Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 25th Sep 2016 11:15am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Whilst the world-wide Anglican Communion, like other Christian Churches, continues to grow, the Church of England, from which the Anglican Communion was derived, is often described as losing both numbers and influence in this country. There could be many reasons for this, amongst them the greater mobility of people, the great diversity of faith communities in this country, both good things in themselves, and on the other hand the damage to the reputation of religion itself through the violence and terrorism of perverted extremist religious groups. In consequence, people often choose now to describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious.

And yet, the influence of Christianity in this country continues to be significant. In the Tablet, a religious weekly newspaper, on Friday, Nick Spencer wrote, ‘The United Kingdom is a deeply Christian place, although we are clearly not especially observant, pious or even believing today. Rather, we are Christian in the sense of having had our national identity, values and self-consciousness shaped by Christianity for over 1,500 years.’

Now this is worth exploring in the light of today’s biblical readings. All three of our readings concerned the treatment of the poor. The 8th century BC Israeli prophet Amos insisted that the rich should not cheat the poor. In the passage we heard this morning, the idle rich of his day were frankly informed that they should watch out. ‘The revelry of the loungers shall pass away.’ Even in the letter to Timothy, the rich were warned ‘not to be haughty’ and to ‘set their hopes … on God’, not ‘on the uncertainty of riches.’ And in the gospel reading our Lord’s parable made it crystal clear that the rich should not ignore the needs of the poor people at their gate. This is a message that politicians in this country have received and understood. They do have different ideas about how to overcome poverty and to help people out of poverty. They all recognise the need for welfare payments for those in poverty, though they may debate the appropriate level, and everyone accepts the need for a national minimum wage. And they all recognise that education must create equality of opportunity for rich and poor alike, though this is more easily wished for than achieved. But no politician on our national stage could get away with saying, You will always have the poor with you; let the poor fend for themselves. And, way beyond politics, individuals, voluntary groups and charities in society work hard to alleviate the effects of poverty, whether out of Christian commitment or out of a concern for the disadvantaged, which derives from the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In a similar way, people who seek to describe British values often identify tolerance and fair play as particular characteristics. And it is nowadays widely accepted, and embedded in legislation, that prejudicial attitudes or actions against others on the grounds of their gender or age or ethnicity or sexuality or various abilities are to be condemned. We could easily trace how these views derive absolutely from our Lord’s teaching about the value of the individual. ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ And our Lord’s actions supported his teaching. ‘People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.’

This may all seem a little optimistic: Christian values persisting in a largely post-Christian country. Could Christian values really survive in a society where Christian belief and Christian practice had faded away, even if there had been centuries of Christian teaching? It seems unlikely, at least for long. It would be like a hot air balloon high up in the sky that had lost the power to heat the air in the balloon. The air would grow cold and the balloon would tumble to the earth and collapse in a heap. Christian belief and practice are necessary to keep Christian values warm, to keep them alive and kicking, and in the absence of genuine Christian belief and practice, the values go adrift.
I spent the first seventeen years of my ministry working in parishes in London. In the largest of these, I often conducted three funerals a week, overwhelmingly in a local crematorium. Most often the family and the person who had died were unknown to me. But the Church of England sees itself as serving all the people of England, regardless of religious practice. So I would pay a pastoral visit to the family before the funeral and would hope to learn something of the person whose funeral I would be taking and about their family. People were usually shocked and sad, though not always, and they were generally a little out of their depth. But we often made a connection. Now, here is a remarkable thing. I cannot remember any of the people I was meeting doubting that their dead relation had gone to what people generally called a better place, that is to heaven.

A survey a few years ago showed that 53 per cent of people in the United Kingdom believe in life after death and 55 per cent believe in heaven. If over half the people in this country believe in heaven, we can certainly predict that they expect to be going there, come what may. And it seems that belief in life after death, belief in heaven, has gradually led to a sense of entitlement. God will forgive me; that’s his job.

But today’s gospel reading confronts us with the reality that we are all under judgement. The rich man who ignored Lazarus, the poor man at his gate, was described by our Lord as being in Hades, a place of torment. And this is not the only occasion when Jesus spoke in such terms.

Remember the parable of the wheat and the tares. ‘At harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’

Think of the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus distinguished between those who visited him and cared for him in the poor and needy and those who did not. And those who did not were not just under judgement but to be condemned. ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

We have no natural entitlement to heaven but rely on God’s grace. We are all subject to the judgement of almighty God. We shall all one day stand before the throne, with the piercing eye of love and goodness and beauty on us, seeing into the very core of our being, knowing all our thoughts and deeds and words. We shall all then be aware of our weakness and folly, our stupidity and thoughtlessness, our self-indulgence and idleness, our cruelty and harshness, and we shall all be ashamed.

Let us amend our ways and call on the grace of God to transform us in this life into the people we must be if we are to endure that piercing gaze of love.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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