Sermon preached on Sunday 11 October by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral
The Dean of St Paul's looks at two inspirational women and asks - 'What is your motto in life?'
The school I went to as a teenager had a school motto – that’s a short phrase which sums up what the school thinks it’s trying to be about. Although it’s an old motto from 1622, it’s in English not Latin: ‘Virtue, Learning and Manners’. That’s what the school was trying to drum into me. I leave it to those around me to judge quite how successful that was – just don’t ask my wife about my table manners with bananas.
Here in St Paul’s our motto could be: ‘The transforming presence of God in Jesus.’ That’s what we aspire to, what we know we fall short of and yet want to get to: that’s our goal, what we aim for, for ourselves and for others.
But how about making it personal: what is my motto? What short simple phrase would sum up what I think my life is about? And even more radically: when I die, what one thing do I want people to remember me for? I hope I won’t be remembered for my manners.
In his letter to the Christians in Philippi, St Paul is sharing his heart as his life draws towards its end. ‘I press on towards the goal’ says St Paul. Not a motto for a Rugby World Cup team, though it could be. What’s the goal, the aim, for Paul, of his life? It’s ‘the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’ And in this extract from his letter he fills in some of what that means: the surpassing worth of knowing and being known by Jesus Christ, of having a relationship of love and service with Jesus, of knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection and sharing in his sufferings – to be so identified with Jesus in his life now, that at the end of his life he will be spending for ever with his Saviour and friend.
And that motto – ‘press on towards the goal’ – enabled Paul to face persecution and hardship and ultimately a painful death as a follower of Jesus Christ. His life was shaped by what he believed in, by his aim, his goal, his motto in life.
There are two women with significant anniversaries today and tomorrow. The first is Ethelburga, Abbess of Barking who died 1340 years ago; sister of the bishop who revived cathedral life in London, a woman of whom we know little apart from the holiness of her life and the way she inspired others.
The church historian Bede, who was born two years before Ethelburga died, tells a great story about a nun called Tortgyth who’d worked closely with Ethelburga and lived for a further three years after the Abbess had died. As she lay unconscious on her own deathbed, Tortgyth suddenly opened her eyes and looked up to the ceiling and said, ‘I’m so glad you’ve come’; and after a little while listening she said, ‘This isn’t good news’; and then after another silence she said, ‘If not today, please don’t delay for long’; and then a silence, and she said again, ‘don’t delay’; and after listening further Tortgyth said, ‘If that’s the final decision, then please don’t delay beyond the coming night.’ And as she lay back on the bed, those around asked her, ‘Who did you speak to?’ and she said, ‘To my dearest Mother Ethelburga’. And Bede tells us that Tortgyth went home to the joys of heaven with her beloved Abbess that night.
Such a story may sound strange to us. But it fits not only with Ethelburga but with St Paul, as indeed it can with us: that as Christians we don’t look back but forward, and we live with one foot in this world and one in eternity, living in the love of Jesus here and there. In this understanding, death is not the end, but the end of the beginning: because not death but life is our goal, our aim – the life of God in Jesus Christ.
Today we remember Ethelburga; and tomorrow we remember Edith Cavell. Edith was an English nurse who worked in Brussels in Belgium in the early 1900s building up nursing there, who stayed on when the 1st World War broke out and the Germans invaded and occupied the country. She was notorious for nursing wounded men indiscriminately, whether German, French or British, and she also secretly nursed escaped allied soldiers and smuggled them out of Belgium. When the Germans found out they shot her for treason, 100 years ago tomorrow morning, at 7am on 12 October 2015.
The British Government made great use of Edith Cavell’s execution to drum up recruits to go and fight for their brave womenfolk. But they airbrushed out of history the indignation and hostility she faced in Britain because she cared for the enemy as well as for her own side, resisting the atmosphere of hatred and war fever. And as far as we know she just carried on caring, helping soldiers who needed it, whatever the cost.
Ironically, as the great suffragette campaigner Mrs Pankhurst noted, those who used Edith’s self-sacrifice to get more recruits to go and fight ‘spurned the truth in her last message…. they used her martyrdom to fan the flames of hatred which she had overcome’. What Mrs Pankhurst meant was that, the night before she was shot, Edith told the chaplain who came to see her: ‘Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’ An army wants its soldiers to be able to kill their enemy, not to have scruples about hatred or bitterness; a government wants its people to believe that patriotism is enough to justify anything. But as Edith Cavell realised in the face of death, a Christian is called to live with the love of Jesus in their heart above all other things, and to hate no one.
St Paul pressed on towards the goal of Jesus Christ; Ethelburga and Tortgyth and Edith Cavell gave their lives in love and service to others. All of them lived life in view of an eternity in the love of Jesus Christ.
And what of you and I? What will be our motto, the theme of our lives? To live well? To have virtue, learning and manners? Or can we be more radical, more ambitious: to encounter the transforming presence of God in Jesus, to live looking forward to being with Jesus Christ, to have one foot in this world and the other in eternity?
What is the motto for your life? What goal are you pressing on towards? And is it big enough to sustain you through life and death and beyond?