St Stephenís Lewisham

Sunday, 8th July 2001

 

I WAS once told the story of a young priest who had many of the gifts that go to the making of a preacher. He was eloquent and earnest, and took great trouble over the preparation of his sermons, but he was miserably conscious that his preaching had no effect on the lives of those who listened to him, and that he was failing to win souls for Christ. One day, feeling quite desperate, he went to another priest who was himself an effective preacher, and said to him: "What is wrong with my preaching? For all my efforts I donít seem able to influence people at all." "Your trouble, my dear fellow," said the other, "is that you have mistaken your audience. You are preaching not to the man in the pew but to the man in the moon." "Whatever do you mean?" said the young priest. "I mean," said the older man, "that the questions you discuss are not human questions; the problems with which you deal are not human problems; the language you speak is not human language. Give up preparing your sermons on the assumption that the man in the moon will be the only person present, and talk to the man in the pew in his own language about his difficulties, and his temptations and his shortcomings and his opportunities, and you will soon find a response to your message"

For this and the next three Sundays I am going to follow that older priestís advice. Iíve spent some time recently in asking the Man in the Pew what he's interested in hearing about. However, If I've been talking to the wrong men-in-the-pew, and youíre not interested in these matters then it would be a great help if you would say so afterwards and, I will modify my programme accordingly.

What most worries the Man-in-the-Pew today is best thought of in the form of a series of questions. These questions are as follows:

 

 

So letís look at the first of these questions this morning: Does it matter what I believe?

Let me begin with the case of Arthur Blenkinsop Ė a real person, but not his real name:

One Monday, in May, Arthur Blenkinsop was due to go to a job-interview in Sussex. He's seen the job advertised in a specialist professional journal. He had the necessary qualifications; and if he landed the job, as he thought he well might, it would change his whole financial position for the better, not to mention the scope for further promotion at which the advertisement seemed to hint. So he made an appointment with the firm in Brighton and took the trouble to look up the timetable at home and decided that he would catch the 10:30am train at London Bridge which would get him to his destination with one change at East Croydon in good time for the interview.

Unfortunately that Monday turned out to be the very day the Summer timetables came into force. The 10:30 train was retimed to leave London Bridge at 10:15, he missed his connection and by the time he got to his destination the job had gone to someone else.

So, in Arthurís case what he believed, really did matter. Because he believed the wrong thing Ė that the train was due to leave at 10:30 rather than 10:15 Ė he lost his chance of that job. It was a very natural mistake to make. Hundreds of other people must get caught out every year by the changeover to the Summer Schedule, but that doesnít mean their mistaken belief has no consequences, more or less serious, for each one of them. Neither does the fact that hundreds or even thousands of other people have mistaken beliefs make the slightest difference. The important thing is that our beliefs, yours and mine, should be true, and if, like Arthur, we happen to believe things that are false there's no knowing what misfortunes may come upon us as a direct result.

Come to think of it, it matters a great deal more than most people realise whether their beliefs are true. If you believe a bottle to contain lemonade because thatís what the label says, when it actually contains weedkiller it matters. Whatever the label says, itís the real contents of the bottle which are important. But the critical point the moment at which it can literally be a matter of life or death only comes to pass when someone actually puts their beliefs to the test. You can see a bottle labelled Lemonade standing on the shelf a thousand times over and believe that the label on the bottle really means what it says and no harm will result. It's only when that mistaken belief is acted upon that the full horror of believing it becomes apparent.

So beliefs matter, none more so than our beliefs about God. It's not enough simply to believe that he exists. Arthur Blenkinsop believed that that trains existed which make it possible to travel from London to Brighton. In this respect his beliefs were quite correct. What was wrong, the thing which may have blighted his whole career, was his false belief that a particular train was due to run at a particular time to a particular place, when it wasn't.

"But surely," you may say, "whilst rail timetables may indeed change, and, as anyone who has tried to catch a train recently will tell you, theyíre more like works of fiction, fairy-stories, if you like, than the truth; but God is changeless (as weíre always being told by our preachers and teachers) so how can the truth about him change?

