A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 15 August 2021 by Revd Jonathan Evens.
Readings of address: 1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14
At age 21 Roger Cecil walked away from a scholarship at the Royal College of Art after just one week to ensure he focused on his artwork without being influenced by other students. Was he wise or was he foolish? His decision attracted the attention of the BBC who interviewed members of his family, community, and college for the 1964 film ‘A Quiet Rebel’. Most of those interviewed, for differing reasons, expressed confusion and disapprobation at Cecil’s decision.
At age 30 Jesus began his public ministry knowing it would lead him to Jerusalem and to crucifixion. He repeatedly told his disciples what would happen to him and resisted any attempt to dissuade him. Was he wise or was he foolish? His teaching on his task was either not understood by his disciples or actively resisted, so much so that at the point of his death his disciples either betrayed or denied him or ran away.
The young King Solomon may have been around 20 when he became King and asked for wisdom instead of long life, riches, or the death of his enemies. He is understood to have been wise. God was pleased with Solomon’s request and personally answered his prayer. This has often been understood as being because Solomon did not ask for self-serving rewards. However, there is something deeper happening here, something which connects the destinies of the three people with which I have begun. I hope that by reflecting on their stories we can come to understand what gaining wisdom might look like for us.
We can firstly understand Solomon to be wise already, as he recognised his own limitations as a young man and an even younger King so asked for God’s help and wisdom in ruling well. He recognised that he was facing a huge task – ruling a people who were so many that they could not be counted – and that he didn’t have the life experience or knowledge to carry out the task – “I am very young and don’t know how to rule.” Wisdom starts with a realistic assessment of the situation we find ourselves in. It is only once we have a realistic understanding of where our starting point is that we can begin to find ways forward. So, Solomon showed wisdom before he asked for and was given wisdom.
Secondly, we can also understand Solomon’s request in terms of something essential to good governance. When the people of Israel first asked for a King, God told them, through Samuel, who was both prophet and Judge, that their Kings would be self-serving by centralising land and wealth in the hands of a few. Later in scripture, after Solomon’s reign, we see that this came to pass, as the majority of those that followed Solomon as King did not possess his wisdom. Instead, they used their position and power to exploit others for their own personal gain. They oppressed and exploited their people in ways that were unjust and when they were then criticised by the prophets God sent to denounce them it was lack of justice that the prophets highlighted. Solomon rejected that temptation by asking for wisdom instead of self-serving rewards and, by doing so, identified that the essence of good governance is that the one with power and resources acts justly for the good of all the people, not simply the few.
Identifying the essence of the role we are to play or the vocation we have in life is key to this story and to the finding of wisdom. Solomon writes in the Book of Proverbs that wisdom was a co-worker with God in creation. When the world and its creatures were being shaped, formed, and defined, wisdom was beside God, making sure everything fitted, delighting in the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family. (Proverbs 8. 30). We see this aspect of wisdom fleshed out in another of the creation stories of the people of
Israel, a story about the wisdom of identifying essence. The Book of Genesis gives us the story of Adam, in partnership with God, naming the animals. Names in ancient cultures had power because they described the essence of what it was that had been named. So, in this story, Adam identified the essence of each creature that came before him in order to see and work with that creature’s place in the circle of life. In a similar way, Solomon had to identify the essence of being a monarch in order to understand the role he was to play for the people of Israel. That role was one of identifying justice, equity, and fairness for all. Solomon realised that wisdom involves working with God to identify essence and then working with the grain of that understanding.
Jesus came to a similar place as he explored the scriptures for himself as a child growing up in Nazareth. He identified scriptures about the role of the people of Israel as applying to himself, so that when he later read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, he could say that that scripture had been fulfilled in their presence that day. He understood that, through his people, God wished to demonstrate that he is with all people through death into life. Jesus saw that the essence of incarnation was to live that reality, so knew his path through life – crucifixion, resurrection, ascension – and would not be distracted from it.
