Sermon for Solemn Evensong, Te Deum & Solemn Benediction Sunday 2 November 2014
Sermon preached by The Right Reverend & Right Honourable Richard Chartres
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that 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.
After the great roll call of those who in previous ages lived a life of faith, the author of Hebrews addresses us. We in our turn are in the words of St Paul “called to be saints”.
In contemporary language “saints” are exceptional. In the New Testament it is the ordinary calling of Christians as we follow Jesus Christ.
At this festival time and in this holy place it is good to be clear – you and I are not called to put on uber spiritual airs and graces but to be everyday saints.
I know it is difficult in the midst of the strange disease of modern life; its sick hurry and divided aims and with the endless appetite of subjectivity for experiences. All this clouds our calling and sooner or later makes us weary to the point where it is hard to be so heart whole and un-cynical as to “praise the Lord of Heaven: praise him in the height” and the years draw nigh when we shall say “I have no pleasure in them”.
But what is the nature of the race that is set before us if we hear the call to be saints? How shall we train for the race that will bring us to the point at which perhaps we begin to understand what it is to be a saint and the suffering, the glory and the delight in being so?
I should not have been surprised but I have been discovering more and more wisdom in the three words which emerged from thousands of conversations among believers which have been distilled into our Capital vision 2020.
Confidence; compassion; creativity. Or in a demotic translation which I encountered on a recent visit to a parish in the East End – Worship God; make friends and change the world.
If we would be saints we must “look to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” and have confidence, faith together, that although we may not understand at the beginning of our race all that the gospel demands and promises, looking to Jesus, the human face of God and his way will bring us to greater understanding.
One of the characteristics of the way we live now is the “selfie” – taking photographs of ourselves wherever we happen to be. It is a largely harmless foible although sometimes it postpones indefinitely the moment when we actually observe what is going on around us. But the selfie can also symbolize a preoccupation with ourselves and the astonishing belief that there is nothing real or meaningful outside our own minds and their projections; as if love and joy and reason only appeared with homo sapiens 195,000 years ago and were not already present in some way in the organisation and matter of the universe from which we are made.
Until very recently it appeared obvious that human beings had to look beyond themselves if we were to understand our place in the universe or the meaning of our lives. This looking beyond and the health giving conviction that there is truth to be found in this looking beyond our immediate sense impressions explains why the opposite to faith is not the doubt which fuels our further explorations. Rather the opposite to faith is the spiritual selfie, the life turned in upon the self which the bible calls sin.
The first step in fulfilling our vocation to be saints is to refuse to think and act as little gods, instead following Jesus Christ who “came in the form of a servant”. Looking to him in prayer and action and journeying with him.
Confidence in his way however leads inescapably to compassion. God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Love for God is not an emotion which comes and goes; it is self-giving. The self-giving of Jesus Christ gave a gift of power to his enemies and there is a terrible equation in the spiritual life that the more you love the more you suffer. We know this at many levels from the parent or friend who knows that love often lies in the letting go however painful to the martyr who knows that to be true to our deepest self may involve the sacrifice of many desirable things including life itself.
This truth has caused some Christian teachers in the past to present the faith as a self- lacerating way and that the cross stands for the “I” crossed out. There is truth here but it is not the conclusive word. St Bernard’s teaching is the most profound Christian wisdom.
Love of self for self’s sake
Love of God for self’s sake
Love of God for God’s sake
Love of self for God’s sake
We lose ourselves in order to love and find ourselves in loving.
Confidence, compassion and creativity.
The race is not concluded for you and me and not for humanity.
The prophet gives voice to a cry of joy – Be glad and rejoice in that which I create. He goes on to imagine a culture of prosperity and harmony which involves humanity and the whole earth. Notice – Paradise regained is vegetarian.
In our interconnected world our visions of the future should embrace the whole of creation. St Isaac of Nineveh wrote “An elder was once asked, what is a compassionate heart? He replied it is a heart on fire for the whole creation, for humanity for the birds, for the animals, for the demons and all that exists.” Modern ecological knowledge rebukes any domesticated version of our compassion which confines it to humanity. Isaiah is all embracing and such sketches and anticipations of the end time when we are to rejoice in that which God has created not only exercises a gravitational pull on the present which hastens the consummation of all things but is a further liberation from the littleness and the stale smell of interiors which deadens the soul and diverts us from our calling to be saints.
Participating in God’s creation demands that we cultivate the beginners mind. Everything has a history including, as we have discovered, the universe itself. We are part of a cosmic drama and part of being a saint is to realise our own part in bringing this world to perfection. Here we have no abiding city rather, as the letter to the Hebrews goes on to say, we seek one that is to come.
So if we hear the call to be a saint:
Look earnestly to the way of Jesus Christ – have confidence that if you really set out on his way it will lead us into friendship with God.
Be generous and have compassion like God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us.
Glory in the creativity of God – chant the psalms, attend to your garden, contemplate the glory of the heavens, “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” so you will be liberated from the smell of interiors and be a blessing to the world.