We shall look closely at this question when, on Sunday week, we consider how we can know what God is really like. Meanwhile, however, perhaps the following may go some way towards answering this question.

Imagine that youíve gone to live in a non-English-speaking country. Sooner or later itís going to be a good idea to learn the language. You begin with simple words and phrases like please, thank you, where is, how much, station, ticket and, perhaps most vital of all, the toilet.

To know just a few important words is enormously better than knowing none at all; but nobody in his senses would claim that he could "speak", let alone "understand" French or German or Spanish or Chinese simply on the grounds of knowing a selection of useful words or catch-phrases. Really to "speak a language" involves something more than that. Curiously, itís very often children who are the best at picking that "something" up. Let them loose with a bunch of kids of their own age and youíll be surprised, perhaps not always pleasantly surprised at what theyíve picked up in a day or so.

They wonít of course have learnt the real intricacies of the language Ė spelling, grammar, and idiom have to be learnt the hard way. But a week or two in the company of someone whose native language it is and someone moreover who isnít afraid of pointing out when we get things seriously wrong will do wonders for our understanding of so many of the things which in our own language we have simply taken for granted.

Now, learning the truth about God is a bit like that. We begin by learning a few simple catch-phrases so to speak: God is love; Jesus is God; he died for our sins and he rose from the dead. To know and believe those facts is more than most people do. But if we remain content with catch-phrases we shall soon discover how little we understand. If we really want to know what people are talking about, and how to carry on a conversation with them, then we shall have to learn, for instance that whilst in English we use the word "in" for such phrases as "in London", "in England" and "in the house" in French there are three quite different words for "in", only one of which is appropriate in each of the above cases.

Now London and England and houses donít, on the whole, change. But our way of speaking about them can, and should. Itís not that our French-speaking friends will be offended if we say dans France instead of the correct en France. They will merely conclude, correctly, that weíre as yet not very well acquainted with their language. But far more to the point is that you and I will be acutely aware how little French we really know. We shall feel awkward, and embarrassed, and afraid to open our mouths for fear of making an exhibition of our ignorance.

But doesnít that last sentence describe precisely what we feel about our knowledge of God? Let me read it to you again: "We shall feel awkward and embarrassed and afraid to open our mouths for fear of making an exhibition of our ignorance"

How often one has met churchgoers of whom that was true! Itís not that people are unintelligent Ė indeed the average level of intelligence of most of us here this morning is well above the average; itís not that the questions people are likely to ask are particularly difficult to answer. No, the real problem is that weíve never learnt to speak the language of God properly, and, being aware of this shortcoming we profess ourselves to be ignorant and lapse into an embarrassed or embarrassing silence.

How different it is for children. Remember that glorious self-confidence which you and I used to have in our teens and twenties when we knew all the answers and were only too glad of the opportunity to make everyone else aware of it too?

Well, of course we didnít know all the answers, and we shall never know all the answers about God; but thereís a world of difference between knowing a few catch-phrases on the one hand and being able to carry on an intelligent conversation on the other.

Come to think of it, might that be one of the reasons why some of us find talking to God in prayer so difficult? Perhaps weíve never got much further than knowing how and when to say "Please may I be excused?" Important, yes, but not, surely, the only thing God wants to hear us saying to him all the time.

 

St Stephenís Lewisham

Sunday, 15th July 2001

 

This is the second of four sermons intended for The Man in the Pew, and it will answer the question, Does it matter how I behave? Ė a question more often asked today than it was, say, fifty years ago:

Letís begin with something we discovered as a result of last Sundayís question: Does it matter what I believe? Ė something which has a bearing on this weekís one in three different ways.

Remember what we learnt from the lemonade-bottle example? First, if you believe a bottle contains lemonade because thatís what the label says, when it actually contains weedkiller, it matters: whatever the label may say, itís the real content of the bottle which is important.

