Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany (27 January 2019) by Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany (27 January 2019) by Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

The Chaplain considers what it means to belong and what this means for our interactions with other people. 


We have been delighted to welcome former Choristers back to St Paul’s this weekend for the annual gathering here at the Cathedral and Cathedral School of the Guild of Companions of St Paul. A company of well over 200 choristers and musicians that spans the globe and the centuries; the oldest living member having first sung here in 1928 and the newest members joining him 90 years later having left the choir in 2018. 

The Guild not only enables members to remain connected to a group of people with whom they have something in common: their time as a Chorister of this Cathedral, and the highs and lows of this demanding and exhilarating role. 

But there is also a sense of home-coming in the familiarity of this sacred space in which they sang day after day, year after year, and (for those who have become companions in the last 60 years) a return to their school and boarding house. 

The symbol of their belonging, the guild tie, therefore represents something that runs very much deeper than simply the membership of a club. 

To what do you feel you belong and how deep does that sense of belonging go? Is there a group of people, or is there a place to which you gravitate in order to have a sense of who you are, where you have come from, of where you are going? What groups do you belong to?
This sense of belonging or being at home operates on many different levels. 

For our regular worshippers here are St Paul’s we hope that there is a sense of belonging to the Cathedral Community which encompasses our worshippers, staff and volunteers both here at the Cathedral and at the Cathedral School. 

For our many visitors we hope that however far from home you might be, you feel a sense of belonging here with us today as you join in worship that plugs you in to the universal family of the church. 

And St Paul’s is a place to which people who have a sense of estrangement or isolation gravitate. Cathedrals in general, and perhaps St Paul’s in particular, despite its grand and imposing appearance, has a very low threshold.

There are groups that we belong to automatically, the family we are born into, or the nation we are born into for example. But that will not necessarily be accompanied by a feeling of belonging. Circumstances can conspire which can make us feel anything but at home with family or in tune with the nation to which we belong. 

And then there are groups that we belong to by choice, groups that we join or associate with, typically groups of like-minded people or of people who share an interest in a particular issue or pastime. Think golf or conservation, politics, or music.

And however anti-social you might think you are, you will find that there are a number of groups that you also belong to.

Belonging, networking is in many ways essential to our well-being and survival, but it also makes us vulnerable on two accounts. 

First there are often rules to belonging, this may be articulated in a code of conduct, or belonging may be a matter of meeting certain criteria. And if we break the rules or fall short of the mark then we cease to belong. 

Sometimes if a group is a more informal association, a situation will arise and unexpectedly we find that we have been working on assumptions that are not shared and then we no longer feel at home.

And secondly, if there is a group to which people belong, then there is by definition a body of people who do not belong and may indeed belong to a group that has opposing objectives or ideals and this can threaten our survival. 

Belonging can be a fragile business: lose your job, and you no longer belong to the organisation, question a policy decision and you lose your sense of belonging to a political party, lose your physical or financial capacity to continue to be involved in this group or that activity and your social circle diminishes and somehow we feel ourselves to be diminished. 

Our sense of belonging is in large measure what gives us a sense of who we are and how we are doing. Have we made it by becoming a member of this or that ‘club’.

And so whilst I rejoice in the fact that together we can be so much more than we are alone, joining in anything always leaves me feeling ever so slightly uncomfortable about those who are unable to join in for whatever reasons, and so from whom we find ourselves at least divided and at worst in competition.

It is of course a perennial problem as we see from our first reading in which Paul addresses Christians who have become fractious, thinking themselves better or worse than each other because of the group with whom they identify.  

Paul addresses church members in conflict with one another and calls on them to recognise both their familiarity and the unique contribution each makes to the whole. 

Well that’s great as far as it goes. But what about those who are not church members? The divisions in our world and in this nation run deep at the moment as we are all aware, and even her Majesty the Queen has this week called upon us find common ground. 

But neither, dare I say, do St Paul or the Queen go anywhere near far enough in challenging and refocusing our sense of belonging as far as I am concerned.

Yes we are all one in Christ Jesus but what does that mean to you, what does that really mean to you. 

To me what this really means is that just as Jesus was the object of Gods perfect love, so am I and so are you. This is what we have in common, this is what unites us, this is what binds us together. 

That you, 
and I, 
and they (whoever they are) 
are the object of God’s perfect love, which nothing can ever diminish. We are not honourable because of the company we keep or the position we have achieved, they (whoever they are) are not honourable for the company they keep or the position they have achieved. And neither are we or they dishonourable, how could they be if they are the object of God’s perfect love?

We may from time to time forget ourselves, even let ourselves or others down but we are no less the object of God’s perfect love. 

We are always, as long as we are human, going to prefer this to that, whether it’s cheese over chocolate, the Book of Common Prayer over Common Worship, or the free market over government regulation, but none of this makes us any more or less lovable. 

Whose side we are on and the company we keep makes absolutely no difference to God’s love for us. And this is what unites us, something of eternal significance rather than passing fashion or fancy.

And what could possibly make a person more attractive and compelling than appreciating that they are the object of God’s perfect love? Doesn’t that make every last one of us no more or less attractive than the next person? Isn’t it this fact that overcomes whatever else might define us and cause division between us?

Let’s remember this when we come to share the peace in a moment, remember this when you read the news or are tempted to comment on or like a tweet. Remember this when you look in the mirror and when you feel that you are alone or in hostile territory. 

We are all one in Christ Jesus, the object of God’s perfect love.