Sermon given at Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity 2021

Without darkness and weakness, how would the need for real humour arise?

The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 4th July 2021 at 3.00 PM

Over these many months of pandemic I’ve found a way of lifting my spirits and it’s all thanks to the writings of P G Wodehouse. After much deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘The Code of the Wooster’s’ (1938) is one of our very best comic novels. After all, comedy is born out of a need for laughter, and without darkness and weakness, how would the need for real humour arise?

As darkness started to engulf Europe near the end of 1938, Wodehouse showed how Britain could get through the next few years. “Never let a pal down” is Bertie Wooster’s motto and, while Bertie may not be the sharpest knife in the box, his optimism and sheer decency epitomised the British spirit.

You may recall that Neville Chamberlain was in deep discussions in Munich when this tale was serialised in the newspaper. It reintroduced some of Wodehouse’s finest characters:

I’m sure you can picture them: Bertie Wooster, of course; then there’s the newt-fancying Gussie Fink-Nottle, the formidable Aunt Dahlia, the droopy Madeline Bassett. But above all it gave us the vile Roderick Spode, commander of The Black Shorts and a brilliant send-up of all fascist dictators. “The big chap with a small moustache and the sort of eye that can open an oyster at 60 paces.”

But it’s around the use of metaphor that I would like to focus my words this afternoon. So often in life, especially in our formative years, we learn by imitation and when it comes to striking similes and metaphors, P G Wodehouse is definitely worthy of imitation.

But to imitate we must also read, and so it is with the Holy Scriptures. Indeed almost everything that Scripture and Christian theology says about God is cast in metaphors.

It’s no bad thing to be reminded that God reveals himself and his divine plan in ways that touch our minds and our hearts with powerful images of beauty, brokenness, weakness, redemption, love, and forgiveness.

Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t simply command us to join the church, it does something far better. It gently unfurls the relationship between the church and its members with a series of metaphors; metaphors that shape our identity and challenge our inclination to individualism, and self-sufficiency, and pride.

If the Bible did simply say, “join the church,” we could treat membership rather like joining the Drones club, if one was so inclined!. But by portraying the church and its members as a body, and a temple, we’re forced to reflect on how our lives fit with that biblical imagery.

The metaphors force us to ask, does my belonging really look like that? Metaphors challenge our imaginations, and show us that membership is more than just turning up for an act of worship.

In a similar way, the challenge in preaching is not to turn the metaphors of scripture into dull propositions, but rather to breath new life and vigour into them.

We need to explore them, explain them and understand them in their context. But the aim of all this is to allow the metaphors to live again, and do their work in remaking our understanding of what constitutes a living faith.

In our second lesson this afternoon, St Paul uses the metaphor of ‘weakness’ to help refine our understanding. Romans Chapter 14 tackles an issue as relevant for the church today as it was for Roman believers in Paul's era.

As we know only too well, many decisions in life don't come with absolute, yes-or-no, answers. On some issues, God's Word is pretty clear. But on other subjects, we might find it necessary to agree to disagree. How to live out that kind of unity is the focus of Paul's comments here.

Paul has written that for those who are in Christ, some actions are clearly right. This includes setting ourselves aside in love and service to others and abiding by the law. Other things are clearly wrong, and that leaves open the question of practices not clearly right or wrong for all people.

Paul instructs those who are comparatively strong and articulate in their faith to welcome others who are weak or unsure. These less-assured Christians ought to be fully and completely accepted into the church.

The picture Paul paints is of these two groups co-existing in the church in unity and peace. Paul is adamant that neither group should pass judgment on the other. God has welcomed both groups into His family. How dare either group turn the other away?

The Lord is the master of all of them, after all. None of them are master to the others, no matter whose faith is stronger or weaker. Still, the group described as being stronger in the faith, cannot flaunt their freedom.

Instead, they should set aside their freedom to promote peace, unity, and building up the church instead of tearing it down. In other words, merely having the "freedom" to do something does not make that action acceptable in all times and places.

It's better not to do anything that causes another Christian to stumble, rather than pass judgment on oneself by encouraging someone to violate their own conscience.
St Paul uses his metaphors powerfully, using comparison to capture truth.

With all this in mind it’s worth reflecting again on how P G Wodehouse also manages to still attract so many different and divergent readers. Being conciliatory and being generous overcomes many evils.

Many contemporary writers want to elevate us with their aggressively argued positions, their psychological insights and intricate syntax, but Wodehouse, in his words, preferred to spread “sweetness and light” and that’s no mean task in today’s world.

Wodehouse’s basic innocence still attracts the hearts and souls of his readers. This, I think, is why so many people come away from reading him with a feeling of refreshment ready to face again the really important things of life.

His metaphors make us laugh out loud, but they are more than that. They are arresting. They are memorable. They connect things that are not usually connected.

Aristotle once said that the ability to use metaphor was a mark of genius, and if this is correct, then both St Paul and P G Wodehouse have a lot to teach anyone who is fundamentally interested in life.

I finish with another lovely piece of writing (from St Paul) that we heard this morning at our Sung Eucharist: He recalls how the Lord said to him, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.'

So, he goes on to say, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.