In the glorious Chapel of Exeter College, Oxford, on the Feast Day of St. Matthias the Apostle on Saturday 14th May, the Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy preached his final sermon as a priest in the Church of England. The prayers of this Choral Evensong joined with those that have been made in this chapel every day since its foundation by Walter de Stapleton in 1314.
Martyn Percy ministered in the Diocese of Oxford for 18 years. He was Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon 2004-2014, and Dean of Christ Church 2014-2022. His final sermon may be watched or read below:
Sometimes we choose the readings for a sermon, and sometimes they choose us. St. Matthias is the Apostle who replaced Judas, and was chosen by means of lottery to take the number of disciples back up to twelve. But before we talk about Matthias, we need a brief word about the two deaths we remember from Holy Week. Noting that on Good Friday and after the death of Jesus, all the disciples dispersed and ran away, one modern poet, Norma Farber (‘Compassion’) asks where we might find Mary, the mother of Jesus on that day?
In Mary’s house the mourners gather.
Sorrow pierces them like a nail.
Where’s Mary herself meanwhile?
Gone to comfort Judas’s mother.
As the mystics say, you cannot find Jesus in Heaven on Good Friday because he’s gone looking for Judas in Hell. Jesus won’t go home without him. So Judas is the permanent-resident elephant in the room for St. Matthias’ Day. Judas casts a shadow over these readings, and so we cannot ignore him.
Judas is a betrayer. In Dante’s Inferno, Judas occupies a podium finish with Brutus and Cassius in the inner, ninth ring of hell. These arch-betrayers of classical antiquity represent treachery. Judas remains a relevant figure today. Why? Because everyone will have some taste of treachery; of being the victim of others bearing false witness; of being snared; of being badly let down by someone you may have trusted. You’ve had that experience. You’ve known others who have had that experience. I, too, have had that experience.
When you think about it, there is quite a lot of gambling going on in the Bible. Pilate offers the crowd baying for blood a 50-50 choice – do you want Jesus, or Barabbas? Even though it is a 50-50 ‘ask the audience’ eliminator, the odds, we sense, are already firmly stacked against Jesus. Before he is crucified, he is blindfolded and invited to guess who struck him. It is a kind of cruel wager, in which all the odds are stacked against the victim. And at the end of the gospels, the soldiers gamble again. They draw lots for Jesus’ clothes. So at the foot of the cross, there is laughter, the guards play dice, and they draw straws for the remnants of clothes.
But there are other odds too. What are the odds of a small Jewish sect becoming the world’s largest faith? No-one took a punt at Ladbrokes on that one in AD33. What were the odds that a key member of Jesus’ discipleship team, and the treasurer no less, would lose his place to an unknown man named Matthias – the disciple chosen to replace Judas, and chosen by lottery. As the Church of England sometimes has it, two names put before the panel to consider, but only one is chosen emerges as the preferred candidate…
Let’s talk about Matthias. I like the story of Matthias, because it shows, for starters, that the first Christians were basically Anglican. That is to say, they knew the value of being pragmatic, and could put it before principle when needed, which was most of the time. I suppose the better thing to do with Judas’ successor was to go into a lock-down conclave, and emerge only when ready. But time is short; there is a mission to get on with. They’ve got tea at 4.00, and they need a twelfth apostle – preferably before the refreshments kick in – and so they draw lots. It’s a gamble. Yet it seems to pay off.
But there is a deeper theme at work in the manner of Matthias’s selection that is reflected in both the Old and the New Testament readings today, and it is this: you, I are all dispensable. Matthias is the Patron Saint of ‘It Doesn’t All Depend on You’. Judas is just airbrushed out of history, and now an unknown runner at the 3.30 in Jerusalem called Matthias reminds us that God is not lacking on the supply-side for people to work with, provided they are committed to joy, gratitude and true service. Be that person.
Because God does know a thing or two about the odds of his purpose being worked out. And I would not bet against the outcome. God does not ask us to gamble. Merely to remember that there are no reliable odds on how your future will turn out. But the God of the present, and the God of the future, like the God of the past, will not let you down. So we do not need to live as others might, because the “citizenship of heaven”, as Paul calls it, will see that we are in the end, held and cherished by a God who will not let us fall.
I think Matthias might have agreed with Woody Allen: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your future plans.” Most people know the so-called ‘Serenity Prayer’ – or at least the first part of it. Very few, however, know that the original was written by Reinhold Niebuhr in the darkest days of the Second World War. The prayer goes like this: “God, grant me grace to accept with serenity, the things that cannot be changed; courage to change the things which should be changed; and the wisdom to know the difference…”
But the prayer then continues: “…living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; and taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is. Not as I would have it, but trusting that you will make all things right, if I but surrender to your will. So that I may be reasonably happy in this life; and supremely happy with you forever, in the next…”. American soldiers, GIs, were given this prayer as they left America for Europe; or England for Normandy on D-Day. They were clutching it as the gates of their boats opened, and they poured onto the beaches. There was nothing more they do about what happened next.
