Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (5 July 2015) by the Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (5 July 2015) by the Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

The Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas looks at talking and listening, and says "Something terrible begins when we seek to silence one another."

I very much enjoy finding old out of print books in second hand bookshops – last year I came across this – ‘Etiquette at a dance: what to do and what not to do’.

Published in London during the 1930s, it’s very much of its era. It offers copious advice – describing itself as ‘a mine of useful information for the guidance of all who wish to avoid mistakes in their conduct at any dance function’.

Let me draw our attention to guidance given in a section headed ‘Conversation whilst Dancing’: ‘Whatever subjects are chosen for conversation, they should be light and of passing interest, such as the latest film released, the arrival of some notability in the realm of music or drama, appreciative comments on the good qualities of the hostess…above all, do NOT make caustic criticisms about the other dancers. A lady’s dress may be ‘awful’ but her husband or brother maybe alongside you and although they would be polite enough to ostensibly disregard your lapse from good breeding, you would feel very small if you realized their proximity…innumerable instances could be given where tact and common sense are called for in the ballroom.’

The prophet Jeremiah clearly hadn’t read many books on etiquette, his language could be direct and abrasive, his conversation uncomfortable.
Jeremiah served God as his prophet during 40 or so stormy years in the life of the nation of Judah. It was a period of upheaval for Judah and the whole known world. To the north the Assyrian empire would fall, and the Babylonian empire rise. To the south, mighty Egypt remained a  brooding presence.

The people of Judah themselves, to whom Jeremiah speaks, will swing between faithful following and rejection of God and his ways. Jeremiah is called then to speak uncomfortable words; words which would be costly for him to speak and hard for them to hear.

In our first reading Jeremiah speaks words of warning and judgement to the leaders of the Temple complex – the house of God – that which should have been the embodiment of God’s presence and purpose. For this Jeremiah is struck and detained.                                                               

The aim presumably to silence him.

But Jeremiah will not be intimidated, speaking to Pashhur, the chief officer of the Temple he renames him – emphasizing that, that which was supposed to stand for ‘shalom’ or peace and well-being was bringing only terror on all sides. The whole system, which Pashhur represents, is under God’s judgment.

Jeremiah has spoken the truth trusted to him by God. Not only did this provoke external hostility but there was a personal toll of speaking to the very world he inhabits and to the people he cares about.  The cost of doing so is glimpsed in the prayer conversation Jeremiah has with God.

He points out that he has been humiliated, ridiculed, even his closest friends have turned against him – and through it all he has been wrestling, not only with himself and with those around him but with God too: ‘O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed, you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.’

And yet he resolves not to be silenced. Sound familiar?

If you haven’t seen the film Selma, which was released here in the UK earlier this year I won’t spoil it for you. But it is said to show a different, more vulnerable side of Martin Luther King Jr. that many people hadn’t appreciated before.

He was tired from the struggle for civil rights. He doubted his own efforts. He thought long and hard with trusted advisors about strategy and messaging. He made painful mistakes in his personal life. He realized he was just a pastor from Atlanta taking on the System and Capitol Hill. Yet none of this stopped him acting and speaking out.

So who is speaking up today…?

Let’s be clear, it’s easy to lob criticism from the sidelines – when people feel free to post abusive and hate-filled comments – Lord knows we have enough of that, that’s not what we are talking about – but who really cares enough, who is willing to first listen carefully to God in order to speak up.

To speak about the racism that continues in the US and here in the UK, about the 2 million children in the UK who the Children’s Society say live in poverty, who will speak up about the alienation of some of our citizens, about the misinformation given to entice others away to violence, about the needs of people who are silenced?

We thank God for the many who speak up, organisations such as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch alongside individuals, bloggers, churches and community organisations around the world. And you - what has God been speaking to you about, about which you care enough that you will speak up? No matter the cost?

We need those who will speak – but also those who will listen. I find this the much harder place to be - to listen to challenging words and to respond rather than to react. To be ready to hear and to act on uncomfortable words.

Theodore Zeldin is a fellow and former Dean of St Antony’s College, Oxford and has been hailed as one of the 40 world figures whose ideas are likely to have a lasting relevance to this present millennium. In his book called ‘Conversation: How talk can change our lives’,                                               

Zeldin explores how deep talking, speaking and listening, can change everything.

What matters most he says is – the courageous willingness to be present, to show up.

To show up with the generosity to listen beneath and between; with generosity, with accountability and with a genuine desire to hear.

I wonder if you’ve come across another book – written by Doris Kearns Goodwin and called ‘Team of Rivals’ it concerns the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It inspired the film ‘Lincoln’. 

Apparently President Obama said that this book was the one he’d want with him if stranded on a desert island. It describes how Lincoln appointed a cabinet of his three biggest rivals (who loathed him), and worked with them during the Civil War, a time of unprecedented danger for their nation. As critics of any over-optimistic reading of what happened have pointed, out there were painful trade-offs with the "team of rivals" approach – and yet it was a courageous response in a time of great national need.

Lincoln said “We need the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services”. 

Lincoln recognised that he – and the country – needed to hear from those who might disagree with him.

Back to Theodore Zeldin who writes: “The kind of conversation I’m interested in is one in which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person. It’s always an experiment, whose results are never guaranteed. It involves risk. It is an adventure in which we agree to cook the world together and to make it taste less bitter.”

When Jeremiah spoke Pashhur found his words intolerable and sought to silence him. Something terrible begins when we seek to silence one another.  How especially terrible when religious people choose to do so – for we may well find that we are attempting to silence the voice of God, the very words which would bring life and salvation to us.