Next, we saw that the critical point, the moment when a belief becomes a matter of life and death only comes when we actually puts our beliefs into practice. We may have seen that lemonade bottle standing on the shelf a thousand times over, and wrongly believe that the label on the bottle is telling the truth and suffer no harm from that mistaken belief. Itís only when we act upon that mistaken belief that the full horror of believing in a falsehood becomes apparent.

Thirdly we recognized that, no matter how many other people share our false belief, it doesnít make the slightest difference to the contents of the bottle Whether itís one other person or a thousand and one who share our conviction that the bottle contains lemonade will make not the slightest difference to its actual contents or the consequence of drinking them.

Itís the same with behaviour. Itís the real nature of our beliefs and actions which matters, whether theyíre right or wrong, good or bad, harmful or benevolent and not how we choose to label or describe them. If, like most people today, we fail to examine our beliefs frequently and regularly, then itís only when we act upon our beliefs that we really discover whether they are right or wrong, and by then it may be too late to do anything about it. The fact that thousands, or millions of others believe the same as we do is no guarantee of being right: thousands and millions of people may be, and have been, and will continue to be mistaken in their beliefs, particularly if they never give any thought to them from one yearís end to the next.

Right behaviour, then, is related to right belief in a way that few people understand. If you and I are going to understand this relationship we should begin by examining why one hears people today asking the question "does it matter how I behave?" so much more often today than they used to.

Fifty years ago very few grown-up people would have asked whether good and bad behaviour mattered. We all knew, or thought we knew, that the answer was a resounding "Yes, of course". Schools and universities saw it as part of their job to help young people to differentiate between right and wrong. Teachers and parents saw it as their duty to "train up their children in the way they should go", not least by setting a good example to them, using the same moral principles which they themselves had learnt at home and school. It all just seemed so obvious that few people asked themselves the question Why does it matter? Ė or if they did ask, they got no more satisfactory reply than "Because I say so!"

That was why things went started to go morally pear-shaped. The principles were there to be taught and learnt, but because children werenít encouraged, or were positively discouraged, from working out why some things are right and others wrong, it meant that when they themselves became parents and teachers were faced with the question "Why?" they hadnít a clue what to say! The best answer they could give was to teach their pupils to avoid the question "Is it right or wrong?" and to ask them instead "will this be harmful?" and "does it feel right to me?" Then, if the answers to these questions were, "No, it wonít do harm" and "Yes, it feels all right to me", theyíd be told to "give it a try".

There are three serious drawbacks to this way of making moral choices. The first is obvious: how we feel about anything at one moment may change quite dramatically the next. Going back to our lemonade/weedkiller example feeling thirsty prompts us to drink from that bottle labelled "lemonade"" Ė with disastrous results: in other words, we need something more reliable than our feelings if we are to make the right decisions.

The second drawback is a little more subtle, but even more important. People who believe that "not doing harm" is a working principle should be encouraged to ask themselves the question "do harm to whom?" To ourselves? To our family? To our friends? To Society as a whole? If they did so, they would quickly find that we simply cannot know how harmful this or that action is to these people. Moreover, experience suggests that the full extent of the damage done by wrongdoing only becomes apparent months, or even years after it has taken place. So as a practical test of right or wrong, asking how much harm something will do is all but useless.

But the third drawback is, in the end, the most fatal of all: you can go on juggling with phrases like "I would be well advised toÖ or "it wouldn't be in my best interests toÖ" or "everybody's doing it now" and never be able to arrive at the conclusion "do this" or "stop doing that!" Why not? Because the first group consists of statements and the second is made up of commands, and it's wholly impossible to travel logically from the one to the other. How much simpler to say "well, I don't know what harm it will do, but it's wrong (or right)" and give an intelligent reason why this is so.í

We can see this working out in practice when our children come back at us with answers like "itís my life and I can do what I like with it" or "you only say that because youíre old-fashioned" or "it may be wrong for you but it feels all right to me"

