Sermon given at Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 2020
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 5th July 2020 at 11.15 AM
We closed the Abbey doors on 20th March; a little over a hundred days ago. Then, this place of national memorial and celebration, this church that welcomes over a million visitors a year, went quiet.
We all have memories and stories of lockdown, some of them lonely or tough, some laden with grief. My life, living in the Precincts, has been more pretty privileged. Even so, I remember, that on 20th March, I was close to tears. For the past three months and more I have walked in a silent, empty Abbey feeling dislocated and bereft. If I speak to the staff about coming back to work they all say much the same thing. They look around a quiet, empty, building and they say ‘It feels wrong’.
I decided, as all this began, that I would write to my colleagues, on a Friday. I had no idea what kind of a commitment that would be. I am still writing to my colleagues, most of them on furlough. I have just written my fifteenth letter. So, I can look back. I can compare what I said then and what I say now. It is not the same. Most of us have found this difficult, but in different ways and at different times. There have been seasons in lockdown. There were times when I was eager to be in touch with others, times when I felt withdrawn. There have been moments of frustration, even anger, there have been times of resignation. As the virus got a grip I became more anxious, more suspicious of others, I walked empty streets, not more crowded parks. Over fifteen weeks, I can see the change in these letters I wrote. Lately, there has been bad news to discuss. The Abbey depends on its visitors for its income. We have seen no visitors for months; we will see very few in the months to come. We have an enormous financial challenge on our hands and we have had to start talking to staff colleagues about job cuts.
For the last three months the story has changed, and kept changing. One problem became another. Now, the Dean is supposed to provide leadership in the Abbey. This Dean tried to do that, but all the time the story kept slipping through my fingers; it was all done on the hoof. The story changed on me; in the midst of it, it was impossible to see it whole.
While all this was happening I was reading a novel, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. It is a novel about telling the story of a life, and about how difficult that is. It is a story about unlikely outcomes, unreliable witnesses, truth and lies. The novel is really interested in just one life in particular - her love, her success and failure. Meanwhile though, big events unfold around us. We are in Cairo in the 1940s, the North Africa campaign is being fought – Tobruk, El Alamein and the novelist says this,
Wars are fought by children. Conceived by their mad demonic elders and fought by boys… The rest of us grow old and tell each other what really happened; they of course will never know, just as they never knew at the time.
There you have it. In the midst of events, but not in control of the story; not able to tell the story. It made me think of a poem, written by someone who fought at Alamein. John Jarmain who complains that people go back to the battlefield to look at it and admire the flowers that grew there, later. Flowers, he says, and nothing that we know. He goes on,
But this is not the place that we recall,
The crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks,
The one blotched building, lacking half a wall…
So be it: none but us has known that land:
El Alamein will still be only ours
And those ten days of chaos in the sand.
He is telling us that other people will come along and tell stories. They will describe the battle, point out how it changed the war, talk about strategy, or they will admire the flowers. They will see it differently. But,
El Alamein will still be only ours
And those ten days of chaos in the sand.
In the midst of it, living it, being there, that is different.
This is by the way one of the reasons we are in such a contested debate about #blacklivesmatter and about statues and our history. It is because we have to be reminded that in the midst of the story you never see it straight. All history is an attempt to take control, a telling of the story from one point of view. I am a historian, believe me that is what we try to do. We offer a view, an interpretation knowing there will be others. The memorials in the Abbey tell a marvelous and complex story, but it is not the whole story and although we have tried to write our story in stone, it is still subject to debate. The Abbey does not own the past.
I am telling you all this because I want to try to explain something that Jesus was trying to explain, to the crowds, who wanted answers and explanations. We heard it in the gospel reading. We were in one of the towns of Galilee and the atmosphere was tense. John the Baptist has been arrested. There are questions about him and about who Jesus is. There are accusations, and there is a feeling that if John lived in the desert, but Jesus eats with sinners, one of them has to be wrong. One of them has to be a fraud. People want the story. They want to know, want to understand. Jesus hears them out and then observes that this crowd are
like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.'
- Matthew 11:16-17
They want Jesus to dance to their tune.
What we need to notice is that Jesus does not give them the answer they ask for. He does not map out the divine strategy. He does tell them how providence works. He does not give them the whole story. Instead he says,
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;
You can be like this – think yourself wise and intelligent; or, says Jesus, you can be like that – an infant. It is a simple distinction, but it is a crucial distinction. It is not actually the difference between people who know things and the people who do not. It is something more significant, more fundamental. It is the difference between people who want to be in control and people who are dependent. The difference between people who expect to understand, and children, who just have to trust.
Right at the heart of all of this, at the heart of our faith, of Westminster Abbey, of the global pandemic, your hopes and mine, this, says Christ, is the key question. Can you trust? Can you bear to live as one who does not finally know?
Do you remember the Beatitude? It is the meek who shall inherit the earth. The meek, the ones who do not expect to be in charge or to take control, the ones who, like children can live with the idea of being dependent. There is a complex sum to be done here. We are surrounded right now by the language of taking back control. We are all expected to buy the business of strong leadership and strategy. We want to be assured that decisions are made wisely and at right time. We want to know that there is understanding – that’s precisely why we have had the furious debate about whether or not we are following the science. Leaders have to lead and there are moments when lives depend on understanding and the taking of control. We have a right to expect that.
However, we will never finally be in control. The meek will inherit the earth because the earth and the whole story can only be ever had as a gift. We are not ultimately in charge. We are not even the authors of our own story. To believe in government, or science, or face masks is one thing. To believe in God is to accept that something began in what we call creation and will end in what we call salvation and that we do not have our hands on those levers and buttons. We are not the authors of that story, we are not in control. We are God’s people and here at last we are back together in God’s house.
Dealing with lockdown a lot of us needed a plan, a project, the gardens of England may never have looked this good. Flats have been painted, jigsaws sold out. We needed to take some control. There are times to do that, planning and deciding is part of working life for some of us. It is not, however, right all the time. One of the significant temptations of faith is to turn even this into a project. We can be so busy with prayer, or with definitions and debate, or with good deeds that we only ever see the reflection of our own effort. Then we begin to require God to admire that effort, conform to our requirement, dance to the tune we play. We lose the very thing we sought. Meister Eckhart once said that ‘anyone who looks for God in any particular way gets the way and lets go of God’.
Back in church we acknowledge, above all, that we are not the authors, nor the heroes of this story. We are here to accept the gift that is given and to be reminded that whatever story we lived and felt in our isolation it has a beginning and end beyond us. We were never really as isolated as it appeared.