour in the mosaics of the Basilica of Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.[2] There, on the north wall of the nave of Saint Apollinare, above the splendid marble columns, 22 women saints, wearing glittering golden robes and each holding a crown, move in procession behind the three magi, pressing on toward the Virgin and Child, enthroned and surrounded by angels. On the south side, 26 male martyrs, in white robes and also holding crowns, process towards an image of Christ enthroned in glory and also surrounded by angels. The processions occupy the full length of the nave, and represent the great cloud of witnesses described by Saint Paul. They are witnesses who testify by their lives to the truth which ordered their lives and gave them grace to persevere in the faith of great suffering and struggle. In the weakest sense the saints are spectators watching the race which we are exhorted to run.  But the saints are never simply spectators – they join with us in the race, they worship with us, exhort us and encourage us, by their example and by their prayers to make the same journey of faith.[3]  

What enables the saints of Christ to live courageously and creatively in the midst of the kind of troubles and persecutions described so vividly in our second lesson?[4] In the verses leading up to the second lesson, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes the saints of the Old Testament as those who lived as “strangers and pilgrims on earth” but animated by the promises which they saw “afar off”, which they embraced, and by which they lived (Heb 11.13): “They desire a better country, [a better city] that is, an heavenly, wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city”.

Moreover, they did not just desire this better future, by faith, something of the reality of the promises was made present for them. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for”. This faith is not just a feeling, it is a dynamic reality which makes present what it is to come,  it incarnates something of the reality we are waiting for, and ‘draws the future into the present’.[5]

In this desire for a better country and a heavenly city, and in the confidence that this reality is already present among us in the body of Christ, we may see something of the vision which led to the founding of this parish. For many of the founding members of the Ecclesiological society and Camden Society who influenced the building of this church, people like John Mason Neale and Benjamin Webb, a church building and its decoration should symbolize for us the kingdom of heaven and the heavenly city of the Epistle to the Hebrews. At their best, churches are not just buildings, but sacramental embodiments of the life which they are consecrated to manifest and nurture.

Perhaps inevitably, I am led to speak of the influence of E B Pusey and the Oxford Movement on this founding vision. As you know, E B Pusey laid the foundation stone of this church on All Saints Day, 1850, and he had a long association with the Margaret Chapel before that.  He preached one of his most challenging sermons in Margaret Chapel on the Eve of the Feast of the Annunciation in 1847, a day which had been appointed as a day of fasting and repentance on account of the Irish Famine. After recalling the horrors of the famine he moved on to challenge the congregation more directly and personally: 

 … luxury and self-indulgence have been increasing among us: … new luxuries have invaded us; luxuries have become comforts, and comforts have become necessaries and our idols.

Pusey here offers an analysis as penetrating as his London contemporaries Marx and Engels, although his diagnosis is rather different.

… We will not limit our self-indulgence; and so in order to obtain it cheaply, we pare down the wages of our artisans. They who have seen it, know that full often the very clothes we wear, while they are made, are moistened by the tears of the poor. …[6]

This could not have been a very comfortable sermon to hear, and it is perhaps not much easier now.  The desire to build Churches which put flesh on the promises, which serve as sacraments of the divine life, led those who helped to build this church, work also for a renewal and transformation of the society. It is not enough to symbolize the heavenly kingdom, one must also pray and to work that this kingdom comes on earth as in heaven. The power and the attraction of the catholic revival and the Oxford moment in the 19th century was, in part, the result of the way in which the leaders of this revival proclaimed a radical and all-encompassing hope for transformation. Christian hope is not a memo for members of a voluntary society, but a promise for the whole world.  

