Archbishop Rowan's day in St David's, Wales
Saturday 24th March 2012On Saturday morning Archbishop Rowan Williams preached to a packed cathedral in the city of St David’s on the rocky peninsula which has been a site of worship and pilgrimage for hundreds of years.
In his sermon, the Archbishop spoke on the theme of sainthood and martyrdom, and how it is people like St David and Oscar Romero who have made the church possible. This is an example to us all, the Archbishop said.
'We are all called to be saints, we are all called to make the Church trustworthy, credible and real.
'The gifts of the saints make us glad for the existence of the Church – they are what makes the Church possible.'
Old Testament: Jeremiah 1:4-10
New Testament: 1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12
Gospel: Matthew 16:24-27
Visit to Shalom House, Palliatative Care Centre in St David’s
Archbishop Rowan spent an afternoon in a beautiful spot in West Wales at a hospice in St David’s, where a huge amount of energy has turned a bequeathed bungalow into the first dedicated hospice care centre in Pembrokeshire.
The Archbishop met with staff and volunteers, and heard the inspirational story of Margaret Burnett MBE who started the project and propelled it all the way through to completion. Dr Williams spoke about the high standard of care and said what an 'enormous inspiration' it was to see the work that goes into transforming the nature of palliatative care.
Putting the project into a wider context, Dr Williams said that on his international travels he sees that the palliatative care movement in the UK is the 'envy of all the rest of the world', a 'unique and precious resource that we should be proud of'. Praising the way that Shalom House is deeply integrated into the local community, the Archbishop remarked that the fast-changing image of hospice care was key to this integration. Hospices are no longer just places where people go to die, the Archbishop said, but places 'where people go to learn to live'.
24 March 2012
Old Testament: Jeremiah 1:4-10
New Testament: 1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12
Gospel: Matthew 16:24-27
Notoriously, we don’t know a great deal for certain about St David. How many sermons begin with words like that? We celebrate a saint whose name is familiar and the preacher apologetically remarks that actually we don’t know very much about him or her. Should we worry about that? I don’t think that we should, because what we know about St David and about so many other figures – especially among our saints in Wales – is that they made the Church possible here, and perhaps that’s all we need to know about a holy life; that it’s one which makes the Church possible. If it hadn’t been for these lives, lived in straightened circumstances, in struggle and obscurity, we wouldn’t be here. Whatever has to be said about the lives of David, or Teilo, or Padarn and Dyfrig, what we know is that if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.
In the epistle today, we caught a glimpse of some of what that might mean in practice. What has St Paul done for and with the Christians in Thessalonica? Well he’s worked very hard, he says, day and night. He’s struggled, not exactly not to offend anyone, but he’s struggled not to get in anybody’s way; that is, not to intrude himself between people and God. He has struggled to make the Church possible, because he has struggled to let people through to God.
And the saint, whether remembered or not, whether we know the details of their lives or not, has to be a person who is busily occupied in getting out of the way.
Our egos are such that, even as Christians, we love to stand in God’s light. It’s wonderful to preach the Gospel of Christ; it’s even more wonderful, for most of us, if we can somehow feel a sense of personal satisfaction about it. And so strong is that temptation to feel a personal satisfaction about it, that we are inclined to associate in other people’s minds their reaction to God with their reaction to us: if you don’t like us, you don’t like God. And that has been, sadly, one of the messages that the Church has given off pretty regularly in its twenty centuries of existence: if you don’t like us you don’t like God; and if you don’t like us, God doesn’t like you. But meanwhile the saints get on with it by getting out of the way. The saints struggle not to get in God’s light. When they feel that somehow people’s faith is getting stuck onto them and not onto God, they run for all they're worth. They try and unscramble the mess that they’ve made, and start again.
The saints are determined that the faith of the Church will stand upon something far more solid and far more lasting than this or that personality, this or that great preacher, this or that great teacher, this or that exemplary life. And they do that because they know themselves their own profound poverty; they know their need of God. They know that all they can do is, as St Paul reminds us again and again to pass on 'treasure in earthen pots'. Not only earthen, but frequently cracked as well, both in the literal, and, I suspect, the metaphorical sense of the word.
‘How can man preach thy eternal word?’ says George Herbert in one of his poems, ‘He is a brittle crazy glass.’ A wonderful picture of uneven, blotchy glass through which the light comes askew and yet somehow in light and colour, something comes through. It comes through as we seek to follow what Christ lays upon all of us in today’s Gospel: Let go. Pick up your cross - the cross of the everyday commitments, the everyday demands in which you meet God. Pick up the cross of Christ. Pick up the triumphant assurance that God has given you all you need, and will give you all you need for your life and your healing. Let go of your attempts to make yourself wise, holy and complete, and just get on with it and get out of the way.
