St Bride's: Sermons

Benson and Hedges

Benson and Hedges

Oscar Romero, Roman Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador

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During my first year of ministerial training, I had a regular link with a church in an Oxfordshire village called Benson, which was a few miles away from my theological college. And because in those days I didn't drive, I was dependent upon one of my fellow students, whom I shall call Richard, for a lift there each Sunday.

Now to describe Richard as a cautious driver would be something of an understatement. Indeed, his slavish obedience to the rules of the Highway Code was such that he was an absolute menace on the road. My weekly trips to Benson in his car were truly terrifying. And my worst experience of all happened one fine summer's morning, on a clear road, with perfect visibility and not another vehicle in sight. Down the centre of this particular stretch of road ran two continuous white lines, which as you will be aware, means you should not cross over them.

And so it was that I looked up and glimpsed something on the horizon that made my blood run cold. Because ahead of us, travelling in the same direction that we were, and stretched across much of our carriageway, was a pack of dedicated cyclists, a solid mass of lycra shorts, cycle helmets, and state-of-the-art racing bikes. And I knew - I just knew, with chilling certainty, that Richard would find it far easier to mow down a pack of cyclists than to traverse the double white lines running down the middle of the road. I couldn't bear to watch.

Fortunately nobody was actually killed. But it was such a close shave that one of the cyclists hammered on the roof of our car as we sped past, and, as I looked with trepidation into my wing mirror, two more of them could be seen pulling themselves out of the hedgerow. As a result of which, for the rest of that term, Richard and I had to endure the most appalling jokes from our fellow students about 'Benson - and Hedges'!

Rules are, of course, intended to be helpful. We need them - for our own well-being, and for the safety and well-being of other people. We need rules so that our society, and our institutions, and every human activity that is shared with others, can function as smoothly, and fairly, and justly, and safely, as it can. But it is important to remember that rules also have built-in limitations; there are some situations where a specific law isn't going to work in the way that was intended; and sometimes we can simply lose sight of the point of the original regulation, so that we end up treating it as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. And slavish obedience to good rules in the wrong context, can have results that range from the undesirable to the catastrophic.

And that is, of course, just as true in the life of faith, as it is in every other area of human existence. I was recounting a story at our midweek service last week, about a church where I ministered some years ago, where one of the altar assistants was so obsessed with getting every detail of the worship perfect, that he routinely wrecked the worship altogether, both by his completely inappropriate manner (he was incredibly rude and objectionable to the other assistants all the time) but also his conduct: when I was presiding, he would actually hiss instructions across me to the other assistants in the sanctuary. Eventually he left the church altogether as a result of one of his rages, and ironically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the quality of our worship, and the experience of our worshippers, improved markedly overnight. He had no real understanding of what it was that really mattered - and, of course, if you emphasise the wrong things, then it is always the really important stuff that suffers.

Both of our New Testament readings today have important things to say about what matters in the life of faith, and what does not. And here we encounter one of the most consistent themes in the teachings of Jesus: that it really doesn't matter a jot how commendable your conduct is on the outside, if what is going on in the inside is rotten. St Paul makes this point in that wonderful but actually pretty devastating passage in 1 Corinthians 13, where tells us that it doesn't actually matter how good you are; how much faith you have; even how effective an evangelist you are for the Christian Gospel - because if you have no love in your heart then all of that counts for absolutely nothing. How challenging is that! Similarly, in our gospel reading today, Jesus points out that there is absolutely no point being rigorous about external rules about purification, if what is going on inside you is corrupt.

And we see exactly the same theme echoed in today's reading from the Epistle of James where we are told there is absolutely no point in having faith or in hearing God's word, if this does not translate very directly in the way in which we behave to those around us. To quote from a modern translation of that passage:

'You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen; slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness [...] Be doers of the word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves [...] If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.'

Here at St Bride's we are richly blessed. We are inheritors of a tradition of fine worship, which, week by week, helps to connect us with God through a liturgy of great beauty, and through music that is sublime. These things help to nurture our faith. But faith that is nurtured by these means is nevertheless of little actual value unless it also impacts upon how we conduct ourselves one to another. Because that is how we create a loving, caring and serving Christian community; that is how we learn to live in love and grace; that is how we play our own part in helping to bring the kingdom of God a little closer.

The Bishop and theologian John Austin Baker wrote this:

Love begins as love for one or for a few. But once we have caught it, once it has taken possession of us, and has set up its own values in the heart of the self, there are no limits to those it can touch, to the relationships which it can transform.

But I shall leave the final word to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was shot dead as he presided at the Eucharist on 24th March 1980. He said this:

Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, of laws to be obeyed, of prohibitions. That makes it very distasteful. Christianity is a person, one who loved us so much, one who calls for our love. Christianity is Christ.

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