Eucharist Sermon - 19 September 2021

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Jeremiah 11:18–20; James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a; Mark 9:30–37
The Revd Dr Melanie Marshall, Associate Chaplain, Merton College

The Church of England is dying. Ask pretty much anyone and apply pretty much any metric: the diagnosis is the same. It’s more lingering illness than cardiac arrest, and the medicine of the gospel and life-giving power of the Holy Ghost may yet yank it back from the brink, who knows? But the vital signs are far from stable.

At a seminar recently, a load of beleaguered vicars were asked this: Imagine that your church was going to close – forever – in five years’ time and that nothing could prevent it. What would you do in those five years? Suddenly, the room was on fire. We’d give away our money to the poor. Pour everything into a Soup Kitchen and Food and clothing bank. Turn over the building to the community. Teach everyone to pray. I.e. – they’d be the church, if only worries about money and buildings and compliance didn’t hold them back. But with the promise of certain death – they came alive.

Nothing to fight for, nothing to cling on to, nothing left to fear. That is death, for sure. Another word for it is: Freedom. It is that blessed freedom Jesus of Nazareth comes into the world to offer us. And if more and more people in this country – and especially young people – can’t see that? Well they are in good company. Jesus hand-picked his twelve disciples. And yet here they are, in today’s gospel, locked in an argument where each tries to prove he’s greater than the others. I’m better because I’m older, wiser, I was called first, I’m cleverer, I’m braver, I’m stronger… St Mark hasn’t just nailed the disciples, he’s nailed the human condition. You can be more, if you make someone else less. Conflicts and disputes, James calls them in today’s epistle, bitter envy and selfish ambition. In our Old Testament lesson Jeremiah is plotting the downfall of his enemies. And the psalmist lays it on the line: The Lord will repay my enemies for their evil. My eye will look with triumph on them.

Well, where do I sign up? I’d love my eye to look with triumph on my enemies. For a while. But then, once I’ve won, I’m going to need another enemy, and another triumph. And if that goes according to plan, another one. And another. And then – that is your life. A constant competition, a fight to the death for resources and honour, for a sense of your own value. In short, you’re living in a Homeric epic. With updated weapons of course – less broadsword, more boasting, scheming, manipulating, insulting, belittling, cheating. Just like St James describes.

Well, that is one way to have an identity. The church can try to compete with corporate structures or popular culture, but it won’t work. You can define yourself by other people. But that stick insect with no soul will still marry your ex-boyfriend and that talentless bum will still get the job you wanted.  And then you’ll be really sad, all the time. So here is my advice – unusual advice for an alumni weekend – give up.

Give up. Our identity, our value, isn’t achieved by trying, or striving or vying with others. It is simply given to us, a free gift. We can’t earn it – if we could, Jeff Bezos would be the Dalai Lama. The passage we heard from the letter of James exists in many translations. In one of them we hear not about asking but about praying: “You do not have, because you do not pray. You pray and do not receive, because you pray wrongly.” Too right we do. We pray as we do everything else: intent on our own outcomes. When the gift and freedom of prayer is simply being, in the presence of one who delights everlastingly in the sheer fact of our being.

That is what young people – and older people – aren’t hearing. And no wonder, with their poor vicars busy trying to keep the gutters on the building and pay the parish share. Don’t get me wrong – trying, vying, and striving absolutely have their place – our legal and social injustices would never change otherwise. But political change can take a long time. Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wilberforce and Josephine Butler – these people weren’t working to prove that each person really is precious after all. They already knew that. Each and every person. Loved, with as if they were only the child of God. That is why they got to work in the first place.  

That knowledge is a gift – the gift of Christ and his church. But you can get a feel for it in all kinds of places. As an undergraduate at Christ Church I had the great fortune to have the classics don Richard Rutherford as my tutor. He never taught to an exam. He brooked no competition between his students. Instead, he drew us into humane letters by teaching us humane values – attention to the text – especially Homeric epics – self-forgetfulness, humility in the face of the discipline, the capacity to listen. Gifts full of mercy and good fruits, as the James’ epistle puts it, from a man without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. True wisdom.

The Chaplain in those days was Ralph Williamson, whom many here will remember. I wasn’t much of a Christian back then, but even so I went to him to complain that the church was full of sexists and homophobes. And his answer astonished me. ‘Oh yes’, he said. ‘It is’, he said. “And how will it change, if you don’t stay and change it?’

Well, it took me a few years, but here I am. And the church is indeed changing – not thanks to me, but to people like Ralph – peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, as James puts it. The wise man, who is not afraid to teach what Jesus taught: That we should give up. There is no future, no life to be had from our attempts to make ourselves the greatest at the expense of other people – whether women or queer people, or the kind of Christians we disagree with. Or colleagues, or frenemies, or anyone else.

Ralph, of course, has moved on, and has a worthy successor in Clare. And Richard won’t be far behind him. These days a university education is seen more and more as a token – for increased pay, higher status, better connections. A ticket to greatness, if you like. It’s sad to reflect how many of those who run universities now view it in that way too. Forty-one years after women first came here, my prayer for Christ Church is the same as my prayer for Christ’s Church – that it can still be a place where people can learn to die. To selfishness, to ambition, to that anxious striving to exist.

My brothers and sisters, we are never more dead than when we are fighting for our lives. Give up. Those arguing disciples gave up. They had no choice. Jesus was crucified. Their Lord became a corpse and they became nobody. Nothing to do, then, but wait – for the new identity, the new life, that is the gift of the risen Lord.

I don’t know you – that’s what guest preaching means – but I know this. Your life too, just like theirs, is hidden in God, with Christ. You may not even believe in such a life, not yet. But it is there. A gift to you from all eternity. Just waiting to be discovered.