Salisbury Cathedral Sermon - Sunday June 29, 2008

July 24, 2008



One of the great pioneers in the area of mental health in the United States was a man by the name of Karl Menninger. His research and his findings regarding the causes and treatment of mental illness are widely respected. On one occasion Dr Menninger was asked what, in his vast experience, did he consider to be the primary cause of mental illness in the United States. A friend of mine, who was the questioner, reported that the great man paused in thought for what seemed to be a very long time. He then looked up and said “The primary cause of mental illness in this country is neither genetic nor traumatic, but rather it has to do with people’s inability to forgive themselves for being imperfect.”..our inability to forgive ourselves for being imperfect!
Yet at the same time we have Jesus in the Gospel urging us to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here it important to note that the word we translate as “perfect” can also mean “complete”. Instead of being faced therefore with some absolute and fixed notion of perfection which we can never attain, we are caught up in a continuing and dynamic process of becoming, and moving toward a completion of personhood which lies hidden in the mystery of God in whom alone is fullness and completion of being.

Cumbered by myrid ‘oughts’, and ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ and ‘not good enoughs’, many of us live in a world of self-judgement and self-castigation or as a variant reading of a passage in the letter to the Hebrews has it, hostility against ourselves.
The stark language of St Paul in our first reading this morning, which the apostle uses to provoke us into mindfulness and lead us from bondage to freedom and from death to life in Christ, can also lead us back into a preoccupation with out faults and imperfections.


Paul himself was no stranger to this preoccupation. After his conversion and the collapse of his self-constructed piety, he discovers a whole new life and a whole new Paul not of his own making. He cries out “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new”. Yet in the midst of his awareness of being made new he encounters the dark guest who has lived so long within him. He discovers the “thorn in the flesh” which animated so much of his previous piety and his desire to exceed his contemporaries in righteousness, that thorn, that abiding imperfection and source of shame, is still very much with him. He then turns to Christ asking to be delivered from his affliction, whatever it may have been. He prays: Lord, take this burden away and my then sense of being made new will be complete. But what does Christ answer? “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words the risen Christ says, “No, the blot, the blemish, the imperfection stays. It is part of you, it is part of the Paul I dearly love and in whom I now live in the power of the Spirit.” Then, delivered from this preoccupation with his “thorn” and the guilt of his persecuting past, Paul is able to cry out, “By the Grace of God - not through my own agency- I am what I am.”


This brings me to today’s gospel which is about the reward or blessing that accrues to those who welcome Christ’s disciples, for in so doing they welcome Christ himself and – love the one who sent him.


Last evening I attended a concert at St Martin’s church here in Salisbury. The programme included Ralph Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs drawn from the poetry of George Herbert. Four of the songs, calling for a solo voice, were sensitively sung by Rory Waters a member of the Cathedral Choir. As many of you know, Herbert was a 17th Century priest-poet, a self-styled country parson who, with great care and devotion served as Rector of St. Andrew’s Church in nearby Bemerton.


One of the things that drew me to him many years ago was the fact that his poetry, though filled with deep faith, is also the record of an intense struggle. Sometimes the struggle and interior wrestling involved his vocation in as much as his earlier life and the traditions of his family had prepared him for much more than the obscurity of a country parish. At other times the struggle had to do with his inability, or, perhaps, unwillingness to yield his self-judgement and sense of imperfection to Christ’s insistent and unrelenting love and compassion. In Herbert’s case, the pattern of today’s gospel is reversed and it is Christ who seeks to welcome and embrace him – his resistant disciple. This struggle is wonderfully captured in one of Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs, the text of which is a poem entitled Love. Let me now read it, and then let us examine the struggle it describes in relationship to our own lives.


Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.


"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"


"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.


Love in the poem is the risen Christ. And yet the poet draws back from Love’s welcome fixing instead on his guilt and sin. Love perseveres and still the poet resists, invoking his lack of worth and ingratitude. Love presses on and the poet now draws upon shame as a protection against Christ’s insistent mercy. Finally Love backs the poet into a corner and the poet’s last defence is to say, “My dear, then I will serve.” What he is saying is that if he, Herbert, is able to do something of merit which will justify him in his own eyes, he will then consider himself worthy to accept Christ’s love.


At this point, Love will have no more of the poet’s preoccupation with his own faults and imperfections: “You must sit down and stop resisting and taste my meat, my all embracing love.” In exhaustion the poet submits: “So I did sit and eat.”


Herbert is not suggesting here that we deny our sins, our guilts, our besmerchments, our marrings of the life that has been entrusted to us, but rather than cling to them and use them as a wall of defence, we allow Christ’s wild and unimaginable mercy and compassion, Christ’s deathless and liberating love, to confute and overrule our resistance to yield them up.


Julian of Norwich, one of the great women of the church, understood this struggle as well. Writing from her anchorhold at the beginning of the 15th Century she observes: “In God’s sight we do fall, in our sight we do not stand. As I see it, both of these are true, but the deeper insight belongs to the God.” Though a faithful daughter of Mother Church, Julian was not shy about speaking with her own authority: an authority which was fruit of her deep mystical encounters with Love in the person of Christ.


Put succinctly, what she is telling us is that God’s mercy, Christ’s love, trumps our self judgements and preoccupation with our own failings and imperfections. Indeed, we might say that the sin against the Holy Spirit of which Jesus speaks is the Gospel and for which there is no forgiveness, is to refuse God’s mercy, because in refusing God’s mercy we refuse to be forgiven. And so it is that Christ bids us to sit down and taste his meat: the meat of his healing, reconciling and life giving love.


In a few minutes we will give thanks over bread and wine and hear the invitation to “sit and eat”. Herbert’s poem can also be read, in the light of the Eucharist as an invitation to communion with the risen One, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, as he is named in the Book of revelation, who bounds into our lives, into our consciousness, into everything within us that seems “dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly or inseparably damaged” and says with gentle fierceness, “enough, enough, enough – stop chewing on your old sorrows, your old guilts and shame. You must sit down and taste my meat: my body broken and my blood, my love, my life poured out for you.” Are we ready, on these terms, to sit and eat or do we still resist?


If so, Christ has other ways, as Herbert well knew. In another poem entitled The Holy Communion, the Rector of Bemerton addresses Christ observing that “by the way of nourishment and strength, Thou creep’st into my breast; Making thy way my rest, And thy small quantities (the Bread and Wine) my length; Onley thy grace, which with these elements comes, Knoweth the ready way, And hath the privie key, (the secret key) Op’ning the souls most subtile rooms;” what Herbert is describing here is the cumulative effect of the eucharist. Christ under the forms of bread and wine, ordinary food, enters into the depths of our hearts and minds and slowly over time, a life time – with great care and patience – opens with the secret key of his love our soul’s “most subtile rooms” where we store our guilt and shame, our shouting sins on whispering sins, our thorns and hostilities we direct against ourselves. As Christ’s compassion finds its way into the secret rooms within us, and even those places we dare not acknowledge, all is drawn together and caught up into Christ. Our thorns are not necessarily taken away but instead they are transfigured in such a manner that we come to know with the whole bent of our being, our imperfections in full view, that Christ’s grace, Christ’s love, is indeed sufficient and able, beyond all understanding and reasonableness, to embrace and cover all.


And so it is my brothers and sisters, once again, on this day and at this hour, in whatever state you find yourself – Love, with his “privie key” bids us welcome.


May we indeed sit down and taste Love’s meat.


Amen.

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