Now if we really believed that our lives are our own to do what we like with for good or ill; or that morals and fashions are one and the same thing, or that Right and Wrong were invariably different for different people then their case would be unanswerable. Our only response would be "take care!" In fact, of course, no intelligent person really holds any of these three false beliefs. People like that are always found enthusiastically laying down the law about what other people should or shouldnít do, but at the same time kicking like mad if their own behaviour attracts unfavourable criticism. "Itís different for you," they wail, ""I bet you never felt the way I do about it"

Perhaps we didnít. But we were well aware that God, in his purposes for the world, has given us certain rules to keep, and that, with very few exceptions, these rules apply everywhere, always and to everyone. Individuals, societies and nations ignore them at their peril. If you want a quick summary of them you have only to look up Exodus chapter 20 and youíll find them set out in black and white. Theyíre known as the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments. In many churches one goes into these are painted on boards which hang behind the altar to remind people of their existence every time they come into church. Time was when every educated person knew them off by heart; nowadays itís quite rare to find anyone. Such widespread ignorance leads in the end to irreversible degeneration.

These arenít simply arbitrary rules pulled out of the blue, so to speak, by a God who wants to curtail our freedom. Theyíre a Code of Practice or an Instruction manual to enable people to become the sort of creatures they were intended by their Creator to be. "For Best Results follow the Makerís Instructions" applies equally to us as it does to our mobile phones. Since at least half of these commandments refer to our relationship with him, itís hardly surprising if those who for practical purposes ignore his existence altogether find themselves living very different sort of lives from those who take them seriously.

Next Sunday we shall be answering the question How can we know what God is like? Which follows on rather conveniently from where I shall end this morning.

But you can be sure of one thing. There is bound to be a whole wide worldís difference between the behaviour of someone who believes that "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life" and someone else who says "itís my life to do as I want with it".

If we believe that we were created by an all-seeing God, and that his plan is to turn us into creatures like himself, we shall find ourselves behaving very differently from those who choose to believe that achievement in this life is the only thing that matters. Those who believe what we do will find themselves being "transformed into the image of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, from glory into glory as by the Spirit of the Lord", as St Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

By contrast, those who turn their back upon their Maker will find themselves becoming transformed into something quite different: something much less attractive to themselves, to their colleagues and to their Creator! Holding mistaken beliefs about the purpose for which God created us, especially when those beliefs are put into practice, is an even more deadly mistake than confusing weedkiller with lemonade!

 

St Stephenís Lewisham

Sunday, 22nd July 2001

 

This is the third of four sermons intended for The Man (or Woman!) in the Pew, and it will look at the question, How can we know what God is like, anyway?

The man of today finds himself besieged by dozens of conflicting ideas. Someone, at the pub or work, says that all religions are the same and itís just a matter of choosing the one that suits you best. At Church he hears a preacher telling him that God is Love. If this means anything to him at all, it suggests something warm and comfortable, as if the God is like a hot bath at the end of the day. The next Sunday another preacher says that God is both infinite and incomprehensible, which suggests (to me at any rate) the very opposite of the idea of a hot bath Ė something like the Antarctic desert in the middle of winter: dark, cold and inhospitable.

Each of these ideas has a bit of truth about it. The man in the pub is right when he says that many religions, especially the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam worship one and the same God; "God is love" St John says, though he uses other words like Light, Fatherhood or Word to describe him as well; and one creed says that God is both infinite and incomprehensible.

So the Man in the Pew is liable to get into a right muddle if he accepts uncritically everything he hears in church and pub; if, however, he listens intelligently, reads his Bible and talks with fellow Christians, he will discover that we can and indeed should find out a great deal about what God is like. He can find out because God has chosen to reveal himself to us.

The word "reveal" much today, unless itís a newspaper "revealing all" about some personal scandal. But "revealing" and "revelation" are both important words, which describe some of the most exciting experiences in human life.

