Crayle Sermon 2017

The Crayle Sermon this year was given on Sunday 5th February by Canon Angela Tilby, author and broadcaster, recently retired from being Diocesan Canon at Christ Church, Oxford.

‘A city set on a hill cannot be hidden’

‘You are the salt of the earth’

‘You are the light of the world. Let your light shine’

(Isaiah 58.1-9a; I Corinthians 2.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20)

It is very good to be with you to give the sermon endowed by Mrs Sarah Crayle to fall at the beginning of February and now part of this Civic Service. I understand the preacher is paid £5.00 for the effort – which is a huge advance on the 6pence I was once paid for the annual John Mere sermon in Cambridge – and that time I had to choose between preaching on Obedience or Death. But today’s subject is, I hope, more encouraging. Words from today’s Gospel, words from what has become universally known as the Sermon on the Mount. This was probably not a transcript of a single sermon; more an example and summary of teaching that Jesus gave to many people on many different occasions. This was what Jesus taught in public, in the open, to anyone and everyone; not just to the inner circle of his disciples. He spoke to the crowds, to believers and unbelievers, committed and uncommitted.

It is important to remember this when we are thinking, as we are today, about the whole of society, civic society, and the Church within that. Jesus does not distinguish between the inner circle and the rest. His message about being salt and light and letting the light shine is for everyone. There are elements of the Christian Gospel which are directed more at individuals, words and stories that speak to the human heart in all its complexity and privacy; but these words suggest that human life is also lived in community and that God invites communities to be places of blessing where people flourish because they are together. So Jesus sows the seeds of an invitation to live the good life. As in the parable of the sower the seeds are scattered at random. Whoever has an ear to hear, can hear. You are light, you are salt. The city set on the hill is a beacon to its neighbourhood, the centre of commerce and trade, of news and culture, media and education, of law and justice. This city cannot be hidden; if things go right everyone wants to be there, if things go wrong everybody knows about it. There is a Gospel for public life.

There is a lot of anxiety in contemporary society about public life. Things are not what they should be, so, we are told, we need greater scrutiny. Things are always going wrong, so we need to find out why, and attribute blame. Things are not perfect, we need better procedures. More accountability, more transparency, more rules to follow. And though I can see the point of all that, especially when the rules protect the vulnerable, I also suspect the way we try to police ourselves also brings damage in its wake, so that with less actual risk, there is more fear of potential risk; with more checking and box-ticking, less spontaneity; with more control, less joy. I am not sure whether I would agree with the recent survey which suggested that people were much happier in 1957 than they have ever been since, but it does seem to me that there is a peculiar and pervasive dissatisfaction around in society at the moment. And this manifests itself in anxiety, impatience and intolerance.

And that brings new problems in its wake. Public officials are afraid of things going wrong, so they tread more carefully, cover their tracks, spin to the media in the very real fear that the difficult and ambiguous situations that they face every day will be reduced to black and white and judged without full context or understanding. All this boils down to a lack of trust. It runs through everything.

In fact, to trust, is to fail to be properly vigilant. I am a mug to renew my car insurance with the firm that has served me for the last few years, because they will punish my loyalty by putting up their premium. So it is up to me to spend hours and reading smaller and smaller print to work out how I might end up £80 better off at the end of the year. I should be changing my gas and electricity provider in the hope I can get something better this time round. There is a constant fear that we are missing out, under attack or being cheated.

Low-level anxiety accompanies many of us all the time. I spoke to two doctors last weekend who said that they found anxiety was one of the major problems they are having to deal with in their surgeries, and that it affected people of all ages. People are anxious about many things; the state of the world, the state of their own health, the state of their finances, the future, the past, getting through the day, whether they will sleep tonight.

With so much to worry us, how does the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount reach into our public life? How does it speak to this atmosphere of fear and general twitchiness? Why does Jesus call out to people, not just to Christians, to be salt and light, warning us that the salt can easily lose its flavour, and the light be obscured? Salt and light are precious things in that they affect more than themselves. Remember the little blue packets of salt that you used to get in bags of crisps? You could mix in a few grains or a lot, but either way they flavoured the packet. An effective light source can be very small, like the pinprick of light I get from the torch on my iPhone. It doesn’t need a lot of either to make a huge difference. A good civic society is dependent on perhaps just a few people, who are sufficiently secure in themselves, sufficiently grateful and contented, to see beyond their own immediate interests and offer their time and skills in service to everyone. But to find those few people, Jesus’s call goes out to many, to all. He is looking for strong hearts and steady wills; for people who have a sense of empathy, and therefore of justice. He is looking for character and moral strength.

Most of us are trained, tuned, one might say, to understand the world only in terms of getting our own needs satisfied. We dream that we might be generous and kind when we have enough for ourselves. But so great is our insecurity and anxiety that we never know when enough is enough. If inflation takes off what then? If property prices drop, what then? The Gospel asks us to look at these questions from a different perspective. Is there need? Is there injustice, unfairness? Can I find ways to contain my personal fears, while remembering that there are always others with greater cause to be anxious?

If we hear the challenge in Jesus’s call to be salt and light, to build that city on a hill we need to find a point of sanity and balance. I think this comes if we are able to hold on to two things. The first is to remember and acknowledge our absolute nothingness. All that is created, all nature, all humanity, each one of us, comes to be from sheer nothingness. In the sight of God we are naked, dust. Popular science tells us that we came about by sheer chance. Whether you take our nothingness from science or from scripture it amounts to the same thing. We simple have no grounds for boasting, for vaunting ourselves over others or feeling entitled. Everything ends in death anyway. And that is not a disaster. That is what is meant. That’s how nature works. That is also part of the providence of God.

But there is another truth which is greater even than our nothingness and even greater than death. And that is that everything; our life, our sanity, our hope depends on a God who is pure goodness, pure truth, pure beauty and pure love. Jesus can call us to the good life because this is where God is and this is what God wants for us. He longs for us to flourish and be whole, to love one another and to be fulfilled. He longs us to face death with courage and love, knowing that we are finally going home.

Our anxiety is a form of denial both of our nothingness and of the love and goodness of God. It has left us striving to win against others, to deny our mortality simply to avoid the dreaded alternative of putting ourselves into the hands of God. But God’s hands are in reality the only truly safe hands there are. And if we are able to trust God, even for a moment, we will find that for that moment we are set free. Choice is returned to us, real choice, not just the usual daily concerns about what to eat and what to drink and what to wear. Real choice is about good and evil, real choice is responding to the call to be salt and light, without caring too much about the outcome. The longing for freedom from anxiety may take us beyond the doctor’s surgery to Christ himself, the Physician of the soul, who invites us to step out of our self-bound universe and taste the freedom that belongs to the city of God.


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