Salisbury Cathedral Sermon – Sunday June 29, 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 âThe primary cause of mental illness in this country is neither genetic nor traumatic, but rather it has to do with peopleâs inability to forgive themselves for being imperfect.â..our inability to forgive ourselves for being imperfect!
Yet at the same time we have Jesus in the Gospel urging us to be âperfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.â Here it important to note that the word we translate as âperfectâ can also mean âcompleteâ. 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 âoughtsâ, and âshouldsâ and âmustsâ and ânot good enoughsâ, 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 âIf anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become newâ. 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 âthorn in the fleshâ 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? âMy grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.â In other words the risen Christ says, âNo, 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.â Then, delivered from this preoccupation with his âthornâ and the guilt of his persecuting past, Paul is able to cry out, âBy the Grace of God – not through my own agency- I am what I am.â
This brings me to todayâs gospel which is about the reward or blessing that accrues to those who welcome Christâs disciples, for in so doing they welcome Christ himself and â love the one who sent him.
Last evening I attended a concert at St Martinâs 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. Andrewâs 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 Christâs insistent and unrelenting love and compassion. In Herbertâs case, the pattern of todayâs gospel is reversed and it is Christ who seeks to welcome and embrace him â 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 Loveâs 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 Christâs insistent mercy. Finally Love backs the poet into a corner and the poetâs last defence is to say, âMy dear, then I will serve.â 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 Christâs love.
At this point, Love will have no more of the poetâs preoccupation with his own faults and imperfections: âYou must sit down and stop resisting and taste my meat, my all embracing love.â In exhaustion the poet submits: âSo I did sit and eat.â
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 Christâs wild and unimaginable mercy and compassion, Christâs 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: âIn Godâs 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.â 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 Godâs mercy, Christâs 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 Godâs mercy, because in refusing Godâs 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 âsit and eatâ. Herbertâs 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 âdark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly or inseparably damagedâ and says with gentle fierceness, âenough, enough, enough â 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.â 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 âby the way of nourishment and strength, Thou creepâst 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) Opâning the souls most subtile rooms;â 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 â with great care and patience â opens with the secret key of his love our soulâs âmost subtile roomsâ where we store our guilt and shame, our shouting sins on whispering sins, our thorns and hostilities we direct against ourselves. As Christâs 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 Christâs grace, Christâs 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 â Love, with his âprivie keyâ bids us welcome.
May we indeed sit down and taste Loveâs meat.