27th May, 2007

Whit Sunday

Sermon Preached by the Rector, Fr Ian Elliott Davies

Lections:
Acts 2: 1-21 the coming of the Spirit
Roms 8: 14-17, Abba, Father
St John 14: 8-17, 25-27, the Spirit will bring to your remembrance.

So I ended my sermon last week by asking some thorny questions about the imagination; how might we today spark hearts and minds and souls, ignite them, how might we provoke, maybe even a cultural shift, so that people can remember, can understand again, can see beauty and truth again, how might we re-train our grammar so we can communicate properly the astonishing fecundity of the gift, of grace, of God, of faith. In an age of mere celebrity how might we be able to retrieve our heroes and our saints, our artists and our discoverers, our intrepid explorers of the spirit, of the imagination, those who live and show the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty? So firstly some words from Henry Vaughan, the seventeenth century Welsh physician and poet;

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
Henry Vaughan

And now some words from the Fourth Gospel set for this Feast of Pentecost, Whitsunday.

But the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Paraclete, the Counselor, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled neither let them be afraid.

Well, imagination is one of the biggest, most pressing problems of our early twenty-first century: or rather, perhaps I should say, the lack of it. I was taught, as I am certain many of you were, to devour books, literature, novels, academic articles, papers and all manner of writings, findings, reports and discoveries with great speed and precision. Speed-reading is one of those dubious contributions to the annals of education in the late nineteenth and for the most part of the twentieth century. You see, even when we do learn to read well, we are encouraged, for no good reason whatsoever, to do so rapidly. This is but the beginning of one of our issues: we need to slow down. But authentic reading should be like Henry Vaughan, it should be like gazing at the stars; if we are ever to get to a place where imagination is going to flourish, if the Spirit is going to speak, he demands that we stop. It should be like staring at a fire: it occasions reflection. It should be like bird-watching: it’s a little bit old-fashioned, needs oodles of love, or the awareness of love, and, most of all, it requires patience- huge patience.

Just over five hundred years ago in Europe there was a very, very similar problem in their contemporary culture. In a busy, bustling, befuddled world, there was then a profound lack of imagination. You see people used to flock to Church, they’d cram in at the doors, there’d be no room left in the transept or down the side aisles- but no one there, except the priests, the clergy and the acolytes had the faintest idea what was happening or going on. These huge congregations, entire populations, crammed into Church would hear odd bits and pieces of the service, in Latin of course and not have the foggiest idea of what was happening or going on, they weren’t even given a chance at imagination. All that they knew was that at certain stages bells would ring and they would look up and see the Blessed Sacrament. No one actually received communion unless it was Easter Day or Christmas Day except the priest. On top of all this, five hundred years ago, there was growing corruption among the clergy, there was laziness among the priests, monks and nuns who were meant to have the care of God’s people, who were meant to foster, nourish and feed the imagination of the people and the Church. So bad did the situation get that priests actually charged people money to say Mass, you could, if you really had the right kind of connections buy an indulgence, the forgiveness of your sins: thus at the end of your life you could go straight to heaven, or at least spend as little time in purgatory as possible. The institution of the Church had sort of turned into a spiritual mafia where it was extremely clear who had the sole monopoly- and to put it politely, hang the imagination.

As you might imagine inevitably with such immoral and gross neglect, there was a growing consensus, not just among ordinary people but also among thinking bishops, thinking clergy, conscientious kings, political leaders, theologians, thinkers of all varieties, philosophers, writers and scientists that something was amiss, that imagination needed to be rekindled and that something should be done, desperately needed to be done- something had to be re-ignited. In Germany a very good and devout man, a monk, priest and professor called Martin Luther asked the question: how might we spark the imagination of people who come to Church, how can we make faith something in which they might participate, how can ordinary people join in? That’s a whole story in itself. But for those of us who are either English speaking or descended from English speaking communities the key figure for us at that time was one of the greatest writers and thinkers of the English language after Mr Shakespeare, Dr Thomas Cranmer- who was the Archbishop of Canterbury at around the same time as all that thinking was going on in Germany. In your pew in front of you (and you can pick it up if you would like to) you can hold in your hands one of his grandchildren.
Just listen to the beauty, the cadence, the perfect symmetry of this

A Collect for Peace

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in
knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service
is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all
assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy
defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through
the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

You see what Luther did for German Archbishop Cranmer did for English- he was grasped by the sudden realization that people, if they were to have their imaginations sparked, if the Spirit was going to be given half a chance to actually inspire people then the people had to have services that they could understand: that was just a quarter of the task though. While Luther simply translated the Latin Mass into German Dr Cranmer took liturgies not just from the old Latin Rites of Salisbury and Llandaff but also he knew Hebrew and Jewish devotions, he knew Greek and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, he even knew liturgies from the Coptic Church the ancient Egyptian Church: as you can imagine for those who were prepared to think, to be inspired, to use their imaginations this was absolutely, mind-blowingly amazing: God the Holy Spirit could be heard again. To quote one of my favourite movies, that liturgical moment and movement was like discovering Moses’ DVD collection: the truth and our real history is far more interesting than the Da Vinci code. Cranmer took Latin, Middle English, Greek, Hebrew, Coptic and he re-understood that the worship of Almighty God could be the most revolutionary, inspiring, imaginative experience that anyone could ever know. The world was changed forever. Let me read you an example on page 57- the Collect for Peace.

All our liturgies and services, all the books that we use today have Dr Cranmer as their grandfather, so influential was that spark, that imagination that it fed back into the Latin Rite; you see history doesn’t just move in one single direction: the truth, the inspiration, the imagination can be found- or should I say finds us, in the most incredible places.

Now this is very difficult for me to explain- mostly because you are loved so much, yes I mean that- God loves you beyond your wildest imagining, actually, while we’re at it I have to tell you that your clergy love you beyond your imagining as well: you need to listen very carefully, you need to pay attention to cadence, you have to watch with unusual alertness, with bird-watching patience: it sometimes helps if someone points: so I’m going to read you a passage from Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek [page 274 and 275]

Please, when you return from receiving the Most Blessed Sacrament of the very Body and Blood of Christ, placed in your very heart and being, when you return to your pew and kneel and pray please just read these words to yourself: they say everything we need to hear today….they say eveything

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we thine unworthy servants
do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
for all thy goodness and loving kindness
to us and to all men.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for thine inestimable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we beseech thee,
give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost,
be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

BCP page 58f The General Thanksgiving

 

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