Sermon given at Sung Eucharist, St Margaret's Church Sunday 26 September 2010
26 September 2010 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Amos 6: 1a, 4-7; I Timothy 6: 6-19; Luke 16: 19-end
I approach the task of delivering a sermon to you this morning with some trepidation. For one thing, when I climb into a pulpit I generally feel that people are either indifferent to my presence or mildly pleased to see me there. On this occasion I know that we would all prefer someone else to be preaching. I know you would. So would I. And that leads me to my second anxiety. In the past when I have been preaching a farewell sermon in any pastoral charge, I have used the opportunity to reinforce some of the key messages I have been trying to plug away at through my time there. To preach someone else’s farewell sermon is not quite so easy. How much time should a preacher in those circumstances spend saying nice things, and how does that avoid sounding like a panegyric? Of course, happily, this is no panegyric. We can all agree to celebrate the fact that Robert is alive and pretty well, or at least making remarkable progress, though I should say that he needs to conserve his energies and will sadly not be able to speak to people individually after the service. His looks don’t pity him, as my mother used to say. Robert and Leah will be relieved to know that I am planning not even remotely to say how much we love them and have valued their ministry here, true though that would be. Instead I hope to follow Robert’s example and preach the Gospel, in season and out of season.
You will forgive me if I begin with some reflections on the astonishing visit last weekend of Pope Benedict XVI to Great Britain and in particular on his time with us here at Westminster Abbey. You will be familiar with the Doppler Effect: the sound tone of a train approaching is quite different from that of a train receding. The tone of the media during the approach of the papal visit was to concentrate on scandals, and quite unjustly on the Pope’s supposed role in cover-up, and, more justly, on his traditionalism. Lord Patten contributed to the idea that the Pope was coming to the most secular country he had ever visited and therefore that there would be an inevitable clash of cultures.
In the event, the Pope concentrated heavily in all his addresses on the tremendously rich Christian inheritance of these islands and on the large contribution this nation has made to the advancement of civilisation and decency in the world. He mentioned amongst others William Wilberforce, David Livingston and Florence Nightingale, St Edward the Confessor, St Margaret of Scotland and St Bede the Venerable, besides the tradition of parliamentary democracy and common law that have given so much to the English-speaking nations and the Commonwealth with its 2 billion people. This clear appreciation of the history of our civilisation, coupled with the Pope’s personal warmth and humility, led to a significant change of tone in the media’s reporting of the event itself.
Here at the Abbey, where I felt he was quite captivated by the music and the liturgical style as well as by the Abbey itself, the Pope spoke in more detail of St Edward. “Edward, King of England, remains a model of Christian witness and an example of that true grandeur to which the Lord summons his disciples in the Scriptures we have just heard: the grandeur of a humility and obedience grounded in Christ’s own example [cf. Phil 2:6-8], the grandeur of a fidelity which does not hesitate to embrace the mystery of the Cross out of undying love for the divine Master and unfailing hope in his promises [cf. Mk 10:43-44].” So the Pope praised the rich Christian culture of our nation as well as warning of the risks deriving from what he called ‘aggressive forms of secularism’. In the key sentence of his address in the Abbey, the Pope warned, “Fidelity to the word of God, precisely because it is a true word, demands of us an obedience which leads us together to a deeper understanding of the Lord’s will, an obedience which must be free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age.”
We shall each have our own view how far and in what ways the Church must accommodate to the spirit of the age. That varying judgement is of course at the heart of our differences not only within the Anglican Communion but between the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions. To take one example, the Anglican bishops took a key step in 1930 when they came to the cautious conclusion that they should not oppose the use of artificial forms of contraception in certain circumstances. In 1967, the Roman Catholic Church took a different stand. Questions of human dignity and sexuality will continue to be debated perhaps for ever, and the dividing lines will be as much within as between communions. But there are other ethical issues which do not divide Christians but do require of Christians some division between our own belief and practice and that of the prevailing culture of the world today. Whilst I would disagree that ours is a profoundly secular society, and it seems that the Pope might have come to a deeper view himself, there will always be points at which Christianity challenges the world and equally challenges us as Christians not to think or to live as the world thinks or lives. One of these is over the use of wealth and another over suffering.
The offence of the rich man in the parable we heard as today’s Gospel was not in his wealth as such but in his abuse of his wealth. St Luke is clear that Jesus addressed the parable to those Pharisees who loved money and who ignored the needs of the poor and weak amongst them. They might appear to have everything now, but the material richness of their life overwhelmed and destroyed their eternal soul and spirit. The religious tradition underlying this teaching of Jesus reflected the angry proclamations of the prophets in Samaria during the 8th century before Christ. We heard Amos in comparatively moderate vein in the first reading this morning. He could be far more strident: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’ The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fish-hooks [Amos 4: 1-2]”. To the rich, St Paul in the second lesson says, “do good, be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share [I Timothy 6: 18]”. The lesson could not be clearer to an age deeply ambivalent about riches: do not glory in wealth for its own sake but use your wealth for the benefit of others. It is a lesson for all of us, since even the poorest amongst is astonishingly rich by the standards of the majority of people in our world.
If that is the primary message of the parable, there is another, easily overlooked: the poor man Lazarus is no cipher but is held up for admiration on the grounds of his patient endurance, of his suffering. He who lies in the gateway of the rich man’s house, starving and covered in sores, will have his reward in heaven. In the 21st century, we do not understand suffering. We hope to avoid it. We think we should be able to avoid it. None of us can. Suffering and dying are inevitable realities of our human experience. Life is a mortal condition. The key to happiness is found in our approach to suffering, our use of the often unexpected and unwelcome circumstances in which we find ourselves. We long to be strong and expect to be in control of our own lives if not of those of people around us. We have to learn that only One controls our life and He numbers every hair of our head and knows and loves us more than we can possibly know and love ourselves. We must learn to live our lives in surrender to Him.
St Paul came to understand his own considerable suffering. And his understanding can help to feed our own as we confront the reality of surprising and undeserved suffering. He learnt to accept the thorn in his flesh and to offer his own sufferings to God the Father in union with the sufferings of Christ for the benefit of the Christian community. We too are called, in the time-honoured phrase of the spiritual director, to ‘offer it up’. St Paul said to the Colossians, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church [Colossians 1: 24]”.
To God be the glory.