Sermon preached on the third Sunday of Lent (11 March 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel

Worship
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Temporary closure of Stone and Golden Galleries
7:30am Morning Prayer
8:00am Eucharist
8:30am Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Choral Evensong

Sermon preached on the third Sunday of Lent (11 March 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at King Zedekiah's 'strategy and realism' and St Paul's 'opportunism and joy' and whether tragedy and comedy together make up the reality of the world.

Jeremiah 38: 14-end Philippians 1: 1-26

The Christian Church is in danger of presenting itself as the King Canute of a post-enlightenment world: sitting on the shore and commanding the incoming tide to halt and not wet his royal feet and robes. But, as surely as the night follows the day, the tide comes in with no respect to the royal personage who has failed to recognise unalterable truth.

In our two scriptural readings today, the central characters – King Zedekiah in one and St Paul in the other – try to make the best of their afflictions. King Zedekiah does so with strategy and realism; St Paul does so with opportunism and joy. Although I have a certain affinity with Zedekiah’s approach, at least neither of them tries to deny the reality of the world in which they find themselves.

I think that denial of reality or a failure to recognise unalterable truth lies at the heart of the Church’s malaise. We have placed everything about this world and its people on the stage in a play in which we want everything to be resolved by the end of Act One and are disappointed and indeed frustrated that, by the interval, the play still doesn’t seem to be quite the comedy we thought it was going to be.

In Shakespeare, a comedy is not so much a light-hearted play that makes us laugh as a series of human problems that are resolved by the end of the drama. By stark contrast, of course, a Shakespearean tragedy usually presents a central character who is responsible for the destruction of those around him in a way that leads inevitably to his own self-destruction.

The fact that Shakespeare wrote tragedies and comedies is a perhaps a recognition of the reality of this world: a reality with which both King Zedekiah and St Paul engage realistically.

God has not written us into an old-fashioned type of whodunit in which the author presents only those elements of plot which are capable of solution by the end of the novel.

Dorothy L Sayers understood this which is why she developed the art of the detective novel from the old-fashioned body in the library type of novel into a novel of human emotions in which as much remained unresolved by the end of the story as was resolved.

In her novel, ‘Gaudy Night’, she presents us with three problems: who is the criminal; will Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane mend their broken relationship; and is academic integrity more vital even than a man’s life?

And, of those three conundrums, the first is fully revealed by detection, the second is resolved at least for the time being; and the third will remain a moot point in perpetuity. In other words, like most problems in life, some things are solvable; some things are partly solvable; and some things are never solvable.

The Church, however, has seized, almost with gusto, on the latter kind of problem, the one not capable of solution – like a king faced with an incoming tide – and enlightened people are beginning to lose patience and to give up on us. And yet, those of us gathered here this morning in prayer and praise know that, despite everything, there is much to be thankful to God for and much need to be addressed by us in his name.

But, if our call to worship, is falling on deaf ears – and, shamefully, on ears that we ourselves have made deaf by a failure to recognise unalterable truth, what do we do? Do we watch the tide rising around us while our neighbours, having long ago come of age, walk the safety of the promenade, deaf to the language of our prayers and blind to the beauty of our worship?

Or do we weave the golden thread of God into the rich tapestry of life, instead of rapidly unpicking it as if afraid that it will be tarnished by people no better or worse than ourselves? This, after all, is the golden thread of the God who in Christ became lower than the angels in order to be crowned with glory and honour.

The contemporary novelist Anita Brookner writes that ‘to live with unalterable truth is a very hard discipline’. Lent is a time to consider what hard discipline means. Perhaps, for the Church, it means recognising that the conundrums of life can’t be solved as simply as the body in the library and that letting the tide come in is no defeat but merely a recognition of unalterable truth.

In the mean time, there is worship to be offered and pastoral care to be given and exciting things to be said about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and about the God and Father of us all.

Is the Church playing out the comedy of redemption or the tragedy of destruction? What’s that expression people use nowadays? It’s a no-brainer?

Let us pray.

A prayer of Catherine of Siena.

Dear Lord, it seems that you are so madly in love with your creatures that you could not live without us. So you created us; and then, when we turned away from you, you redeemed us. Yet you are God, and so have no need of us. Your greatness is made no greater by our creation; your power is made no stronger by our redemption. You have no duty to care for us, no debt to repay us. It is love, and love alone, which moves you. And so may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.