Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Jeremy Taylor

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Feast of Jeremy Taylor, August 13, 2014

I once heard a priest remark, “We should adopt as our church’s slogan, ‘Come die with us.’ It wouldn’t pack the pews, but it would be the gospel.” “Come die with us.” That wasn’t intended as a flippant commentary on the state of church attendance, but as a lens through which to see what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Today we honor Jeremy Taylor, bishop in the Church of England, theologian, writer, and pastor. Taylor was born in 1613 and died in 1667. He served under William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, and was later appointed chaplain to King Charles I and the Royalist army. Those of you who are up on your British history will know that spelled trouble, for the Puritans overthrew the monarchy in 1649 and executed Charles I. Taylor was imprisoned and later kept under house arrest, where he wrote his most seminal works: Holy Living, and its companion, Holy Dying.

Above all, Taylor was concerned with how we spend our time. Life is short, he wrote, and we must live it intentionally to the glory of God. But let’s hear him in his own words:

We have a great work to do, many enemies to conquer, many evils to prevent, much danger to run through, many difficulties to be mastered, many necessities to serve, and much good to do, many children to provide for, or many friends to support, or many poor to relieve, or many diseases to cure, besides the needs of nature, and of relation, our private and our publick cares, and duties of the world, which necessity and the Providence of God hath adopted into the family of Religion.[1]

I think he might have been something of a workaholic!

But lest we think that Taylor, speaking as a church insider, could never understand the pressures ordinary people feel, consider that he also wrote this:

The life of every man may be so ordered (and indeed must,) that it may be a perpetual serving of God … For God provides the good things of the world to serve the needs of nature, by the labours of the Plowman, the skill and pains of the Artisan, and the dangers and traffick of the Merchant: These men are in their callings the Ministers of Divine providence, and the stewards of the creation, and servants of the great family of God, the World.[2]

So Taylor believed that we all have a God-given vocation. For him, holy living meant an awareness of God’s presence with us at every moment, and a perpetual honoring of that divine presence. From that awareness was born a necessity to be conscious of and to accept our limitations, as Taylor wrote in Holy Dying:

Before a man comes to be wise, he is half dead with gouts and consumptions, with catarrhs and aches, with sore eyes and a worn-out body … He is not to be called a man without a wise and an adorned soul … but by that time his soul is thus furnished, his body is decayed; and then you can hardly reckon him to be alive, when his body is possessed by so many degrees of death.[3]

Jeremy Taylor understood holy living and holy dying to be the same thing. When we suffer, it helps us appreciate the value of life, and to see it as something that belongs only to God, something to which we cannot cling. Christianity begins with baptism, a metaphorical drowning and rising to new life. It is sustained in the Eucharist, in which Christ gives us his very body to take into our own. Our suffering, then, mirrors Christ’s suffering, and all of life and death is held lovingly in God’s hands.

After the Restoration and the crowning of Charles II, Jeremy Taylor was appointed Bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore and the vice-chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin. During his last years, he worked to rebuild churches, to restore the use of the Book of Common Prayer, and to stand in opposition to Puritanism. He was involved in disputes with both Presbyterian and Roman Catholic clergy, thus taking his stand as a representative of the Via Media, the Middle Way that Anglicanism has always striven to encapsulate. He argued, debated and disputed, yes, but he also encouraged religious toleration and freedom of thought. Disagreement did not have to mean hostility.

Above all, Jeremy Taylor counseled people never to be idle, for ultimately, we must account to God for how we choose to spend every moment of our lives. Taylor’s quest for sanctification led him to write beautiful prayers, two of which I’d like to share with you today. The first speaks to the divisions the Reformation had brought upon Europe, especially as represented by the English Civil War.

O most gracious and eternal God and loving Father, who hast poured out thy bowels upon us, and sent the Son of thy love unto us to die for love, and to make us dwell in love, and the eternal comprehensions of thy Divine mercies, O be pleased to inflame my heart with a holy charity towards thee and all the world. Lord, I forgive all that ever have offended me, and beg that both they and I may enter into the possession of thy mercies, and feel a gracious pardon from the same fountain of grace: and do thou forgive me all the acts of scandal whereby I have provoked, or tempted, or lessened, or disturbed any person. Lord, let me never have my portion amongst those that divide the union, and disturb the peace, and break the charities of the church and Christian communion. And though I am fallen into evil times, in which Christendom is divided by the names of an evil division, yet I am in charity with all Christians, with all that love the Lord Jesus and long for his coming; and I would give my life to save the soul of any of my brethren; and I humbly beg of thee that the public calamity of the several societies of the church may not be imputed to my soul to any evil purposes.[4]

The second prayer is a rapturous outpouring of thanksgiving from a man as aware of the suffering of his impending death as he was aware of the joys of a God-given life:

Lord, preserve me in the unity of thy holy church, in the love of God and of my neighbours. Let thy grace enlarge my heart to remember, deeply to resent [feel], faithfully to use, wisely to improve, and humbly to give thanks to thee for all thy favours with which thou hast enriched my soul, and supported my estate, and preserved my person, and rescued me from danger, and invited me to goodness in all the days and periods of my life. Thou hast led me through it with an excellent conduct; and I have gone astray after the manner of men; but my heart is towards thee. O, do unto thy servant as thou usest to do unto those that love thy name; let thy truth comfort me; thy mercy deliver me; thy staff support me; thy grace sanctify my sorrow; and thy goodness pardon all my sins: thy angels guide me with safety in this shadow of death, and thy most Holy Spirit lead me into the land of righteousness, for thy name’s sake, which is so comfortable, and for Jesus Christ’s sake, our dearest Lord and most gracious Saviour. Amen.[5]

Jeremy Taylor knew deep in his soul what the Apostle Paul knew, that “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” Amen.

[1] Jeremy Taylor, “Holy Living” (1650), in Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams (compilers), Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 203.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Thomas K. Carroll, ed., Jeremy Taylor: Selected Works (New York; Paulist Press, 1990), 479.
[4] Carroll, 498.
[5] Carroll, 499.

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