Here are some examples of revelation: draw back the curtains in the morning and discover that the sun is shining Ė thatís a revelation; or imagine youíre looking through a pile of old papers and come across some long-lost letter or photograph Ė thatís a revelation. If a teacher discovers your child has an unsuspected skill Ė music, or carpentry or acting maybe Ė thatís a revelation. In each example the thing revealed Ė the sunshine, the photograph, and the ability Ė was always there. Revelation is what makes us become aware of them.

Thatís how we know God by revelation. God reveals something about himself, although that "something" has been true about him from all eternity. God, so to speak, "draws back the curtain on himself", or (like the lost letter) helps us rediscover something about him weíd lost sight of; or (like the teacher with the gifted child), reveals a quality that nobody realised. The truth in each case was there all the time; itís Godís revelation that enables us to become aware of it.

Most of us have had such an experience of God. A beautiful landscape, "turns us on" or a painting or other work of art "speaks to us". Or we meet someone in whom holiness or the love of God shines out. Such experiences are rare, but they are all instances of Godís revelation of himself to us. God also reveals himself to us in prayer, through our power to think and reason, through the Laws he has given us. And from the beginning God has revealed himself through Prophets and Wise Men whom he has inspires to encourage us in times of difficulty, warn us when we go astray, and remind us of truths we have forgotten. Revelations of this kind are the common property of Christian Jews and Muslims.

However, itís only Christians who believe that God finally and perfectly revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us "[Jesus Christ is] the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person who upholds all things by the word of his power". More than that, as the writer says a few chapters later, he is unchangeable, which means that the truth about him remains the same from generation to generation.

Now everything we have said so far about revelation stands in complete contrast to the popular idea that God changes or becomes different from one generation to another. Thatís a serious mistake, which happens when people confuse the truth about God revealed truth with the images we use to help us understand those truths. The images can, and should, change as we grow in faith and knowledge; they are necessarily imperfect. But the truth about God does not change for he is perfection itself.

This misunderstanding Ė which stems from people confusing the actual truth on one hand, and how we explain it to people on the other, Ė is so widespread today that we need to have the difference between them quite clear in our own minds if we are to help other people understand it. The best way of seeing the difference is to look at the way our scientific understanding of the everyday material things that surround us has developed over the course of history.

Think of the pew youíre sitting on. What itís made of? Well, of course, itís made of wood with metal screws and brackets to hold it together. Whether you ask someone today, or a hundred or two thousand years ago the answer would be the same.

But letís ask the question. What are wood or metal is made of? The answer you get today from a scientist would be very different two hundred, and even more different two thousand years ago. A scientifically-minded person in our Lordís day, who would describe himself as a Philosopher, would have told you that your pew, like all other material things was made up of four elements, earth, air, fire and water in various combinations. Because wood catches fire and metal doesnít they would say that wood contained more of the "fiery element" (or "phlogiston" as it was called) than the metal brackets.

But almost two hundred years ago people began to realise that the whole earth/air/fire/water business was mistaken. They discovered that all matter could be thought of as being made up of "atoms", tiny, indestructible bits of stuff grouped together in a particular way. So Daltonís Atomic Theory, as it was called, represented a great leap forward in our understanding of material things like wood and metal.

However, scientists went on from there to ask themselves "What are atoms made of?" They discovered that, atoms so far from being indivisible little particles like tiny marbles, were themselves made up of something much smaller, protons, neutrons, electrons, positrons and the rest. Scientists like Albert Einstein went on to say that matter really isnít the solid hard thing that it seems to be, but is more like energy than anything else.

Do you see whatís happened? The pew youíre sitting on hasnít changed from the day it was made, and the wood and metal in it are the same substance that carpenters have used for thousands of years. For most everyday purposes your pew may be said to be made of wood and metal. But in certain important respects mankindís understanding of what wooden benches are really like has altered out of all recognition.

