8am Low Mass & 10.30am High Mass
Sermon preached by the Rector, Fr Ian Elliott Davies
Acts 2:14A, 36-41 kerygma
I Peter 1:17-23 born of imperishable seed
St Luke 24: 13-35 Emmaus Road
One of the images and symbols that you will hear about if you attend one of Father Stuart’s rather excellent newcomer introductory evening sessions is the fact that even in the very fabric of the building in which we worship here at St Thomas the Apostle, there is a living moving icon of the life of the Church. Anglican Churches are not museums of ancient fossils, neglected, dying relics of a past age but they are built, a ‘temple of living stones.’ In ages past our forebears laboured long and hard and with vision and foresight and we too have inherited, entered into their labour today. Every part, each and every nook and cranny of this building, has multiple significance and meaning. For example, during this last week an old friend of mine who is a rather famous fashion designer from London visited and I was showing her around our Parish Church. She was deeply moved by the memorial stones that you can see on our walls. Little did she know that almost every morning of the week there are individuals, members of this congregation, who attend the Daily Mass who actually go around the walls, look up at the memorial tablets, touch them with a kiss and say a short prayer for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed whom they commemorate. When I told my friend she was moved to tears and remarked that that is truly a living, breathing witness to the Communion of Saints- our departed loved ones are very much part of the worshipping, praying, living body that is the Church. The ‘therefore-with-angels-and-archangels-and-all-the-company-of-heaven-ness’ of liturgy.
Now we only see the tiniest, little bit of her, the Church Universal, here on earth. The future, the longed for divine presence occasionally breaks into, intersects the here and now of our life. That was part of the problem with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus in this morning’s Gospel reading. They could only see just so much of the reality that was with them- they missed an entire universe of reality because they were caught up in their own, introverted, outdated, understanding. ‘You know, and we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ gives the entire game away.
Father Stuart and I hear all kinds of versions of that today, they can range from the rather innocent-
“you know, and I had hoped that the Rector and the Associate Rector might have been a little bit more High Church/Angloc-Catholic/Evangelical/Tractarian/Pietistic/Calvinist!!,”
to the more insidious- “you know and I had hoped that my gifts would be a little bit more appreciated and gratefully acknowledged for the immense work of magnificence that they are,” which is another way of saying aren’t I wonderful…
or finally to the barely disguised selfishness of-
“you know I had hoped that the Risen Christ would solve all of my problems, answer all my questions, give me all my desires in precisely the way I wanted them, at the very instant that I wanted them.”
However, this breathtakingly exciting passage of St Luke moves from blindness and the inability to see the Living Christ, to rudeness, to stupidity, to bad manners, to incomprehension, to verbal fisticuffs to a very firm rebuke for smallness of faith. You see, to sense the numinous, the divine takes an immense amount of patience, hard work, prayer, meditation, sensitivity, listening, stewardship, waiting, learning, un-learning, humility, gentle enquiring, sitting, listening a great deal more, traveling, giving of oneself and one’s money, creative imagining, awareness, listening again to the sacred, remembering and then starting all that all over again. Today the Church needs to be a poetic Church more than ever. And by ‘poetic Church’ I mean a Church that confidently, respectfully, sensitively uses its human imagination for the sake of sacred discovery, new angles and perspectives from which to glimpse the glory of God and then calls on her many members to use their given gifts to these ends. Her theology [by which I mean her ‘talk of God’] her theology should be inventive, fed by long memory and deep-running, and as it is delivered, unfolded, heard and felt there should be something both startling and deeply familiar- like the Christ who, after a lot of cajoling and upbraiding with the disciples simply sits with them and does the most ordinary, down to earth thing in all the world- he breaks the bread- it’s in that most mundane action that it all suddenly came flooding back to them- like all successful poetry.
