Sermon for Trinity 8 High Mass Sunday 11 August 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings:Genesis 15.1-6; Psalm 33,12-21; Hebrews 11,1-3,8-16; Luke 12.32-40
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11.1)
When Daniel and Maria (whose banns have just been read) come here on their wedding day, I will ask each of them: “Will you love, comfort, honour and protect her/him, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her/him as long as you both shall live?” And they will say: “I will.”
Then, as they make their marriage vows, they will say: “I take you to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
Bride and groom make these vows because of what they know of each other. That knowledge is the basis on which they can make the act of faith and trust in the other person for their life together in the future.
In committing our life to another person, we cannot know for certain what the future holds for us. Much of our life may be fairly predictable for much of the time, but none of us can foresee the future with infallibility.
We set out on a journey of faith, placing our trust in one another: “in good times and in bad.” The setting-off point of that journey is in past experience – but its direction of travel is into the future.
When we say, “I will”, it is both a statement and an act of will, a commitment to fidelity, to being worthy of trust. I want to do this and I am going to. It is an act of hope as well as of faith and love, because we look forward to a life, a future, which is better than we have known in the past. Of course, to borrow words of St. Paul, often read at weddings, now we “know only in part.” It is only in the future that we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.
The Letter to the Hebrews is not a wedding sermon, although it is more a sermon than a letter. It is addressed to a group of Christians, probably converts from Judaism, who feel that they are experiencing the “worse” of life rather than the “better.” As followers of a religion which had no legal status in the Roman Empire, they were vulnerable not just to official persecution but to the prejudice and suspicion of the majority population towards a minority; one whose members could easily become the scapegoat for resentments about economic and political misfortunes, outbreaks of disease or natural disaster. Mob violence can be whipped up by demagogues and manipulated by unscrupulous politicians. We do not need to look back as far as Roman times to know the truth of this. While it is unlikely that the Christian Hebrews it was addressed to were actually facing martyrdom, some had already been imprisoned, robbed of their possessions, experienced hostility, ridicule and shame – simply because of their faith in Jesus, a crucified Saviour – something the dominant culture found baffling, even repugnant.
In the light of this, those Jewish Christians were wondering whether it would not be wiser to return to the shelter of their old religion, which had at least a recognized legal status, rather than risk an uncertain future.
The writer’s counter to this anxiety is to give a series of example of faith; a kind of litany of Old Testament saints, heroes of faith who, like Abraham, trusted in God’s promise, even though in his case, he never got to possess more of the promised land than enough space to be buried in.
The Hebrew word emunah, which is used of faith in the Old Testament, referred to truth, honesty and loyalty – especially on the part of God. God was faithful to his people, so the appropriate response of his people to this fidelity should be faithful trust and obedience. So Abraham believed God’s promise and set out for a promised inheritance. He would even obey the unthinkable demand to sacrifice the son in whom that future was embodied.
The prophets would see the people of Israel’s misfortunes as the consequence of their lack of faith; their opting for the apparent security of trust in the gods of nations which seemed to provide more in the way of worldly success. These prophets would call on Israel to trust once again in God to deliver them.
The Christians to whom Hebrews is addressed thought life precarious enough without the uncertainty added by their peculiar religion, and so are tempted to seek security amidst the surrounding culture in the old ways. The writer reminds them, that the life of faith has always been like this.
“All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them……they were strangers and sojourners on the earth…..seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city for them.”
Next Sunday, I shall not be here as we will be visiting my mother in the North and I will be celebrating and preaching not here but in my home parish, so let me anticipate some words from next Sunday’s reading from Hebrews, “they looked to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” They looked to him as one who leads them to that better country, the heavenly Jerusalem we have just been singing about.
We do not know how the recipients of that sermon responded to it. But we do know that to that litany of Old Testament saints has been added to ever since and is being added too still, by those who have faced the future, looking to Jesus, who goes before us in faith, following in the footsteps of his life, finding their faith brought to perfection in him.
They, too, are given to us as examples and encouragements in faith, which is why we celebrate their memory and tell their stories. For some, their situations were quite ordinary – but in them they did extraordinary things. For others, they were anything but ordinary – and yet they still did extraordinary things.
If you want something to read over the summer, something to encourage you in your faith, let me recommend the latest book from Archbishop Rowan Williams. Don’t worry, it’s not one of his academic books that operate at an intellectual level few of us can ever hope to reach. It’s called, “Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way.” They are not all saints in the official sense.
At Mass on Friday I spoke about two women the Church commemorated that day; one of whom has a chapter in the book. The course of their lives were very different; one would die in old age and able to look back on a great work achieved for God; the other’s life would be cut tragically and cruelly short – and yet she would die content.
Mary Sumner was born in an upper class English home in the early years of the 19th century. Aged only 19, she married a young curate – who would become in turn a parish priest, an archdeacon and finally a bishop. They were happily married for 60 years. Mary’s life could simply have been that of the home and family she loved – but she saw that the Church of the time, while preaching the virtues of marriage and family, was actually doing little to support and guide women in marriage and parenthood. So she began a little group of young mothers in her parish to provide this. From such a small beginning, she would come to see the Mothers Union grow into an movement which reached around the world and continues to enhance the lives of countless women and children.
Edith Stein was born in a large Jewish family in what was then Breslau in eastern Germany. A precocious child, she would go on to be a brilliant student of philosophy – although denied the academic recognition she deserved, first because she was a woman, and then because she was Jewish.
She had abandoned the practice of Judaism declaring herself an atheist, while still a school girl. “I have given up praying,” she said. But at university she became aware that many of those involved in the philosophical movement of which she was part, were practicing Christians. They prayed and it made a difference in their lives. One day, while staying with friends, looking for something to read, she took down a copy of St. Teresa of Avila’s account of her life. She stayed up all night reading it from beginning to end. By the time she had finished it, she had decided that she must be baptised and become a Carmelite nun.
To cut a long story short, she would eventually enter the Carmel in Cologne, just as the dark clouds of Nazism where gathering around the Jews of Germany. She was, in fact, one of the few people who foresaw clearly where the future lay – but she refused ever to deny her Jewishness. Her order moved her for her safety to a convent in the Netherlands, but this would prove only a brief respite. She and her sister Rosa, who had become a lay Carmelite, were arrested in 1942 in the deportation of Jews who had become Christians.
Archbishop Rowan devotes one of his chapters to her. He remarks that she knew that the conflict in Germany was about more than politics; it was about ‘who is Lord?’ Just as in the early church the martyrs died because they would not say, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ (they knew that Jesus was), so with Edith. When the SS officer who had come to arrest her greeted her with “Heil Hitler,” she responded with the words with which she would greet her sisters each day, Laudetur Jesus Christus – Jesus Christ be praised. Jesus Christ – and not the Fuhrer – is Lord.
It is recorded that on the nightmare journey to Auschwitz, she was a figure of great calm who tended to traumatized mothers and their children. So she, who had given up marriage and children for the sake of Jesus Christ, became a mother in Israel at the last. She who had given up prayer, had taken it up again. It bore fruit in serenity, love and courage.
The manuscript of last book from the pen of this brilliant woman was left unfinished on the desk in her cell. It was called “The Science of the Cross.” It can be said to have been completed, its last chapter written, on the journey to Auschwitz. Her death was at one level simply because she was Jewish, but at another it was the consequence of her deliberate decision to identify herself both with her people and with her Lord. As they were being taken away, she said to her sister: “Come, Rosa, we go for our people.”
In searching for the truth as a philosopher, she had found in Christ that love which “rejoices in the truth…bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things;” that love which “never ends” and with faith and hope abides as the greatest of virtues because God is love.