Sermon preached at Evensong on the Birth of John the Baptist (24 June 2018) by the Revd Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Birth of John the Baptist (24 June 2018) by the Revd Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor

In his last sermon at St Paul's as Chancellor, Canon Mark reflects on the important responsibility of preaching which is shown in the life of St John the Baptist, remembered today. 

This is the last sermon I preach here as a Canon of St Paul’s and those of you who know me will know that I am likely to have looked to poetry to express something of the truth of this occasion, something poignant, distilled, insightful. Well, no. But I did find this which seems to fit:

The Vicar was leaving the parish;
He went round to say his goodbyes,
But had rather a shock when one of his flock,
A lady, had tears in her eyes.

“Now there’s no need to cry”, said the Vicar,
“There have to be changes, you see,
So you must be strong, and before very long
They’ll send someone better than me.”

“That’s all very well” said the lady,
Despondently shaking her head.
“But that’s why I’m grieving, for when he was leaving,
That’s just what the last Vicar said!”

It’s a bit of a strange thing climbing up here in case you’ve ever wondered. As a preacher you know that when churchgoers are interviewed and asked to name the top three things they look forward to at church, always in the top three is a good sermon. Unfortunately when asked what the top three things are that disappoint them about going to church, there in the top three is – the sermon. So, as you climb up here you know that many of you out there are hoping this might be resonant to your life but also that you’re probably discreetly unwrapping a sweet and settling down to low expectations -another sermon with a beginning, a muddle and an end. At worst, the whole exercise can seem like the bland leading the bland. There’s nothing new about this. In 19th century Denmark the philosopher Kierkegaard was telling a story about a church of geese where aged Gander preaches from a great height and tells them they have wings to fly majestically with and each Sunday the geese listen and then waddle back home only to return next Sunday for the same thing. When someone asks why none of them does actually fly the geese looked perplexed by the question. Kierkegaard concludes:

‘The trouble is not that Christianity isn’t voiced but that it is voiced in such a way that the majority eventually think it utterly inconsequential…the highest and holiest things make no impact whatsoever but are given sound and are listened to as something that now has become routine and habit like so much else’.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In fact if this is a Christian place it musn’t be like this. The first thing the first Gospel says about Jesus is that ‘he came preaching’, he believed in words, believed that words can change lives and hearts and brains and behaviour. He believed they might open the window a little onto God, onto you. Later they even said he was a Word, the Word, who became human and that therefore all words about him afterwards must become human too, must translate into who we are, the priorities we live by, the goals we set, the way we think, the actions we decide to do or don’t do. And of course we are sitting on a site where great preachers have celebrated this stored potential of words, the graceful irritations of language, from John Donne (and his sermons were 50 minutes long so count yourself lucky) to Martin Luther King Jr whose message was never ‘I have a nightmare’ but ‘I have a dream’ and the dream had to start here in the pulpit so others could hear and be caught up in it too, to work and bring it about on earth as it is in heaven. Canon Sydney Smith in the early 19th century preached here regularly too. The description of him is one I admire: ‘he was one who reasoned liberally, illuminating civic wisdom with Christian charity, political judgement with social wit and common sense with uncommon insight’. Do this and, well, people might just actively listen and not just waddle home.

So, it seems right somehow that as I wonder what I’m doing up here and how to go about it when I am, I find myself with you celebrating St John the Baptist. Now, I spoke just now of churchgoers being interviewed for research and not too long ago in Durham 77 % of those asked said they wanted a sermon to challenge them. 66% to motivate them. They didn’t want the sermon to be like a bedtime story, something that makes you drift off with a warm tingle. They said, and I’m trusting they meant it, did they? They said they wanted challenge, not needlessly provocative but provoking new perceptions, new energy, new will power, even, perhaps, a new me. Well, may I introduce John the Baptist?

He was a preacher. The prayer that we just said Amen to outlined him well. We just prayed that according to his preaching we will say sorry for the way our lives get on bad tracks and that we will constantly “speak truth, boldly rebuke vice and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake”. I’m guessing that no one walked home from the Jordan and shook John’s hand, then, and said ‘nice sermon, vicar’ before lunch. No. What happens instead is that they cut his head off, the place where his tongue lived, the place from where words came. They silenced him. He had appeared in the desert, a barren, dry, thirsty place that symbolises the world we have created. And its quietly indifferent and quietly desperate there. It had all become a desert of a life and here arrives John, like an air raid siren, someone speaking again the language of God – someone who looked into the future and could see where it will all end and who reports back quickly before it’s too late, someone who is urgently telling us to take a look at ourselves, admit where we’ve gone inhuman, telling us to uphold what is just and right and not always seek compromise. Someone who asks us for God’s sake to be a citizen of the kingdom of love and not a consumer of the world of competition, consuming away even the environment we live in and breathe, consuming away our hearts in envy, consuming away compassion towards those who so need it in a hard life. Anyone who tells you that belief in God shouldn’t be mixed up with political consequences – well, show them John the Baptist, show them Martin Luther King, show them Archbishop Tutu, show them William Wilberforce, show them Elizabeth Fry, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Cavell, Janani Luwum, Esther John, Gene Robinson and ask how they could speak the truth, rebuke injustice and evil and suffer for God without being political? They were following Christ who, if he were a man who just spoke about spiritual things with no threat to the establishment or status quo, why did they execute him?

Speaking for them all, Archbishop Tutu has said: “I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political, or social?” He said: “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread. When you are ill, I heal you. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

So, finally, back to preaching. Those who dare to preach have to be brave. They are called to dispel human illusions without leaving them disillusioned. They invite the world to be re-imagined. They are willing to sound sadly implausible as they push the words ‘God’, ‘mystery’, ‘love’ and ‘eternity’ back into a landscape that has very nearly lost the echoes. It is an intensely personal enterprise in an alarmingly public arena. And sometimes nothing can feel more urgent.

I have a feeling and a hope that this pulpit will be busy in the days that lie ahead. Because when Presidents start saying ‘these aren’t people they are animals’ wanting to infest a country; when children are used as bargaining chips; when parliaments in European countries pass laws to imprison those who seek to help those looking for refuge; when judicial independence is removed in a Western nation; when interior ministers call for a cleansing and purification of his country, neighbourhood by neighbourhood; when opera in another European country has to cancel its performances of Billy Elliot because a media campaign says it could turn children gay and promote deviance; when abuse and discrimination are just the way it goes, and in the Church as much as anywhere else; when states of emergency mean states of control and the imprisonments of lawyers, journalists and Amnesty workers; when human dignity is shrugged off as human rights are laughed at because we are not talking about mine; when we see that this is our world now, not in the 1930’s but now, then this pulpit will be busy – busy because all this is contrary to the gospel, to the hope and to the dream of God’s kingdom for all people that this place was built to proclaim. I hope and pray it will be a fountain to draw the fresh water of a different way of being human. This pulpit is to here to make Christians stand for something, not fall for anything. And we stand for love. Erich Fried’s words seem the fitting for to end a last sermon then…

It is nonsense
says reason
It is what it is
says love
It is unhappiness
says caution
It is nothing but pain
says fear
It has no future
says insight
It is what it is
says love
It is ridiculous
says pride
It is impossible
says experience
It is what it is
says love.