29 October 2017

Hobgoblins, foul fiends and how
to hang all the law and prophets

Hang all the law and the prophets

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 October 2017,

The Fifth Sunday before Advent (Proper 25).

11 a.m., The Eucharist,

Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: Deuteronomy 34: 1-12; Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2: 1-8; and Matthew 22: 34-46.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

1, To be a pilgrim

The night after tomorrow is Hallowe’en.

Now, I know many Church people are uncomfortable about Hallowe’en – not just because of the pranks and silly games associated with it, but because of some of the other things that go along with it.

But this morning I want to tell another story about hobgoblins and journeys out into the dark.

For some older people here, one of our hymns this morning brings back memories of school days and school assemblies. ‘To Be a Pilgrim’ is the school hymn for many schools in England, and is sung in several school movies.

In Lindsay Anderson’s film if.... (1968), it typifies traditional religious education in English public schools. It is also sung in the movie Clockwise (1986), when John Cleese, better known as Basil Fawlty, speaks to a group of headmasters as he would to his own pupils and tells them all to stand and sing the hymn.

The tune was written by one of my favourite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams. And for many people of my age, this song was also popular many years ago when it was recorded by English folk stars such as Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band.

The words are based on a poem by John Bunyan, but it was hidden in the second part of his book, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

His original poem did not become a hymn to sing in churches. Perhaps this was because he refers to a lion, a ‘hobgoblin’ and a ‘foul fiend.’ The words were rewritten by the hymnwriter, Percy Dearmer, who cut out those references, and so it became the hymn we know today in different versions.

John Bunyan’s poem begins:

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather

Percy Dearmer reworded these opening lines:

He who would valiant be
’Gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy
Follow the Master.

The Master, of course, is Christ, and Percy Dearmer also introduces references to the Lord and the Spirit, making this a hymn about the Holy Trinity too.

The original poem, like the book, was written as an allegory and with lyrics that are only metaphorically Christian.

The hymn’s refrain ‘to be a pilgrim’ is now so common in the English language that it is used in the title of many books about pilgrimage.

I remember reading Pilgrim’s Progress when I was about 8. John Bunyan writes simply but with sincerity and spiritual intensity.

In the book, Christian is the young pilgrim who sets out into the dark on his own, on a venture that represents the Christian life. He faces many obstacles, difficulties and moral battles on this pilgrimage that is life.

But he has the example of other Christians to guide him, to keep him on the path, to give him courage.

Saint Paul warns us this morning about the dangers of ‘deceit or impure motives or trickery,’ and instead tells us to have ‘courage in our God’ so that we can ‘declare … the gospel of God in spite of great opposition’ (I Thessalonians 2: 2-3).

Hallowe’en might represent all the dangers and fears we face as adults in life.

But there is good reason to be of good courage. Because the name ‘Hallowe’en’ means the evening before the day of All Hallows, All Saints. The saints are the members of the Church, past and present – and, indeed, future – who provide us with an example of how to live the Christian life, how to be true pilgrims in the life ahead of us, how to live without fear, and how in the midst of all the disasters that may face us to be valiant so that we may follow the Master, who is Christ.

2, Hang all the Law and the Prophets

A statue of Bishop Charles Gore outside Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Long ago, there was a famous English bishop, Charles Gore (1853-1932), who was also one of the great, almost formidable, theologians at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. He was from a well-known Irish family. His brother was born in Dublin Castle, his father was brought up in the Vice-Regal Lodge, which is now Arás an Uachtaráin, and his mother was from Co Kilkenny.

But formidable theologians are also allowed to play pranks on the unsuspecting. And it is told that Charles Gore loved to play a particular prank on his friends and acquaintances when he was a canon of Westminster Abbey.

He would enjoy showing visitors the tomb of one of his collateral ancestors, the 3rd Earl of Kerry, who was descended from the Fitzmaurice family, who were once famous throughout Limerick and North Kerry.

He would point to an inscription that ends with the words, highlighted in black letters and in double quotation marks: ‘hang all the law and the prophets.’

Now that sounds ghoulish, almost like a Hallowe’en prank.

But when you look closer at this monument you would see the words are preceded by ‘... ever studious to fulfil those two great commandments on which he had been taught by his divine Master ...’ ‘…hang all the law and the prophets.’

So let’s see how we can hang all the law and the prophets.

The exercise that follows involves hanging up two inter-linked wire hangers. One carries a card saying, ‘Love God’, the other a card saying, ‘Love one another.’ They are held onto a line by string.

Children are now invited to bring wire hangers to hang from these first two wire hangers. This second group of hangers carry cards with markings such as ‘Remember God’s goodness,’ ‘Don’t make a god of money,’ ‘Tell the truth,’ ‘Listen to Mom and Dad,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Be faithful,’ ‘Don’t rob,’ ‘Don’t tell lies,’ ‘Don’t envy others,’ ‘Don’t be jealous’ …

Then the string holding the first two wire hangers is cut. All the wire hangers fall to the floor.

The Lesson:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22: 37-40).

‘Hang all the law and the prophets’ ... all the wire hangers fall to the floor


Blessed Lord,
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
Help us to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast
the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of all grace,
your Son Jesus Christ fed the hungry
with the bread of his life and the word of his kingdom.
Renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your true and living bread,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This two-part sermon was prepared for the United Group Parish Eucharist (Family Service) in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, on Sunday 28 October 2017.


He who would valiant be

He who would valiant be
’Gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy
Follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound –
His strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might;
Though he with giants fight,
He will make good his right
To be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, thou dost defend
Us with thy Spirit,
We know we at the end,
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away!
I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much...absolutely brilliantly demonstrated. I'll never be able to look at a wire coat hanger again without remembering to love God and my neighbour!