Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Fourth Sunday of Lent: Sunday 14 March 2010
1 March 2010 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Readings: Joshua 5: 9-12; 2 Corinthians 5: 16-end; Luke 15: 1-3, 11b – end
‘We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’
May, this year, looks like being a special month for our country – and also for Westminster Abbey. On 21st May 1560, Queen Elizabeth I gave a charter to the Dean and Chapter establishing the Abbey after the turmoil of the reformation as the Collegiate Church of the Blessed Peter in Westminster. Westminster Abbey and Westminster School will together celebrate, on 21st May this year, the 450th anniversary of our new foundation.
The week before those celebrations, at a special service that happens annually in the Abbey and brings together 2,000 nurses from around the United Kingdom and from the armed forces, we shall have observed the centenary of the death of Florence Nightingale. I shall have dedicated the altar in the Nurses’ Chapel in the Abbey to her memory. The preacher at that service will have been Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Desmond Tutu is best remembered for the extraordinary courage of his ministry as Bishop of Johannesburg and then as Archbishop of Cape Town and for the strength of the contribution he made to the peaceful transition of South Africa to a modern inclusive democracy. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he chaired has done much to heal the wounds of anger and division in a country that still has far to go but which has achieved progress that twenty years ago seemed unimaginable.
The title of that commission, Truth and Reconciliation, makes a powerful point: there can be no real reconciliation between divided peoples until there has been a real recognition of the truth of what was done and what has driven people apart. Terrible deeds have terrible consequences. The deeds themselves cannot be undone by the wave of a magic wand. Reconciliation is costly. The first step in the slow and heavy process that leads towards reconciliation is an honest facing up to the hurt, the damage, the cost in human suffering and grief.
We know the need for truth and reconciliation twenty years ago in South Africa. Two thousand years ago, it was necessary in Corinth. St Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, ‘We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’ Now there is no need for reconciliation if all is peace and light. St Paul’s letters reveal the divisions within the Christian community in Corinth that have led to his plea. In his first letter he describes what happens when they come together to celebrate the Eucharist. First, some regard themselves as better than others because they can speak and prophesy in tongues: St Paul tells them that they must not show off but use their spiritual gifts to build up rather than to divide the Church. Secondly, the Eucharist seems to be celebrated as part of a meal, just as Jesus took the bread and cup at the end of the Last Supper. But, unlike Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper, the Corinthians eat no communal meal: rather they each bring their own food and drink and, though they eat together in the same place, they share nothing. Some of the Corinthian Christians come from prosperous families and others are slaves, so it seems that some happily scoff their lavish picnics and fine wines, whilst others make do with the equivalent of a marmite sandwich. St Paul writes to the Corinthians, ‘I do not commend you. When you come together as a church, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.’ St Paul’s plea to be reconciled to God includes being reconciled with one another. And before reconciliation, the truth has to be faced.
The prodigal son, according to Jesus’ parable in the Gospel reading, has faced up to the truth. He has come to see that he cannot go on as he is. But he does not expect his father to reinstate him as his son. Rather, he remembers that his father’s farm labourers are able at least to avoid starvation. ‘I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ His father’s reaction gives us one of the most powerful and heartening moments in all Jesus’ parables. The father sees his son coming from afar and runs to meet him, sending for the best clothes and for the fatted calf to be killed. He forgives his son for squandering his inheritance and living a life of debauchery. All he wants is his son back home, safe and sound. The meaning of the parable is clear: God longs to forgive us and be reconciled to us, to welcome us back into his loving arms. All we need is to recognise our short-comings, to see our lives for what they are, to face up to the truth and to know our need of God.
The elder son by contrast has no recognition of his need of God. His life has always been devoted and hard-working – and comfortable. He thinks he deserves his life. But there is no truth and no reconciliation. He resents his father’s generosity to his brother; lost in his self-righteousness, he sees no need of reconciliation to his father or to anyone else. Jesus tells many stories with this theme. Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The Pharisee thanks God for all the good he is able to do; the tax-collector stands afar off and prays earnestly for God to forgive him a sinner. It is the tax-collector who goes home right with God.
What about truth and reconciliation in our lives? Are we a prodigal son, very conscious of our own failure and need for love and forgiveness, or perhaps an elder brother, under a conventionally pious exterior quite self-satisfied? The enemy of our reconciliation to God and to our brothers and sisters, our neighbours, is our self-righteousness, our sense that we really are fine as we are. This Lent and this day’s readings call us afresh to examine ourselves and to recognise that all is not as it should be. Whatever the ills of our own lives, in our families, in our communities, or whatever the wells, we are called to face up to the truth about ourselves, about how far we fall short of the imitation of Christ, of the glory of God.
St Paul said, ‘We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’ May we know our need of God and experience this Lent his forgiveness, as he runs out to meet us and fold us in his loving arms!
The Lord says to us:
‘Can a woman’s tender care
Cease towards the child she bare?
Yes, she may forgetful be,
Yet will I remember thee.’
[‘Hark, my soul, it is the Lord’ William Cowper, Olney Hymns]