Nothing, except remember that God hears the prayer from the trenches; he hears the prayer of the ones rooting for a successor to Judas. But God knows life can be fickle, and ever-changing. Because God has already in Jesus become one of us. He has loved us enough to live for us, as one of us, and amongst us. He has known what it is to have the odds stacked against him, quite literally. He has risked that enough to die as one of us – and yet be raised up.
Jesus Christ is, quite literally, no stranger to our lives. He was and is with us – this is what ‘Emmanuel’ means. He loves us where we are, and walks with us every step of the way. In one of the darker moments over these last few years, and when all had seemed very bleak to me and Emma, she wrote this poem called ‘Another Economy’, and it rejoices in the good that might be found through and with others in the midst of all the crap (for want of a better turn of phrase).
I have found that there is a different economy
Whose currency is
Love and kindness
Faithfulness and prayer
Generosity and integrity.
When these virtues are practised
Deposits are made and investments accrued.
So, when the world turns harsh
And desolation beckons,
I find I am rich.
And I can draw on this wealth
Providing me with
Friendship and kindness
Prayers and blessings
Fortitude and strength.
I guess by ending I should say something about our readings. Our Psalm is unequivocal: God will save and restore, and even though our detractors may scorn us and laugh at us, God will never turn away from you. Never. I managed a wry smile when 1 Samuel came up – and I didn’t choose the readings today; as I say, they’ve chosen us. We’ve ended up with a reading about a small man, and a gospel reading that appeared at our wedding.
But 1 Samuel 16 reminds us that God often begins with the runt of the litter – the littlest and the lesser is where God begins. It is what Jesus starts his ministry with, time and time again. God is always looking for the outsider to confound the insider; the least to be the greatest; the gentle to show the strong how to be; the foolish to convert the wise.
David is picked because he’s no Goliath. He is a minor character put out to tend flocks and amuses himself by making up the songs and tunes we know as psalms. God likes to do extraordinary things with the neglected and the rejected. God chooses the weak and the foolish things of the world to confound the wise and strong. God grows the fruit of his Spirit within our yielding flesh, hearts and minds. Growing fruit is slow work. Cheap, false piety that mimics authentic growth will always be available in plentiful quantities. But discerning disciples are seldom fooled by such offerings. Quality takes time to bud and flower.
Likewise, you can build almost anything, instantly, on sand. But without deep, solid foundations, what is knocked up in the morning is swept away by the evening. Building a solid structure on unforgiving rock, with all the boring into the ground required to establish the foundations, is hard and laborious, and you have very little to show for your work for a very long time. But, says the gospels, persevere. Slow Church is where we find God slogging away, working with grace, love, goodness, charity, kindness, mercy and endless patience over the decades and centuries. It takes a long, long time to bring the gospel to any community, let alone to a country. Only fools think this can be fast.
My vocation to serve Christ and the world as priest, pastor and professor will continue. But my season for doing so within the Church of England must now end, partly so that truth can be spoken to power, and prophetic insight not diminished by the gravitational pressure of institutional loyalty.
In this, I take my cue from Jonah. Do not look back in anger. Look forward only in love, and by education and example, live for others as Christ does, whether you are an insider or an outsider. As that other famous Dean – James Dean – once said ‘only the gentle are truly strong’.
We face many challenges in our world today: wars, famine, disease and injustice. Hold fast to God and to one another. Be good. Be humble. God, who is faithful, will not let you fall. “Do not be afraid” and “do not fear” are phrases most often repeated by Jesus in the gospels – more than seventy times. Our calling does not seek safety, security or any other benefits. Our vocation is not to cling to church; but rather to step out in the love revealed in the person of Jesus.
For me, and you, that is the path that now lies ahead. May God grant us all grace and peace, as we walk with him who is ever-beside us, and before us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might, and come to save us!
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O LORD God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbours;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted.
They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
1 Samuel 16:1-16
The LORD said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.’ And the LORD said, ‘Take a heifer with you, and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.’ Samuel did what the LORD commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ He said, ‘Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.’ And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the LORD’s anointed is now before the LORD.’ But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.’ Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, ‘Neither has the LORD chosen this one.’ Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, ‘Neither has the LORD chosen this one.’ Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The LORD has not chosen any of these.’ Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’ He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”