The Wisdom of Solomon: some thoughts on New Patterns for Worship … and living.

Sermon at St John’s, Fulham for the meeting of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests on 13 February 2020

My dearest friends, Mothers and Fathers. One of the the many things I love about our very own Church Of England is the variety of streams of tradition within it. While I think it best to drink deeply from a single stream. To be formed in one tradition. To know who we are so that we can be fully ourselves with others who are different to us is vitally important.

It is no less vitally important that we drink at other wells and learn from others. To realise that our differences never negate our common humanity, let alone our common baptism.

One of the elements of the evangelical tradition that I have come to love is the preaching of a series of sermons. If you look at well known evangelical parish websites you will find many sermons to listen to and even, sometimes watch.

On many occasions these will be based on individuals in the Old Testament. Nehemiah often comes up – and indeed I have led a number of study sessions on Nehemiah myself, including last October, for the Conference of Leaders of Anglican Religious Communities, our traditional, vowed monastic communities. Nehemiah is a great role model for Christian leadership, especially in a time when institutions seem to be in decline and some rebuilding of the walls is needed.

I imagine, perhaps I am guilty of stereotyping us! But I imagine that we are perhaps not as familiar with the liturgical book New Patterns for Worship, as we might be of certain other official liturgical publications.

Perhaps I am wrong, I hope so, because NPW includes some really excellent material. Not least among these are a series of modules of readings that can be used outside the seasons of the church’s year in place of the official lectionary. I recommend you get to know them and make use of them. Many feature significant individuals from the Old Testament such as Noah.

If you read my blog you will know that for pedagogical, educational reasons, I have become something of a fan of the traditional one year lectionary. I can imagine Sunday worship in which the ante-communion, the liturgy of the Word makes use of one of these series of readings for a first reading, followed by a sermon and then continues with the two short readings of the historic lectionary and on into the Eucharistic rite. In one church where I served we even broke for coffee after the liturgy of the Word so that some people could leave at that point and those who wanted to remained for the rest. It was very effective and worked well.

That is a somewhat long, and homiletically poor, introduction to looking at today’s first reading.

There is no series of readings in NPW on Solomon, which is a shame.

Solomon is best known, of course for being wise. But if that is all we know about him we have a rather weak and uninteresting character. Today’s reading fills that out a bit. We have to be a little careful that there is not some gender bias going on, the wise man led astray by his wives. But the important thing is not who leads who astray, but that Solomon exhibits some considerable foolishness.

Personally I find that quite helpful. We all, yes we do, all of us, do foolish things. We are all, yes all of us, unwise at times, perhaps very often. Tragedy appeals to us because deep down we know that at any point our foolishness might undo our lives.

I am glad to say that I do not have a number of pagan wives leading me astray. But I do know that I do not love the Lord wholeheartedly. I love God very much. Jesus is the centre of my life. But I know that I also am very attached to my nice middle class lifestyle. When I pray “do with me what you will”, when I say multiple times a day in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” I really don’t mean it wholeheartedly …

We Anglo Catholics like to remind ourselves of our glorious past. The slum priests who gave up everything to serve the poor. But when I was a priest in Grangetown in Middlesbrough or Portsea where Fr Dolling had been a priest, or Lewisham. All areas of considerable deprivation (and how proud we can all be of our very own deprivation index!) I lived the same middle class life I could have lived anywhere. Yet in my work as Spiritual Director/Adviser to emerging new communities I meet young evangelicals, Anglicans and others, who give up everything to take their families and children into places of dire poverty, who open up their homes to live with recovering alcoholics, gang members and the generally socially inept. For whom dinner is a simple shared meal with strangers not a dinner party with too much gin and four crystal glasses.

Changing the way we live. The choices we have made and make is tough. But what is conversion if it is not that? In the story we have just heard in the gospel I imagine Jesus smiling when the Syro-Phoenician woman tells him that even the dogs deserve crumbs. He knows she is right. He changes his mind. And that is wisdom indeed.

Solomon, like the rest of us was both wise and foolish.

I am not especially keen n formal dinner parties so it’s easy for me to critique them. I know what my idols are. Thy will be done? I suspect in a month’s time there will be just as many Amazon parcels arriving as there have ever been …

Mission: it’s all about memory

There is a substantial literature on mission. People study degrees in it and publish learned theses about it. That is not my area of expertise. Although, I have been involved in mission all my life. In parishes and schools, in every context I find myself I have sought to bring people to know Jesus. I do not think we should be running schools unless they are genuinely at the heart of our mission to the nation.

So, this post is an exercise in applying what is the nearest thing to an expertise I’ve got, education, to the subject of mission. In particular a recent publication, Understanding How We Learn, provides an excellent overview on current thinking on learning. I believe there is much that the church, leaders, clergy, Sunday school teachers and others can gain from reading this and applying it in our churches. Finally I will say a little about how I am applying this thinking in my own preaching and teaching in church contexts.

Who is Jesus?