Well thatís also true of our understanding of God. Ever since the creation He has been revealing himself to man using ideas which we can understand: Father, Creator, Judge, King, Lord, Spirit, Wind, Fire and Wisdom to name but a few. So in one way we have the same problem the scientists have: the more God reveals of himself the less we find we know about him: But thereís one all-important difference between natural science, which is about pews and screws and brackets and the science of God which is called theology.

The difference is that God has chosen to reveal himself finally and perfectly by becoming a man like us. Not a theory, not a definition, not an analogy but a person, namely Jesus Christ our Lord. Heís a person we can know, and love and obey and follow, but far more than this: heís someone we can actually receive into ourselves through the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and therefore a person we can know at first hand and by personal experience.

God, in other words, has given us an answer to the question What is he like? which we can really begin to understand. For practical purposes the answer to our question, like the question about what pews are made of is the simple one. "Wood and screws" in the case of the pews, "Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith" in the case of God. "This is my beloved Son," says God, "listen to him". "Follow me", says Jesus.

For Jesus Christ alone is the Way the Truth and the Life. Nobody comes to the Father except through him. Thereís something altogether more exciting and terrifying about having to deal with a person rather than an idea or a definition. Definitions and ideas donít answer back. Jesus Christ can and does. Thatís why so few people want to have anything to do with him today. "Our God is a consuming fire," says the writer to the Hebrews. Those who play with fire are in serious danger of getting their fingers burnt Ė and not just their fingers! But to understand that youíll need to hear my fourth and final instalment next week!

 

St Stephenís Lewisham

Sunday, 29th July 2001

 

This is the last of four sermons intended for The Man (or Woman!) in the Pew, and it will look at the question, If our faith is true, why do so few people believe in it?

Letís listen in on a conversation at the local Pub between a Man-in-the-Pew (who goes to church every Sunday) and a Man-in-the-Pub (who doesnít). Weíll call them PewMan and PubMan.

"Very well," says the PubMan to the PewMan. "if thatís what you believe, and you believe it because itís true, how come that everyone doesnít believe it?"

The quick answer to PubMan is that people donít believe it because they donít want to! Itís too disturbing for most people even to think about it. If, as Pewman believes, Jesus Christ alone is the Way the Truth and the Life and nobody can comes to the Father except through him, it means that weíre dealing with a person: and persons answer back and make demands upon us. Our God, is a consuming fire. Those who play with fire risk getting their fingers burnt Ė and not just their fingers! Small wonder that few want to take that risk.

Having made that point to PubMan letís correct two mistaken ideas which his question suggests he holds.

Pointing out these mistakes should give PubMan food for thought. He justifies distancing himself from the PewMan because PewMen are presently in a minority Ė which is irrelevant as to whether what they believe is true or not; at the same time he dismisses PewManís beliefs without having given five minutesí serious thought about whether theyíre true or not. So PubManís views get off to a bad start.

Note that PubManís problem isnít atheism. If heíd seriously thought about God and decided on the available evidence that thereís no such Person, then PubMan would be far closer God than he in fact is. For the thoughtful atheist, who has examined claims which Jesus Christ makes on us and decided, perhaps reluctantly, that they arenít true may, upon further thought, realise that heís made a mistake. Like many others, his disbelief is based on a misunderstanding. Bad teaching early in life is often the reason for such misunderstandings. A good teacher can undo the mischief done by the bad one earlier on, whether the subject is history, geometry or the Christian faith.

So Pubmanís real problem is that he deliberately avoids asking Ė or even caring Ė whether PewManís beliefs are true or false, right or wrong. This contempt for the truth is quite a recent thing. Whereas ordinary peopleís interest and knowledge about material things has increased by leaps and bounds, their interest in, and knowledge about the ultimate significance of those material things has reached an all-time low!

Until recently people were used to arguing passionately about whether Jesus Christ is God incarnate Ė as we PewMen believe Ė or just another Very Good Man whose moral teachings we should follow in our daily lives. Some people would even say that Jesus was a deluded first-century Middle-Eastern fanatic who had misunderstood his vocation: These people didnít just argue about it, either. They lived as they believed. Those who believed him to be God worshipped and obeyed him; those who saw him as a great moral teacher spent their lives in the service of humanity; whilst those who believed him a charlatan tried to persuade others against believing what they saw as being superstitious nonsense.

