Sermon for High Mass – Last before Trinity Sunday 23 October 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 35.12-17; Psalm 84.1-7; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14
I tell you this man went down to his home justified…. (Luke 18.14)
The Jesus of St. Luke’s gospel is a brilliant teller of stories, of parables which engage our minds and imaginations. The characters usually have no names, so as we are drawn into the stories we can identify with them. There is, of course, a natural tendency as we read or listen to stories, or watch plays or films, to identify with those we see as the goodies: in this case, the penitent tax-collector. We should be wary of this. As respectable church-going people we are more likely to find ourselves with the Pharisee and his self-righteousness than the notorious sin of the tax-collector. There is always room, of course, for exceptions to this rule.
A centuries-old spiritual tradition encourages us to “hear…read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the holy scriptures by using our imagination when reading the parables and other gospel stories. We are to picture the scene in our mind’s eye; to place ourselves in the action and dialogue; to thinks of ourselves as the characters; and then to make some resolution for our Christian life from the fruits our meditation.
Perhaps the greatest story-teller in English literature was Charles Dickens. He not only wrote novels but travelled around the country giving public readings of them. Nowadays, I suspect, many more know them from films and television adaptations than from actually reading them: although the one may lead to the other. I cannot be the only schoolchild of my generation who wished that Dickens had not gone on quite so long.
The novels are peopled with memorable characters. They often express his outrage at the cruel poverty which was the dark side of the Victorian age of progress. His own father had been imprisoned for debt.
Dickens was on television last night, not through one of his books, but in Ralph Fienne’s adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s “The Invisible Woman.” This is the story of his relationship with the young actress Ellen Turner, with whom we see him falling in love, and she with this exciting, famous and vibrant personality.
In one scene, we see Dickens, with Ellen, her mother and sisters, fund-raising for a foundling hospital; one of those places where unwanted children could be abandoned. He expresses his outrage at having heard a fellow-guest as dinner condemning help given for those who will not help themselves; the “undeserving poor,” as they were known. These were often the victims of a society riddled with moral double standards, in which poor young women were often seduced by richer men; and all too often abandoned by them; condemned to a life of prostitution as the only way to survive. When this church was built, this area was notorious as a refuge for those on the run from their creditors, including Dickens at one stage, and as a haunt of prostitutes. One of the ministries of the sisters who worked at this church was to rescue young girls from this life. In those days, they would have come from the countryside in other parts of Britain. Nowadays, they are trafficked from Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia. Our society may have abandoned Victorian morality but it has not given up Victorian immorality.
We might want to ask Dickens some pointed questions about his own selective morality which allowed a celebrity – for that is what he was – to abandon his wife and large family for a beautiful but very young and vulnerable woman.
Dickens and Ellen go to live in France, to escape from the gossip. She becomes pregnant but her child is stillborn. The loss leaves her depressed and sad. The last we see of them together is in the house which he has found for her near Windsor.
The scenes of their life together are interwoven with ones from her present life as the wife of a schoolmaster in Margate. There she directs school dramatic productions and is known for her love and knowledge of the works of Dickens, whom she had read when she was a child.
We first see her striding at speed alone across the beach and dunes. One of the characters who appear in the story is the local Vicar. This old priest is also a devotee of the works of Dickens. He is also a good shepherd who senses that Ellen’s long solitary walks spring from something amiss deep within her. Walking with her on the beach one day, he speaks to her of this and tells her that he will always be there to listen. He will listen, he says, but he will not judge.
In the closing scenes, we see a sad-looking Ellen finding in one of her volumes of Dickens a lock of her dead son’s hair, then on one of her walks by the sea. She turns up through the dunes, heading not for home but for the church. She finds it locked, but then hears the old priest address her by the maiden name which she has kept secret: “Ellen Turner.” As I watched this scene, I thought of Jesus addressing Mary Magdalene by name in the garden on Easter morning.
He had guessed early on that she must be the young woman who had been involved with Dickens. They talk for a time in the churchyard. Then she returns home to her husband. He has been worried at her prolonged absence, because the school play which she has directed, and in which their young son has a part, is about to be performed and her place is to be in the front row. We see her embrace him and tell him all is well. Then she sits beside him, taking his hand in hers and smiles, at peace now with him and with herself.
Like the tax-collector in the parable, she had gone up to the temple of pray. Through the gentle but wise old priest, she had been able to say her own, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” And so, she had been able to return to her home and family justified.
Each day in this church, a priest sits at the confessional; there for the tax-collectors and the Ellens who come from their long walks along the beach, their inner struggles, their desolate valleys, their wrestling with conscience; their despair at the sheer mess they have made of life. Here they find not judgement but mercy and comfort and counsel; and, through the sacrament of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. They find the one who is, as the hymn-writer says, “of sin the double cure.” That is the one who both wipes the past away in absolution, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven you,” and who gives grace and strength and hope for the future. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more,” Jesus says to the woman taken in adultery. “Go in peace. The Lord has put away your sins,” says the priest in the confessional, “and pray for me a sinner too.”
This ministry is and must be guarded by the secrecy of the seal of the confessional. It is not something we record in the annual statistics we collect for the Diocese.
Sometimes, when you have sat there day after day and no one has come, you begin to wonder whether it is worthwhile. Ecclesiastical managers might tell us that the time could be used more productively and cost-effectively. But from time to time, we hear of the difference it has made.
Something happens to remind us that it is worthwhile. Months ago someone telephoned to ask if I was going to be hearing confessions on a particular evening that week. When I told him that I was, he asked if he could speak to me before he made his confession. When the appointed time came, he said that he wanted me to know that he had made his confession to me five years earlier and that what I had said to him had saved both his marriage and his ministry. He had gone down to his home justified: both accounted as righteous by God and given grace that he might become righteous. May we all be so.