Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 November 2015
Preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
“The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13: 43)
The readings for Mass and Evensong this Sunday seem mysteriously appropriate for a weekend which has seen such terrible events. I heard the mass lections read in French last night at Notre Dame de France in Leicester Square.
At mass, we heard from the Book of Daniel of “a time of anguish.”
In the gospel Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple, of “wars and rumours of wars…nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…”
Then this evening we have heard of persecution and rescue in the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace.
The Book of Daniel, set in the exile in Babylon, was actually written to encourage the Jewish people enduring another period of persecution; this time under one of the Greek kingdoms which followed the breakup of the vast empire conquered by Alexander the Great.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds from Matthew’s gospel and Jesus’ interpretation of it to his disciples in this evening’s reading operates at several levels of meaning.
For those disciples who heard it from the lips of Jesus, it would serve to reassure them in the face of opposition to their master from the religious authorities and the spiritual elite. The rejection he met – the weeds threatening to overwhelm the emerging shoots of wheat – were the work of an enemy and not of a defect in the message of Jesus.
For those who heard it read in Matthew’s Gospel, it would demonstrate the proper response to the realities of the Church in his time – and, as we hear it – in ours too. The church is like the field in the parable: there are weeds as well as wheat among us. The weeds are tangled up with the wheat: good and evil are mixed together. This is something which is not just true of an institution or community, or of other people, but of ourselves.
So what does the parable have to say to this reality?
First, it assures us that this is neither the way God wishes things to be, nor is it the way they will always be.
Selfishness, abuse, greed and hatred are enemies of God. The fact that they are present in God’s church does not mean that they are part of God’s will. The fact that the church contains hypocrites does not make the gospel hypocritical or destroy the integrity of God. When all is said and done, this evil will not endure: the goodness of God will prevail. The tender shoots will be protected and saved.
The slaves ask their master what they should do. He assures them that it will be alright to leave the weeds growing in the field. They will not choke the wheat. The farmer is in control of the situation. The weeds will be destroyed in due time; at the harvest. The success of the harvest is sure.
This does not mean that the Church should be complacent and do nothing in the face of corruption and evil in its own ranks. Later in the Gospel, Matthew gives a process for dealing with internal problems (Matt. 18.15-20). Churches and other institutions are learning the hard way that we need procedures in place to protect the vulnerable – and that these are not just boxes to be ticked on a form; they need to be rigorously enforced and practiced.
But the parable does free us from the burden of having to “play God,” and feel that we have to set everything right by ourselves.
The ultimate victory of the Church does not depend on it being ‘stainlessly’ pure. It allows the Church to be patient and confident and not to launch fearful and destructive inquisitions, tearing itself apart in a puritanical zeal to punish wrongdoers or wrong-thinkers.
If the parable has something enduring to say to the Church about its own life, I believe it has something to say to the life of our world in the situation we face today. The temptation for governments in the face of some outrage or tragedy is to be seen to do something. The temptation for all of us is to lash out at those who have attacked us. The danger in this, as the experience of the “war on terror” which followed 9-11, is that the remedy can simply make matters worse. The exercise of overwhelming force in situations imperfectly understood can simply fuel further violence. It can act as recruiting sergeant for evil. The Sun, never knowingly subtle, had a headline on Friday trumpeting the news the appalling “Jihadi John,” had been “evaporated” in an airstrike. Am I the only person who thinks that this kind of term coarsens us?
Lazy thinking allows people to think that “religion” is the problem: get rid of religion and the problem is solved! But that is to fail to see that the challenge we face is more complex than that. It is a failure to recognize that this brand of Islam is a toxic mixture of jihadist holy war and, surprisingly to many secular minded Europeans, a strategy of terror which sprang from the very revolution which gave the French, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
The danger, too, is that in lashing out in an indiscriminate way, ripping up weeds wherever we see them, the innocent are destroyed along with the wicked. The barbarism and cruelty of our enemies affects us so that we, or those who act on our behalf, become brutalized. This is exactly the result which the masters of terror seek to achieve.
It has been heartening in recent weeks to hear voices being raised by some in the military against the constant glorification of soldiers. It is quite the opposite to see, on movie adverts in Oxford Circus tube station, Hollywood’s obsession with guns.
So tempting as it is, our governments and we should avoid hasty reactions and intemperate language: satisfying as they may seem at the time. If this enemy is to be defeated, it will be by calm and deliberate means. These may have to include the judicious use of weapons of war.
But they must include something much more than that. The defence of a society of compassion and, civility, mutual respect and tolerance, cannot be left to air strikes. Smart bombs are no smarter than those who aim them. That defence must be built on the encouragement and practice of those values and virtues.
Our society and culture have enormous resources available to us – not least in the Christian faith which underpins our moral culture. Yet we are not best-placed to use these for good. A society suffering from collective amnesia is in danger of forgetting its roots or imagining it can manage without them. A consumerist society which measures people’s worth in terms of their wealth, the “fast food, cheap domestic appliances and bad television,” of which Fr. Michael spoke in his excellent sermon this morning; a society in which economic divisions grow ever wider, in which greed corrupts so many areas of life; where individualism and social fragmentation erodes communal and voluntary ties, is ill-fitted to offer a positive and attractive moral vision: an alternative to the simplistic morality of an Islamic fundamentalism which promises equality and a better way in this world and paradise in the next for those who sacrifice their lives in its cause.
If we are to develop a society capable of defending itself against the forces of evil and hatred which assail us, we must not only build walls and security barriers defensive but work to develop those virtues and qualities and relationships which should undergird our society – but which are too easily swept aside in the rush to action.
This is about something more than the argument about the size and role of the state: it is about the encouragement of communal and voluntary organizations which the bishops of the Church of England wrote about in their pastoral letter before the election, as an essential part of the fabric of our society.
Here those words at the end of today’s epistle at mass have something to say to us:
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Those who take that charge to heart will be the wise who,
“shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12: 3)