This is the text of my Spital Sermon at the Church of St Lawrence Jewry in the City of London yesterday. A Spital Sermon is preached before the Lord Mayor of London and the Aldermen of the City in Lent each year. This year’s Lord Mayor grew up in Bradford and is doing some excellent work on behalf of the city during his year of office. I was preaching at his invitation.
The Spread of truth (Isaiah 5:1-10)
Truth is an odd thing to speak about in a culture that finds comfort in fantasy. Which is probably an odd way to begin a sermon in a context such as this. So, I will digress a little before coming back to this theme.
Last year I returned as bishop to the city where I studied modern languages at university. Bradford’s pioneering language courses – training proficient interpreters and translators for professional roles as linguists – are now defunct. They have died the death prescribed by a culture in England that apparently sees language learning as an optional extra for people who are incapable of doing something useful. For most of us, being able to order a beer in a tapas bar is a source of self-congratulation. That this should happen in a city where a large proportion of children happily move between two or three languages is tragic. And this is not a criticism of the excellent university; the demand has simply disappeared as the priority has diminished in a school system that values league tables above education of the whole person.
Now, the reason I speak of this in such stark terms is not in order to bore you with a tirade against cultural philistinism, but in order to enable me to introduce you to a simple insight offered by the former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt (now aged 92 and still working in Hamburg). In his marvellous book Ausser Dienst (Out of Office) Schmidt advises anyone thinking of seeking political office in Germany not to do so unless they are proficient in at least two foreign languages. Why? Because, he writes, we can only understand our own culture if we see it through the lens of another culture… and in order to do that we have to know something of the language of that culture. (While in a television studio a couple of years ago a leading English politician asked me what I was reading and I told him of this particular piece of advice. He laughed and said, “Well, we wouldn’t have any MPs in Parliament if we took that seriously!” I observed that this isn’t exactly funny.)
But, I think Schmidt is right. We need to step outside the framework we take for granted – away from the assumptions we intuitively make about why the world is the way it is – and look at ourselves from the outside. Only in this way are we able to check our vision, gauge our perspective and work out where we are going – and according to which values. The alternative is simply to stay locked within the narrow confines of our limited experience and to fortify our world view against any alternative threat.
This is precisely the situation that faced the people of Isaiah’s day two and a half thousand years ago. Their primary vocation had always been – right back to their ancestor Abraham – to give their lives in order that the world should be blessed. In other words, their singularity imposed not privilege and power, but obligation and costliness. Losing the plot – understood in terms of forgetting their foundational story… the narrative that vindicated their identity, explained their history and identified the shape of their conditionally promised future… as well as being exiled from the actual land of promise – was the consequence of cultural and spiritual amnesia.
Isaiah is one of the prophets who sees through the thin veneers of national security, religious complacency and political expediency, and tries to get his people to face reality, to see the truth about God, the world and themselves, to see what they look like when seen through the eyes of the outsider – even through the eyes of God who accuses them of pushing him outside, too.
Isaiah’s prophetic complaint is, in one sense, quite simple. He called his people to be like him, but they were seduced by other fantasies. Love was replaced by oppression, mercy became hostility, justice just got trampled upon in the pursuit of comfort, stability and self-protection.
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes… he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.”
We are judged not by our fine words, but by the fruit of our actions – by the real flesh-and-blood evidence of our social priorities. Hence the bewildered question: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”
Of course, the question is for the people themselves to answer; but, they don’t see the problem and they no longer have the breadth of vision to perceive what they and their choices look like from the outside. And when things have got so far beyond repair, when the situation seems irredeemable, the only inevitable consequence is ruin – the loss of all those symbols of identity such as land and social cohesion and self-determination. More a description than an intention, when such injustice is allowed to characterise a society, the self-destruct button has already been pressed. They sleep-walk through their fantasies into desolation.
Now, I realise that I probably haven’t cheered you up with all this misery. This is probably the moment for a good joke or a Johnsonian witticism. But, all I can think of is the man who, feeling ill, went to the hospital for tests. Afterwards the doctor came in and said: “I’m sorry Mr Jones, but there’s nothing we can do for you. You’ve had it.” “You mean there’s no hope?” said Mr Jones. “Exactly,” said the doctor, “there’s no hope.” “I want a second opinion!” said Mr Jones. “OK,” said the doctor, “there’s no hope and you’re ugly.”
Oh dear. That actually takes us straight back to Helmut Schmidt and the prophet Isaiah, doesn’t it? How we are seen from the outside… Something about our ability or willingness to face reality and see ourselves as we are seen – or as we truly are.
