Sermon preached at Evensong the 2nd Sunday of Advent (4 December 2016) by Revd Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor
The text of the Anthem sung by the Choir tonight was written around 1340. We don’t know who wrote it but it was most probably written in Ludlow, a market town in my own home county of Shropshire. It was set to music by the composer Arnold Bax, who was himself a poet and author. We heard it sung in the original form of English it was composed in, so let me try and translate it a little into something like the English we speak today:
Winter awakens all my sorrow,
Now the leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and mourn sorely
When it comes into my thoughts
Of this world's joy, how it all goes to nothing.
Now it is, and now it is not,
As if it had never been, truly.
What many people say, it is the truth:
All passes but God's will.
We all shall die, though it please us ill.
All the grass which grows up green,
Now it fades all together.
Jesu, help this to be understood,
And shield us from hell!
For I do not know where I shall go, nor how long I shall dwell here.
Poems of this 14th century era, a period of bloody wars and the Black Death plague, often remind their readers of the precariousness and fragility of your life: ‘now it is and now it is not’.
It is a painfully appropriate poem to have been sung this evening here at St Paul’s, for our community is trying to come to terms with news we received on Friday that a former colleague, one of the priests who served here with us, tragically died this week at the age of 41.
Sarah was much loved here. She was funny, she was resilient, she was stubborn, she was caring, she had a deep heartfelt concern to stand up for the overlooked, the voiceless and the scapegoated. She had a rather serious face that burst into sunshine when she smiled, which she did a lot, and to laugh with her was time well spent.
Her faith in God was strong but she didn’t pretend there weren’t doubts, questions, shadows. And although demands on her were heavy, as they are on all the people who work here, she always managed to focus on you if you needed support, advice, or that reassuring smile. She wasn’t perfect - she was human.
But more than this, she was humane, wise, reflective and, believing in a God who cares about justice, if she thought something was up or wrong she’d take you on and state her case. There was steel in her when it came to her principles.
I admired her. I now miss her. We all do. ‘Winter wakens all my care now these leaves grow bare’.
Not only does today’s anthem seem right but also today’s second reading is fitting. We are introduced to John the Baptist. People come up to him and ask ‘who are you?’. In fact they ask it a few times.
It was a question that John had reflected on very deeply and, indeed, his ministry at the river Jordan was built around this exact question.
So when Jesus comes to the Jordan John helps him into the water.
You can imagine all the noise on the shore, the gossip, the questions, the opinions: just like all the messages and noise of now we have today, loud voices telling us to be thinner, richer, buy a better car, a better mortgage, a better face, not to be such a sad specimen. And John pushes Jesus into the water to drown out all those voices.
In the water all Jesus can hear for those precious moments is his own heartbeat. He then comes up, takes a gasp of fresh air and then hears the one voice that matters, from heaven, ‘you are my child, I cherish you’.
He then goes into the desert to work out how his life can live up to this voice from heaven and not live down to the voices who want to take away his own identity and make it theirs.
This questions of ‘who are you?’, and ‘who’s are you?’ were very important to Sarah. She thought and preached about it more than once. In fact, just two years ago from this pulpit she addressed the issue head on, in typical Sarah style. Let me quote her sermon:
When I was at a school there was a boy who was known as ‘Bonesy’. Bonesy wasn’t popular; he was physically awkward and uncoordinated, he looked different, he wasn’t especially bright and he was unable to stick up for himself in the face of bullying. One day a teacher made Bonesy sit next to a girl who was at the opposite end of the social spectrum - the sort of girl who was invited to all the best parties - and she shrieked in horror. She moved to the far edge of the desk and behaved as if Bonesy had some terrible contagious disease.
So why did she react so strongly? Maybe because adolescence is a time when we depend largely on our peers for our self-worth. This means that our lives can become a reflection of those around us. We welcome those whom our social group welcomes and we exclude on the same basis. If this very popular girl had not so publicly rejected Bonesy she ran the risk of being excluded herself. In this sense Bonesy’s presence was like a contagious disease in that his reputation posed a risk to her own.
Human beings have an innate desire to be recognised and to be held in high esteem by someone else. Each of us depends on someone other to give us our sense of self-worth. This may be exaggerated in our teenage years but we are all, whatever our age or social background, powerfully motivated by this desire.
One of the repeated challenges Jesus put to his contemporaries was ‘To whom do you look for a sense of worth?’ and ‘On whom do you depend?’We often seek to imitate one another’s values and prejudices as a way of being affirmed. In this way we also become rivals, all seeking the place of honour at the top table.
The danger of this is that we end up no longer knowing who the ‘I’ that I am seeking to elevate is. ‘I’ may become little more than a fragile, empty construction formed by years of seeking to maintain my reputation and ensure that my peers value me.
The alternative, which Jesus shows us, is that we receive our sense of worth from God. God freely gives us a dignity and worth we could never gain for ourselves. We can never manipulate God or play social games with our Creator. There is no need and no room for social insecurities in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Sarah’s sermon ended. That identity, given to us by God in baptism, is for always – including beyond death.
And although it feels that ‘winter wakens all my cares’ this week, it is Sarah, the person she was, the person we loved and admired and are so thankful for, and Sarah the named and cherished child of God, her unique given and cherished self, that we commend in the Christian hope she held so dear.
We commend her to her creator and friend, in whom all in the end is harvest. Sarah had heard that voice from heaven in her heart and knew where her life was centred. That much has not, nor cannot change: she is at peace with the one who called her and who now, I have no doubt, embraces her.
So, though there are tears, it is in confidence and even joy that we pray: may Sarah Eynstone, Christian, priest and friend, hear our gratitude and love – and, Christ of the Jordan river, may she rest in you and rise in glory.