Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent High Mass Sunday 4 December 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
From the Gospel: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’.
From the Epistle: ‘Glorify God’.
Prophets come in many different shapes and sizes; some of them are even churchwarden-shaped. I am not about to claim our excellent churchwardens as John the Baptists of Margaret Street, though they share in a prophetic ministry with the rest of us, for we are all, by our baptism, priests, prophets and kings. But I am reflecting on a churchwarden of Berkhamsted, whose Requiem I attended yesterday.
David Pearce, for whom we prayed during his long dying and now after his death, was a quintessential old-fashioned school-master, who’d come to Berkhamsted for his first job in the 1960’s and never left. Schoolmasters, churchwardens and priests – we come and we go. If we do no actual harm we are often counted a blessing; a respectable number of people may even turn up to see us off.
David had been retired from the school for many years, and had stepped down as churchwarden after a cancer diagnosis which he out-lived by years, yet there were over 400 people at his memorial service earlier in the week and large number at his requiem yesterday. On the way home I thought about why. We think of John the Baptist, the gruff accusatory preacher, as the type of a prophet. But prophets are not necessarily mad shouty people by Oxford Circus tube; they are people who articulate the truth in such a way as to effect change. To reverse St Augustine, Jesus was the Word, but John was the voice. And David had a voice which I can still hear as I speak to you.
David was forthright and honest but always generous. He would talk to anyone, do anything for anyone and he could always gather and motivate a group of people to get something done. It is an essential mark of the prophet to share enthusiasm in such a way that people work together as a group for a constructive end.
David drew back from ordination as a young man, and was never certain he’d done the right thing (but even John the Baptist had his doubts: ‘are you the one or are we to wait for another’). But in his constructive enthusiasm for the gospel, regardless of labels lay a significant ministry that is certainly prophetic. Not from our tradition, he was by far the most supportive churchwarden I ever had in introducing Catholic elements into our worship: he saw them as ‘preparing the way of the Lord’.
Usually a smartly turned out churchwarden, David could also channel an arresting John the Baptist-like appearance when in pursuit of one of many hobbies, his version of extreme cycling, which went on well past the cancer diagnosis. Cycling from Walsingham to Berkhamsted, in eastern Sicily, the length and breadth of the UK and Europe, or so it seemed, he made friends wherever he went and kept in touch with them ever after. Not afraid of the world, he was also un-embarrassable: more useful prophetic qualities.
David was also convivial, a poet, an organiser of festivals; he was a prophet, as himself, a reminder that we can all be a voice for God. Among his many memorable utterances was a favourite refrain – ‘live gloriously’, which he did, without wealth or worldy position but with an evident store of joy in God’s human creation and a desire and hope that it should shine to the world. His mantra to the boys he taught was that he didn’t care whether they were good or bad at anything as long as they weren’t boring. There is wisdom for the church, and the preacher, in that. He was always looking to find glory, the essential quality of God, in people and situations.
I think also of a better-known Christian prophet, yesterday’s great Jesuit saint, Francis Xavier. Francis was another prodigious and explicitly missional traveller. In service of this he was an extravagantly indiscriminate ‘Baptizer’. One of his letters from India states that on a bumper day he baptised 4000 children. Do the maths. If we allow him a 12-hour baptising day that is one child every 11 seconds. So impressive was his baptism tally that when he died and Rome could not recover his whole body, the Jesuit General ordered his baptising right arm to be severed at the elbow and brought home; hence the jewelled arm-reliquary you’ll see in the Gesù in Rome.
This prodigal attitude to sacraments was about giving everyone access to salvation, ‘preparing the way of the Lord’. He did also spend vast amounts of energy catechising children and adults. But he believed that you have to be in relationship with God, of which baptism is the primary sign, before you can progress in faith; you have to be ‘born from above’, in Jesus’ words, before you can mature as a child of God.
Prophets come in many different shapes. The baptism of Francis Xavier and the baptism of John were different, for John’s was primarily about repentance, not generous inclusion. But any prophetic programme is about effecting change, and change is the meaning of repentance. Part of the change which followed John was the inclusive baptism gifted to the Church which we withold at our peril.
Prophets come in different shapes, but they have things in common too. I’ve already suggested that I saw in David an identifiable prophetic quality because he could share his enthusiasm, gather a group of people, and set them to a fruitful task.
A Jesuit priest writing in the Tablet says of Francis Xavier:
‘Francis actually got off his backside and went out to the world. The church these days can act as though we have every right to sit in here and wait for the world to come to us, often [then] expecting it to talk our talk and walk our walk before we have much to do with it.’
As a result, he says that his own priestly rule is ‘I baptise anything that moves; I marry anything that moves; and I bury anything that doesn’t. The last is another good aspiration for the church.
It is our job as Christians to be a voice, to articulate God in the conversation of the world; to give, as St Paul says, an account of the hope that is in us; to take opportunities like the secular Christmas noisily blaring and brightly blazing all around us to say, as Paul did in Athens, you are worshipping an unknown God; please let us introduce you to him: this story you love to remember at Christmas can change your life for the whole year and is better even than a John Lewis catalogue; the hopes you have deep inside you are windows to God. We may not blame people for not understanding our faith; unless we take responsibility for sharing what it means.
The last time I saw David, in the Hospice, knowing he was dying, he urgently wanted me to know how happy he was. He chose for his Requiem the seasonally apt Isaiah 25, where the Lord lays out a great feast (‘of rich food and well-matured wines’) for his people, a passage which concludes:
“Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
The hope of living gloriously is what we have to share; it will only be credible if that is done joyously. Next week is Gaudete Sunday, when Advent insists that we recall the centrality of joy in the Christian life. That is a prophetic spirit which will make sense of Christmas to the world.
The best line in the newish translation of the Roman Missal is one of the new alternative formulae of dismissal. At the end of Mass, the priest says to the people:
‘Go in peace, glorfiying the Lord by your life.’