Sermon preached at Portsmouth Cathedral, Sunday 29 January 2012
The anthem for today is Beati Quorum Via by Charles Villiers Stanford. The choir might be interested to know that, while he was an undergraduate in the 1870s, Stanford was so cross with the Cambridge University Musical Society for refusing to allow female singers that he founded his own mixed voice choir. It was so much better than theirs, that the Musical Society gave in and agreed to a merger, so it is a particularly apt choice today.
The last time I sang Beati was down a salt mine in Poland. I was on tour with one of the Cambridge college choirs, and we had been so annoyed by the ghastliness of the American choir ahead of us on the tour that we decided we ought to show them how to do it properly. The salt mines, near Krakow, are medieval in origin and were worked until 2007. As each chamber was excavated, the miners took to leaving behind elaborate carvings, and at the centre of the mine there is a large cathedral, 100 metres down, decorated with statues, altars and large rock-salt chandeliers. Of course, it wasn’t a patch on your own cathedral, but it was an eerie experience singing there, and of course it showed the Americans up no end!
But when you sit here, Sunday after Sunday, listening to the staggeringly beautiful music that is served up for you, week in week out, what do you do with it? Plan the rest of your weekend? Fret about the week to come? Or just zone out and beam with pride about how well your little angel sings? The words in Beati are of course the opening lines of Psalm 119, a particularly famous psalm in cathedral circles because it has 176 verses, and so cuts rather substantially into what my father would have called ‘valuable drinking time.’ It’s also famously acrostic, with each line of its 22 stanzas starting with the relevant letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
This opening line is most commonly rendered ‘Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.’ Like much Hebrew verse, the second line is an elaboration of the first, in order to emphasise the point that walking in the law of the Lord is being undefiled in the way, and I want to talk a little about what this might really mean.
Law – religious or secular – is something of a hot topic. Whether it is the debate about what God thinks about gay people, or whether we should regulate the banks a bit more, opinion is divided fairly evenly between those arguing for more law or less of it. I wonder how much you think about your attitude towards law? According to the World Values Survey, the fact that you are sitting here suggests that you are more likely to obey the law than your average atheist. This seems to be because religious people feel observed by their maker, which makes them want to be obedient; whereas atheists are more likely to play the odds on being caught.
Of course, the law gets a rather sticky press in the New Testament. Jesus spent quite a lot of time being rude about people who took the law too literally, so I think we can dispense with the idea that the psalmist expects us to live and breathe Leviticus to the letter. But neither should we treat it lightly. I can’t hope in a brief sermon to offer you the perfect Goldilocks solution for just the right amount of law – religious or secular – but I want to talk to you about this interesting idea of ‘walking in the law.’
If you were to go to the magnificent 17th century Parliament Hall in Edinburgh you would see pairs of advocates dressed in their wigs and gowns literally ‘walking in the law’, because it is customary in discussing a case to do so while walking up and down the great hall so that you cannot be overheard. Those of you who have children or younger siblings will remember when they got mobile – first rolling then crawling then walking, and their development seemed to shoot up exponentially with this increase in mobility. Apparently this is hard-wired into us, because our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed their brains to do the very things, like planning and scheduling, multi-tasking and the forming of working memories, that are stimulated, on-the-go, through walking. According to the neuro-biologists, our brains literally work better when we walk. And this I think is the crucial point. It’s not enough to think about God’s law in the abstract, we need to walk about with it, as though we were those lawyers wearing it as a wig and gown.
Your Precentor may have told you that I hail from Ashridge Business School. One of the things I have been doing there is research into the neurobiology of leadership. As part of that, I’ve had to bone up on modern thinking on the brain, hence my interest in the mechanics of ‘walking in the law’. One of the concepts that has recently come into its own is the idea of brain plasticity. We used to think that brain structure was largely fixed from childhood, and that our grey matter degenerated with age. Neither of these things is strictly true. You may be rather galled, for instance, to learn that older people don’t so much forget things as stop listening in the first place, so that they fail to form retrievable memories. Similarly, while balance can degenerate, what is more common in old age is that confidence degenerates, such that older people take to wearing increasingly comfortable shoes and shuffling around. This stops the brain updating its maps for walking and balance until eventually the spare capacity gets colonised by another function of the brain, and the lack of balance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s why you should always pad around your house in bare feet.
This continual mapping and re-mapping of the brain is why I am a fan of the idea of walking in the law. If we were just to swallow it whole and follow it like robots, we might well score on points, but we won’t win any prizes for our humanity. God gave us the supreme gift of free will, and good stewardship of this gift means keeping this muscle limber. Like Jacob, we must wrestle with this angel until daybreak, and a continual practice of walking in the law helps to keep it fresh, so that it is more than a set of hackneyed maxims dating from our salad days. The liturgy, so carefully husbanded by the Dean and Chapter in this place, is designed to help you, but only if you then take what you hear here out with you, and walk around with it throughout your working week, chewing it over, and applying and reapplying it to your everyday life.
This, I think, is what is truly meant by ‘virtue ethics.’ More than the simple acceptance of rules, or the careful calculation of consequences, virtue ethics is about developing the sort of character that leans towards virtue, so that goodness becomes an instinct. Walking in the law is a habit and an orientation. While we could be like the Pharisees and accept the law at face value, Jesus wants us to understand the spirit of it as well as the letter, and this requires much more work from us.
And it may seem rather a tall order, keeping to the straight and narrow all week. But Psalm 139 has this to offer:
‘Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit: or whither shall I go then from thy presence? If I climb up into heaven, thou art there: if I go down to hell, thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning: and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there also shall thy hand lead me: and thy right hand shall hold me.’
It’s as though we are being asked to start seeing the world around us not as a set of pictures, or even mirrors of our own experience, but as windows to God. It’s a bit like those annoying ‘where’s Wally’ cartoons. Wherever you go this week, God will already be there. Your job is to find him.