While on holiday I saw a retrospective exhibition of Roger Cecil’s work, the final exhibition for the foreseeable future in a series organised by the artist’s estate following his death in 2015. Entitled ‘A Secret Artist’ the exhibition provided answers to the central secret held by Cecil and his art. At its heart was a secret love to which he was devoted; a love that combined home, Wales, and the landscape of Abertillery.
When interviewed in 1964 for the BBC film ‘A Quiet Rebel’, Cecil spoke of his worry that at the Royal College of Art each artist would become ‘a bit of everybody’, each influencing the other. He left and went home to ‘do painting my way … the way I feel it.’ At 21 he knew the essence of his art was the landscape of Wales and that of his home in Abertillery in particular. For him, to have been separate from that source of inspiration would have diluted his art.
45 years on from walking out of the Royal College of Art and after a career in which he made the art he wanted in the way he wanted and still found access to galleries and sales, he said: ‘I am very lucky, because … ninety-nine per cent of people, they don’t know what they do, all their life. You imagine that. Terrible, isn’t it! To think they go through life and they don’t know what they do. Now, I’m lucky. I’m very fortunate. I knew from when I was about ten. I wanted to do art. And I’ve done it.’
Wisdom comes from knowing who we are and who or what others are in God. Remembering we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God in our mother’s wombs and therefore have unique contributions to life only we can make through the particular combination of gifts and talents and personalities we have been given. Such wisdom is gained by understanding essence and working with it.
Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes about the importance of remembering your creator in the days of your youth, “before the days of trouble come … and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12.1&7). I think one understanding of that statement is about finding the wisdom of essence early on in life, as was the case for Solomon, Jesus and Roger Cecil. We are most likely to do so if, like Solomon, we recognise the limitations of youth and use that understanding as motivation to cry out for insight, seeking wisdom like silver, and searching for it as for hidden treasures (Proverbs 2.3&4).
However, Solomon’s statement was not primarily about coming to that understanding early in life but instead more about finding that wisdom before death comes to us, in the time that we have available to us. For many, perhaps most of us, that is the journey of a lifetime.
That has certainly been my own experience. My call to ordination came in my forties and involved the recognition that my interests and experience in church, the Arts, social action, and employment, could all come together and be blended within ordained ministry. Experiencing that blend within my ministry in East London meant that when, in my fifties, I saw the advert for the role I now have here at St Martin’s – which through the 4 Cs brings together congregation, culture, compassion and commerce – I could see that this was a role that fitted perfectly with my experience and interests and through which the essence of who I am in God could be expressed. It took more than half a lifetime to reach that point but that was not wasted time, rather essential preparation for recognising and relishing the role.
Finally, the urgency of Solomon’s statement is because identification of essence is essential wisdom. It is wisdom that leads us to Christ, for the individual identity of any object is the stamp of divine creation on it. That was the great insight of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins; that the world is “news of God” and therefore “its end, its purpose, its purport, its meaning and its life and work is to name and praise” God.
How do God’s creatures “give him glory”? Hopkins’ answer was “Merely by being themselves, by doing themselves”, by living out their essence. “Selfhood is not a static possession, but an activity:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves-goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”*
All things, Hopkins wrote, “are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him.”** By being our essential selves Christ is revealed in us. Hopkins concluded:
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Hopkins claimed we are most Christ-like when we act as our essential selves because then we are most fully in touch with the person we were created to be. We have briefly considered how Solomon, Jesus and Roger Cecil each discerned their essence. Solomon considering his legacy as David’s son and as a child of God before then looking at the demands of the role he had to play. Jesus in searching the scriptures to understand the call on his life and Cecil realising his love for the landscape of his home before making that the essence of his art. What is it that characterises your life and loves? What is it that only you can do for God as a result? In searching for the answers to those questions, you will act in God’s eye what in God’s eye you are – Christ – and know wisdom, as Christ plays to the Father through the features of your face. Amen.
*The Creation of the Self in Gerard Manley Hopkins, J. Hillis Miller, ELH, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Dec., 1955), pp. 293-319
**The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins