Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday after Trinity 2018

Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist

Sunday, 10th June 2018 at 11.15 AM

From the 2nd letter to the Corinthians:

‘Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.’

Next Friday, between the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, we will be burying the ashes of Stephen Hawking; certainly one of the world’s most instantly-recognisable scientists.  His scientific contribution was considerable, but his human contribution went far, far beyond that rather narrow world.  His life continues to be an inspiration to many, including many who live with disability – a life that somehow managed to transcend the severe physical constraints under which he lived – with a mind that ranged far beyond what the human eye can see and far beyond what most human minds can handle!

I expect most of us feel a certain horror at the thought of being trapped in our bodies; locked-in, deprived of most means of communication; unable to do anything for ourselves; wholly reliant on the often rather uneven kindness and sensitivity of others.  Like Adam and Eve, in today’s first reading, most of us feel rather ashamed of our bodies, or of some aspect of them, and the idea of being laid bare, in the hands of others – helpless as an infant – is a thought to make us shudder.  Faced with increasing debility and dependency, I wonder how many of us would share St Paul’s confidence that ‘even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day’, and that our afflictions are but ‘momentary’, ‘preparing us for an eternal weight of glory’? 

So there is probably an element of morbid fascination with the life of a man like Stephen Hawking – we wonder how we would cope in his place, and might even conclude that we wouldn’t.

Part of Stephen Hawking’s contribution is to remind us of the depths of courage and perseverance that human beings are capable of, even if we may not be able to recognise it within ourselves.  But his contribution, and his inclusion among those remembered and celebrated here in the Abbey, goes beyond him being a hero.  His inclusion says something about the common-or-garden human condition in which we all share.  His inclusion within the Abbey, and within the conversations we have in this place – the conversations that engage outwards, with the intellectual and political life of the nation and the wider world, and the conversations that engage inwards, with theology, in prayer, worship and attention to Scripture – the inclusion of Stephen Hawking within these conversations says something about the importance of limitation; of weakness being just as significant  for the human condition as the great strengths of mind and body that are celebrated in any number of monuments around this building. 

It was St Paul who insisted, perhaps a little wryly – if I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.  A counter-cultural idea if ever there was one.

Most human culture encourages us to look our very best, to emphasise our strengths (or pretend to be strong if need be) and to hide or disguise our weaknesses as much as we possibly can.  Despite the appearance in recent years of some more enlightened approaches to human frailty, especially around disability and mental illness, the mantra in many spheres of life continues to be that ‘only the strong will survive’; claiming Mr Darwin as their patron.

But human beings are not necessarily at their best when they are strong; our strengths and successes are only part of what is significant about us; only part of our potential contribution to this extraordinary shared enterprise of being human.  Weakness and failure, properly acknowledged and accepted, can be every bit as important, every bit as useful for our shared human project.

Which is not to say that we want a culture of victimhood; where we brandish our frailties at one another in a strangely competitive fashion; fighting for the trophy of ‘most put-upon’, most fragile; painting others as our persecutors and oppressors in a rather indiscriminate, oddly-aggressive manner.

It is surely a matter of balance – a balance that Stephen Hawking represents rather well – between the extraordinary strengths and inescapable weaknesses that determine our human life and our human contribution.

It is surely conceivable, maybe even likely, that the limitations of his body prompted Stephen Hawking to look further, beyond the tangible and visible, to contemplate the nature of the cosmos, time and mathematics.  If we were to be more cognisant, more accepting perhaps, of our own limitations and weaknesses, rather than battling to hide or deny them, I wonder where they might lead us?  We may not suddenly become scientists of international renown, but we might become wiser, more humane, more human.

Stephen Hawking did not profess Christian faith as such and some may feel that we are introducing division into this House, much as the Abbey did when it admitted Charles Darwin.

As we hear in the gospel today, if a house is divided against itself, how can it stand?

But we must be careful with our judgements lest we reject something that truly is of God, and through which (through whom) God may be speaking to his Church; prompting that outward and inward conversation alluded-to earlier.  Jesus had dire warnings for those nwho were too quick to declare something they didn’t understand to be the work of Beelzebub.

 As far as we can discern Stephen Hawking equated the mind of God with the laws of mathematics, which isn’t a bad place to start, but I hope the likes of St Thomas Aquinas will be encouraging him to look a bit further – to God as the Giver, the Creator of mathematics; for nothing less than the creator of all things, visible and invisible, material and conceptual, nothing less should be afforded the status of God. 

Stephen Hawking’s presence here will be a reminder and a challenge to us, to the Church, to make sure that our theology, the God we proclaim is adequate to the intellectual challenges of our day – a God that underpins the best fruits of human reason; that runs no risk of being eclipsed by them or reduced to them; a God to which the greatest mind, as much as the least, might find itself accountable, humbly thankful, and called into a expansion of knowledge and wisdom and love beyond all measure.

As Christians, as the Abbey, we can welcome Stephen Hawking’s inclusion into this sacred space, and thank God for his whole, human contribution – as a man both of great strengths, and undisguisable weaknesses and limitations.  We welcome him, his life and contribution, as a symbol to us that, in St Paul’s words, ‘even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day’.  We welcome his challenge to allow our own weaknesses and limitations to point us towards what is eternal and unchanging – to mathematics (possibly) and beyond!

We can welcome his inclusion to remind us that there is nothing shameful about the human body, no matter how strong, no matter how weak; our limitations are part of our condition in this world, which by the fact of being limitations intimate at something greater – so that in the face of our own frailties, even in the face of increasing debility, we might be able to say, with St Paul that this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure; when we shall come to the full stature and glory of our humanity which is Christ – to whom be glory in the Church, and to whose glory beyond measure we commend Stephen Hawking and every human soul.