All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
You may be aware of the extraordinary events that have unfolded outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London over the past two weeks. Two Saturdays ago, the Occupy London protest movement attempted to move into the area around the London Stock Exchange, as part of the global protest movement against economic inequality and social injustice. They were presented from doing so, and moved next door, to St Paul’s Cathedral. The Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, the Rev. Giles Fraser, welcomed the protesters, who set up camp on the north side of the cathedral, and asked that the police leave the protesters alone. As the days wore on, however, the cathedral’s patience wore thin, and the dean and chapter asked the campers to leave. When they refused to do so, the dean and chapter took the very unusual step of closing the Cathedral. The reason for doing so, they said, was concern over health and safety issues posed by the protest camp.
The decision to close the cathedral soon became a major story in its own right. Suddenly, the Church of England was caught up in the Occupy London protest. The only other time that St Paul’s has ever been closed was for four days during the Blitz when the building sustained bomb damage. Many have commented on the incongruity of Christian leaders shutting the doors of a Christian house of worship in the face of those calling for economic justice, and have wondered on what side of those doors Jesus would be. Others have suggested that the “health and safety” issues were merely an excuse to close the cathedral and thereby apply pressure to the protesters to leave, and that perhaps the Cathedral had itself bowed to pressure exerted by the London financial establishment. In a blistering attack on the dean and chapter, the Guardian newspaper wrote that “this rather messy and absurd situation has handed the dean and chapter of St Paul’s a truly historic opportunity to discredit Christianity in this country. They seem determined to take it.” On Wednesday, the Cathedral reversed itself and announced that it would reopen while the protest camp was still in place, reinforcing the suspicion, in some minds, that health and safety concerns were never the real issue. On Thursday, the Canon Chancellor, Giles Fraser resigned in protest over plans to remove demonstrators by force from the area around the cathedral.
While I am among those who think that the dean and chapter of St Paul’s have badly mishandled this situation, I am also profoundly grateful that I am not in their shoes. It is not an easy thing to be held publicly accountable to live by the standards of the Gospel. The events at St Paul’s remind all of us that being a Christian is about more than religious observance, or social status, or taking care of globally-famous landmarks. Sometimes being a Christian requires us to make difficult choices in circumstances in which the right course of action is not clear. Last week, the dean and chapter of St Paul’s were not just running a cathedral. They were facing very difficult ethical choices, with far-reaching consequences, in a very public forum. To a lesser extent, all of us who publicly identify ourselves as Christian invite judgement on ourselves every day. People will always be watching, noting the choices we make and the consequences of those choices.
Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel is a reminder to each one of us to be mindful of our visibility as Christians and to beware of the traps of hypocrisy and status-seeking which can distract each one of us from the task of living the Gospel. We may think that the dean and chapter of St Paul’s got distracted and ended up off-message last week, but the same thing could happen to any one of us.
A few years long ago, St David’s faced a situation similar to that now facing St Paul’s, but on a much smaller scale, when two homeless people set up camp on our front porch. We debated how, as a Christian community, we ought to respond to them. Eventually, we took them in, giving them shelter in our building and helping them to find permanent housing. Good for us, you might say. But a couple of years later, when they showed up again, we were less hospitable, and quickly encouraged them to move on. On the first occasion we chose to live by the Gospel, on the second we did not. If there is good news in all of this it is that we do not have to invent excuses to justify our failure to live by the Gospel and our own best instincts. We can confess it as sin, ask for forgiveness, and in turn extend that forgiveness to others whom we perceive to have failed to live by the Gospel.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” To become Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London is to be exalted to a pinnacle of the clerical profession. I am sure that last week, though, he felt humbled. Next week, it may be our turn.
This is the text of a sermon to be preached by the Rev. Michael Batten at St David, Vancouver on the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 30, 2011