Sermon given at Evensong attended by members of The Normandy Veterans’ Association
25 October 2009 at 15:00 pm
Ecclesiastes 12 & II Tim 2: 1-7
Revd. Canon Professor Martyn Percy, Principal, Ripon College Cuddesdon & the Oxford Ministry Course
Let me begin, if I may, with a story about a very different kind of uniformed organisation. It was April 2003, and I was driving purposefully down the road on a wet spring evening – I was already slightly late, as usual – to pick up my son from Cubs. But there was no need to panic, I mused, since the ever-enthusiastic Cub leader normally overran the meetings by at least 10-15 minutes. Sure enough, I arrived at the entrance to the church hall to discover a group of parents waiting somewhat testily for their offspring to come out.
But as I joined the small throng to show solidarity in patience, I realised I had walked into a reasonably terse discussion. Each parent was clutching a letter from Akela, which reminded parents and Cubs that Sunday was St.George’s Day, and that Cubs were expected (indeed, the letter stated that it was ‘compulsory’) to attend church parade. Smart kit and clean shoes were also recommended. The parents seemed to be puzzled and offended by the letter. I was puzzled. Smart kit is not always easy to come by; and clean shoes? (Well, shining them is a lost art to this generation: what child today knows of spit and polish?).
However, the parents stood around and were discussing another aspect of the letter – this curious word ‘compulsory’. One looked bewildered, and cast around for empathy as he explained that his son played soccer on Sunday, so attendance was doubtful. Another mused that the family were all due to be away for the weekend, and that changing plans for a church parade was neither possible nor desirable. Another looked less than pleased that a ‘voluntary’ organisation such as the Cubs, which she added her son went to by choice, should now be using words like ‘compulsory’. There was no question of obligation; attendance and belonging was a matter of preference.
In our time, a culture of obligation has rapidly given way to one of consumerism. Duty, and the desire to participate in aspects of society where steadfast obligatory support was once cherished, has been rapidly eroded by choice, individualism and rampant consumerism. Indeed, the custom of belonging to an organisation now seems to be more a matter of possession than of commitment.
Some years ago, a philosopher by the name of Alistair McIntyre wrote a prescient book entitled After Virtue (1984). It was and is a book for our times. Despairing of the endemic consumerism, individualism and many of the other aspects of life that we now take for granted, he mused that we might now be entering a new age. An age that was led not by people of exemplary lives; but rather, a culture dominated by therapists, entertainers and managers. We need them all, of course. But McIntyre asked: ‘where are our saints’? For we need them too.
We are at a peculiar crossroads in our culture. Our children know what they want to own and be (fortune and fame). But they seldom seem to know what they want to do. They are often motivated by the lure of popularity and prosperity; and so find less enchantment in the idea and practice of duty and service. The people we often laud in our society are conspicuous in their consumption rather than by their charity. But this is a crossroads for us, as I say; for we cannot continue like this.
As McIntyre notes in After Virtue, when it comes to morality, vocation and spirituality, we are handling the fragments of a broken pot – a broken cistern by the fountain, if you will – that we cannot re-make. Whilst the echo of duty is still strong enough to evoke all kinds of wistful memories, it appears to be too weak and diffuse to suggest any clear way forward.
Our readings this afternoon suggest, however, that we do well to pay attention to the value of virtue and the place of vocation. And in our faith, these are not policies or good practices that enhance the organisation. They are in fact given – in effect, revealed truth. These revelations do not offer choice, but rather obedience in the context of a proper vocation. And perhaps our only task today is to value goodness as an essential element for the proper re-ordering of a humane society.
It takes a lot of time and patience to learn how to be good; and just as much time and patience to learn how to be wise. So it can be no surprise in our New Testament reading today that Paul writes so eloquently to ‘my child, Timothy’ – even though he is an adult. And then gently reaches for three images that suggest that the path to goodness and wisdom is through discipline, dedication and diligence.
No solider can be a good soldier without discipline. No athlete, no matter how much natural talent they possess, will succeed without dedication. And no farmer can expect a harvest except through the careful husbandry borne out of due diligence.
In all of these activities – soldiering, being an athlete and farming – patience and time are required. And although some important choices might be made, each person committed to being a farmer, soldier or athlete has made a conscious choice to be dedicated to what they do, which excludes other choices. The life of discipline has been chosen, with its incumbent diligence. There is wisdom in this, and much goodness. For we all depend on people with such vocations.
No wonder, then, that the writer of Ecclesiastes sums up twelve chapters of wisdom with these words (12:13-14): ‘…this is the end of the matter – all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of man’. To fear God is, of course, the beginning of wisdom. But what about this curious and quaint word, ‘duty’? One hears of it so little these days; and when mentioned, it is often equated with being old-fashioned and un-thinking.
But I want to suggest to you that the time is ripe for its revival. Freedom to choose is not all it’s cracked up to be. Our society desperately needs to recover the means of valuing duty and obligation. Some things should be done, not because we want to, or feel like it; but because they are good and valuable acts and goals, irrespective of our options and sentiments.
Our duties, in other words, might be more important than our desires. And true wisdom is found, often, when duty and desire are aligned, both serving and becoming truth and goodness.
So when a lawyer asks Jesus in the gospel of Luke (10:25), ‘what should I do to inherit eternal life?’, Jesus does not say, ‘well, what works for you?’. Jesus exhorts the man to love God with all the heart and soul he can muster, and to love your neighbour as you would yourself. It is demanding and costly being a disciple. Almost exactly the same question is put elsewhere in the gospel by a rich young ruler (18:18), and here Jesus tells the man to sell all he has, give it to the poor and ‘come, follow me’. Again, we have more demands; duties.
But in both cases, the heart of the question is something we rarely talk about today: goodness. When Jesus is asked ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’, he replies ‘why do you call me good?’. He does not deny his skill (teaching); but he asks the questioner to ponder something else: goodness. It is as though Jesus is saying, “never mind if I am an effective teacher (he is), because there are plenty of great teachers out there in Palestine; the fundamental issue is goodness…who is good?”.
We are here today to remember and celebrate the many good people who negotiated their way through the bocage and beaches of Normandy; through towns and villages; through great difficulty and many dangers. They did so because, rather as Paul suggests, they knew more than a little something about duty. And this is what we gives thanks for today. Indeed, for this we all great gratitude to the Normandy Veterans. The discipline of a solider, the dedication of an athlete, and the diligence of the farmer all bear their fruit. But what kind of fruit, exactly?
A popular story from World War Two tells of a Romanian Christian who found himself imprisoned at Belsen, and deprived of all he needed to sustain his faith: no crucifix, bible, icons, devotional books, corporate worship or knotted prayer beads. So he prayed in secret – that he might respond to the call of love. He found himself spending time in the camp with the sick, the starving, the diseased, the dying and the betrayers – all those who were shunned by others.
One day, as the camp drew close to liberation, an atheist – a priest, in fact, who had his faith shattered by the experience of war – came to see the Romanian and said, ‘I see how you live here. Tell me about the God you worship’. And the Romanian replied: ‘He is like me’. I wonder which of us could reply: ‘he is like me’? You see, in wisdom it is often the example that makes the difference, not the ideas; the practice, not the theories. That’s why we are judged not by what we own or might have achieved, but by the fruit and character of our lives. We are measured by love, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, humility, gentleness and faithfulness. We are shaped by grace, wisdom, understanding, counsel, character, knowledge, holiness.
To be kind and good is the beginning of wisdom. To love mercy and fight injustice is wisdom. To know your place before God: that is wisdom. These things may not seem like much today. But when we become wise, we will begin to see that this is all that really matters. This is indeed the end of it.