It doesn’t mean deliberately despising and running yourself down. It does mean a daily dose of realism. What does the world need for its healing and its health? Well, not you, not me, not ourselves; but endless healing, resourceful, imaginative love, poured out from the source of all things made flesh and blood in Jesus Christ, overflowing in the Holy Spirit. That is what the world needs. And that is what makes the Church possible today, tomorrow and forever. And as long as God is that God, the Church will be that Church – let’s not have any doubt or uncertainty about that.
In the short term the Church may seem deeply unpromising in any number of ways to many of us; the Church may disappoint. And yet God remains the God He has always been, and the Church will be possible and actual, and live and rejoice – just to the extent that we can set aside all those boring egos, all those poor dramas, all those attempts that we all make to latch the grace of God onto whether people like us and like the Church, or not.
It’s probably projecting a great deal onto St David to imagine him doing all this and thinking all this, and yet if he hadn’t been that sort of person, this place would not have arisen around his memory. David got out of the way and got on with it. Day by day he lived out repentance – not neurotic self-castigation; but the daily turning to the source of life and the daily acknowledgement of his need, his poverty and his hunger. He got on with it, and so the Church became possible.
Today in the calendar of the Church of England, we remember somebody we know a great deal about: Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot down by agents of the government in El Salvador a couple of decades ago; a martyr, a saint, a teacher, a witness. Shot down in cold blood at the altar after he had challenged the government, after he had begged the government to cease the violence that they were sponsoring: the death squads, the abductions. He knew the risks he was taking, and in a very serious sense, the most serious sense of all, he was willing to get out of the way, willing that he should be dispensable in the work of God. In some ways a chilling thought: chilling because, thank God, few if any of us in this Cathedral are called to martyrdom like that.
But Archbishop Romero reminds us of what it is that makes the Church live. He had plunged into the very heart of the life of the Body of Christ by very gradually, and rather reluctantly, coming to see that he had to stand alongside those who were being brutalised and harassed and murdered by an unjust militaristic government. He knew that he had to stand where Christ stood, to stand where the vulnerable and crucified Christ stood with vulnerable, crucified people. He was teaching in his witness, and in that final offering of his life he made the Church possible. Not because he was Oscar Romero, the brilliant charismatic preacher, the great servant of the poor, the great witness; but because he took a deep breath of the Holy Spirit and said to God, ‘If you ask me, I will step aside. If you ask me, I will give over the Church and your people trustfully into your hands.’
He made the Church possible in a new way, and his memory and his story continue to make the Church a possible place to inhabit and make new life. And that of course is a very significant, a very essential part of what a holy life means. If we are ever in doubt that the Church is possible, we can say confidently: well, there are lives that made it possible. There are lives of such generosity and such sacrifice that they make room for you, because they made room for God. They got out of the way and got on with it.
Now, of course, when we think about the saints like St David or Oscar Romero, we tend to think of exceptional people, very often people in the hierarchy of the Church. Because the hierarchy of the Church, in a rather counter-intuitive way, is heavily over-represented among the saints – that is, the acknowledged saints. But we are all of us called to be saints. And let nobody imagine that they have no responsibility to make the Church happen. We are all in this. We are all responsible for making the Church trustworthy and credible and real, if we, each one of us, are willing to get out of the way and get on with it. If we are willing to point constantly to the infinite generosity of God, away from ourselves. If we are ready day after day to do what David and Oscar Romero did, and to say to God: I trust you. I trust you with your Church. I trust you with your world. I seek to empty myself in prayer and love so that you will be real and make the Church real and make the world whole and just.
So when we think of David, or Oscar, or any of the other figures who have – perhaps for most of us – featured at some point in making the Church credible and lovable, we need also to think of ourselves and how we make the Church credible and lovable. Not by making ourselves loved and lovable and popular, but by making God’s love visible and powerful; by giving people cause to be grateful for the Church and cause to rejoice in the Church. Because, finally, that is the gift of the saints. They make us glad of the Church; glad for what God has done in calling the people to be His own, in realising on earth the body of his beloved Son. We have cause to be glad.
And when we come at this Holy Eucharist into the fellowship of all the saints and the whole company of Heaven, we come in that gladness: affirming here and now that the Church has been made possible, the Church is real today, and the promise of God is potent, wonderful and joyful, tomorrow and forever.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: Amen.