Chiswick Book Festival 2017: Sermon by Mark Oakley, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral

It’s great to be here with you and especially during this great book festival.

Clergy often have literary skills, such as a former Bishop of London who wrote a short poem and asked that it be read out to all his clergy on his death. It simply said: Tell my priests when I am gone, o’er me to shed no tears. For I shall be no deader then, than they have been for years.

So, a priest friend who you’ve known for over 20 years, and one who is certainly not dead in any way, asks you to come and preach at his church in Turnham Green. You accept happily and take a look at the readings for the day and you see Paul is there. ‘We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord’. And you think of preaching to your friend’s congregation and your heart beats a bit quicker and that’s uncomfortable.

Tell them why.

Tell them that it wasn’t that long ago that you had chest pain going up some stairs, that you ended up in the heart hospital having a lead put in your groin up into your heart, that the doctor turned the screen round and said ‘Take a look. You’re a lucky man, Mr Oakley, you had about three months left’. Tell them how you looked at that screen, looking like a sat nav of veins and arteries and for the first time really realised you are a body, that although you live in your head, in words and ideas, you are a fragile, time-limited body, dependent on that strange pulsing miracle on the screen over your head.

Tell them how you asked the doctor if he would kindly stop talking and get on with it then. How he laughed and placed a tiny stent to open up the artery so that your blood could flow free, free and fast. Tell them how you had to look away from the monitor at that point, you wanted to live by faith and not by sight. You just hoped the doctor had the opposite view.

Tell them it was that day, after crying with relief that it looked as if you’d be ok, lying on the hospital bed, that you made some decisions. You decided to enter a civil partnership after having been fearful before of what it might do to your future ministry. That day, you didn’t really care about that any more. You just wanted to acknowledge the love which has carried you through many years of your life, the person even now holding your hand in the recovery ward saying ‘It’s ok. We’re still here’. I asked him, there and then. It was that day too, when he’d gone home, that I said to God in a voice I felt was actually me, that we were alone now and could we please start again? Paul writes: ‘Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike…each of us will be accountable to God’.

This was not a day like any other. It felt at least I was seeing I was accountable. It took a hospital bed to get me to see that the things that matter most in this world – love, relationship, connection, trust, wisdom – these are the things that increase as they are shared. The more you give of these the more you have. They are unlike wealth and power therefore, where if I win, you lose. In all the things that we know matter more than anything else the truth is that if you win, I win too.

Tell them in that sermon it puzzles you why it took you so long to see it, that you had to be distilled, that now if you understand anything these days it’s that this is the truth that Christian faith celebrates. God gives us our being. We give back our becoming, who we become in the time we have. God from time to time changes our full-stops into commas, loving us just as we are but loving us so much he doesn’t want us to stay like that, loving so we can become more, so we can learn that the more you give, the more you get, the more everyone gets. It’s what grace means I think, receiving more than you deserve. It’s what our world at the moment seems to lack, making us a world where if you’re not at the table you are probably on the menu.

Don’t bore those good people of St Michael’s, so end by telling them months have passed and churchy stuff doesn’t hold the same interest it once did but tell them how that when the doctors told you that you needed some repair work in your heart, you sense God agreed. And that it’s still true, work in progress, trying to make a life of love and courage. Being a priest still feels like I’m trying to help other people have that relationship with God I only wish I had myself. But they might be surprised to know that you’ve at last begun to go back to the teachings of the one you made promises to once. And they sound different: the blessed ones being the humbled, those with some mercy in them, those who carry and share peace, those who hunger to see what is right bring it about by facing their fears, those who mourn and have experienced loss, those who know their need of God.

Jesus was a story teller, so good to have him at a Book festival. There never was a Good Samaritan, no Son was Prodigal and ran home, there was no Lazarus lying at the gate – Jesus made them up. He made them up and as stories they are difficult to pin down. His stories weren’t informative. They were formative. They were difficult, people asked him what he was on about. Difficulty is important in a life. His stories were not there to make easy sense, they are there to make you, to re-make you, to bring an amendment to life, like the one he told just now that pushes our contours into taking forgiveness seriously, something good for everyone involved.

So finally tell them how you believe deeply that stories and books are vital to a life, to enlarge the mind and heart, how the soul longs to discover words from which you can’t retreat, words that seem to listen to you, words that displace you and yet seem to draw you to a better place.

A local, EM Forster, who lived at Arlington Park mansions, once wrote that “The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves”. That’s why we read. To help us change. And life steps in to help that too.

At the end of the day, tell them you just know that when RS Thomas said that a poem is what reaches the intellect by way of the heart, you think he was speaking of God too, at least for you, that day your heart became the focus and you realised you wanted to love better, your partner, your family, your friends, even those you have yet to meet. And God. And God.

September 17th 2017