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The spiritual state we're in (Perse Sermon 2015)

It is a privilege to be invited to deliver this sermon in the four hundredth anniversary year of the death of Dr Stephen Perse. His name lives on most especially in the flourishing school which bears his name.

Schools are places where society seeks to transcend the present and incubate a more hopeful future. Contemplating the list of alumni and, since 1881, alumnae it is clear that Perse laid out his money to very good effect.

Perse, who was a priest as well as a Doctor of Physic, lived at a time of acute religious controversy. On the continent of Europe the Thirty Years War was soon to begin while in England official persecution had stimulated the kind of terrorist outrages with which we have become familiar. Notoriously, only ten years before Perse’s death in 1615, a plot to blow up Parliament was narrowly averted.

In these circumstances Perse understood the need for sound divinity as well as the best contemporary education for his five score scholars.

In our own day we are slowly learning the same lesson but in some places the orthodoxy which has reigned for most of my time as a priest still holds. For much of the 20th century, as Mark Thompson, former Director General of the BBC has said, the dominant view in the media was that the story of God would have only one end – relegation to the leisure sector as a harmless hobby for people with antiquarian interests. There was huge confidence in those far off days of the last century that we could build a heaven on earth without any divine assistance. In 1992 the American sage Francis Fukuyama published his book, “The End of History” which suggested that although some places of darkness in the world remained to be enlightened, as far as the West was concerned the human project had reached its consummation in liberal democracy and market economics. Then in the year 2000 the Economist published an “obituary of God” and it was assumed that the whole world would soon follow the example of North Western Europe.

It was time when the rumour of God was very faint and as it said in our first lesson “there was no open vision”. We thought then that we were walking in the light but it proved to be a neon glare which like the light pollution in modern cities prevented us from seeing the night sky. There was in reality an endarkenment.

As we contemplate the fruitfulness of Perse’s legacy and the remarkable school that he founded, the figure of the boy Samuel is a reminder of how the young can be wiser than their elders and at the same time the spiritual importance of cultivating the beginner’s mind.

The story of the author of our second lesson, Paul also resonates with the world we know today and the world which Stephen Perse knew. When Paul talks of the dangers of religious enthusiasm in his letter to the Christians of wealthy Corinth he knew what he was talking about. He had begun life as Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. As he admitted in one of his letters, he was a “violent persecutor”.

Today many of our Christian brothers and sisters know the terrifying reality of persecution. Damascus where Saul received his sight after the encounter on the road which had left him blind, Damascus is today full of refugees from a civil war which has pitted communities against one another under the banner of religion.

Of course we are told that “it has nothing to do with religion” and that poverty and unemployment are to blame. No doubt these are factors but communities are formed by stories and memories that hold them together and in most of the world religion is central to these stories and memories. Religious symbols and doctrines are easily co-opted in struggles over identity. In the recent Balkan conflict when one group overran a town the first thing they did was to destroy the mosque or church belonging to the other side.

Our world is full of angry young men like Saul, bruised and humiliated who have fallen in love with a projection of their own rage and lust for power. Such projections and attempts to manufacture gods in our own image are common in every religious tradition. The idolatry which the prophets denounce is precisely the creation of gods in our own image.

This is a perilous world and made more so by widespread ignorance of spiritual reality and the occlusion of spiritual eyes and ears in our own contemporary culture. We find it hard to see that it is part of being human to worship. Of course I know that there are people who put “no religion” or “atheist” on their census returns but human beings commonly shape themselves and their futures by reference to something or someone they regard as attractive or fearsome; something worthy of worthship.

Most often people shape themselves by reference to ideas like success, money, glamour or power. The ancient Greeks clothed these ideas in god-like forms; Hercules for pimply adolescents; Aphrodite for readers of Vogue. Today we are more likely to project these ideas onto celebrities and their Olympian lifestyles. I heard before Christmas from a Vicar who had been into her local primary school. The children of one class had been set to write an essay on “my Hero”. Looking over one boy’s shoulder the Vicar was delighted to see that he had selected Jesus. She asked him why? “It’s because I can’t spell Arnold Schwarzenegger” was the reply.  