In this John Mason Neale and Pusey and their colleagues were animating by the hope which is present in the readings from Isaiah and the Epistle to the Hebrews.   Pusey followed St Augustine in seeing the prophet Isaiah as not a prophet only, but almost an evangelist: at times Isaiah seems to join the procession of the saints toward the Mother and Child as if he could already see them. The last verses of these prophecies, which were our first lesson, rebuke any inward looking or insular Christianity, and offer a grand vision of staggering proportions.[7] The restoration of Jerusalem and the people of Judah becomes a window through which Isaiah sees both the first and the second comings of Christ. The promise that the Lord God “will gather all nations and tongues” (66.18) speaks to us of Pentecost and the missionary journeys of St Paul and his companions.  The nations listed evoke North Africa and Ethiopia, Spain and Greece; they describe the whole known world. Seen in this light, the promise of the rebuilding of Jerusalem points to the invitation of all people into the restored city: “and they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the Lord, out of all nations, … to my holy mountain Jerusalem” (66.20). We can imagine the crowds in the first lesson coming with zeal and urgency ‘upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon camels’ joining the procession of saints in Saint Apollinare in Ravenna, gesturing to us to join them. The prophet continues, making it clear that this is not a plan for Jerusalem only, but a promise of renewal which reaches out to embrace the whole created order: “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your descendants and your name remain.” (66.22)

In the last chapter of Isaiah, the language is condensed, gesturing to what has already been filled out in the preceding chapters with more light and colour. There  the holy mountain is the new creation, a place where the Lord ‘will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines’ (25.6), a city where the Lord God will ‘wipe away the tears from all faces’ and ‘swallow up death for ever’ (25.8). This language becomes the language of the New Testament – these images describe the spiritual treasure which we enjoy already, in Christ, and they are things which at the same time we grasp in hope, and for which we long. Already, in Christ, ‘the old things are passed away, behold all things have become and are new” (2 Cor 5.17).  Or, in Isaiah’s words, ‘For behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy’ (65.17).

In order to consider how the hope which the saints embody for us speaks to our current needs and challenges, I would like to enlist the help of Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Divinity and Law at Duke University, North Carolina, and a talk he gave a week ago at St Martin in the Fields.[8] Hauerwas drew on a book written by a shepherd in the Lake District, James Rebanks to make an important point. In one passage,. this modern-day shepherd describes lying on his back next to a stream on a fine spring day, with ‘the clouds racing by … [and] the ewes calling to the lambs to follow them through the rocky crags; and he thinks: “This is my life. I want for no other.”[9]

“This is my life. I want for no other”, gives voice to the kind of satisfaction and security which Isaiah’s descriptions of the restored Jerusalem evoke.  Hauerwas argues that ‘the scarcity of this declaration in contemporary life is a clue to understanding our cultural moment’. This dissatisfaction is a key, for Hauerwas, to understanding the possibility of Donald Trump running to be president, and we would not be hard-pressed to find various forms of discontent on this side of the Atlantic. (Hauerwas describes the malaise of contemporary life in terms which echo Isaiah’s description of the city which the new heaven and earth replaces, ‘the city without meaning’ (Motyer Is 24.10) – ‘the city of chaos’ (NRSV), a social order characterized by instability because it is not formed by the hope which gives a secure foundation.) Hauerwas argues that contemporary society struggles to tell us what we are made for, what we are meant to be. The promise of an abundance of choice cannot replace a lack of clarity about what we are seeking in our choices. Like Pusey in his sermon for the Irish famine, Hauerwas brings this criticism uncomfortably close to home. This is not just a problem for the world, he argues, ‘The Church has failed to help people to live in such a manner that they would want no other life than the life they have lived.’  

Can our celebration today offer any guidance? Hauerwas is part of that school who consider ethics not to be first about making the best decision in any given instance, but in first becoming a certain kind of person. This fits well with any celebration of the Saints: in looking to Christ and in running with patience the race which is set before us, we become certain kinds of people, shaped in particular ways, the divine life is manifest, incarnate, however imperfectly, in human life and community.  

