Sermon preached on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (26 August 2012) by Professor Peter McCullough, Lay Canon

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Sermon preached on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (26 August 2012) by Professor Peter McCullough, Lay Canon

Professor Peter McCullough looks at both the simplicity and complexity of sharing, as well as what we mean by 'communication'.

Hebrews 13. 16-21

'Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.'

Words from our second lesson; may I speak.

‘Do good and share what you have.’ What words of Scripture could require less explanation? Less comment? Or, yes, a very short sermon?

Injunctions to ‘share’ must be among the earliest we are aware of as young children: I can best summon to mind one of my late mother’s distinctive tones of voice when I recall phrases like, ‘Share now’; ‘You two share’; ‘If you can’t share that I’ll just take it away.’ But of course instruction in sharing comes early, and is oft repeated, because although the moral concept is perhaps one of the simplest to understand, it is - by far - one of the hardest to do. So it bears repeating - but repetition can dull a point, just as much as the intellectual ease of understanding it. So too perhaps here in the epistle to the Hebrews, where ‘share what you have’ occurs in one of several passages of moral exhortations – lists of somewhat unrelated ‘how to behave’ bullet points that are easy to ignore, sprinkled as they are across the much more powerful and sophisticated theology of Christ’s divinity and the New Covenant which make up the bulk of the letter.

With things familiar and easily understood – ‘share what you have’ – it often helps to defamiliarise them, to come at them from a different angle, to hear them in a different way. And with Scripture, one simple way to do so is to compare different translations. We heard much – perhaps for some of us too much – last year about the Authorized or ‘King James’ version of the English Bible. Much of the hoopla was to me too much sentimentality, with praise for the 1611 version often informed more by the familiarity of that version for some particular social and religious groups, rather than any objective superiority of the ‘King James’, either as English prose or as translation.

But its rendering of Hebrews 13.16 gives me pause: ‘But to do good and to communicate forget not’. ‘To do good - and to communicate’? To begin with, this was unique in English translations at the time; earlier protestant Bibles urged to ‘do good and to distribute’; the first Roman Catholic Bible in English said ‘to do good and to impart’. ‘Distribute’, ‘impart’, ‘share’ are all fairly close synonyms which point to a specific kind of liberality, the giving of things of that are of physical use or monetary value to those in need, what used to be called ‘alms’. But what did the 1611 translators mean by ‘do good and communicate’?

That words change their meanings over time is precisely the reason why, periodically, we need new translations of Scripture, to keep its meanings alive and accessible; but it is also precisely why it is impoverishing to ignore old translations, because they can force us to think again about meanings we may miss, or take for granted. Today, to hear a statement like, ‘we need to communicate better’, takes us straight to the world of business management, of marketing and sales– of ‘communication skills’ and degrees in or even colleges of ‘communication’ which teach presentation, motivation, information gathering, persuasion, empathy, and privilege that great modern totem, ‘feedback’ – but all with a view not to giving, but to getting: getting the sale; getting the job; getting efficiency in the office; in short, getting what you, the skilled communicator, want. And Churches are no less invested in the culture of modern ‘communication’ that businesses.

Both the national Church of England and most of its dioceses have Communications Offices, Communications Resources, Communications Training which offers, and I quote, ‘professional, cost-effective communications training from the Church of England, tailor-made to meet your requirements through expert tuition given in small groups’) – promising to give you all you need to know about church communications, broadcast media, print communications, diagrams, flowcharts, focus groups, and – of course - PowerPoint. And as in business and Church, so too in the interpersonal realm, we participate in the cult of modern ‘communication’ – ‘to just communicate more’ is often offered as a panaceaea in relationship counselling.

What all of these have in common is an emphasis on views expressed only, or at least primarily, as words, as talk. As a regular column in one of our newspapers touts it, ‘Opinion is Free’ – but how often is it more the case that ‘opinion is cheap’? We run a great risk, I think, in a culture which thinks too often that to do good is to communicate, where ‘communication’ is just words, and that words alone suffice.

