Posted: Thursday 30th May 2019

Speaking from the heart…

Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Easter 2019.

When I was preparing for ordination I was warned on several occasions about the danger of not preaching a sermon on a Sunday morning but inadvertently of preaching several sermons rolled into one. A veritable dog’s dinner dished up from the pulpit.

As I was reminded at a preaching seminar last year “it’s much better within a sermon to say the same message in three different ways than to preach three different messages”. I know the advice and I take it to heart. Even when preaching a classic ‘three-point sermon’ I work hard to ensure that those three points all clearly point to one message. But today I am, I confess, going to throw all the rules out of the window because there are two different things I’m moved to say.

The first is to comment on a statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury which was released following the resignation of the Prime Minister on Friday. It read:

During the last three years of leading our nation through times of profound change and uncertainty, Theresa May has shown determination, resilience and a sense of public duty that has never wavered. That is a service to us all that deserves our admiration and gratitude.

As Mrs May prepares to stand down from office over the coming months, this is a moment to pause and pray for her and her husband, Philip, whose support has been unwavering, and for all those around them working to ensure a smooth transition into new leadership.

Every day in churches across the country, we pray for our political leaders. We pray that they be guided and strengthened in wise leadership that strives for the common good. We pray too for their protection, safety and wellbeing in the roles they take on for the benefit of our communities and our nation. We also pray for their families who with them carry the burden that being in public life brings.

In these critical times in our shared national life, people of faith should commit to pray for all those who lead, all those who are led, and work together with all of goodwill, especially for those who are vulnerable and on the margins. As Christians we pray that our society would be shaped around Christ’s hope-filled vision of abundant life for every person.

Of course, reading a statement like that on Facebook it is both tempting and dangerous to read the comments that follow. I’m glad that long with a full head of hair I’m blessed with pretty low blood pressure for a middle-aged man! Admittedly most of the followers of the Archbishop of Canterbury – or the ABC as he’s known in church circles- are going to be supporters, but amongst the largely positive comments about his gracious remarks, which were refreshingly calm and devoid of the polarising rhetoric we’ve become used to these days, there was criticism too. Observations that perhaps what he applauded as a determined sense of duty had been actually become an ego-driven refusal to listen to others. And several others noted that many people find it difficult to admire someone who- whatever she may have tried to do in one sphere of public life- had inflicted dreadful suffering in others, notably as Home Secretary. Those of the Windrush generation suddenly finding themselves deported, those genuinely reliant on disability benefits finding their safety net cut, to mention two examples, were not shedding tears.

But which of us, who will be such small fry in the history of our nation, will not leave a mixed legacy of things we failed to achieve or mistakes we made (often with the best of intentions or on the worst of advice) along with a list of things for which we might be applauded? Though, admittedly, our shortcomings don’t have the same ramifications as those of a PM. In public office everything is magnified and I’m sure I’m not alone in having thought at various points over the last few years – ‘why would anyone take on that job…And that particular job at that particular time…?’.

I think Justin Welby understands better than anyone the position Mrs May found herself in; there are clear comparisons to be made between the competing and conflicting expectations that people have of the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Primate of the Anglican Communion.

And so we must, we really must, pray for those who – possibly through motives different to Mrs May- will be standing for office, and above all that they genuinely capture what the Archbishop calls ‘Christ’s hope-filled vision of abundant life for every person’.  And pray that in whatever elections will follow in the months or years to come (as the word  “what another one?” inevitably echoes across the land) we will also make that the deciding factor in our voting: will this person further Christ’s hope-filled vision of abundant life for every person?”. No other vision has a chance of getting us out of the situation we currently find ourselves in. It’s tempting to feel that Christ’s vision is too big, to revolutionary, idealistic or impossible to be realised and so think it’s better to just vote for what will make life better for me tomorrow. But such short term-ism is not a step towards fulfilling the long-term vision. And as Christians our prayer above all prayers, is the prayer of Christ himself which is “thy will be done”. We really can’t be ready or willing to settle for anything less.

And now for the second sermon, which actually is not unrelated to what I’ve just said!

I apologised to Susi during the week for the reading from the Acts of the Apostles set for today and which she was down to read. I thought it read like a couple of random entries in St Paul’s diary. Unfamiliar place names and bits of geographical history, a weird dream and an influential business woman who came to faith and, with her household, was baptised.

Lydia welcomed Paul and Silas into her home – and would also welcome them back after they had been violently arrested and imprisoned and subsequently pardoned and released. Showing herself to be  another one of the many women on whom the men of the early church were dependent. But she opened her doors to the apostles because (in verse 14) we are told that the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to the message Paul preached. The Lord opened her heart. The passage is worth reading for those five words alone.

The heart plays a vital part in our lives as Christians. The message of the gospel is not one that is preached to our ears, but to our hearts. The vision of the gospel, the longing for ‘abundant life for every person’ I cited earlier is not one we can see with our eyes or picture in our minds, but it is one to long for in our hearts.  We will not and cannot work for peace and justice for our neighbour or our planet unless our hearts are moved first. The heart is the ultimate sensory organ which is why Jesus in our gospel reading should say Do not let your hearts be troubled, do not let them be afraid[1]: No matter what we see or hear, think or touch, find peace- connection with him who is one with God- in your heart. This was wise advice to the disciples who would soon have to live without the sight or sound of Jesus that they had come to rely on; and he advises them that he will make his home with, dwell in the hearts of those who love him. He would be present and the place where he would be found and made known would be the heart. For Lydia and Paul or any of the disciples, faith in Christ was not an intellectual exercise or necessarily a rational response, but a movement of the heart.

The openness of heart with which Lydia was blessed is something worth cultivating, though it goes against our instincts of self-protection. And it’s not without risk, as every parent who has watched their teenage daughter fall in love for the first time will testify … “it’s bound to end in heart break!”. The heart is a precious place of encounter. Saint Augustine wrote that when we pray we lend our ear to the inner voice of God something resounds, not to our ears but to our heart. Which is why the psalmist could write in Psalm 19 that the word of God rejoices his heart [2]and in turn his heart sings to God without ceasing in psalm 30[3].  What appears to be music to our ears is so only when it resonates in our hearts.

Our prayers must come from the heart and go to the heart of one who dwells in our hearts if, in our hearts, will are to find hope and peace.

We can change leaders in this country as many times as we like, but without a change of heart we shall simply go around in circles.

As we pass judgement on the legacy of a Prime Minister and as we consider our own relationship to God maybe the words of the psalmist should be our prayer: make me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me[4]That seems to me to be the right starting point and conclusion.

Amen.

 

[1] John 14:27

[2] Psalm 19:8

[3] Luigi Gioia. Touched by God. (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) p.21

[4] Psalm 51:10

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