Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
26th Jul 2020
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity Year A 2020
And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit”. Romans 8.28
The Coronavirus has put paid to many events which were once confidently and obliviously planned, the most obvious being the postponement of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. In my home town of Plymouth the postponement of many events planned to commemorate the 400th anniversary sailing of the The Mayflower in 1620 to the so-called ‘New World’ is a significant one. The celebration was to have paid homage to the breathtaking courage of the one hundred and thirty odd persons, among them the so-called ‘Pilgrim Fathers’. They set sail to a place as then barely known and in a small ship which in the face of the vast and unpredictable Atlantic Ocean was a floating death trap. But they did arrive at their destination in what is now Plymouth Massachussets and Plymothians were to gather at the Mayflower Steps to remember this epic voyage. Every country has a ‘golden age’ and in Plymouth both the age of Sir Francis Drake in Elizabeth I’s reign and the Pilgrim Fathers in the reign of her successor James I stand proud. It was an age of learning and of daring.
The epic voyage of the Mayflower was made possible by The English Reformation in England during Elizabeth’s reign and the proliferation of differing Christian types of witness which ensued. Above all the arrival of the Bible translated into English and the advent of the Book of Common Prayer were signs of this opening up. The Pilgrim Fathers and their brand of isolationist Calvinist Christianity lay in contrast to the state of things in England in which the Prayer Book, allowed the common man, woman and child for the first time to enjoy a beautifully written though standardised guide to daily and Sunday worship. At the heart of this Book of Common Prayer lay strong guidance both for corporate prayer with its beautiful and poetic verbal expression, for the first time in the English language! One of these beauties lies in the prayer which we say each Sunday, simply called ‘The Collect’, which as the name suggests, collects up the thought for that particular Sunday. The collects are prayers which contain highly condensed material, expressed very ably and concisely and which manage to be both spiritually elevated and yet also completely common sensible.
This morning’s collect for the 7th Sunday after Trinity asks God to ‘graft into our hearts the love of God’s Name’, to increase in us true religion’ and finally to ‘nourish us with all goodness’ and then the verbal sealant ‘to keep us in the same. The collects manage to both raise us and bring us down to earth. They are the product of a new religious order which takes our human nature and the lives we live very seriously and they address us very directly and honestly. They are a product of great learning and insight but also great spirituality. They echo the words of Paul that the same God, “who searches the human heart, knows what is the mind of the spirit”.
Firstly ‘to graft into our hearts the love of God’s name’. When I was a young child both my Church of England primary school at St Peter’s in Plymouth seemed always to be a place of story-telling, both the classic children’s stories from Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm as well of course countless stories from the Bible. All this allowed we children to immerse ourselves imaginatively in stories which though colourful (and many improbable) contained strong, guiding, moral messages which were to become a natural part of our thinking and acting lives later on. In our church it seemed to me that the Word of God was so elevated and yet spoke to what St Paul continually referred to as that deeper place, deeper than thought, the heart. And so ‘learning by heart’ and taking on human knowledge ‘by heart’ and receiving that word as a continual practice was, happily for me, a staple of Christian worship at the local church level, and it has never ceased to offer spiritual nourishment at times of great challenge.
Secondly, ‘Increase in us true religion’. The word ‘religion’ has become in our own time a contentious one. Larger numbers of people describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ This may either be that religion is for them a word which denotes a kind of subservience, or a commitment which takes them into the realm of beliefs which they cannot in good conscience truly espouse. Then there is the fact that world religions, especially Christianity and Islam, have a poor track record in the keeping of the peace. When this collect was written in the mid 1550s ‘true religion’ was a new concept, but it dared to express the relationship between real religion and its outcome in the life of the individuals and communities which were its human representatives. Religion should be seen and known to be humanly true not only in its doctrines but also in the lives of those for whom it was ‘Christ personified’.
Which brings us to the third part of our collect prayer, that we ask God ‘to nourish us in all goodness’. It is interesting that when this prayer was written, the idea of human goodness and of good acts incorporated into the worship of the church was never expressed so directly. The former Latin use could not convey the immediacy which Cranmer intended. Cranmer is not as the former priests exhorting the people to a more ardent piety but a leader of a very contemporary church ‘earthing’ the Christian Gospel and instructing the people in the ways of simple human goodness and of acts of goodness. And yet the previous instruction to ‘true religion’ assumes a root source which emerges out of a life of prayer and of worship and of passionate belief, without which Christianity remains without source and direction.
As we Christian pilgrims journey through this exceptionally difficult and challenging period in the life of our world, let us, as God’s pilgrim people, draw inspiration from our collect and its spiritual genius. Let us now, like the Pilgrim Fathers then, put out to sea, the sea of faith and, make our own journey as the Elizabethan would say, ‘with good courage’ :
Graft in our hearts of the love of thy name, O God, increase in us true religion nourish us with all goodness, and keep us in the same. Amen.