Monday, September 02, 2013

Decreasing: A Sermon for Evensong

Some words from our second Lesson this evening: “He must increase, but I must decrease”.  John the Baptist, the best man at Jesus’ wedding, is warned by his disciples that Jesus is stealing his thunder.  Jesus too is preaching and baptizing, and more people are going to them.  Just as the aides to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are looking frantically at opinion polls and worrying about who is most popular, so John’s disciples are worried that Jesus is more popular than their man.  John, however, is not worried.  That is how things must be.  The bridegroom has arrived, the best man must step aside.  “He must increase, but I must decrease”.

John’s saying has become an important one for the Christian life.  “He must increase, but I must decrease”, has become a pattern for how Christians should live.  In our lives also, Jesus must increase and we must decrease.  Diminishment goes against the grain.  It means becoming less, losing things, becoming smaller.  You will get nowhere if you advertise something as decreasing you, it doesn’t make a good advertisement.  We worry when our economy fails to grow.  As a society our favourite pastime is shopping – getting more things, more stuff.  Growing, acquiring, enlarging, developing, increasing – these are the words that seem positive.  To decrease seems very counter-intuitive.  But this evening I want to explore those words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease”, with a view to how in our lives Christ might increase and we may decrease.

The first thing to say is that it is already happening.  It is happening to our bodies, at least for most of us.  In children, failing to grow is very serious.  For those of us who are adults, our bodies are quite simply decreasing.  Our hair is decreasing in colour, the speed at which we move around is decreasing.  Illness and pain decrease our ability to act.  Our bodies are decreasing, and they will bring us ultimately to death.  This is the ultimate decreasing.  When B.F.Skinner, the great behaviourist and Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, died, his obituary was pinned to the noticeboard in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oxford.  One student, seeking to be true to Skinner’s own teachings on psychology, crossed out the word died and added ‘ceased to emit behaviour’.  Well there will come a time when we all cease to emit behavior.  The great fact of life is that we will die.  That is a decreasing that will happen to us all.

As ever, it is a matter of how we deal with this.  Let me offer two resources.  The first is Lament.  The Bible, and especially the Psalms, the prayerbook of the Bible, are full of laments.  They are a sign of honesty in the face of decreasing.  To decrease is a hard and painful thing, it is something to lament.  So I am have to lament that I will not manage to read every book that has ever been written, not even every book that I would like to read.  I also lament that I can no longer speak to my father about things that happen to me.  His death has decreased my life.  Lamenting our decreasing is noticing it, being honest that it is painful and difficult, and offering it to God in prayer.  When we lament, we can make our decrease an offering to God.

The second resource is to befriend our decrease and especially our death.  Death is part of life, to be alive means that we will one day die.  It is a hard truth and a painful one.  There is much to lament here.  But it is also something that we can befriend as a part of what it is to be alive, as the frame that allows the picture of our lives to have borders and to have meaning.  St Francis of Assisi spoke of ‘sister Bodily Death’.  His great Canticle of the Sun is a hymn of praise to God for all of creation, including the line: ‘Be praised my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape … happy those she finds doing your most holy will”. St Francis befriended his sister Bodily Death, and praised God for her.

There is much to learn here.  In honesty about our decrease and in befriending it, there is the space and the opportunity for creativity and for the work of God.  Last weekend I was at the Greenbelt Festival, and heard the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral speak.  He said that he went into hospital for a heart operation, and that experience had given him a chance to reflect on what was really important and to change his life accordingly.  This past week we have been celebrating the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s great ‘I have a dream’ speech at Washington.  King was someone who in his honesty about decrease, and befriending of it, could use his imprisonment, suffering and even his death to work for justice.

Of course the decrease that John the Baptist speaks to us about, the decrease that is needed in our lives, is more than the decrease of our bodies.  But it is not less than that.  We do indeed need to decrease in our selves, in our ego, our image of what it is to be ourselves, in order that Christ may increase in us.  St Paul wrote on one occasion that ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20); and one of the central strands of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians which we have been hearing through the summer at Evensong is that God’s power ‘is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12.9).  There is a decrease here of the self, Christ increasing through this decrease.  But attending to the bodily decrease that happens to us all can offer us some resources for this spiritual decrease of the ego, the self, whatever we find helpful to call it.  So, the spiritual work of lament, arising from noticing decrease, honestly naming how we feel about it, and offering it to God, continues to be an exercise for this further decrease. 

Similarly, the work of befriending the decrease is also something that continues to be something that can help us.  In the time that remains I want to suggest two further practices that can help us to befriend our decreasing.  The first is praying with open hands.  This is a physical embodiment of how we strive to pray always – with open hands, with nothing there.  That nothing is our offering and the space in which we can receive the gifts that God has to give us.  Holding our hands open in prayer is a sign of letting go, of allowing the decreasing that will allow Christ to increase in us and for us; the decrease that will create the space for God to give us his gifts.  Praying with open hands is a sign of the deeper truth that we try to offer to God all that we are and all that we have, and wait patiently for him to give us such good gifts as he wills.  To pray in this way is to befriend the decrease.

The second practice is simply to pray in thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is one of the hallmarks of Christian prayer.  It is the offering back to God of all that he has given to us.  One writer on the spiritual life (Sister Anke, The Creativity of Diminishment) refers to a Latin phrase for thanking – gratiam referre, literally ‘to give back grace’.  Thanksgiving is allowing God to decrease us further by taking back his gifts so that he can work in us in a new way.

“He must increase, but I must decrease”.  This phrase from John the Baptist goes deep into the lives of Christians.  It brings us to lament, to honestly notice that we decrease, to name it as loss, and to offer it to God.  It brings us to befriend our decrease, to accept it as part of what gives us life.  We are helped in this by praying with open hands, offering our selves in prayer and waiting for the gifts God chooses to give us.  We are helped by giving thanks to God, by returning the grace God gives us, so that God can do new things in us.

And all of this is modeled on the one who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and being found in human likeness he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.6-8).  At the heart of Christian faith stands the figure of the crucified Christ, decreased to the point of torture, abandonment and death.  In the decrease, the emptying of Christ, the power of God works to renew the whole of creation.  Our decrease also points to this, opens a space, however small, for God to work in us to renew his world and bring about his purposes.  “He must increase, but I must decrease”.  Amen.  Let it be so.  Thanks be to God.

Given at Derby Cathedral.  1.9.13.

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