 But the name of the god we worship matters vastly because of another law of the spiritual life. Prayer is always answered in the sense that we become like the god we worship. In other words we give a shape to our future by re-iterated reference to our own projections.

Usually of course our worship is pretty low octane and we are prone to distraction so the effects are not so visible but if you are on the spiritual frontier in some way like Samuel with his beginner’s mind or like the furious Paul breathing “threats and murder” or at the end of your tether or like Mary immersed in profound stillness and silence – a state in which projections are impossible - then you are open to communication from God who made us, whom we did not make and who is no projection.

If we are to recover our sight and learn again like the boy Samuel to use our spiritual ears and to restore an “open vision” then the first requirement is that we should refrain from fuelling our projections. That is why Jesus Christ chose to come as a servant and taught that the first step in becoming a human being is to stop being a little god.

For those who can see and hear spiritually all through scripture there is a sequence of calls, annunciations,  which prove to be the beginning of the way that does not lead to self-aggrandisement – bigging ourselves up – but which leads to humility and going beyond ourselves. Adam where are you? Abraham, Abraham leave your household gods and travel to a land which I shall show you. Hail Mary the Lord is with thee. Ananias “Get up and go to the street called “Straight” lay hands on a man called Saul. Tonight the scripture points us to Samuel, Samuel, a boy called in the Temple when the rumour of God was very faint.

Communication of this kind which is no confection of ours but from the true and living God inspires a faith which nothing can destroy. Faith is a gift not an achievement – this is the teaching and the experience of Paul. Faith flowers when we do not withdraw into ourselves as the rich and frightened are tempted to do but following the way of Jesus Christ we reach out in self-giving rather than self- aggrandisement to support others. Qui facit per alium facit per se – the punning motto of the Perse School sums up the true spiritual path - Whoso serves others elevates himself. This is the way a true and transforming community is built.

God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the human face of God and shows the way to the spiritual evolution of the human race. His way of love is not an emotion which comes and goes but as we see upon the cross the profoundest self-giving which opens up both inexpressible joy and pain.

One of the clearest consequences of faith in the true and living God in the story of St Paul is that from being turned in and associating with people like himself, Paul became a missionary to the nations culminating in his work in the great world city of the day, Rome. He also grew into a spiritual maturity where although he had psychic gifts “I thank my God that I speak with tongues more than ye all” he preferred to speak “five words with my understanding” rather “ten thousand words in an unknown tongue”. Spiritual eyes and ears can be deceived and we need to study to give a reason for the faith that has been given to us.

The sequence of annunciations in the Bible is at one level so familiar that it can sometimes lie bed ridden in the dormitory of the soul. But the story of Samuel and Paul speaks of the power of God to change our lives, the gift of faith in the true and living God, the recovery of true insight and the capacity to hear beyond the daily din and the conversion from a selfie-style religion to an outgoing, persevering generosity.

In view of the lethal perversions of religion which constitute our daily diet of news I can sympathize with the teacher who said to me recently “in this school we leave religion at the school gates”.

Unfortunately it is not possible. Not only does it enter with the students but every educational enterprise is built on some understanding of what is valuable and fulfilling about human life. If you think that the economy is the only story in town and that human autonomy is more fundamental than our relationships then a certain style of educational provision will be the result. Every school is a faith school in the sense that every educational curriculum is informed by some vision of fulfilled human life.

In the 21st century about five years ago the editor of the same journal the Economist that published the obituary of God in 2000, co-authored a book entitled “God is Back”. If the editor of the Economist says so we must take it seriously but the consequences are decidedly mixed.   

Taking my text from the boy Samuel and from Dr Perse’s foundation every 21st century student in these perilous times deserves an education which balances the latest knowledge with religious literacy, ethical clarity and spiritual awareness. You cannot exorcise the Satanic by creating a vacuum and undefended minds are easy prey for the cults of unreason.

We thank God for the memory of Dr Stephen Perse; rest eternal grant unto him O lord and let light perpetual shine upon him. Amen