Not so today. Questions like "What do you think of Christ?" are seldom asked. Questions about the purpose of life, if they are asked at all, are answered in terms of self-fulfilment and personal achievement, This refusal to think about things is worrying because it effectively closes off every avenue whereby PubMan can be led into the way of truth, not just the truth about the Christ but about anything Ė including Pubman himself!!

Behind Pubmanís refusal to ask questions lies PubManís reluctance to face facts: two facts in particular, even when they are staring him in the face: facts about the finitude or limitation of this earth and our lives upon it.

First, thereís the inescapable fact that weíre all going to die. Itís said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Well, most of us accept the necessity of paying taxes. But when it comes to thinking about death PubMan fights shy. Death is the last great taboo: the thing we neither talk nor think about. Once it was Sex: nowadays that gets talked about all the time; Death has replaced sex as the Great Unmentionable.

Second, and contrary to what PubMan has been taught to believe, things like health, wealth, happiness or success arenít guaranteed to any of us, least of all in the measure which would permanently satisfy us. One reason is that most of us donít remain satisfied for long. But in addition most of us, when weíre being honest with ourselves recognise that there are whatís called glass ceilings above our heads. However hard we try, we can never get above that ceiling. Some peopleís ceilings are higher than othersí are. If we donít get all we want out of life the probability is that as an individual we never had "what it takes" to get it in the first place. God, invites us to accept our glass ceilings cheerfully, thanking God for our "creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, but above all for [his] inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ" as the General Thanksgiving puts it, and rejoicing that other people ceilings and achievements are higher than our own.

PubMan, by refusing think about those two inbuilt limitations to earthly life, death and glass ceilings, makes himself inaccessible to the truth as revealed in Jesus Christ. Itís not the ordinary sins that separate PubMan from God today. People are no more given to adultery, murder, stealing or drunkenness than in the past: fashions in sin come and go as often as fashions in clothes. But PubManís systematic refusal to face facts about himself, his life and death keep him securely isolated from God. Itís the sin against Truth and the Holy Ghost himself; the sin which Jesus tells us is unforgivable until itís repented of.

Thereís no quick fix to this problem. So let me end by highlighting three practical ways in which PewMan and Pew-Woman who do face the facts of our finitude and death, differ from PubMan.

     

  1. We Pewmen recognize our limitations. Every Mass begins with us admitting our failures. PubMan, however, looks at himself with considerable satisfaction. Is it surprising then, that heís reluctant to become involved in something that might disturb his complacency?
  2.  

  3. We PewMan know weíre going to die. Many of us here this morning will die during the next thirty years. But we believe that since we are in Christ, whom God the Father raised from the dead, we shall be raised to life together with him. So our death is something for us to look forward to. Of course, the actual process of dying is likely to be messy, painful and embarrassing. But, that being said, you and I couldnít wish to die in better company than that of our fellow-Pewmen, living and departed. We know from watching those who have died that it can be done with dignity. We understand that death is a necessary step before enjoying fully the things that really matter. Surrounded by the living who share this belief, what better support could we have in our last days?
  4.  

  5. Just compare a Requiem Mass at St Stephenís with your average funeral at the Crematorium to see the difference. We donít need "bereavement counselling" and all the other accoutrements of death which are so fashionable today. Having already faced up to our mortality and finitude we donít have to worry about what to say. The liturgy of the Requiem Mass says it all. Once a year, on All Souls Day in November, we celebrate our mortality and finitude together with all those who have gone before us in the faith.

So PubManís real question shouldnít be "Why do so few people come to church?" but "Why do so few people face up to reality?" The answer is simple; they really donít want to. Our mission must begin by persuading them to take their death and finitude seriously before itís too late!

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