Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 10 August 2014
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
For me today is, not Trinity 8, but St Laurence’s day. This is the feast of title of the church where the content of Christian faith and worship was first animated for me as a teenager, even though I’d been taken to church from the age of four weeks. I should add that it was Benediction that did it. The readiness of God to be present in blessing in this humble concrete way gave a new spin to the incarnation for me. And the saint, and other people too, of whom more in a minute. Thereafter, for me, Christianity and Christian worship was transformed from a dry Sunday obligation into what my parents doubtless saw as an irritating obsession with High Mass.
The gospel for St Laurence’s day is ‘do not store up treasure on earth; rather store up treasure for yourselves in heaven’. You may know why: that saying was what got Laurence into trouble and led to his martyrdom. He was deacon to Pope Sixtus and therefore a sort of combination Churchwarden /Treasurer to the See of Rome. The Pope having already been martyred, Laurence was required by the Roman judge to produce the church’s treasures. Apparently co-operating, he wheeled in the beggars, drunks and drug-addicts of Rome, with a flourishing announcement: ‘behold the treasures of the church’. This ministry of annoying people was rewarded with being roasted on a gridiron. True to form, he couldn’t resist remarking, after a time, that they should turn him over because he was well enough done on this side.
This is all very romantic and appealing to an insider and at a distance. Having tried to impress friends with the story when I was young I discovered that some of them just found it loopy and grotesque. And having later lived in that very Rectory, where these same treasures rang the doorbell all day and all night (the main heroin distribution point in the city was across the street), I can tell you there is a serious challenge to seeing and welcoming Laurence’s treasures of the church as an upside of priestly ministry.
Yet that is what Jesus, and Laurence, did. It’s about the generosity of the gospel, which, while it may calculate the cost, does not hesitate to spend with no guarantee of a return, as the cross demonstrates. And there is a clue from St Paul about how to do it, also read at Mass on S Laurence’s day: ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.
Probably I need to explain why this seems so important to me. One reason is that I know a priest who, inspired by S Laurence, acted on this principle that those who seem marginal to us are God’s treasures. He is one reason why the vocation to priesthood seemed, and seems, so vital to me.
When I first knew him, Fr Stephen had been out of ministry for a while: he’d been working in outback North Queensland and had got into trouble with his bishop for outspokenness, youthful enthusiasm and a too well-developed sense of humour; precisely the ministry of annoying people. The bishop carpeted him and during a somewhat warm conversation told him that he was unstable. Stephen retorted that St Paul was unstable, but he seemed to have achieved a few things. So impressed was the bishop by this answer that very soon afterwards Stephen was driving taxis, thousands of miles away in Sydney.
He was able to return to active priestly ministry at Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney, and there took inspiration from our patron saint to do something about homeless young people. He discovered that then (1970’s) there were plenty of soup kitchens and shelters for tramps or women who’d suffered domestic abuse, but nothing for teenagers who wound up on the street, where they were increasingly under threat from pimps and drug-dealers. He persuaded some parishioners to lend him a house, which he named St Laurence House. He then persuaded the parish to back him financially; added to that were a parish charity shop and some volunteers, and he went out into the streets he’d got to know as a taxi-driver, rounding some kids up and making a home for them.
One parishioner (who is now a monk) took time off work to live in the house and help; others gave time or talents in various ways. At one point Stephen had about twenty kids living there with him. They had to move a few times because the neighbours were often hostile. Memorably, in that first house, the brothel-owner next door called the police and demanded that Stephen and the kids be moved because they were lowering the tone of the street. A visit from the police swiftly followed. The officer smiled, called Stephen ‘Father’, and, still smiling, remarked that if he was still there the next evening he’d nail his hands to the floor (he was, of course, in the pocket of the brothel-owner).
Despite many similarly rough patches, St Laurence House survives, now as a partly government-funded project but still backed by the parish. Drawing attention to the issue of teenage homelessness, it has inspired many similar organizations, both charities and government initiatives. And God has had the last laugh on the Church – Fr Stephen is now Dean of a venerable cathedral. And yes, he’s still annoying people for the sake of the kingdom.
Now I don’t want to discourage any of you who feels called to go out and change the world by annoying people, or in any other divinely inspired way, because I hope you’d all like to do that. But, as St Augustine helpfully reminded his parishioners on this feast day, though we can’t all be martyrs, at our baptism God gives each of us the potential to be saints in our own environment; we can’t all care for every damaged person we meet either, but if we remember that the person who irritatingly demands our time and money is a brother or sister for whom Christ died, if we recall that our faith should actually make us want to rejoice, and share that joy, not just with people we like or people like us, perhaps our response may speak to them of God and help us to be, little by little, more Christ-like.
Relaxing from the relentless pursuit and safeguarding of wealth, or at least sitting lightly enough to it to waste some more of it on God’s poor, may be as much as we can do: creative waste is an excellent tonic to idolatrous wealth. I said a moment ago God is wasteful in his generosity; the cross proves it. And if we respond cheerfully and seek to look whoever asks for our help in the eye, with genuine love, it will pay a dividend of heavenly treasure for both of us.
St Laurence, pray for us.