A sermon preached in Ely Cathedral on 2nd September 2018
Well, I’m having a lot of “lasts” at the moment, and this is my last Sunday morning sermon here at the cathedral, so – sit up straight and pay attention. It’s all right, I’m not going to suddenly change my spots and start hectoring you; it’s just that all the three readings from Scripture that we’ve just heard have a strong element of exhortation about them, almost a ticking off. “Now, Israel…”: you can hear it coming can’t you – “Now, David – Now, Mark – Now, Vicky (or probably Victoria if it’s a flea in the ear)…”.
So there in the readings we have “Keep the commandments; observe them diligently”; “Take care; watch yourselves closely”; “Rid yourselves of all sordidness”; “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues, their religion is worthless”; “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”. Ouch!
The bulk of the challenge here is a familiar one. Israel, the church, we, anyone who is listening is being warned that if we think we are religious and keep the ordinances and go to church and all the rest, but then don’t for instance bridle our tongue and use it instead to hurt others – this is a favourite theme of the Apostle James – or don’t care for the orphans and widows, or give in to fornication, theft, murder and all the rest, then our religion is worthless, just show. We can’t substitute religious traditions for moral virtue and come out clean in the wash.
There is a second challenge, too, hiding behind the first. Israel, the church, we, anyone who is listening is also being warned that if we honour God with our lips but don’t keep his commandments, it is likely to be a sign that not only are we morally up the spout and failing to honour our neighbours, we are also not really honouring God either. If our hearts are far from them, they will be far from him as well – and vice versa: to let ourselves down in our relationship with God is very likely going to lead to a let-down with our neighbours too. And what does honouring mean here? Obviously not just going through the motions, but being those whose hearts are not far from his.
What the Scriptures are poking at is the vital interface between the inner orientation of our heart, and the outer actions we pursue, which become hollowed out and go awry without the sort of deep integrity and basic attitude of love towards God and neighbour alike that our tradition of faith both calls us to and offers to resource us in.
It’s a theme I want to come back to when I preach my farewell sermon on the 23rd. All I really want to say then is, like St John in his dotage, “Little children, love one another”, though somehow I am going to have to work out how to take 12 and half minutes doing it. Unless of course I follow the example of the curate, a short chap like me, who was told by his vastly experienced six-foot incumbent to preach at short notice on Zacchaeus. Unsurprisingly, he was incapacitated with nerves; so on ascending the huge pulpit he kept his sermon short: “Zacchaeus was a little man. So am I. Zacchaeus was up a tree. So am I. Zacchaeus got down. So will I. Amen.”
“Little children, love one another.” If our heart is right with God and with one another, not only will things in all probability go much better for all of us, but also – even if nothing by way of programme or activity goes very far at all – surely we will like John be able to look back over the years and have peace in our hearts that we played our part. “David,” it says in the Old Testament, “was faithful in his generation.” I’d rather have that on my memorial than even the most glittering CV – wouldn’t you?
It sounds so easy – but of course it isn’t. It’s a life-time’s work. I’ve been looking at Helaine Blumenfeld’s life-time’s work so wonderfully displayed in the Cathedral here. I wonder what you make of it? I’ve asked a few folk and had a variety of responses! I’m no art critic so I can only speak for myself, and likeable or not I found that Blumenfeld’s pieces set me thinking about this work of ours in trying to fashion our lives in a way that shows some beauty and hope in the way we love God and love one another, even in a world full of darkness and chaos.
Blumenfeld is not one of those artists who sees themselves as gently revealing the image that is already within. Nicola Upson writes in the publicity material for the exhibition that it is to the contrary a risky, painful, tense physical effort as she seeks to transcend the resistant material and find beauty and hope.
What we see when we look at the sculptures is a surface, and it is that surface that intrigues me, the boundary that Blumenfeld achieves and explores between herself as artist and the material that is challenging her, between inert matter and the creative life of the spirit, between unshaped and perhaps unshapely material and beauty of form. And I find boundaries and complexities too in the way that the pieces are neither quite human nor quite botanical in form, looking like a balletic dancer perhaps from one angle and a fern from another; and similarly seeming to my eye to be the two figures of an annunciation from one angle, but an abstract from another, and given a title of “Illusion”.
All that could be very frustrating for you, and leave you feeling cold like the materials. But any coldness to me is only half of the story, the starting point, the challenge, and the other half is the creative struggle of the artist trying to tease out life from the marble or metal; and that struggle is I suggest very similar to the struggle to attend to our spirituality, the work that we are all engaged in, shaping and forming ourselves at the level of the heart. The analogy flags up both the beauty and wonder of what that work can lead to, but also the risk, labour, vulnerability and pain that it will in all likelihood involve. I have walked and sat and talked and prayed alongside an awful lot of people in a lifetime of ministry, including some of you, and rare indeed is the bird who has flown effortlessly along this journey. The hurts, the scars, the frustrations, the failures, the incomprehensions, the injustices – they are the resistant material of our personal sculpting of the heart.
Just what the particular resistances are will vary in their mix as much as any material to be sculpted; and the manner in which we go about sculpting it will also vary as much as the manners of any artists. Here in this cathedral and more widely in the diocese it is a joy and a sign of hope that there are so many schools of sculpture available: from the regular breaking open of both word and sacrament Sunday by Sunday, to discipleship groups and ones meeting to chew over How to be Good, to opportunities to meet with spiritual directors and confessors, to music not only made and listened to but absorbing and transforming, to festivals of science and exhibitions of art. On one level this is just our programme, done and done well; job done. But on another each and all of these are opportunities, in their own very different ways, to chip away at the resistances, to live a little more in the love of God, and in the transforming strength of that to live a little more in love for one another too.
I wonder what is in your own programme over the coming week or two – here in the Cathedral or wherever life takes you. I wonder what sculpting you may have the opportunity to do. If I had to choose a legacy, leaving behind a school of the Spirit where everyone was working little by little on their own love for God and for one another would be one that would fill me with hope and joy – and may joy and hope be God’s gifts to you as well.