In particular, the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks to us of the discipline of patience or perseverance. We may not face the persecution and danger which the same chapter describes and which is all too real for Christians in Syria or Pakistan, and so many other places. But we will all face other challenges of suffering, the suffering which comes from any encounter with sickness or failure, or the suffering which comes from any struggle with self-indulgence, from any real attempt to put aside the sin which weighs us down or makes us stumble in our walk with the saints.  But perhaps most especially we ought to expect the suffering which comes from a kind disorientation, the struggle to see what the saints see amid so many other claims to our attention and to our allegiance.  The faith of the saints brings into our present experience the satisfaction which belongs to the restored Jerusalem, and this contentment, ‘this is my life and I want no other’, relativizes more economic or material sources of satisfaction, relativizes even good health or life itself.  (There is a something more, which we grasp in faith and which is present to us in the embrace of a divine love which reaches even to death, which might lead us to give up, to offer up, these other goods, however precious.) This kind of seeing is hard-won, and often through the valley of suffering.[10]  

In Ravenna, in St Apollinare, one line of saints moves toward the virgin and child, toward the manifestation of the divine life already come down to earth and lived among us. The other line processes toward the Ascended Lord, toward the ‘not yet’ of faith. To walk with the saints is to have a place in both of these processions. On the one hand, the life we seek is already manifest, even when it is grasped in struggle or suffering. It is a life which we know by experience, ‘which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands’ (1 John 1.1).   On the other hand, the life and the promises which come with it, is always beyond us, with Christ at the right hand of the Father, only ever imperfectly manifest in any earthly city, and known by a faith which nonetheless makes this reality present to us.  

The saints are for us sacraments of this divine life, in them we find the life which we adore and on which we feed in the sacrament of the altar, and the life which we discern in our striving together in the body of Christ.

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith. 

[1] 196        Father, in whom thy saints are one

231          Who are these like stars appearing

Lesson1:  Isaiah 65: 17 – end

Lesson2:  Hebrews 11: 32 – 12: 2

Preacher: Revd. Dr George Westhaver, Principal Pusey House

Anthem:  I heard a voice from heaven (Requiem) – Howells

Psalm:     148, 150

Canticles: Magnificat à 8, Op. 164 – Stanford Nunc Dimittis – Tone V

Benediction

O Salutaris:             Francis Jackson (written for All Saints)

Tantum Ergo:          Francis Jackson

Voluntary:               Maestoso – Con Brio (Alla Marcia) from Sonata (1938)

[2] 6th century, 501, dedicated as Christ the Redeemer as an Arian Church, rededicated in 561 during rule of Justinian I, to St Martin in the Golden Heaven (St Martin of Tours, who was an adversary of Arianism).

[3]  The capacity of the saints to hear our request for their prayers is usually connected with their capacity to see more clearly the One whom we worship together. Because in their glorified state they have more clear and direct vision of the counsels of God, they know also our  request for their prayers.  In one sense, this is not really a surprise, because these same saints and martyrs were already characterized by this eagle-sharp vision which drew them on and enabled them to did not destroy or dim this capacity to see.

[4] ‘…who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, … Others suffered … chains and imprisonment’.

[5] Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope)

[6] H P Liddon’s Life of E. B. Pusey, iii, 171.

[7] see, Isaiah, by J. Alec Motyer, quoted here and an inspiration

[8] Monday 31 October, 7.00 pm, Stanley Hauerwas, ‘My neighbour, my nation and the presidential election’ in the lecture series: ‘Who is my neighbour? The Ethics of Global Relationships’ Autumn Lecture Series, September – November 2016. Quotations are from the partial transcript in the Church Times, 4 Nov, 2016, No. 8016. A podcast of the complete lecture is on the St Martin in the Fields website.

[9] The Shepherd’s Life: Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape (Flatiron Books, 2015), James Rebanks.

[10] For example, Benedict XVI, ibid, quoting Augustine, and speaking of the gift of eternal life:  “By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]”. Also, ‘Faith gives life a new basis, a new foundation on which we can stand, one which relativizes the habitual foundation, the reliability of material income.’