My last sermon as Vicar of St James’. It was, you might say, just another Sunday: I rose early to continue writing the sermon, then celebrated the 8 am Holy Communion, with its welcome, tangible quietness. Parish Communion on this second Sunday of the month has a smaller congregation than other weeks as all the children and families attend Messy Church in the village school – but the baptism that followed featured any number of lovely, lively children.
The readings (for the fourth Sunday after Trinity) were from the Old Testament’s Zechariah 9, 9-12 and from Matthew’s Gospel 11, 16-19 and 25-30.
‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants…’
Last Sunday, along with many of you, I attended the ordination – among 10 other deacons – of our friend Lewis Pearson. The service at the Cathedral was a moving, if lengthy, occasion, with much impressive music and ceremony, and a subtle and powerful sermon. That was perhaps enough inspiration for a normal week, but on Monday, my car was returned by Tim, the village mechanic I use, unexpectedly (and untypically) promptly. I took it as a sign from God that I should indeed attend the triennial Salisbury Diocese Clergy Conference, held in Derbyshire (for which unlikely location there are strong, mainly financial, reasons.) More than three hundred of us clergy engaged with the chosen theme of Faith in an age of Uncertainty. As usual, the highlight for me was the company of so many congenial and interesting colleagues, rather than the official presentations and talks. Wiser clergy did not try to attend everything expected of them. Meeting a friend one morning at breakfast I remarked that I was being selective about what I went to. It turned out he was also being selective, and I suspect wise: he spent the two full days of the conference by taking himself off to Chesterfield to watch the cricket match taking place between Derbyshire and Durham…
Returning to St James’ after these forays into the fine-tuned Cathedral and the slightly prescribed enthusiasm of the clergy conference, I breathe a sigh of relief. If we live in an age of uncertainty, then we best adapt to it in our parishes and our places of work. If we are to learn anew how faith can guide us in our perplexity, then that faith is best regained or renewed not amid the extraordinary life of the Cathedral or conference but here amid the ordinary life of a parish church like St James’ and in a down to earth community such as Alderholt.
This is because Christianity is less a theory that can ‘in general’ provide a faith in a time of uncertainty. Much more, Christianity is always specific, always incarnate, always particular not general. Christianity is the means by which individual people, you or I, can find our way amid the unique circumstances that make up your or my life, your or my specific ‘time of uncertainty.’ A conference can certainly help and encourage us. Worship in a cathedral – or other remarkable place – can inspire us. But just as after a holiday, back home, back at work, back amid the family and friends and neighbours, is where it’s really at, so Christianity is always parochial, always grounded, always personal.
In this, I think Christianity has our measure. I for one am very confident at discerning what is good for other people. I can tell you at length what is wrong with the world. What matters however and what is much more of a challenge is to challenge my own egoism, my own pride, my own fear, my own recurrent failings. I will gladly help remove the speck from your eye – or, more likely, give you a theory about your speck or my thoughts on specks in general. Anything rather than attend to the awkward plank that protrudes from and somewhat obscures the vision of my own.
But our Lord – Zechariah the prophet predicts in our first reading – will arrive humbly and lowly, upon a donkey not a charger. Our Lord will sometimes come to you in an arresting moment of shock and disclosure so that you have to stop the car and weep in the layby. But more often he will come to you in the momentary reminder occasioned by a beggar on the street, or the recurrent challenge provided by a difficult colleague at work, or the kindly courtesy shown by a stranger – or adversary whom we had despised.
Jesus was all about particularity not generality. He taught by parables not theories. He responded to individual cries for help. He revealed the one overarching God in a particular place and at a particular time. The incarnation – God taking flesh – is a scandal that always offends our preference for generality over personal change. God asks you, and me, What do you – truly – want? He says, Come to me, each person who is weary and heavy burdened, each one who wishes to find their true home, their true rest, amid this world. And to each of us is given the assurance that his yoke is easy, his burden light. A recovering alcoholic, or addict, will tell you that the first essential steps on the road to recovery are both the simplest and the most difficult: to recognise one’s addiction and one’s own utter helplessness – that you cannot make it on your own. I suggest that in practice the vast majority of us are addicted in one way or another, we each have our go-to means of escape and avoidance. Certainly I think all of us are addicted to a false way of thinking that projects our own needs and failings on to others. And I suspect that this in turn infects and therefore explains so much that also goes wrong in our communities, our nation and our world.
To each of us, Jesus gently says (but it always feels like a shock to our complacency) Stop play-acting, I much prefer the real you with all your ugly faults to the false you with all your manicured pretence. I love you, not the mask you put on.
I guess this is the reason why – it seems – my Lord kept me here among you such a long time. I’m a slow learner and I’m not a bad actor. By being here for over quarter of a century I had to face a few of my own failures and a few of my own failings and I had time to learn from a few of my mistakes. After so many years, reality has a chance to crack the façade so that grace can find a way in. ‘I let love in’, sings Nick Cave, but only when all attempts to keep love out have failed.
Over the past few years I have developed as something of a parish side-line a series of concerts here in the church, featuring artists who I feel in their various ways help us to think outside our usual boxes. Tonight at 7 pm we will welcome two performers who each I think flies a flag for being truthful.
Owen Moore is a dexterous and polished singer, but behind his practised skill and kindly courtesy there lies – one can tell, if only from his voice’s melancholic edge – a person who knows what it is to walk the streets. His music makes no claim to be profound but is from the heart. Gordon Hoyles, whom you may recognise this morning (he looks like your childhood’s image of God, but with a Lancashire accent) is, with Blossom his wife, a remarkable person.
His friendship with both Pippa and me goes back more than 30 years. He and I disagree profoundly about every political issue you care to mention. Despite his being wrong about everything however he – and his often funny, sometimes outrageous, always original poetry – remind me that being human is not about being human, not about being a person, it is about being you, or me.
I hope that this church– partly through and partly despite my ministry – has been a place and a community where honesty has been valued more than pretence and where you and I have been able to turn from the false idols of our own inventing and our own projecting to see our truer selves, ugly in our own eyes and very precious and beautiful in God’s. I hope this Church of St James has been for you a mirror in which the blind look at themselves and love looks at them back…
And so to conclude, the poem from which that last phrase derives, The Kingdom by R. S. Thomas
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.