To Avoid the Certainties of an Innocent III

To Avoid the Certainties of an Innocent III

by Rt. Rev. Michael Hare Duke
Retired Bishop of St. Andrew's, Scotland

Sermon in St Ninianls Cathedral Perth
3 February 2001

Today's readings focus on the subject of vocation, the call of God. The first is the story of the prophet Isaiah. The setting is 'the year in which King Uzziah died'. Young Isaiah was part of the royal family, perhaps a nephew of the King and the death would have been a devastating loss to the young man. Uzziah's reign had been some 50 years long, a time of economic prosperity and military power, (2 Chronicles 26, 1-15) It had ended with him contracting leprosy. It must have felt like the end of an era, a time when anything could happen. So the vision in the Temple was supremely significant. The point that I want to fasten on this morning is the response of the young prophet "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts"

This is picked up by the Gospel story, in which Jesus encourages Peter to try catching fish after an unsuccessful night expedition. When the result is a miraculously large catch, Peter's response is "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man".

In both cases the encounter with God brings humility, a sense of unworthiness. But this can be a dangerous experience. Something similar happened in the call of Jeremiah. He records it like this

"The word of the Lord came to me saying
'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
Then I said 'Ah Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy'
But the Lord said to me 'Do not say I am only a boy' for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you"
And the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth and the Lord said to me 'Now I have put my words onto your mouth.
See today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms
To pluck up and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow
To build and to plant."

To cope with his incredibly difficult task of opposing the King in his day, Jeremiah needed the sense that God was with him when he was being persecuted as a political dissident. But it was not like on other occasions. For instance in the Middle Ages there was a Pope who took the title of Innocent III. He was consecrated in 1198 and at the service he preached on the text from Jeremiah

"See today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms
To pluck up and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow
To build and to plant."

Convinced of his divine authority he set about creating mayhem in the politics of Europe. He claimed the right to ratify the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, he was responsible for the attack on Byzantium by the armies of the Fourth Crusade. He had a bitter row with King John of England over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury and in the course of the battle for six years England was placed under an interdict when the churches were closed, no masses were said and there was no public worship. Once power struggles begin, it does not seem to matter who gets hurt. It is only safe for humble men and women to believe that they are the servants of God or have a hotline to him.

We need to be aware of this in the battles of our own day when politicians claim the moral high ground or churchmen think that they know what legislation ought to say. But before I begin to violate my own canons for church behaviour I would like to look at the wisdom that is enshrined in Shakespeare's plays. He was always ready to find material in contemporary life to spice up his plots. In a week or two we will have the chance to see Twelfth Night at Perth Theatre and if we go we will find that underneath the complicate plot of unrecognised twins a fascinating study of a character who is totally convinced that he is right and everybody else is wrong. This is the steward Malvolio. We can be inappropriately sorry for him because he is the victim of an unkind plot, when his fellow members of the household decide to trick him.

Shakespeare wants us to see Malvolio as a pompous prig, a representative of the Puritanism that was going to erupt in civil war in the next generation. So there is an exchange between Sir Toby Belch and Malvolio Sir Toby says 'Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?'

This assurance of virtue leaves Malvolio ready for deception by the fake letter planted in his path pretending to come from his mistress Olivia and declaring her passion for him. He immediately recognises himself in the phrase 'Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.' Compare that with the response of St Peter or Isaiah who saw their unworthiness, the unclean lips, the sin, not the smug 'I deserve it, that is my due'.

At the heart of all christian living, as employer, politician, parent, son or daughter is the need for the forgiveness of sins. We are can never be sure that we have got it right for ourselves or others. God save us from the moral dictators and help us all to live with the recognition that at our most ethically certain, we could be wrong, and therefore needing to live always under the Mercy. This will alone make sure that we do not condemn others who disagree with us. So much of our world is divided by those whose religious beliefs are in conflict, whose morals we despise or they ours. God give us the guts of the prophets to look inward at our own failings and to avoid the certainties of an Innocent III who could not hear the voice of God except in his own ear.

Michael Hare Duke


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