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Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

4th Oct 2020


Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity 2020 (Year A)

 

“…but this one thing I do : forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus”. Philippians 3.13,14.

 

Paul had good reason to want to forget. The conversion to Christ on the Road to Damascus was granted to the former man, Saul, who had been  instrumental in imprisoning and putting to death members of the early Christian community. But the so-called ‘forgetting’ which Paul recommends in Philippians does not involve the blanking out of past memory, even though by now Saul was a figure from the past. Rather, the ‘new man’ Paul makes the claim to a ‘good forgetting’. Past memory, perhaps full of guilt and anguish, was not to have the last word. The coming to Christ for Paul involved what the Greeks called ‘metanoia’ or, a complete change of heart, of motivation; a change in personal fortune with the advance of a powerful new working hope. And it was hard won. And if really won, then there could be no turning back. 

 

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul lays his life bare. He powerfully expresses his conversion in terms of loss and gain: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own, but one that comes through faith in Christ”. We, like Paul have our own powerful life narrative and within this narrative, lies a myriad of other narratives, some of which become crucial to our idea of who we are. These are our stories of significant meaning, perhaps involving roads down which we have experienced great trial and suffering, roads down which we have lived and loved most fully, roads along and through which we have made great mistakes and have emerged numb or wiser after the event, perhaps wounded and more attuned to the world around us. These are the narratives which have made us and brought us to where we are now. They are our baptisms of fire. And they are formative and important. Others may know better than we that these life stories have brought about real changes in us. In this we stand alongside St Paul and affirm his conversion to a new life. In this vein John Henry Newman could say

To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. 

John Henry Newman 

 

Some six years, in 2014, a seventeen year old schoolgirl was called out of her chemistry class at Edgbaston School in Birmingham to be told that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. She was the youngest Nobel Laureate ever, Malala Yousafzai. She was later offered a place at Oxford University, to read politics, philosophy and economics at Lady Margaret Hall. Malala Yousafzai, described in the press as a ‘child education activist’ had been shot in the head in her Pakistani home town by the Taliban whilst travelling on the school bus. She recovered, though with marked signs of her wounds, and afterwards spoke out for education and particularly in the cause of girls and against the way girls in Pakistan are denied educational advantages, and commonly reduced to slave status by their families, supported by a collusive political system. Malala has been a great presence and a great voice on the world scene. Her experiences and outspokenness are prophetic. Her voice has broken through the dictatorial voices and vested interests which would treat girls as commodities. Through her travails, Malala had found a new and confident and passionate voice and become a world renowned humanitarian. The voices of St Paul and Malala prove prophetic because they direct our attention both to the stark facts of our existence and the hope for a life transformed for all. 

 

As we approach our Annual General Meeting this afternoon I am minded that this church contains within it both a strong set of past narratives and an equally strong prophetic role in the present. By narratives I can already look back on fourteen years of ministry here and remember past members who have left their mark on this church in their own way and their own time. I find it particularly appropriate to remember those faithful ones who held things together when this church’s fortunes were at a low ebb and who were then able to hand on something which could be built upon. This church has grown and changed so much over these years and has been indebted to persons who have been here for decades as well as those who have come long for a shorter period and have left their mark. And so with the coming together of lives and of their giftedness the church grows and adapts and changes and develops extra layers of personality and character. The movement is very present and ever forward.

 

A prophetic church is one which fully inhabits its situation in life, and communicates a generous and vibrant spirituality. The Church speaks of the committed spiritual life as its proper grounding, and the lively antidote to doubt, fatalism and inhumanity. It believes and places trust in the possibilities of our common humanity in a committed Christian faith. In this, it begets new forms of energy and new expressions of hope. It’s no wonder that as we began to embrace the idea of a ‘church turned inside out’ here at Holy Cross, we have housed the moon in this place, we have welcomed 3,000 people in ten days at last year’s Bloomsbury Festival, we have completely refurbished our crypt, and in a time of lockdown and crisis we have actually increased our membership - impossible dreams 14 years ago…. We move forward perhaps in small increments but in great confidence ; and from their relative places in the past and present the voices of St Paul and the prophet Malala surely cheer us on…