Seems like a good place to start. In the Gospels there are 90 occasions when Jesus is addressed directly with a title. On 60 of those occasions he is addressed as ‘Teacher’. Jesus himself used the term when he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am” (John 13:13). When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, he said, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2). We know, from Matthew’s gospel that “he taught as one having authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:29). At the end of his gospel Matthew tells us that Jesus commands his disciples “Go into all the world and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus’ followers are ‘disciples’, learners. Teaching is a fundamental part of Christian leadership. The traditional explanation of the functions of Jesus in ministry are as ‘prophet, priest and king’, this was probably firstly explicated by Eusebius and then taken up in Reformed churches by Calvin, and, later Wesley. It has found its way into the current Catechism of the Catholic Church at no. 436 “Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope of Israel in his threefold office of priest, prophet and king.”.

It is a shame that the tradition has not enshrined the role of Jesus as teacher as firmly as the roles of prophet, priest and king, but the biblical evidence is enough. Teaching is what Christian leaders do. Discipling people is teaching them, enabling them to learn what it is to be a Christian. When Jesus wanted to do the most profound thing he could to sustain his disciples (learners) through the darkest times, and at all times and in all places, what did he ask them to do? “Do this TO REMEMBER me.” It shouldn’t, therefore come as any surprise to Christians that the best research education shows us that memory is not only the fundamental unit of learning but also of who we are. “Think about how you define yourself,” write Weinstein and Sumeracki in their book Understanding How We Learn, “your very identity is most likely full of things you remember yourself doing.” p. 64 “Everything you do requires memory in some form or another.” p 64 “For brain scientists, there are no other forms of knowledge: everything that is learned is memory.” p.75

We are what we remember. This is not radical. My 86 year old mother has dementia. I don’t know exactly when but at some level we lost her a few years ago. We love her dearly, we do everything we can for her but she is not herself any more because she has lost her memory. Memory is the fundamental existential unit. It is who we are. When we disciple people, we teach them to remember Jesus, not just in some abstract sense but by actually remembering, memorising the words he spoke, the psalms he prayed, the things people said about him. Almost every traditional practice of the spiritual life in the Christian tradition is about getting over our basic forgetfulness. Is about helping us to remember, praying regularly through the day, praying in every moment, helping us not to forget.

Understanding How We Learn, is written by two cognitive scientists. They provide really helpful models for teaching based on this pattern: 1Spacing2 Elaboration3 Concrete Examples4 Visuals5 Retrieval You will, I’m afraid have to read the book – and I recommend it, without reservation, to clergy and other church leaders, to see what exactly is meant by this. I would however draw attention to the fact that the book addresses firstly the tendency we all have to assume that we know what learning is and how to achieve it. After all we have all been in education for many years, in fact though, intuition is the enemy of learning. All of us who teach and preach in church need to re-examine what we do, and work out whether we are delivering, achieving what we think we are. All the evidence suggests that we are not. We need to do something differently.

In my own life I now cringe when I think about some of my earlier classroom practice. I also cringe when I think about my teaching as a priest on Lent courses, bible studies, and in my preaching. What I have been trying to do as the research evidence on effective teaching becomes clearer is to teach knowledge based sermons. Content is all. People should leave knowing more than they did before they arrived. My experience is that evangelicals are much better at this than Catholic Anglicans, but that there is also a danger for evangelicals in becoming all about experience and not about knowledge. At New Wine this summer Ian Paul was, by a long way, the best teacher present, but probably the lowest attended sessions I went to. We live in an experience driven culture. I want to distinguish between preaching and teaching sessions. I have, as anybody who knows me is aware, a deep love of the rhythm and structure of the liturgy. A sermon or homily has a character that is distinctive from a teaching session. But … as those of us who pray the Breviary know the extracts we hear and read daily from the great fathers and teachers of the church in their homilies do not bear much relation to the 3 minute ‘Thought for the Day’ that characterise many of our homilies.

I have come to believe that I need to think of my preaching much more in the way that I thing about learning in schools, Understanding How We Learn, can help inform our preaching and teaching. I suppose, when I was ordained a quarter of a century ago I imagined preaching like a tiny diamond, the smaller, the more perfect, the better. Three minutes, perfectly crafted. I just do not believe any longer that that is sufficient for Christian growth. For most people in church on a Sunday that will be their only Christian teaching of the week. To deliver an effective teaching session on a Sunday morning I now believe that 15 – 20 minutes are needed. This takes me 4-6 hours to prepare. The longer I spend on the preparation the better it is. In that time, didactic as it, intentionally, is, I try and make sure that it is not just me speaking. I often ask questions, I use paired activities, I use white cards that people write on, I ask the whole congregation to repeat prayers and texts after me. If it is a series, which I prefer, I revise material from previous sessions, I describe the map of learning. If I am presiding as well as preaching I will use every opportunity to re-cap the learning, pointing out at the beginning of Mass what I am going to preach on, preaching on it, referring to it again in the intercessions, at the peace or offertory, at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, at the silent prayer after communion and even just before the blessing, especially if I have set homework. The content too of my preaching has changed. Doctrine and Scripture provide us more than enough material. Most people in our churches have received minimal if any substantial teaching. The field is open to us. My only question to myself: What have they learnt? My ‘new’ (to me) style of preaching often elicits the comment “Oh, we can tell you are a teacher”. I used to worry about that. Now, I just think that I am grateful to be a follower of Jesus, The Teacher, and if I am described as a teacher that is flattery indeed.

Please read Understanding How We Learn. It is very helpful indeed.