Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 4 January 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp
A Sermon preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp on the Second Sunday of Christmas, 4 January 2015 at Evensong & Benediction
Readings: Isaiah 46: 3 – end; Romans 12: 1 -8
Two days ago (2 January) was the first anniversary of the death of the novelist and writer, (Elizabeth) Jane Howard. She’s best remembered for her series of five novels about the Cazelet family. These chronicle the unfolding story of an upper middle class family over around two decades from just before the Second World War to the end of the 1950s. The Cazelet’s money comes the timber trade but with the vagaries of war and the problems that all family businesses have, the Cazelet’s story is one of decline and bankruptcy. Amidst all this, people fall in and out of love; children are born; friendships are made and broken.
The power of Jane Howard’s novels lie in the fact that she describes a world that she knew well. Her autobiography Slipstream tells us that her father was in the timber trade. She grew up in Kensington; middle class to a fault. For all the privilege of her upbringing Jane Howard is frank about her path to emotional maturity. Her three marriages all ended in divorce. The last especially, to the writer Kingsley Amis scarred them both. But like many people who are wounded she is full of insight.
I was very struck by this description of a funeral at Golders Green Crematorium in 1941. It’s from Casting Off, the fourth Cazelet volume. The chapel is described through the eyes of a family friend called Archie.
‘The chapel was not very large and soon was completely full. At the far end lay the coffin with a wreath of dark red roses upon it. It was sad, (Archie) thought, that the place looked so ugly and depressing: a church, almost any church, would have been better than this oak and brass and dreary little stained-glass windows. It was not in bad taste; it was without taste of any kind. (Archie) tried to imagine an architect being commissioned. Something practical he would be told: they must be able to conduct as many ceremonies as possible. So a series of chapels, non-denominational, so that they could be used for any sect; discreet, don’t want the ovens to be obtrusive; … And the customers, of course only came because they had to, and stayed as short a time as possible – there was no indigenous population to inspire or criticise … ‘ (p 268)
‘No indigenous population to inspire or criticise’. It’s ironic that the places where we now usually say ‘good-bye’ to the bodies that have meant so much to us are disposed of in places where bodies of worshippers and for us especially the ‘Body of Christ’ is absent. This church is quite unlike the crematorium chapel. Not only does it have taste to the point of testosterone (or at least it will have when the lighting’s been done) but its ‘full’ even when it is empty. You can come into this church, be the only person here and perhaps feeling lonely, yet as soon as you set foot inside you know that you aren’t alone. Like good red wine there’s plenty of body.
It’s the body that demands our attention in this Christmas season. On Christmas Day we greeted the new-born. God comes to us not as a good idea or the highest human thought or moral abstraction. God reveals himself not through a book or a proclamation but as flesh and blood. God’s revelation starts with how we started: ‘little, weak and helpless’.
And as we continue to contemplate this mystery of the incarnate God, St Paul guides us this evening to develop the notion of the body and extend it to the church. Writing to the church in Rome Paul seeks to unfold the mystery of the church not through images of the team or nation or army or any other human organisation (not even the family) but the body. This is rich and deep but also a bit intimidating. The idea of dismemberment makes us shudder.
Where did Paul get this idea from? Some may answer simply ‘divine inspiration’ but if we’re looking for something closer to home we may think about those Greek temples with which Paul on his travels would have been familiar. In particular, I’m thinking of the Temples of Asklepios, the Greek god of healing. If you were sick you went to the shrine and made an offering of honey cakes to the image of Asklepios. You then spent the night there. Askelpios was supposed to appear to you in a dream and heal the affected area. Then you’d have a clay model made of the body part and you’d place it on display at the shrine next to the bathing pool. Temples of Asklepios resembled those catholic churches where crutches, walking sticks and various medical paraphernalia line the walls – testaments of devotion.
The desire that the body should be healthy runs deep and ancient. So as we continue to unfold the mystery of the Word made flesh made Body of Christ we plumb the depths of our understanding about the body that is the church. For Paul writing to the Romans its baptism that re-orientates us around the things of God. Paul writes:
‘Therefore we have been buried with (Christ) by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’ (Romans 6.4)
That’s from chapter 6 and from then on including what we heard this evening from chapter 12 is the working out of this idea. So our ecclesiology, our understanding of the church is, is not simply a matter of management or systems. The church is not an organisation. It’s an organism. That’s not to say that being well-managed or systematic plays no part in the life of the church (of course it does) but it is to say that these are secondary to our primary calling: that we are a part of one another. Sacramentally, we are joined at the hip.
This is a vocation and it’s also our mission. We are here to save the body. One of the reasons that I’m keen to have the Annunciation Marble Arch open in the same way that this church is open during the day is that these churches are the means of saving bodies. In the visitors’ book at the Annunciation last year someone wrote: ‘Please pray that I may not commit suicide’. I know that when I was here more often than I am now sitting in the confessional could be uneventful. Often no one came at the advertised time. But as soon as I thought: ‘Perhaps this isn’t worth the effort’ someone would kneel down and say ‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned …’ and I’d know that it is worth it. Another body ‘saved’.
So as we step into 2015 let’s renew our commitment once again to the body: our own bodies and what we do with them; and those bodies to which we belong especially the Body of Christ because without Christ’s Body life is as empty as a crematorium chapel. We are the ‘indigenous population’: inspired and inspiring; critical and criticised.