Sermon preached at Evensong of the feast of the Dedication of Westminster Abbey, 2023

May we hold onto the perspective of the heavenly city as we seek the peace and prosperity of our city.

The Right Reverend Dr Joanne Grenfell Bishop of Stepney, Diocese of London

Sunday, 15th October 2023 at 3.00 PM

“As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

Jesus wept as he surveyed Jerusalem. Many of us will have wept too, as we have watched news reports this week of the attacks on Israel and of the ensuing retaliations in Gaza; news reports that are powerful in both their scope and detail as they highlight the human cost of violence, for Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

I wonder, when we weep, whether we do so because we feel powerless, or because we feel sorrow.

When we feel we lack power, we can end up seeking to tighten our grip, to regain control. Tears express our frustration at not getting our own way. Why can’t someone sort this out?

When we feel sorrow, compassion may follow, taking us to a vulnerable but ultimately more honest place; there are some sorrows that are too deep for us to solve or erase, that we may need to ponder for a while.

And, as we ponder, we weep.

When Jesus wept, I don’t believe that he was seeking control: although his arrival in Jerusalem fulfilled some of the Scriptures’ prophecies, this was no triumphal entry in the expected sense. His enemies, all those who sought the ways of violence rather than of peace, were still waiting. He wept from sorrow and with compassion, with tears that came from the heart of God, out of love for all his precious children.

I wonder if we may be guided both by Jesus’ tears and by the wisdom of the Scriptures, as we survey the violence in Israel, even as it affects Jerusalem itself.

We could respond from our sense of powerlessness, seeking to join the quest to make sense of the events that are unfolding before our eyes, and to control them. We could join in with the polarized debates of social media and the clamouring voices charged with brittle certainty. We could be swept up in a discourse where might is right, and where the complexities of history and identity are lost in in a din of resounding gongs and clanging cymbals.

Or we could weep with Jesus, and we could seek a different language, one of vulnerability, compassion, and love.

Let’s be clear. Choosing the language of love is not about being silent, or complicit.

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

Jesus teaches that every disciple has a place in the public sphere and, with it, a responsibility to speak out for what is right. If we do not, the stones—of this great Abbey, and of all the holy dwelling places of God recognized by good people of faith across the world—will surely cry out, and weep, in our stead. We have an urgent responsibility to speak of the suffering our brothers and sisters.

As we speak, the language we choose shapes our world, for good or ill. The Book of Wisdom, addressed, according to its opening verses, to the rulers of the earth—and I think that includes the mayors of London—urges all to love righteousness and seek wisdom. So, let’s focus, in those two allotted opening verses, on three brief thoughts: on truth speaking, on inner motivations, and on the quality of our common discourse.

Verse 5: truth telling. “For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts behind, and will be ashamed at the approach of unrighteousness.” Speak the truth, help others to speak the truth, and take a righteous approach. From our different faith traditions, we will have different perspectives. We don’t need to settle for a mush of samey indifference. So let us speak the truth, but let us do so wisely, in a way that makes a meaningful and proportionate contribution to the debate, as far as possible without infringing on the rights or beliefs of others.

Verse 6: inner motivations. “Wisdom is a kindly spirit but will not free blasphemers from the guilt of their words.” We need to develop an ethic of speaking well, not just politely, but with a good heart and with the best of motives. We need to listen properly, respond with kindness, notice and restrain our use of power, and describe with generosity our opponents’ cases, assuming that they too are good hearted.

Verse 11: the quality of our common discourse. “No secret word is without result, and a lying mouth destroys the soul.” If we can see the consequences of polluting the rivers of speech and language in which we all swim, then we will want to moderate our speech accordingly, avoiding poisonous or polarizing language and making space for those who are marginalized or minoritized to receive their full rights and to be heard. Contribute well to the well of our common life.

My faith—my faith in a Saviour who wept—leads me to want to speak from sorrow and compassion, and to bear witness to a love made manifest in vulnerability and weakness. I believe that Wisdom leads us along this path. My hope is that all good people of faith may feel similarly able to speak from love and with wisdom as they contribute to the common good in this city that we love, and throughout the world.

There are also words of wisdom here for the Church of England and its leadership. Jesus teaches us to attend to our own failings before judging others. There are contentious matters which are being addressed by the Church at the moment through its Living in Love and Faith conversations, matters which have not always been addressed with the care, generosity, and concern for the vulnerable that they deserve.

As much as I am preaching to any gathered here. I am also preaching this afternoon to myself and my colleagues. We are hypocrites if we can’t see the plank in our own eye but are so very keen to seize on the speck in that of our opponent (Matt 7.5).

Whatever our religious or cultural affinities and differences, may we all examine our hearts, and seek to speak the truth, to speak well of each other, and to contribute positively to the well of our common life. May we hold onto the perspective of the heavenly city as we seek the peace and prosperity of our city—and pray that God will also grant such peace and prosperity to Jerusalem.