Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity 2023

Our life and our work can be given the dignity of revealing something of the kingdom of heaven.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian and Almoner

Sunday, 30th July 2023 at 11.15 AM

The National Gallery exhibition based around the compelling figure of St Francis of Assisi has been a major feature of London’s artistic landscape over the last few months. It contains famous works such as Zurbaran’s Francis in Meditation and seven of the eight of Sassetta’s extraordinarily vivid panels depicting the life of St Francis. We are introduced to a horn given to St Francis by the Sultan symbolising one of the most extraordinary moments of understanding, perhaps even friendship, between Christianity and Islam at the time of the Crusades. There is, movingly, one of St Francis’s habits: a rough brown woolen robe, alongside his knotted rope-belt, brought from Florence. Sacred relics at the heart of an exhibition which explores this endlessly fascinating poverino, whose legacy is wide-ranging and profound, and reaches deeply into the Church of our own day, not least in the person of the current Pope, and in the way in which he has drawn our attention to the increasingly urgent question of the stewardship of our natural world.

We cannot be absolutely certain what St Francis looked like. However, he was canonised a mere two years after his death in 1226, and a fresco image survives in Benedictine abbey of Subiaco, painted between March 1228 and March 1229. The famous image of St Francis in the lower church of the Basilica in Assisi by Cimabue – part of his Maesta – is believed by some to have been painted based on the descriptions of people who knew Francis personally. His image certainly becomes extremely recognisable very quickly.

The first image of St Francis we see in the National Gallery exhibition is a rather different one. Antony Gormley’s bodycast in lead, fibreglass and plaster, is inspired by a painting by Giovanni Bellini, but it has no real recognisable facial or other features. St Francis’s arms are wide open, and we can see the scars made by his experience of the stigmata, those imprints of Christ’s crucifixion wounds which Francis received in 1224, but otherwise this figure has little by which we can recognise him. The body used for the cast is the artist’s own. Gormley’s intention is to provide a kind of sheath in which people can locate themselves, to quote him, ‘in order to connect or open oneself to wider realities.’ Anybody can be here. This is not St Francis, but it’s like St Francis, and the posture, the marks of the wounds, the context, allow us to recognise him and to think of ourselves within that space.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus concludes what St Matthew records as long sequence of parables which tell us about the Kingdom of Heaven. We have been through the Parables of the Sower, the Weeds amongst Wheat, the Mustard Seed, the Yeast, the Pearl of Great Price, the Net, in which Jesus describes to his listeners what the Kingdom is like. Jesus’s teaching about the Kingdom – the ‘mysteries (or secrets) of the Kingdom of Heaven’ as he puts it – is frequently communicated in homely images. In his preaching, he doesn’t say, for example, ‘The Kingdom of God is a reality of perfect blissful relationship in Communion with the triune God, in a perfect love which holds all things together whilst sifting that which works against that love.’ Broadly speaking, that would be true, but he leaves it to others to develop that. Jesus tells them what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, using metaphors and analogies which act as flashes of insight: ‘Eureka!’ moments, if you like, which connect the listener to a deeper reality.

Jesus uses the principal of analogy, so that we can encounter relationship with Jesus and the community around him, for ourselves. The images he uses do not flatten our vision: if anything, they extend its capacity. To take refuge in literalism or four-square description would risk narrowing things down. The point is, there is so much to say that it has to be images piled on top of each other. Not ‘this or that’, but both-and. A treasure, and a net. A mustard seed, and a pearl. Endless riches which sit alongside one another. Analogy and the imagination can be liberating ways of communicating deep truth rather than limiting factors, as long as we do not get fixated on isolated images. There are always further analogies at play when speaking of God or God’s ways, because God or God’s Kingdom can never be described as a thing amongst other things, and cannot be captured by single phrases or single pictures. And so, Jesus says, The Kingdom of Heaven is like – that is how we unpack so much of that which cannot be described. When we say we fall in love with someone, we don’t tend to describe the chemical reactions in the brain which prompts those sensations. In describing what it is like to fall in love, very few people would report that their brains were being shaped by a cocktail of chemicals including oxytocin and serotonin – in describing falling in love we reach for other kinds of language: it feels fresh, exciting, committed, non-negotiable, safe, horizon-enriching, fundamental.

Towards the end of the parables, Jesus asks his disciples what seems like the bullseye question. ‘Have you understood all this?’ ‘Yes!’ they say. The disciples to whom he is speaking become scribes associated with the Kingdom of Heaven, bringing out teaching old and new. The context here is almost certainly that of the Jewish law on the one hand, and the Gospel on the other. St Augustine, writing in the late fourth century, takes the interpretation a step further. The ‘storeroom’ out of which the old and new treasure comes is the storeroom of the heart.[1] As so often, for Augustine, the heart is deeply significant. Love has its absolute source in God. God comes in search of us in love, and allows us to encounter God’s depths in language that we can begin to understand. So, the homely images of the Kingdom of Heaven which are gifts from the storeroom of the Good Scribe, allow us to recognise facets of God’s own truth. A treasure worth giving everything else for. A net which holds us all together. A mustard seed which grows so that we can be at home in an ecosystem of love and peace. Yeast which permeates the whole recipe. More, and more, and more. Have we got it yet? Well, yes and no. The Church draws from her storeroom things old and new. The Church is the community of the new creation, the sign and instrument of God’s design for the world. And yet, as we chew over these analogies of the Kingdom, homely, everyday, we become aware that there are still more and more. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a lifeboat crossing dangerous seas rescuing those in search of safety… The Kingdom of Heaven is like an algorithm which repeatedly seeks the common good… The Kingdom of Heaven is like a person who risks breaking the endless human cycle of revenge by insisting on reconciliation and forgiveness. Have we got it yet? Have we understood that salvation is not ‘up-there’ whilst we remain ‘down-here’? The images Jesus uses do not remove us from the world, rather they make mundane things holy. The ordinary matter of this world can reveal and mediate God’s abundance to us.

How we look at the world around us, how we notice what is going on, will affect how we think of the Kingdom of Heaven. A friend who works with many people who are homeless in London recently described to me a meeting in which he asked a group of homeless people what they would say if they saw the scarred and risen Jesus on the morning of the resurrection. One man responded, ‘I’d ask him if I could bandage his hands. I know what it’s like to have bleeding hands. They need bandages.’ The Kingdom of Heaven is like a homeless man who wants bandage the bleeding hands of others.

What images from our own lives could we begin to use as analogies of the Kingdom of Heaven? They don’t need to be perfect. The point of a metaphor is that ultimately it breaks down. Our images, our analogies, belong alongside other images. And yet, in the use of the analogy, we bestow dignity on the images we use as we seek to go further in our Christian discipleship, and as we see that our life and our work can be given the dignity of revealing something of the Kingdom of Heaven.

[1] Augustine, Sermon 74.5