Sermon: Sunday 27 September 2015
Rev’d Canon Barry Naylor
We are approaching the great festivals of the Holy Angels and, in fact, are anticipating one today. I think my most memorable celebration of the feast of St Michael and All Angels was, many years ago, when I was doing a relief chaplaincy at the Anglican Church in Nice, on this particular feast – in fact it was the party afterwards on the church lawn, among the palm trees and Mediterranean shrubbery, and just five minutes walk from the sea, with copious amount of Pimms that is rather more memorable than the Mass itself, to be honest!
In the Roman Catholic calendar, the 2nd October, at the end of this week, is also kept as the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels and sandwiched between that and the feast of St Francis on the 4t,h will be the 39th anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood, in Southwark Cathedral by Bishop Mervyn Stockwood, who welcomed me back into the Church of England after a brief flirtation with Roman Catholicism. My final preparation for ordination was, I remember, a reading fortnight staying in a villa near to Marbella, guided by him and Bishop Michael Marshall – I don’t remember too much reading taking place but I do remember, among other things, being sent out into the orchard early every morning to pick the oranges for breakfast orange juice and swimming in the pool of the neighbouring villa, owned, incidentally, by an old Admiral from the Third Reich, who had sort refuge in Franco’s Spain! I also remember Bishop Mervyn, who had a great dislike of garlic, sending Michael Marshall into restaurant doorways to sniff, to see if they were using garlic! I cannot remember how we ever found Spanish restaurants that passed this episcopal test! Lots of stories and anecdotes but this is supposed to be a sermon, not a series of reminiscences.
The Holy Angels are the messengers of God and we think of them in all their splendour in the heavenly courts, worshipping almighty God and protecting and guiding his people. The great Archangels are seven in number – the best known being Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. We think of them as majestic celestial beings, inhabiting the heavenly courts but, you know, we, as human beings, have a glory and a dignity even greater than that of the angels and archangels. Pope St. Leo the Great wrote on the Feast of the Ascension: “our poor human nature was carried up in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father”. We are made in the very image of God, whatever that might mean, and God loves us so very much he gave his only Son to take upon himself our human nature, so that we might share in his divine glory for all eternity. This is true for every single person born of a woman. This belief has been one of the great foundations of my faith, my priestly ministry has been grounded in it. If God has given us this great dignity, then our response must be to honour it and cherish it both in ourselves and in our fellow human beings.
Cardinal Heenan, when asked what was the most important thing to him, replied “the salvation of my own soul”, but that salvation can only be experienced if we are living “in Christ”, who came that we might know life in all its fullness. To live “in Christ” is to live with hearts set on fire by the divine love, hearts radiating the divine mercy, hearts exuding the divine generosity, hearts longing to gather all humanity into an experience of the divine loving and celebration of life.
Our hearts are set on fire as we share in the Holy Eucharist (whether we recognise it or not!), for we are sacramentally caught up in that one perfect sacrifice which affirms the Divine Supremacy, the supremacy of love, joy, hope, peace, reconciliation, healing – all those virtues which are essential components of the Good News of Jesus, which we are called both to proclaim and to make real in the world in which we live. We must strive to make the connections between our worship of God and our service of God. The service begins when the worship ends, rather, they are but two sides of the same coin. Only connect – make the connections! An essential component of my ministry has been seeking (not always successfully, I must admit) to make those connections (and to encourage others to make them) between standing at the Altar, offering the Holy Sacrifice, “proclaiming the death of the Lord”, and what goes on in the world around us. A dear friend of mine since the days of my first curacy in Catford, South London, now sadly learning to live with dementia, Leslie Houlden, wrote a book (one of many) entitled “Connections: The Integration of Theology and Faith”, way back in 1986 in which he quoted, as an inspiration, a short sentence from E. M. Forster’s, “Howard’s End”: “Only connect! That was the whole of the sermon”. Only connect – for God’s sake, for the sake of the world. Make the connections between believing in a God who is perfect relationship, who is the Trinity of Love, and the kind of communities we struggle to build in this world. How do our communities (ecclesiastical and secular), our relationships reflect the perfection of love we find in the Holy Trinity? The answer must be “not very well” but that, my friends, must be our goal, as Christians. How can we pray the Our Father: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and not long, with every fibre of our being, to help build a world where that is not only our dream but also our intention –to build, sustain and protect relationships, communities, institutions etc. that are godly because they reflect the divine reality we know in the Trinity.
Only connect – God took upon himself our human nature and raised it to a dignity higher than that of the angels – all that found its fulfilment in the Incarnation. “The Word became flesh”. He became poor so that we might become rich, he became the Victim, so that we might conquer – what a wonderful transaction! This is not just some abstract theological doctrine – only connect:
Fr. Ken Leech, who sadly died this last week, was another person whose writing and life has had a formative influence on me, ever since I first met him at AngSoc at UCL in 1969. He described himself as witnessing to subversive orthodoxy and radical traditionalism. Labels! He wrote of Father Dolling, a great parish priest of Portsea: “I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation” and also of Father Stewart Headlam, a “turbulent priest from Bethnal Green” who, among other things, put up half the bail of £5,000 for Oscar Wilde, when he was arraigned for gross indecency. Headlam saw the Incarnation as leading directly to social and political action, reflecting on the story of the sheep and the goats he wrote: “bad food, ugly clothes, dirty houses not only injure the body but injure the soul; nay, more, they do great injury unto God himself”
“The Christian Church is intended to be a society not merely for teaching a number of elaborate doctrines, not even for maintaining a beautiful ritual and worship but mainly and chiefly for doing on a large scale throughout the world those secular, socialistic works which Christ did on a small scale in Palestine.”
Only connect – as St John Chrysostom wrote, if you cannot encounter Christ in the beggar at the door, you will never encounter him in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist. How we are challenged to make these connections in the world today – meeting on our responses to the current refuges crisis, our stewardship of creation (Pope Francis), the proliferation of food bank use the growing gap between the rich and the poor and so the list continues – only connect, the Good News of Jesus and the world in which we live My friends, as the Church, we must make these connections between the world we live in and the Good News of Jesus. There are those who tell us that political involvement is no part of the Church’s authentic agenda but what we should be about is the salvation of souls. Of course, the salvation of souls is a supreme Gospel imperative – how can I be a Christian priest and not believe that? I fail to see, however, in the economy of the God who is boundless love, how any soul that does not see the moral imperative of proclaiming and seeking. both the spiritual and physical wellbeing of every child of God, can ever know what salvation truly is, or discover what life in all its fullness is truly about, for our Lord came not to be served, but to serve. He is our example and our ultimate inspiration in all this.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring Good News to the poor and to set the downtrodden free”. May we be aided by the prayers of the saints and know the guidance and protection of the Holy Angels of God, as we continue on our journeys of life, seeking always to connect the Gospel, the faith and the world.
“Only connect – that was the whole of the sermon.” in a sense, the whole of my priestly ministry. Amen.