Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (14 July 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

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12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (14 July 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

At the Valediction of Choristers, the Chaplain reflects on the passing of another year and the emotions our experiences provoke. 

This last week has been a very busy week - the last week of term - culminating for the school in the prize giving and speeches on Friday, and for the choir in the last of the Orchestral Masses earlier today, and now our final Evensong of the academic year. At least the last that our full choir will sing together. 

And over the course of the week I have been asking the staff and the children what they will remember most about their years with us here at St Paul’s, what their highlights have been. 

For many of the staff and pupils this has been a trip or a visit they have been on, whether that was canoeing in a canal basin, or skiing, or the American choir tour. For others it was a concert they have performed in, or an exam they have passed, and most profoundly, a friendship they have enjoyed. And for our Choristers what is often called to mind have been some of the more extraordinary and perhaps unexpected individuals that they have met, and events they have taken part in for example appearing live on the One Show (and for the head and deputy head chorister), opening the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall last year. Memories that bring back a thrill of awestruck wonder and joy. 

The memory that made them giggle, and probably always will, was (I am sorry David) the memory of the Dean fainting at the Dome altar.

All these events, these things that have happened in the past, provoke in us powerful feelings and I believe, it is the feeling provoked, more than the event itself, that is the reason we remember it. The thrill and warmth of the joy and pride in a success, and conversely the aching sadness and pain and sometimes the shame of a failure or misadventure. It is the powerful feelings provoked that fixes the memory of the event. 

We have strong feelings evoked in our readings this evening. First we meet Jacob preparing to face his brother Esau, the brother whom he cheated by stealing his birthright. Jacob is afraid of his brothers anger and seeks to appease him, and protect himself, by sending ahead of him generous gifts to soften his approach. 

Jacob is left alone for a night, having sent his family and flocks and herds ahead of him, he wrestles all night long with…. who. 

The account in Genesis first says it is a man, the reference to the story in Hosea refers to an angel, and Jacob at the end of the night is renamed Israel because ‘he as striven with God and humans and prevailed’. It is unclear with what or whom Jacob has been wrestling, but I remember vividly someone I know, a monk and a priest, recounting a very similar experience of spending the night fighting with..what he wasn’t quite sure, but of it being a deeply spiritual experience. Was it his conscience, was it Jacob’s conscience, the powerful memories of something not laid to rest, something not put right. And when we find ourselves alone with our memories what feelings do they provoke in us. Do we have a carefree conscience that easily recalls moments of laughter and joy or do we have a conscience that troubles us?

Jesus in our second reading questions the consciences of those in whom strong feelings have been provoked by what they perceive to be the carelessness of his disciples, not observing the traditions by which the community lives. They believe themselves to be upright because of their observance of the law but Jesus calls them to account for their blindness to the needs of those around them.

Jesus calls them to examine their hearts because it is, he says, from within that heart that intentions come; good or evil. We talk about a cold heart, a clean heart, a black heart even though we know now that it is in the mind in our thought processes our decision making that good or evil intentions are formed. But we recognise the effects in our hearts, when we feel them beating in excitement, anticipation or fear. 

What does your heart tell you? Has this academic year been a good year for you? Are your hearts warmed by the emotions that have been provoked by the events that you have experienced or does your heart tremble at a memory of an event that has wounded you as Jacob found himself to be wounded by his night of wrestling?

If the latter, what are we to do about it? We cannot undo what has been done, often we have to admit that we are powerless to ‘do’ much at all to change what is past, but just as it is from within that good and evil thoughts and actions come, so it is also from within that peace is to be found. 

And so take with you the order of service and keep on your lips and in your hearts the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn that we sang a few moments ago and pray that we might have; 
A heart in every way renewed 
and full of love divine, 
perfect and right and pure and good 
and copy Lord of thine.