Look back in anguish

Sermon preached at the Eucharist, University College Cardiff Anglican Chaplaincy, 13 June 1975

Long, long ago in the society of geese, they too had their worship and their church-going. Every Sunday they would gather together and the Head Gander would get up to preach. The sermon was roughly the same every week.

“What a glorious end their Maker had prepared for them. They were to use their wings to fly away to distant pastures, for they were only pilgrims on this earth.”

At the end of the service they’d all waddle home, and turn up for the same fare next week. They all grew sleek and fat, until at Christmas time they were killed and eaten – and that was as far as they ever got.

Mind you, during the week they gathered together for the latest gossip. The goose tongues were cackling. Apparently some of the geese looked pale and thin. Apparently they had taken the words of the Head Gander seriously and had tried to use their wings.

“There. Flying’s too risky. It’s obvious that you are not blessed with the grace of God as we are. We grow sleek and fat – and delicious.”

It was into such a goose-like gathering that I waddled as Assistant Head Gander just over five years ago. The message, week by week, in the sermons and services was much the same, the life and activities of the congregation remained largely unaltered; and I won’t say that they grew sleek and fat, rather asleep and flat.

All this was a tremendous frustration.

I emerged from theological college brimful of ideas, charged with the reforming zeal, wielding the sword of the Lord to make radical and lasting changes. At last the CofE was going to change its Auntie BBC image and really become the people of God.

The trouble was such a sword was a dangerous weapon in the hands of an inexperienced user, and I probably did more damage to myself than to the dead wood of the Church.

It is only with hindsight that I can see the guidance of those who were older and more experienced than myself. Often, and not too gently, they curbed my wilder excesses and enthusiasms. Not that always I enjoyed such restraint. Many a time I bit the hands of those who smote me; and it took a long time to realise that I was really just a fledgling gander after all, and that I had to learn to fly myself, rather than merely exhort others to use their wings.

It’s a horrifying thought to preach a sermon and to say to yourself, “yes, and that applies to you as much as it applies to them.”

A priest is a very exposed person; often fighting against the pedestals of expectations upon which others would place him, and the pedestals of prestige and power which he can easily erect for himself. This and other conflicts only made me look back in anguish at the dreamy, womby, soft-walled protection of the university and love of college life – with its curiosities, its gay abandon, its foolishness, but especially its protective environment.

But I can’t go back, and that’s just as well. For I have been baptised with the Baptism of Christ and I must drink of the cup that he drank.

Am I surprised if the cup tastes bitter? Am I surprised when the bread is broken flesh? Am I surprised when the baptism is really a burning and consuming fire?

I am a member of the Body of Christ, and a Body which has the scars and marks of suffering. A Body which carries Christ’s Blood, a Body with Christ’s Cross burned on its forehead.

It is as a member of such a body that I have learnt to rediscover a sense of the importance of the body, our bodies of flesh.

Too much of Christian religion has dwelt upon the welfare of the soul, and the intellectual exercises of the mind, and the rejection of this body of flesh.

Yet to wash another person’s feet, to have my own feet washed, to be hugged in love in the kiss of peace, to be literally supported on the shoulders of a caring community when life, or sin, or troubles have become too much – these are joyful, and painful things which I would not exchange. To hear a fellowship praying for God’s blessing upon me, his priest, is an uncomfortable, humbling yet wonderful experience.

It is these sort of things that I pray and hope and work for earnestly to be experienced, and known, and grown in others; that others may be broken down, and made fools by God, in order to be restored and renewed in the fulness of his service; that others may be willing to run the risk of using the wings which God has given; that the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, that I have known and loved and shared these past five years may be yours, and yours, and yours.


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