When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, he declined to answer his powerful judge’s question – which might or might not have been rhetorical: “What is truth?” Rather than get bogged down in competing or conflicting truth claims, the unanswered question invites us to face reality: reality about a God who sees through the political, economic, social and religious fantasies we construct for ourselves – the reality of our human condition and the fragility of our contingent existence. Truth is true because it is true, not because it is convenient.
One of the odd things about our contemporary culture is the rather weird notion that if something is true for me, it can differ from a contradictory ‘truth for you’… and that’s alright. Truth becomes reduced to private opinion or subjective preference. It loses touch with the real world in which if something is red, it can’t simultaneously be yellow. Or as (I think) CS Lewis put it in relation to Christianity: “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity.” In other words, truth does not change simply because we prefer it to look or sound different.
Now, where does this lead us (in the brief time we have to think about such things)? In the light of recent controversies in London it might turn our minds to St Paul’s Cathedral which this week stole the excellent Dean of Bradford from under my nose, leaving Bradford bereft and London with a smug smile of satisfaction. We might reflect on the events of the last few months during which some very awkward people shone a light onto our society and our preferences, priorities and practices, and invited us to look differently – from a different perspective, from a different angle, through a different lens – at who we think we are, why we think we are here, where we think we are going, where we think we should be going.
What we have learned, if we didn’t know it before, is that our economic and political direction is not inevitable, but is chosen according to the values we adopt and the priorities we set. It is shaped by the sort of thinking that has to be done reflectively and not always in the heat of the moment. And it compels us to consider, under the haunting gaze of prophets like Isaiah from so long ago, whether or not we might shape our world differently.
The problem for Isaiah’s people was that their own self-sufficiency and need for self-protection led them to build around themselves walls they thought would keep reality out. I haven’t time to explain the international politics of the Middle East in the eighth century BC, but, as with most things in life, they were not terribly original. As we fearfully know, history has a habit of repeating itself. But, they expanded their wealth not for the benefit of all – or for what we might usefully call ‘the common good’ – but for their own protection. As Isaiah puts it: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!”
Human experience demonstrates time and again the truth that the accumulation of wealth for its own sake simply results in isolating the wealthy. And who wants to live in such a way as to occupy all the space at the expense of everyone else?
Actually, Isaiah is here pointing back to a story from Genesis chapter 4 in which Cain, having murdered his brother Abel, is exiled from the place of comfort and security, and finds himself in ‘the land of Nod’. Here, we read, he builds a city and calls it Enoch. Why? Well, a French jurist and theologian called Jacques Ellul asked himself the same question and in 1962 wrote a book called ‘The Meaning of the City’. He suggests that this is a metaphor for what we human beings do when we dismiss the perspective from outside – from God – and find ourselves in a wilderness of undifferentiated emptiness. The first thing we do is build defensive walls – keep the threat out and create a space that enables us to measure our sense of meaning and belonging. And that is fine – living with horizons that extend only as far as the contours of the walls – until the walls get breached by loss, collapse or crisis, that is.
The opening up of the walls actually provokes a crisis. Do we look out, see a bigger world – however unknown and threatening it might appear to be – and venture out to explore it… thus discovering that the reality within which we had previously lived was, in fact, a little limited? Or do we re-build the walls – even thicker this time – in order to make sure they don’t get breached again? The choice does matter.
It seems to me that we have an opportunity at a time of crisis or challenge – which appears to be where we have been for the last four or five years – to seek a different view, an outside perspective. Or, to go back to Helmut Schmidt’s observation, to look at ourselves through the lens (or the eyes) of the outsider – to listen through the ears of someone who speaks a different language – in order to discover whether or not we are really living in the real world. Fantasies are always entertaining, but, as Isaiah’s people found out, they always end in tears. Truth, if it is truly to be spread, needs to be identified as truth: the truth about God (who loves justice and mercy), the truth about the world (always trying to protect itself at the expense of others), the truth about ourselves (always in need of encouragement as well as challenge), if we are to dare to look differently at what we simply think of as ‘the way the world is’.
In this sense, crisis can be seen as a gift – albeit an unwelcome one. Jesus famously observed: “The truth will set you free.” Yes, this freedom might be costly and painful – demanding honesty and courage -, but it opens up the future – unlike the fantasy that it will somehow all be OK in the end anyway. This truth, I suggest, needs to be spread with some urgency. Or, as Leo Tolstoy put it: “Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.”