So. Small wonder that the translators of 20th-century English Bibles dropped the Authorized Version’s ‘do good and communicate’, which in modern parlance would likely be understood as ‘do good and talk about it’, or, worse, just ‘talk about doing good’. Well into the 1700s even, ‘communicate’ in this narrower sense of exchanging information or ideas verbally was a rare use of the word. Its strong associations with ‘say what you think in a way to get what you want’ only really takes hold with the distinctly modern individualism of John Locke, who said that ‘the chief end of language, in communication, being to be understood, words serve not for that end, when any word does not excite in the hearers the same idea which it stands for in the mind of the speaker’ – an early Enlightenment manifesto for what we could now call ‘getting your message across’, or even, ‘spin’. But even some decades after Locke, in the first substantial English dictionary by Dr Samuel Johnson, ‘communicate’ meant one of two things. First, ‘to impart to others what is in our own power; to make others partakers; to confer a joint possession; to bestow’; or, simply,’to reveal; to impart knowledge’. There is so much of importance here for thinking about how and what the author of Hebrews enjoins us to ‘communicate’ or ‘share’. First, note what there isn’t – there is nothing of the self here, nothing of the notion of ‘what I think’, much less of ‘what I say’; nor is there the implication of trying to convince another party of something, of winning them over to our views. Rather there is a radical sense of the other as the subject and object of communicating, where doing so is giving; and not giving something as insubstantial as one’s opinion, but something as real as one’s very power: ‘to impart to others what is in our own power’. To share to the real extent of ‘partaking’, ceding control to allow ‘joint possession’ of what was one’s selfish own. So this richer sense extends not just beyond one’s opinions, but also beyond one’s possessions, because it recognises that ‘to good and communicate, or share’ is to give up some of the power over others that comes with possessions. And Johnson’s second definition, ‘to real; to impart knowledge’ allows the ability to ‘communicate’ in terms that are not physical or monetary, that are of our minds, but significantly, those things are not the mere stuff of subjective opinion or views or private thoughts – no, what is to be ‘communicated’ from our minds is much higher stuff, ‘knowledge’.

And to illustrate that definition, Johnson quotes Scripture, the Book of Wisdom, chapter 7 verse 13: ‘I learned diligently, and do communicate wisdom liberally: I do not hide her riches.’ Such it is to ‘do good and communicate’, or to ‘do good and share’: an action which, when it becomes habitual, is an acquired virtue which cooperates with the infused virtues of grace and charity, and puts the self aside.

One might, one hopes, find in a church like this examples, reminders, monuments to some who have practised this virtue of real ‘communication’, who put words of wisdom into actions of charity. Certainly the great doctors of the Eastern and Western churches over our heads in the Dome would qualify. So too may the military heroes who gave lives for others and are commemorated in just about every available space on wall and in aisle around us. But those are all, in their different ways, somewhat larger than life. Let me commend instead four who are life-sized, perhaps more approachable, closer to us as we think about what it means to ‘communicate’ best, but too often overlooked in St Paul’s. They are in fact the first four men commemorated on this Cathedral floor when St Paul’s was relatively new; although with far less swagger than Wellington or Nelson, they guard the four corners of the crossing, and anchor at our level the soaring circle of the dome. First, on my left, John Howard, who dedicated his whole life to reforming the appalling conditions in prisons; beyond him at the back Sir William Jones, who dedicated his life to the study of the law, literature, and religions of India, showing at least two centuries before before it was popular to believe so, that West and East could meet in a dialogue grounded in reciprocity, mutual respect, and equality; across from him at the north west corner, Sir Joshua Reynolds, painter, art theorist, and founder of the Royal Academy; and finally on my right, Reynolds’ dear friend, Dr Samuel Johnson, author of the Dictionary, and one of the greatest writers and moralists in English; and it is Dr Johnson too who goes some way toward correcting the sad omission of women from this first group of monuments, since few men of the eighteenth-century did more to encourage contemporary women writers, or were as harsh a critic of the pervasive misogyny of the age than Johnson. These all understood what it was to ‘do good and to communicate’ in a way perhaps deeper than our understanding of ‘communication’, not stopping with words and opinions easily expressed, but going on to do and to share at a cost to themselves while enriching others in social reform, cross-cultural engagement, fine art, and scholarship.

But I have still to mention one final sense of ‘communicate’ which the 1611 translators could not possibly have been unaware of – the thing that turns our eyes and minds from mere monuments to high altar; to the act that is the highest possible memorial of giving for the sake of others, and the subject of tonight’s great anthem: to ‘communicate’ as to receive and share in the holy sacrament of thanks-giving, the Eucharist  There God communicates to us in the Word not left as abstract word but made incarnate in the Body given at the highest possible cost to bestow the saving power of life on us. There do we gather, and there do we take the strength and the knowledge to incarnate ourselves the Apostle’s exhortation: ‘But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.’

Amen.