On Christian Service

Sunday 10th August 2008
Laurence of Rome (Deacon, Martyr, 258)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
Song of Solomon 5:2-16
2 Peter 1:1-15

Before the Second Vatican Council infantile hagiography was much more important in Roman Catholic primary schools than Old Testament study. As a child I learned the lives of the saints, including an account of Saint Aloysius, a juggler and acrobat whose name was somewhat incongruously taken by my head mistress who was so forbidding that her distant footfall cleared the corridors more effectively than a machine gun.

Among these curiosities was the tale of Deacon Lawrence, erstwhile patron saint of our village, whose Feast Day we celebrate today. He is supposed to have been barbecued, begging in the course of his martyrdom, to be turned over to be cooked evenly on both sides. Indeed, when Margaret and I visited Rome to celebrate my 50th birthday, we stayed round the corner from the church of Saint Lawrence where the famous painting of his cheerful suffering on a grid iron is displayed.

Even so, I would not want to emulate Lawrence, for although he was not burned, he was almost certainly decapitated for bearing witness to Jesus. There are many places in the world where people are suffering and dying as witnesses of Our Lord and Saviour but here, at the price of constant vigilance, we still enjoy religious freedom.

That very freedom, that tepid bath of social policy and free speech, can so easily lull us into forgetting the true message of Lawrence. He led a double life as a Deacon which, in its daily routine, resembles the combined service of Margaret and me. For Lawrence was a Sacristan - not dissimilar to a Churchwarden - and a community worker who might well have chaired the Festival Committee of Rome had it not consisted almost entirely of gladiatorial contests; and He had a special care for the poor and the weak and remarkable pastoral gifts. On the other hand, he was a librarian and teacher of Scripture - not very different from a Reader - except that he spread the Word of God in the face of official opposition whereas the worst I can expect is indifference.

In spite of our more benign (and perhaps more insidious) setting, the example of Lawrence still speaks to us today. Since the Second World War we have come to believe as a society that paying taxes and contributing a little extra to charities fulfils our social obligations; we have bought our way out of service; we have divided the strong from the weak; but as we become ever richer - in spite of cyclical economic down-turns - we are no happier; and as we become more separate from the weak and the poor, our solution to their plight is to demonise them and confine an ever increasing number of them to prison. So separate are they that we do not think of them as being part of us, of living with us, as emerging from among us; we think of them as quite separate, nothing to do with us.

Lawrence would never have assented to such absenteeism, such denial of his brothers and sisters in Christ; and there is the clue for us. Our Christian faith requires us to be more than liberal; it requires us to see Christ in each of our neighbours and to treat every neighbour as Christ. Can you imagine, if we adopted that Christian attitude, such sentences as:

What we seem to be doing is separating our civic and our Christian lives: we confuse civil justice with our duty to love; we confuse social policy with Christian service; we transfer the necessary imperfections of civic life into our commentary on our friends and neighbours and, even more severely, on people we do not know at all. Perhaps strangest of all, we have almost entirely separated our communal kindness from public kindness; in a curious reversal of the normal run of hypocrisy where people behave well in public but badly in private, Christians continue to behave well in private but increasingly badly in public.

I would like to think that Lawrence's parallel careers had this in common: that the servant and the librarian are not judgmental. If you go to the public library you are not told: "Oh, I wouldn't read that if I were you" or: "I don't think you're ready for that kind of thing," "or "That's a bit strong for someone of your delicate temperament." Likewise, the Christian servant should not say: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," or: "You're not fit to be helped" or "you are beyond help". We have become too used to the assumption that our service comes packaged with the right to opine. Christians should be the last to condemn 'political correctness' in its proper sense, in its attempt to treat everyone with equal concern and respect regardless of their condition; it is recognition of the necessary self restraint that makes living together tolerable. Its opponents are people who think that we would all be better off in the rough and tumble of the totally free market powered by microphones and muscle. Try being poor, or disabled, or black, or an asylum seeker in this celebrated rough and tumble. The particular depends upon protection: but it is indeed strange that the same people who go into paroxysms over the protection of rare orchids are indifferent or even hostile to immigrants; that the same people who protest about the travelling conditions of veal calves are hostile to travelling people; and, of course, it is the same people who celebrate the free market but want tight controls over house building, particularly if it's social housing.

If we are to judge Lawrence by any yardstick at all, perhaps we should remember why he was martyred. He could almost certainly have kept his head down, and therefore on, as a mere Deacon; but he vowed that his boss, the Pope, should not die alone. In a world of rampant individualism, it is easy to lose sight of the value of loyalty. Lawrence lived his loyalty to Christ in his loyalty to his sisters and brothers whether they were beggars or bishops.

Giving loyal service is more than racking up celestial gold stars. Jesus wants more. Lawrence gave more. Will we?