Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Second Sunday of Christmas 2016
Start Date 3rd Jan 2016 10:00am
Description

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

For the cynic, St Paul is full of spurious self- dramatization, manipulating his readers by presenting himself variously, in different colours, in order to win them over to his side. So sometimes he presents himself with false humility, as 'the chief of sinners', weak and fearful; sometimes as the victim who has suffered for the Gospel more than anyone else; sometimes with barely concealed vanity and egoism: be 'imitators of me', he confidently says.
The less cynical simply take him at his word. We should believe what he says in this morning's reading, that 'we never came with words of flattery, nor did we seek praise ...we are simply wanting to share the Gospel…and very ourselves'. In other words, if he sometimes presents himself in different ways it's only to better share the Gospel: so he is sincere.

To be honest, I'm not much interested in trying to deconstruct his character like this, either way. I don't see how the texts alone could ever tell us enough to get a complete window onto his soul. I think it's enough to know this: that whatever his mixed motives he was clearly a man seized of a vision, who managed to sustain this vision; a vision which bore extraordinary fruit; a vision which, as a matter of historical record, launched the movement of Christian faith which even now still has world-wide effect. And he did this even though he was also a flawed, fallible human being, like the rest of us.

Which presents us with a conundrum, as old as the hills, yet curiously contemporary as well, and a fitting one to consider at the beginning of a new year. How can a great moral and spiritual vision be sustained, when we are all so flawed?

One way which recent social trends encourage is simply to pretend. Whether we're social reformers, religious leaders or politicians, we're expected to mask our frailties. We're told to present our vision and ourselves with complete self-belief as if we really are capable and worthy of delivering it. It's the triumph of style over substance, rhetoric over reality. It's the same sort of spin we see in slick boardroom presentations, perfectly groomed job applications. The trouble is, it's always a lie. No-one can really deliver everything. From time to time there are attempts to puncture this unreality. The discourse of humility is back in fashion I'm told, in some corporate culture. But I wonder—how much is this just staged humility, just ticking another box? Still pretending!

But does that mean that to be honest we simply have to give up on having a moral and spiritual vision at all, become just a cynic about everything, including ourselves? Certainly not! We live by vision. Without a vision the people perish. And so we need another way; what George Herbert, the 17th-century priest and poet, called the way of 'simplicitas'.

Simplicitas does not ask us either to pretend or abandon our vision: all it asks is complete truthfulness, especially truthfulness about ourselves as we pursue the vision. It asks that we never dress up what we are or say or do in our pursuit of what is good. This isn't false modesty—that too would be a lie. Nor is it necessarily the same as simplicity—because the vision we're trying to live may actually be complex. It is simply the determination, in all we say and do, to be truthful and consistent—to do what we say and believe, and believe what we say and do—no more, no less: to have integrity, in other words.

For Herbert this was the guiding principle of how he pursued his vision in poetry. He began his poetic career with rhetorical flourishes to impress: 'when first my lines of heavenly joys made mention…I sought our quaint words and trim invention…curling with metaphors a plain intention/decking the sense, as if it were to sell…' But then he saw the falsity of it: 'how wide is all this long pretence!' Well, as in poetry, so in life, and religion. In all our speech, action, ceremony, prayers, politics, can we not learn to present ourselves in pursuit of our vision only as we truly are: - which, in Luther's words, is of course always 'simul iustus et peccator'. That is, we are both redeemed children of God, and ineffectual sinners: a complex truth, but the truth.

This call to simplicitas, this integrity, isn't just a passing whim of 17th-century manners. It's rooted in the very being of God, not least as God presents Himself in the Christmas story, the incarnation. When the Word became flesh, lived bodily as a human being in Jesus Christ that was God's supreme act of integrity as a perfect being. It was God not just saying with great flourish that He loves humanity, not just uttering fine words about forgiveness, self-giving, victory over evil: it was God truly doing what he said, in flesh and blood. A divine integrity which gives us confidence in God for now too…

The challenge for us is therefore to live with integrity ourselves. Since we are limited and flawed, not perfect, since we cannot fully deliver the kingdom of God ourselves, this means we don't claim we can. Yet we still pursue the vision, because we do believe in God's capacities. For that too is part of being truthful. And that's how we will truly be able to sustain the vision, credibly.

This challenge is surely for public life too. It's the challenge to stop over-claiming what we can do with our visions. How absurd the slogans of 'eliminating world poverty by 2020', or whatever, as if we flawed humans have no limits! The goal is fine but the overblown rhetoric, far from sustaining the vision, will only encourage cynicism. Whereas, if public figures, in politics, education, entertainment, can resist this temptation, stop selling their wares with such hyperbole, start being real, truthful, show some integrity—that is how vision will really be sustained; and that integrity is how we can begin to live truly in the image of God…

Simplicitas, integrity: a New Year resolution for us all perhaps?

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