Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Third Sunday of Epiphany 2016
Start Date 24th Jan 2016 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

'We must not try to be more pious than God himself', wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the twentieth-century Lutheran pastor and martyr. 'To put it plainly', he went on, 'for a man in his wife's arms to be hankering after heaven in the next world is … [not only] a piece of bad taste: it is also not God's will'! By which he meant we should not think that it's only our so-called religious life and activity that's of any interest or significance to God. Far from it! So-called ordinary life—our routines of work and rest, the daily mundane business by which we sustain life and community, the duties and pleasures of family life—all that is just as valuable to God. Work rest, play, eating, drinking, friendships, family life, should never be thought of as second best: they are the will of God, a place to meet God, just as much as prayer and churchgoing.

For this he certainly had the New Testament on his side: 'Everything created by God is good and to be received with thanksgiving … don't listen to those who say otherwise', says the letter to Timothy. And it was a key concern of the Protestant Reformation. Life is not to be divided into the sacred which has value, and the profane which does not, because in fact all life is sacred; all kinds of paths through life can be God's calling; working as a labourer, or a teacher, can be just as important as a calling to be a monk or priest. In much medieval Christendom it was different: there were hierarchies of spiritual value; life had become divided, with access to God and holiness restricted and controlled by special religious people mediating it through special religious events. The Reformation rightly challenged this.

Not that the Reformation invented this theology of the value of ordinary life. It was a rediscovery of what had always been there. It was rooted in Hebrew teaching of the goodness of all creation when God blessed and hallowed all he had made. It was there in later Rabbinic attempts to live out God's law in all ordinary matters of life—our marrying, eating, working, travelling. It was there in Jesus own presence at meals and marriages, in the access he found to his Father God in community feasts and fishermen's tales, not just in synagogue prayers. It was there in the way pre-Reformation monks found value in their ordinary labours of community living, not just in their labour of prayer. All that lay behind Bonhoeffer's lapidary maxim, 'we must not try to be more pious than God himself!'

And because it is so central to the faith, so well rooted, it's another good example of a key aspect of authentic Christian faith, often neglected, which we should celebrate more. Last week the example I gave was Christian faith's valuing of all humanity equally, regardless of social, racial, gender difference. This week: it's the valuing of all ordinary life and work.

But why is this so important?

At the time of Reformation it was obvious why. As I've said, much of the church then had very obviously succumbed to false separations of life and false hierarchies of value, over-privileging so-called religious activity. I quote Luther again: the Church was too preoccupied in just 'reading the mass, saying matins, vespers … decorating churches, altars, monasteries, collecting bells, jewels, garments, trinkets, treasures … running hither and thither to Rome, St James, Jerusalem, praying St Bridget's prayer, this prayer and that prayer; fasting on this day and that day…'—justifying all this as good works to the neglect of any real concern for what Christ in the Gospel called the weightier matters: the justice, mercy, faith, we need to pursue in ordinary life. Small wonder Luther had to remind the church then that God is just as pleased when (I quote), a man 'simply does his trade … for common welfare'.

It's also easy to see why it mattered particularly to stress this in Bonhoeffer's time. There was a false separation and hierarchy of value then too, this time between private and public: because even where the Church had learned God's role in ordinary private life, it was still failing to see it ordinary public life, including political life, which meant that Hitler's rise was happening in an arena left wide open, uncontested, and unchallenged by this faith of purely personal piety. No wonder it mattered then too to show that every aspect of life was of concern to God.

And I suspect it will always matter. This core moral and spiritual insistence that God is concerned with all of reality (not just the narrowly religious) will always matter to combat the persistent tendency to dualism we always have: the instinct to separate and compartmentalize things in life, and then value one thing over against the other. That dualist instinct isn't unique to one age. It's universal. Whether it's the valuing of religion over the rest of life, private over public, mind and spirit over body and matter, male over female (or vice-versa), these dualisms are endemic—and always need to be resisted. They're endemic because there are real distinctions to be made between things, categories, people, and we do need distinctions to find our way around life (an entirely undifferentiated map of life doesn't help—a path, a river, a contour, do have to be differentiated if the map is to be of any use). But the point is that distinctions need not mean total separation; nor a hierarchy of value, with only one thing valued, the other diminished. Religious activity and so-called ordinary both matter, together...

It was another moral revolution when Christian faith, at its best, saw this value of ordinary life: another of its best gifts to the world to celebrate, along with its insistence on the equal value of all kinds of people.

So—perhaps we should inhabit our ordinary life less grudgingly, more purposefully, with more joy. It is as hallowed as any church service. It is itself an Opus Dei, God's work, just as muchas the monks' prayers, or ours, ever were…

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