A poem by the Nobel Literature laureate Seamus Heaney which tells the story of a vision experienced by an entire Celtic community of monks in their Abbey Church while they are deep in prayer is enlightening: we’re in the Middle Ages, the great vaulting of the ceiling of the Church above our heads is like the vast hull of a ship at sea, we’ve been praying the offices of the Church’s daily rhythm just like our own Daily Mass, it’s rather mundane but the bread and butter of our day, and we’re listening in the words and silences, the pauses and hesitations of the Church’s prayer with our hearts to the pulse of the heart of God, we see high above our heads floating into the rafters a mysterious, unearthly, sacred, holy, heavenly ship with a crew of seraphic figures, angelic sea-farers who man the rigging, bright choirs of angelic hosts who splice the mainsail and keep the vessel afloat the fathomless oceans of God’s love.
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged itself along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life down here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvelous as he had known it.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Lightenings’ in Seeing Things, Faber & Faber, 1991
[quoted and discussed as below by Fr MD Oakley, The Collage of God]
Heaney talking about this astonishing poem says that ‘it is about the way consciousness can be alive to two different and contradictory dimensions of reality’ and still finds ‘a way of negotiating between them.’ The image of the monks in awe at the heavenly vision but helping the ship on its way instead of laying hold of it and making a fossilized relic of it, is one that opens up an understanding of how we, as the Church, might view our approach towards the revelation of God, the presence of the Risen Christ.
The butterfly pinned to the lush, pretty velvet cushion may be gorgeous, even reassuring somehow, but it is dead. To see a butterfly in all its glory and beauty one needs to spend time in the garden- cultivating just the right kind of foliage and vegetation for butterflies to thrive, grow, live and abound. To see the beauty of God, to sense the verdant glory of the human soul and the presence of the Risen Christ walking alongside- we have to listen attentively, patiently and without the boredom into which we so quickly fall- and this is the difficult bit, we can listen with all our heart but if we harbour the tiniest bit of resentment in the community, the tiniest bit of ‘I wish it would all work out in this kind of way’ the smallest omicron of ‘I want to keep it for myself’-flatly put I have to be responsible for all of you in my prayer daily before God-flatly put, you have to be responsible for everyone daily in your prayer before God as well.
… else the seraphic ship will flounder, the Holy Spirit will pass by to seek out those who give of themselves selflessly, utterly, completely, unreservedly and fully.
It won’t come easily to those of us who love the thrill of the busy city or the easily acquired and on-tap entertainment of the quick-fix leisure complex. The Risen Christ will point us to ‘a sacrament of seriousness,’ our stewardship of what we have been given as gift. That gift which is our time, our energies, our money, our building projects, our fellowship, our abilities, our imagination and our love.
Joseph Addison the writer of our offertory hymn this morning has an eye for imagery and you’re meant, with a certain wry humour, to smile when you sing some of his decidedly dramatically eighteenth century lines. That’s one of the beauties of Anglo-Catholic worship, we can smile, perhaps even laugh, at ourselves and not become too fossilized or desiccated.
Now, Anglo-Catholics, such as ourselves, claim to see everything as sacramental- our hymnody, our lections, the way we eat, the way we genuflect, everything from candles to nail varnish and our sense of smell can show us something of eternity; that’s why we have so much incense at the High Mass!
Everything is sacramental, including this holy and sacred building, the very vessel in which we are guided, nourished and inspired and pilgrim with the Risen Christ. So I will leave you one final thought for your prayers and meditation and stewardship in the coming weeks and months. It needs to get bigger. The heart of God is immeasurably large and ours can seem bounded, small and fearful, so- is God calling us to renew our vision, deepen our stewardship, enlarge our giving/this place? To comfort the Chair of the Finance Committee Joseph Addison, author of the hymn we’re about to sing from the New English Hymnal, always with a wry smile on his face wrote:
Thy bounty shall my pains beguile;
The barren wilderness shall smile
With sudden greens and herbage crowned,
And streams shall murmur all around.
Posted by: The Parish