Problematic prose, a prig, a prelate and a people’s princess!

Sermon preached on 3rd September 2017

Readings: Romans 12: 9 – end ;  Matthew 16: 21 – end 

Very often, at this time of year, I’ve reported back with my allegedly profound thoughts, – having taken some time off and ploughed through a whole stack of books.
This year I’ve been rather less successful – on both counts – and during these past few days of summer holidays, I’ve resorted to the television for relaxation instead: Roald Dahl would not have been impressed!

And yet – there was food for thought – even amidst that unplanned viewing. Two programmes in particular came to mind as I pondered today’s readings.

I’ll come to them in a moment but first, just to reflect that both readings are pretty familiar to us – every Lent we sing “Take up thy Cross” – and the sentiments of the first reading are echoed strongly in the hymn we’ll sing shortly, “When I needed a neighbour”.

Both readings also have a “catch” – one phrase that suddenly jars and leaves us scrabbling to make sense of it.

“Let love be genuine”, our first reading begins positively – and then goes on to details what that means.
The “problem phrase” comes at the end where we’re encouraged to help our enemies because “by doing this you will heap burning coals upon their head”.

That seems a rather odd reason for doing something good – is Paul saying “be kind to someone who doesn’t like you because, in the end, you’ll make it worse for them”?
That doesn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the passage – and Paul has in fact borrowed that verse from Proverbs – but he’s clearly included it for a reason.

Perhaps this is just a slightly strange figure of speech – meaning that, by showing kindness to an enemy, we confound their way of being – that we do in fact “overcome evil with good”. Or maybe that’s just what I hope it means!

Cue programme one – a documentary marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana.
On Thursday evening, as I waited in vain for one of our cats to come in from the garden, I found myself sucked into an hour long reflection on the extraordinary scenes that surrounded Diana’s funeral – so many people, from all walks of life, weeping openly in what we were told was a very un-British display of emotion.
And it’s the reason for that response – the reason why so many different kinds of people felt drawn to show their respects – that I think might be relevant here.

Very many of those people had, of course, never been anywhere near Princess Diana – had no real idea what she was like in person.

Some of those people who wept for her, would probably have been pretty hostile to anyone else who’d enjoyed the kind of wealth into which she was born. The “class wars” of the 80s were still not that far behind us.

And yet, by the time of her death, there were very few people who dared to speak against the People’s Princess.

I suspect that one of the reasons why so many people did feel drawn to her – did feel that they knew here – is that we’d been used to seeing images of her, our beautiful young princess, spending time with those whose were less than beautiful – embracing those disfigured and isolated by illness, cradling malnourished children,
loving the unloved.
It’s very hard to dislike someone we’ve seen expressing such love and acceptance of others – whatever their own background. Perhaps that is why Diana drew such large and varied crowds at her funeral.

And perhaps that’s what lies behind Paul’s words – and the burning coals. Perhaps the best way to deal with hatred or division is to show such kindness to those who hate us – that we simply make it impossible for them to go on thinking and behaving in that way.

Onto our Gospel then and, for me, the snag here is that paradoxical phrase “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. However we interpret those words, losing our life for Christ’s sake doesn’t sound a very inviting prospect.

Cue second TV experience – a rather longer viewing experience from even longer ago.

Back in 1993 Anthony Hopkins starred in a film called “The Remains of the Day” – appearing as “Stevens”, a very proud and devoted butler in a large Country House during the 1930s.
Stevens is definitely NOT prone to any un-British displays of emotion!

He is completely devoted to his employers.
His role within the household IS his life.

Even when he begins to suspect that his Lordship is welcoming some rather unsavoury guests, he will not utter or hear a bad word spoken against him.

Stevens’ life is based on duty and service – and that’s all there is to it. He is so devoted to serving others that he simply doesn’t HAVE a life of his own – and as the final scene fades, with an aging Stevens gazing out into the grey skies of a rather changed, post-war England, we’re left with a strong sense that this was a wasted life – a man devoted to a world that has gone, a man whom life has passed by.

Fortunately, Stevens is only a fictional character – but one with the power to move us, and caution us, about getting sucked into artificial systems and other people’s demands.
Surely that is NOT the kind of self-sacrifice that Jesus has in mind, when he spoke of “losing our lives”?
As it happens, I was rescued from my dark ponderings by the Radio – and another, very real, voice from the past.

A short clip was played, on Friday morning, of a recording of the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, who has just died. And I was struck instantly both by how familiar that voice sounded AND the fact that I’d entirely forgotten about him.

He had the rather difficult task of succeeding Cardinal Basil Hume – one of those rare people who just seemed to exude some kind of “personal holiness”. And, like Diana, Basil Hume was well connected – both by family ties and through the generations of public school boys he taught at Ampleforth.

Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was none of those things – and just seemed so completely and utterly different.
He was a very large man who somehow still managed to fade into the background – never seeking the lime-light for himself.

When he needed to speak out he did – I can remember him very ably deflating Richard Dawkins when he was at his most provocative and anti-Christian.
For the most part, however, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was content just to be there in the background – dependable, faithful, gentle presence – a committed servant of the Church, but very definitely still himself: a very human Archbishop.

And perhaps that’s a better model for us than the fictional Stevens – a better response to Jesus’ call to service.

As a Church we are called to provide that same, dependable, loving presence for all our neighbours – neither seeking publicity or glory for ourselves, nor allowing ourselves to be worn out by unthinking drudgery.

As individual Christians, we are called to give our lives to the service of others, but not to forget who we really are.
That call, it seems to me, is not so much a call to sacrifice our own identity, but our selfish pride – to live in such a way that we can both be fully ourselves and engage fully with one another.

To “give our lives” in that way is to gain more than we lose –
as we discover what it really means to live in communion with God and our neighbour.