A sermon preached at St Mary’s, Iffley on 9th August 2023 by Judith Brown
The annual Lectionary which runs from Advent to Advent is an indispensable piece of kit for an Anglican church. It tells us what the psalms and readings are for any given day of the church’s year for Morning and Evening Prayer and for the Eucharist. It also acts as a calendar and gives guidance on the days we remember those regarded as saints as well as other holy people. When I was thinking about what I should say this morning I realised that this week we have a bumper crop of holy souls.
On Monday we have John Mason Neale, Anglican priest who died in 1866. He was only 48 but left an indelible mark on our church. He founded a women’s religious order, The Society of St. Margaret in East Grinstead, dedicated to the education of girls and to nursing. But we probably know him best for his translations of Latin hymns. Among them are “Creator of the stars of night”, a famous Advent hymn; and the Eucharistic hymn, “Draw night, and take the Body of the Lord”; also“Jerusalem the golden”, “Light’s abode, celestial Salem” and of course his translation of Peter Abelard’s glorious hymn, “O what their joy and their glory must be”. On Tuesday we remember Dominic, a 13th century Spanish priest who founded the Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans or Blackfriars. They of course have a house on St. Giles, not so far from here. Today we remember Mary Sumner, who founded the Anglican Mothers’ Union, dedicated to sustaining family life and the well-being of children. Tomorrow we remember Laurence, a deacon, about whom we know virtually nothing except that he was martyred in 258. Then on Friday we remember two saints, Clare of Assisi, inspired by St. Francis, who gave herself over to a life of poverty and contemplation and founded the Order known as the Poor Clares; and then much closer to home, John Henry Newman, Tractarian theologian, Fellow of Oriel and some time vicar of the University Church. He eventually became a Roman Catholic and was canonised in 2019. Newman was a thinker, preacher and writer of towering ability. But perhaps more than a century after his death we are touched most by some of his great hymns, “Praise to the holiest in the height” and “Lead, kindly Light.” Mahatma Gandhi, of course a Hindu, was devoted to the latter hymn and often quoted the line, “One step enough for me.”
Remembering saints and other holy souls is important as we follow the path of faith in our own generation. They remind us that the church is not primarily the frail and often frustrating institution we know, but – to use the words of the great Christmas Bidding Prayer – “that multitude whom no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made Flesh, with whom we for evermore are one.” Or to be Biblical, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses of which the writer to the Hebrews speaks (Hebrews 12). They surround and encourage and, we hope, pray for us.
But this week’s tally of holy souls also shows us the great variety of Christian vocations. We have here men and women, priests, deacons and lay people, religious, and those called to family life. Of course our primary vocation is our baptismal one – as followers of Christ, those whom Christ claims for his own. But for each of us there is the vocation to work out what that might mean in our individual lives. The word vocation of course means calling; but I fear it has been greatly narrowed down, particularly within the church. Our diocese has so-called Vocation Days and Vocations Advisors, but these invariably assume vocation to mean calling to public ministry and primarily priesthood. We don’t hear much about a Christian vocation to be accountants, business people, police men and women, teachers, politicians, academics, musicians, writers and so on; let alone the vocation to be parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. But these are all roles and types of formal and informal work in which a Christian calling can be heard and responded to.
Christian vocations can also change with the passage of time and changing circumstances. As we grow older and retire from paid work, we may find we have time and space for new ways of being Christian, of responding to new Christian callings. We may be called to pray in new ways; or to nurture and care for younger Christians; to take on new family roles; or to step up to new responsibilities within the local church. I hesitate to say it, but perhaps an interregnum is just such a time when people find they have gifts and graces they might not have suspected which are important for their worshipping community!
So this week, as we remember the Lectionary’s remarkable array of Christians who responded to their varied vocations, let us spend some time listening. We might also use the words the of the prophet, Samuel, learned when he was a child. You will remember he was totally confused when he heard a voice calling him in the temple at night, and thought it was the aged priest, Eli. But Eli realised that God was calling Samuel and told him that if he should hear the voice again he should respond, “Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth.”