St Bride's: Sermons

Guild Sunday 2017

1 Corinthians 3: 1–9

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And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.

I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.

For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?

For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?

Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?

I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.

So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.

Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.

For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, ye are God's building.

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Like many female clergy - particularly those of us who were in the first batch to be ordained nearly thirty years ago - I have received my own share of hate mail and abusive phone calls and phone messages over the years.  But at the Bishop of London's farewell service at St Paul's the other week, I bumped into an ordained friend of mine who has suffered far, far more of that than I have, because she has had a much higher profile in the media.  And she told me a very good and wise piece of advice she had been given at the time when the volume of hate mail she received really was at its peak.

She was told this: if ever you receive an item of mail that looks dodgy, before you actually read it go straight to the end of the letter, and see how it is signed off.  If it is signed 'Yours sincerely', then it is probably safe to read it.  If, however, it is signed something like, 'Yours in the love of the Lord', or 'Yours in Him' - (Him with a capital H, of course) - then bin it straightaway, because it is very likely to be pure vitriol.'  And, I have to say, that sadly - shockingly - that was exactly my experience too.  The vilest outpourings of unqualified hatred always - always - without exception - came from my fellow Christians.  Which is a sad, sad reflection upon those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ.

And it is, of course, a problem that dates right back to the very origins of the Church:  as we heard in our first reading this morning, back in the first century, St Paul had to warn members of the church in Corinth that, 'as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?' 

But why should Christians, who are, after all, urged to pursue a path of peace and justice and reconciliation as a fundamental part of their faith commitment, have such a poor track record on this one?   I suspect that the answer is multi-faceted: to begin with, it is a well-known truth that the most poisonous of feuds often happen within families - amongst those to whom we should be closest; and this is reflected in the deep divisions within the family of the Church. 

It also true that where the things of God are concerned, the stakes are unusually high: when we are dealing with issues of ultimate truth and meaning, and when our most deeply held convictions seem to be at stake, then it can be hard to see how compromise is an option.  And in that kind of situation, all of us can be quick to judge and slow to listen to any perspective that differs from our own.  So we find ourselves ascending the high moral ground without even realising it.  And worse still is the kind of polarisation that goes with that territory, as we start categorising one another as 'us and them'; good and evil' 'true believer and self-deluding charlatan'. 

What is particularly dangerous about that kind of situation is that in our determination to assert our case against 'the other', we can become blind to the more complex and subtle forces that can be at work.  In the context of a powerful dispute or a disagreement, particularly one in which we feel we may have been badly wronged, or badly treated, or when we feel strongly that we have right on our side, we can forget how important it is to look into our own hearts to face the truth about what is there.  Because the reality of what is going on inside us can be quite startling sometimes.

When my elder daughter was of primary school age, getting her ready for school and out of the house on time in the mornings could be a bit of a nightmare.  She and I invariably ended up cross and bad-tempered, which started the day very badly for both of us.   But one day, for reasons that I can't now remember, I found myself reflecting on the precise sequence of events that had taken place that particular morning, and who had said what to whom, and in what order.  And I was both startled and chastened to realise that, in fact, the unpleasantness on that occasion, had actually been prompted by my behaviour to her, rather than hers to me.  My perception that she was 'always being difficult', wasn't the full picture by any means. I was playing my part, too.  And so I started to change the way I behaved - and things improved markedly from that point onwards. 

Another story: many years ago I was very, very angry about one of my family members and the appalling and treacherous way he had behaved.  But it was a very difficult situation to know how to resolve, for the simple reason that he was dead.  But a very good and wise person who knew about this, said to me: try sitting down and writing him a letter.  You can't post it, and he won't receive it - but write to him.  Write down everything you actually want to say to him.  Don't hold anything back.  And so I did. 

As you can imagine, my letter began in anger and rage, full of accusations and resentment, and recounting incidents of great hurt.  But as I continued to write - and it ended up being a very long letter - I found that the tone of what I was writing started to change.  Because in writing it down, I slowly began to realise that, however appallingly he had behaved towards me, actually my behaviour towards him had not always been that good either - and I began to glimpse something of his own struggles.  And to my utter astonishment, a letter that had begun full of anger and recrimination, ended with a paragraph in which I found myself writing an apology to him.  And it was that, that set me free, and which brought healing and hope into a situation that had previously seemed beyond the reach of either. 

So, we must all be alert to the dangers of that kind of easy polarisation: us and them; good and bad; because there is some good in the worst of us, and some bad in the best of us.   But there is another kind of polarisation too, of which Jesus speaks in our Gospel reading this morning - which is between the external and the internal; between appearance - what we do on the outside - and what is really going on inside us.

As Jesus points out, abiding by the letter of the law alone is not enough.  I would hazard a guess that not many of us here today have committed a murder; but I wonder how many of us here today have privately wished someone harm.  They are both serious, but for different reasons: terrible actions harm other people; but harbouring terrible thoughts can damage us profoundly.  However, in the Kingdom of God, dutiful obedience to the external demands of the law alone actually counts for very little.  What matters is who and what we are.

Today is Guild Sunday - the most important day of the year for the Guild of St Bride.  It is an occasion on which new members are admitted - and it is wonderful to welcome Ed and Lucy into the fellowship of the Guild today.  But it is also an occasion when those of us who are already members of the Guild renew our vows.  And it seems to me that this morning's Gospel reading is a very important reminder to us all of what Guild membership is really all about. 

What most people know about the Guild of St Bride is what they see: the distinctive russet gowns; the medallions; the processing; the visible role in assisting at and supporting our worship.  Those are of course some of its important and distinctive features. But that is not in fact what makes a Guild member.  Those are merely the outward signs of what it is that is enshrined in the vow that we make: to pledge ourselves in God's service, and to pray that all that we say and do may be to God's glory.  That is ultimately what Guild membership is about - and unless that commitment is firmly lodged in the hearts and minds and consciousness of Guild members, then the outward signs are robbed of their true meaning and purpose.

St Bride's is greatly - indeed, uniquely, privileged in having its Guild.  A Guild whose members have contributed so much to the life, and indeed the flourishing of this church, for over six decades.  On this Guild Sunday, we give particular thanks for the work and the witness of the Guild of St Bride - but there is also a message here for all of us - whether Guild member or not.  Which is to have the courage in our hearts to address two things that can separate us from one another, and so separate us from God: firstly, the perils of falling into the trap of an 'us and them' polarity - which is always a sign of our self-delusion.  And secondly to remember that the outwards signs of our life and faith count for little, if they are at odds with what is truly written in our hearts.

Amen.

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