Destiny and Character

By September 21, 2018Theology

Sermon preached at St Pancras on Sunday 16 September

Today’s readings from Isaiah and Mark are about destiny. The passage from Isaiah is one of the Servant Songs. These foretold the coming of a Messiah to lead the nations, who would suffer, but in the end be rewarded. You’ll recognise some of the other servant songs from Isaiah, because much of the first part of Handel’s Messiah sets them to music: how beautiful are the feet, he was despis’ed, surely he has borne our griefs, all we like sheep.

The striking bell in the St Pancras clock is broken at the moment. After the quarters chime, there is now an expectant pause… For years the Jews had been stuck in this pause, waiting for their Messiah. Then one day, Jesus stood up in the Synagogue and read this passage from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ The reading from Mark develops this privately with the disciples: ‘who do people say that I am?’, and he warns them, that being the Messiah will mean rejection, suffering and death. He also mentions resurrection, but perhaps they don’t quite hear this bit, because Peter rebukes him about being so gloomy. Jesus then tells the crowd that discipleship means they have to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. I imagine at that point he lost quite a lot of the crowd.

Hearing those words again today, what’s your response to them? Do you feel that you’re doing that, or not? I imagine it’s sometimes quite hard to tell. Jesus not only had Isaiah to tell him his destiny, he had a hotline to God. Not so with us, who have to make guesses, and just hope to high heaven that we’re picking not only the right cross, but setting off in the right direction.

So what can we do meanwhile, to stay faithful even if we’re not always clear what God’s plan for us is? The very reason this church is here is to help us with that. It was built to be a visible reminder of our faith, and decorated with our stories. Inside it, week by week, we hear again the Good News, and we worship, pray, and reflect about it, in the context of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Our churches, like the Eucharist, are living memorials. But so are you. As St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians asks: ‘Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? … The temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.’ But how you embody that in your behaviour is as important as the beauty of your thoughts, because it’s your behaviour and not your thoughts that are public. And we pray this every week at the end of the service, when we say ‘through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.’

Nick Spencer at Theos the think tank has recently coined a very useful expression for what we do, when we ‘go out’ in this way. He calls it Social Liturgy. He defines it as: ‘the practice of public commitment to the other that is explicitly rooted in and shaped by love of God.’ And he came up with this expression to explain a curious phenomenon: just as formal Church attendance seems to be declining, Christian activity in terms of social outreach seems to be increasing. In England, over 10 million people are now using the church for social services like mother and toddler groups, youth groups, foodbanks, community events, relationship support, financial education and access to the internet. To structure this activity, there are 15,000 more faith-based charities today than there were in 2006, with more faith-based charities than secular ones registering each year. All of this activity is ‘social’ because it’s charitable public action; and ‘liturgy’ because it’s generous service directed towards both the ‘human other’ and towards the divine. Our so-called service users recognise it as somehow different, because it feels personal, and is marked by commitment and love. Secular public services have on the other hand become generic, bureaucratic, and subject to transitory funding, which makes them feel both impersonal and unreliable. Social Liturgy, on the other hand, is about ‘persistence, relationality and localised engagement.’

And nowhere is this more beautifully expressed than in the work you do as a community to support the Euston Foodbank; and by all of you who volunteer here to keep the church open, and to welcome people into the events that are run from this place. And we know it’s personally costly, because the churches have always been magnets for God’ broken people, particularly so in this complicated area of London. Many of you will be having to dig deep to keep ‘social liturgy’ at the fore when you‘re being treated badly by those you’re trying to help.

So what could help strengthen us for the challenges of delivering our social liturgy? We need to develop our character so we’re ready for anything, which is hard, because it’s about developing a whole range of virtues. Many virtues might not see frequent use, but they all need to be supple. There’s a famously devastating example of the importance of this. In the 1960s, the psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to understand why, in the context of the Holocaust, so many people had behaved so very badly. The Milgram experiments involved a set of volunteers teaching word pairs to actors in an adjacent room, who they thought were fellow volunteers. If the ‘pupil’ got an answer wrong, the ‘teacher’ had to administer an electric shock, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. The actors were issued with tape-recordings of screams and pleading, and encouraged to bang on the wall and protest as the shocks increased, then finally to fall silent. Many of the teachers did respond to these protests, and questioned the purpose of the experiment, but most continued, after being told firmly to go on. Beforehand, Milgram predicted that just over 1% of the ‘teachers’ would progress the experiments beyond a very strong shock. In fact, 65% of them gave the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock.

These results seem to show quite graphically our capacity for cruelty. But the American philosopher Robert Solomon argues that what the experiments really showed, was how hard it is in practice to prioritize warring virtues, particularly if one is more supple than the other. He saw it not as a lack of character in the ‘teachers’, rather as a conflict between virtues. In the Milgram experiments, the war was between obedience to authority, and human compassion. In daily life, there are usually more opportunities to practise obedience to authority than there are to practise compassion, so this virtue is comparatively flabby. In St Pancras, when someone distressed comes in and shouts at you, you’re busing weighing up the virtue of compassion with the virtue of self-preservation; when someone is pulling a fast one about foodbank vouchers, you’re weighing up compassion again, against the virtue of truthfulness.

Developing character is just like acquiring any other kind of skill, which means that we need to practise: we need to practise our underused virtues. For example, many people practise moderation and thrift by mending, re-using and recycling their existing possessions. Which virtues do you wish you had in spades, and what could you do to practise them more? Let’s all try, because even if we don’t know God’s destiny for us, or are a bit hazy about the details, a stronger character would help us all to live and work to God’s praise and glory, as a living sacrifice, as we go out to be salt and light in the world.


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