Sermon given on the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Ephesians 5:8-14

The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 22nd March 2020 at 11.00 AM

I think I may be reaching for the poetry books too often. So, begging your pardon for another poem, let us begin with Roger McGough

I think about dying.
About disease, starvation,
violence, terrorism, war,
the end of the world.

It helps
keep my mind off things

This week, I had to explain to our Abbey staff that we were closing the Abbey to visitors and that there would be no more public services. A day later, I was in the Abbey chatting to the some of the same staff, standing in an almost deserted building, and just a day after that, I was writing to the staff to tell them we were closing completely. I was having to think quickly, the situation was changing so fast. The thinking quickly, though, was not much of an issue. What caught me unawares was the emotion of it all. Shutting the nation’s church, an Abbey and a clergy going silent, locking up the gospel and the impact on our colleagues. I admit I have been near tears sometimes. This is hard. Add in the isolation and it gets harder. On top of that there is the anxiety. If you are over 60 and not built like a classical god, well, not Adonis, Silenus perhaps… these are hard times.

I think about dying.
About disease

What do we say about this national crisis? I have met something near panic. I have met a defiant refusal to let silly things like facts get in the way, and I have met that famous British pluck that whistles the theme from the Dambusters, and potters off to the pub. I have also heard someone explain that this is God’s plan for us. What do we say? I don’t think the answer lies in any of those places.

Instead, I offer two truths that we can pick out of that passage from Ephesians we heard.

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light

That is Ephesians 5:8 and, when one of my predecessors, Dean Armitage Robinson, wrote a commentary on Ephesians, he had nothing to say about this verse. Now the commentators are all over it. You were darkness, now you are light. What we notice now are the opposites, the polarity of good and evil. We wonder and worry about how good and evil relate. 

That is the first thing we have to talk about. One way of dealing with this crisis is to take a theology lesson from Mr Johnny Mercer the man who used to ‘accentuate the positive’. One way of coping is a kind of blind optimism. The optimism that says ‘It will all be over soon’. C S Lewis used to talk about Christians who want to live in an imagined future where things will turn out better than they are. Lewis wanted to warn us against that. He wanted us to live in the present and also in eternity. He wanted us to see things as they are and as God would have them be. Good theology, you see, lives in the moment. It recognizes that suffering is real and has to be faced. Scripture does that, think of the prophets, gazing levelly at our pain and sorrow. Jeremiah told it as it was and, sometimes, he could not see past the pain

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

- Jeremiah 8:21-22

We have to live in this present and tell the truth. We must take seriously the distress and grief that builds around us. McGough was right; you do have to talk about,

About disease, starvation,
violence, terrorism, war,
the end of the world

We must recognize the pain of anxiety, illness and loss.

There is something else though here. You could read this bit of Ephesians and think that once we were in darkness, but now we are in light, as if some switch had been thrown. It could sound as though we just have to wait for God to turn one thing into another. But, that is not what Ephesians says. This passage wants us to know that we have a vocation to live in light, not in darkness. Ephesians tells us we have to choose to inhabit one, not the other.

The challenge for us, actually the challenge for everyone who thinks themselves a Christian, is to live in light not darkness. It is a challenge to turn to the light, to hope for the light, to imagine and describe the light. The light is God’s gift, but we must live it, be it.

Ephesians is the epistle of vocation, the one that asks us to remember we are saints, the one that begins with ‘Blessed be God’ reminding us that he is blessed and so are we. What we heard this morning was a summons to explore our vocation in this crisis. A vocation to tell the truth and to be light so that others might see light.

So, there is realism and then an act of will, the summoning of courage and hope. This is the time for an exercise in virtue. n dark times, hope is only hope when it is informed and truthful. Hope is only hope when it knows the depth of the darkness and responds. First, we tell the truth; then we assert, with confidence, that this too can be redeemed. First, we see the darkness then we step into the light.