Sermon for 16th September by Reverend Marjorie Brown
My text today, sisters and brothers, is from the lesson read by Nathaniel, the Epistle of James, chapter 3, verse 2: All of us make many mistakes.
What a relief to find a passage of Holy Writ that says that! It should be emblazoned around every pulpit in every church. And not only that. It should be the text on the desk of every newspaper editor, police commissioner, scientist, headteacher and politician. Parents should have badges with this verse to wear around the house, especially when their children reach the teenage years. It should be incorporated into the vows of marriage. What an improvement it would be to the world if we all woke up every morning and went to bed every night with this mantra on our lips: we all make many mistakes.
Well, in the news at least this has been a week of acknowledging mistakes. David Cameron has offered apologies for the way the Hillsborough fans were slandered by the press and police. The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he regrets some of the things he said and did in office, particularly in connection with his speech about sharia law. Nick Clegg has taken back the word “bigots” that he used to describe opponents of gay marriage.
For sure, the tongue is an unruly member. The epistle of James gives us the striking image of a big ship needing lots of wind to make it move, and yet being guided by the hand of the pilot on a comparatively tiny rudder. In the same way, the words that we let slip can change our lives in huge ways.
But we all make many mistakes. The words we use may be unhelpful, unkind or untrue. Once we have said them, we may wish we could unsay them, but they hang in the air, they take root in people’s memory, they may even feel like a knife to the heart.
So we had better be careful of what we say, knowing how prone we all are to making many mistakes. With that very cautionary preface, I want now to SAY something about being a Christian. You may imagine how nervously I embark on this task!
And what I really want to say is how dangerous words are when it comes to religion. I should be more specific: not just any words, but words that state propositions that we are required to hold as true. Many of us struggled valiantly with the text of the Nicene Creed throughout Lent. We reflected that every phrase of the creed was sweated and argued over in its making, and that a good deal of blood has been shed in consequence of almost every line.
Of course it is important to have some agreement about what the gospel means, and we can only try our best to do that in words. Language is the supreme mark of being human, it’s what sets us apart from the rest of creation, so let’s not underrate it. You’ve probably all been told at one time or another – perhaps even by me, but we all make many mistakes! – that St Francis of Assisi told his disciples to preach the gospel at all times, and use words when necessary. Actually, he never said any such thing. But he did say something rather interesting:
“The preacher must first draw from secret prayers what he will later pour out in holy sermons; he must first grow hot within before he speaks words that are in themselves cold.”
And that leads me to what I want, with great trepidation, to try to say about being a Christian. It is no good presenting Christianity as a set of propositions to be studied and agreed, a sacred text to be called true, I will run the risk of saying boldly that no one is saved or condemned by agreeing or disagreeing with a proposition, even “God exists” or “Jesus saves”. Perhaps even particularly a statement like “God exists” – when you look at it carefully, and you realize that existence refers to a state of being in the created universe, you can see that it is a meaningless phrase to apply to the Creator. Come and hear Karen Armstrong talk about this subject in St Paul’s Cathedral next month.
Even Peter was rebuked by Jesus for calling him the Messiah. It was what Jesus was doing, not what his disciples said about him, that really mattered. Even the demons in Mark’s gospel recognized who Jesus was. But Jesus wanted people to walk in his footsteps, not proclaim him from the rooftops.
How often do our tongues run away with us. We want to defend the faith by the brilliance of our arguments. We feel we should rise to the challenge of the New Atheists, who want to set the terms on which the debate takes place. Once you have defined God as a fairy at the bottom of the garden or a teapot floating in the sky, it doesn’t take much effort to demolish the idea of God.
And this is where we have to stop and consider what being a Christian really means. Is a Christian a person who believes six impossible things before breakfast? Or is a Christian something else entirely?
The historian and science writer Francis Spufford says that “from the outside, belief looks like a series of ideas … from the inside, it makes much more sense to talk about it as a set of feelings.” If you want to hear him defend his thesis, by the way, he will be speaking at St Paul’s Cathedral tomorrow at 6.30 pm. Francis Spufford is an Anglican who says the Creed every Sunday with as much conviction as he can muster, but he says “It is … a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings themselves that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I do not have the feelings because I have assented to the ideas.”
I am not sure how far I would go along with him in making feelings central, because our emotions can sometimes lead us badly wrong, and we may feel deficient because we don’t have the feelings we think we should have. But I would agree with him that personal experience comes before intellectual agreement. St Anselm a thousand years ago defined Christianity as “faith seeking understanding”. To start with looking for the truth is the wrong way round: we start by receiving God’s love, and that draws us into a commitment to the proclamation that God is love.
Some years ago I accompanied a young mother in her dying from cancer. Her husband raged against God throughout the terrible destruction of her life. He could not quite dismiss God, but God for him was a cosmic sadist who kept turning the screws and making things even worse than you ever believed possible. This young man had a healthy, honest and natural reaction to the agony he was enduring. I made no attempt to justify the ways of God to him. All I could say was that, for me, God persists. And I hope I demonstrated that by staying alongside him to his wife’s death and beyond.
I do not know if he ever came to terms with God. But he sought me out several years later to introduce me to his new partner and to tell me that they now had a baby together, joining the children each of them brought from their previous marriages. I am very glad that I never said to him that everything has a reason, or that we are never sent more than we can bear, or the good die young, or any of the other clichés that come so temptingly to our lips when we want to help someone in pain. If I had, I don’t think he would ever have looked me up again.
We all make many mistakes. And I have certainly said things in a feeble defence of God that I now regret and wish I could take back. But over the years of ministry I have slowly begun to learn that God doesn’t need defenders or arguments. In fact God doesn’t need anything. It is we who need God’s love. We need to forgive each other, constantly, for our many mistakes. When we do that, having known God’s mercy for ourselves, we find that we are living in a new kind of community, a community of love.
It is the presence and reality of loving, mutually forgiving communities that draws people in to the Christian faith. Debates are stimulating and enjoyable. We all love the summer lectures and the books we read for the book club. But it is something else entirely that helps us take the step to become Christians.
And that is the conviction that as Francis Spufford says, “the universe is its own thing – integral, reliable, coherent, not Swiss-cheesed with irrationality or whimsical exceptions; and at the same time, is never abandoned – not a single quark, proton, atom, molecule, cell, creature, continent, planet, star, cluster, galaxy, diverging metaversal timeline of it.”
Don’t ask me, by the way, what a diverging metaversal timeline is. I will take it on faith that it exists.
We all make mistakes, all the time. We may be utterly wrong-headed in the statements that we think are important and true. But God persists; the universe is never abandoned; and we can surrender to that presence and that love, forgive one another over and over again, and see what happens.