Sermon: Trinity Hall, Cambridge. 3 November 2013

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Good evening. And thank you for letting me speak to you tonight.

I was invited by Dr Plant, who led one of my favourite Theology modules back in the day. He saw my name in the Christian magazine, Third Way, for which I contributed a regular feature called Faith in Practice, the theme of my talk tonight.

I do have a day job, working for the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, but for the last 5 years I have also had the honour of interviewing people in my spare time for the magazine. After hundreds of hours of asking people about what faith in practice means to them, it’s been a challenge condensing my thoughts into just ten minutes. But here goes!

As a writer, my job was to find interesting people, who openly profess their faith in a variety of ways, to interview and then edit for the magazine. Unfortunately I find most people fascinating, and their motivation to do what they do even more so. Unfortunate that was for my editor, who needed to actually sell copies of said magazine.

A typical email exchange might go something like this:

Me: ‘I’ve found this really interesting person who does this really interesting thing and they’re also a Christian, but not a weird one.’
My editor: ‘Have I heard of this person?’
Me: ‘No.’
My editor: ‘Will anyone else have heard of this person?’
Me: ‘Er, no. But they are really interesting. Promise.’

Usually the challenges of a deadline meant I got my way, but I would try hard to find someone relatively famous for the next month as reparation.

I’ve met or spoken with some amazing people in my life this way, people I would not have had the chance to know otherwise. And yes, occasionally I’ve been a little starstruck: for instance chatting with Tim Vine for a couple of hours in a coffee shop in Pimlico. One friend expressed surprise that he’s a Christian because, and I quote, “some of his jokes are filthy” (although he may have mistaken him for Milton Jones).

But the more people I meet as I walk through this life, the more I’m struck by the power of the stories that don’t get told.

I wonder if by commending people of faith through publicity, I’m perverting its import. Perhaps the truest faith is practiced in anonymity.

The three readings we heard tonight are the set readings for All Saints: a celebration of Christians past and present. A little like Remembrance Day but with candles instead of poppies.

The readings also form an interesting triptych on the theme of faith in practice: or what it means to live as someone of faith.

In our first reading, Psalm 148, it is very clear what we’re expected to do: Praise the Lord. However, it doesn’t give the how, which is usually the thing that people get hung up on: for instance is it possible to praise the Lord while being gay, while having sex before marriage, while ordaining women? But that’s too big a question to answer now…

Meanwhile, this psalm is also clear on the who: everyone. Every thing in fact. From stars to seas, from clouds to cattle, from princes to paupers, every living thing is encouraged to praise the Lord – no one is too lowly nor any one too important to be exempt from the call to Praise the Lord. It’s a marvellously egalitarian worldview.

And the equality that the psalmist expects continues into the reading we heard from Hebrews, where having laid out the names and deeds of a range of prophets (including the incumbent American president no less) the writer then lets us know it’s our turn: “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”.

This happens a lot in the New Testament: some named character does something impressive and those standing right alongside him – rarely her – remain unnamed; like character profiles on imdb with ‘uncredited’ in parentheses beneath their picture.

Unlike most books in the New Testament, the author of Hebrews isn’t certain. There are several theories, which in the main conclude that it wasn’t Paul, but that it could be one of a number of other people. Books without a clear author had a harder time being considered worthy of inclusion in the New Testament canon. And I think there’s a pleasing symmetry between the inclusive message of this passage and the anonymity of its writer.

There is something about being known, being remembered, that seems to lend a premium to life’s worth.

I was at Cambridge between 2002 and 2005, and during this time I met, chatted with and even vaguely knew several people who are now very famous. It’s unlikely any of them would remember me, so can I claim to know them? I would like to think so, but I’m not sure I want to test the theory. They are the named characters from my time here, for whom I am an unnamed and uncredited fellow student. Unless, that is, I seek to make a name for myself.

But is it possible now to make a name for yourself, as this passage describes, doing prophetly things like wandering “in the deserts, and mountains, and in caves and in holes in the ground”?

As the great prophet Sir Terry Pratchett puts it in his book Maskerade: “[Take] hermits. There’s no point freezing your nadgers off on top of some mountain while communing with the Infinite unless you can rely on a lot of impressionable young women to come along occasionally and say ‘Gosh’.”

The prophets in this passage were all “commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised”. That is, they lived by faith before Jesus came to the world, which was what they had been promised. And by dying for our sins, Jesus has given us, who now live, the freedom to live by faith.

These people lived by faith without reward. But what is the reward for living by faith?

I think we find the answer in our final reading from Isaiah: the promise to us of new heavens and a new earth. This, along with its sister passage in Revelations, always moves me to hear it. What a beautiful promise we’re made: “never again will there be an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years.”

The word heaven is an emotive one for Christians. It is ostensibly our reward for a life well lived. But I wonder if the promise itself is misused or perhaps even misunderstood by both Christians and non-Christians.

Richard Dawkins describes our belief in heaven as a “bribe’” for believing what we do. And conversely in conservative Christian rhetoric, people who do wrong will be cursed to hell, while the good people smugly enjoy their eternal bliss.

But the book of Isaiah, this promise to believers, was written at the same time in history that the prophets described in Hebrews were living out their faith. And, according to Hebrews, they never got their reward.

Perhaps we are misplacing belief in heaven as a reward for a life well-lived. Is it enough to live our life according to faith, to be part of that great project that is the kingdom of heaven on earth? I think living by faith might look very different if we didn’t believe in a life after death.

So why would anyone want to put their faith into practice? Is it for a reward? Is it for fame? Is it so that one day people will read about what you did and be inspired?

The late great Jimi Hendrix sang: “I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.” There’s an honest selfishness in his words: he is beholden to no one.

But if you have faith in something greater than yourself, then you make yourself accountable. As a Christian you praise your Lord, you run your own race, you put your faith into practice. Not because you are expected to, but because you want to. And I think that makes you fascinating!

Thank you.

NB. The actual Psalm for All Saints is 145, but I accidentally misread this in my preparation. Fortunately most psalms share common themes. I think I got away with it…

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