Sermon preached at the Eucharist, Bristol Cathedral, 26 January 1986 (I believe I remember hearing this one, and being overwhelmed by it; to my mind, it remains one of my father’s best sermons – SJC)
Any place I hang my hat is home. Now, I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I find that to be a most profound theological statement. I see it as expressing in another way, “the kingdom of God is within you.”
If there is any truth in these post-Christmas days, then it must be that Emmanuel, the Eternal Word, is continually being made flesh and dwells among us.
The cribs and Christmas trees were put away weeks ago, and the kings have long departed into their own dreams. Like Francis Thompson suggests in his poem,
“’tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces
that miss the many splendoured thing.”
But I feel that whenever I am most naturally relaxed, whenever my imagination is fired by a great work of art, music or architecture – early spring sunlight on the stones of this great cathedral – or whenever I am with those I love most deeply – at these times the Word is made flesh and dwells among us, and I am in touch with mystery.
On these occasions you both know it and not know it. At these times all you can say is, “I know how it feels, but I cannot put it into words.” It is both exciting and dreadful and dangerous.
If you force yourself to give an explanation or to rationalise it, if you try to dissect what you feel and know, you may very well destroy the precious thing. Pulling the wings off the butterfly robs it of flight and life, and kills the joy you once had in its dance.
Our joy in God and the mystery of our faith often suffers the same fate.
Harry Williams writes:
“to recognise and respect the mystery in all things, to discover thereby that we belong to them as they belong to us, to find our own identity in this experience of intercourse with what is potentially inclusive of all reality, that is to hear the voice of the Eternal Word and to be raised up to fulness of life.”
If I can misquote Eliot, I think that “human kind cannot stand very much fluidity.” Mystery is flexible, the Spirit unpredictable. We are called to drink deep the dangerous elixir of mystery – is this not His Cup? – and to participate fully in what we discover and become.
There comes however a horrible realisation that we are required to become softened and opened and vulnerable. Thus a flexible resilience is quickly exchanged for a brittle impenetrability.
It is really too much. Let’s have instead solidity. Let’s have creeds and conventions. Let us not confront the living reality of God but capitulate. Let’s process and package our faith to make it easier to handle. If we can handle it, we can manipulate it. We can squeeze it out of shape and empty it of content. We can, like Humpty Dumpty, make it mean what we want it to mean.
Let’s make it – God help us – let’s make it respectable and comfortable; like that man in his coffin in his burying suit…
No! If it is to be real it must be alive.
Yet, Jesus knew that human kind cannot stand very much life all at once. So he taught in parables. Little glimpses of the kingdom (and the kingdom, of course, is where things are really real and God dwells in his fulness) – glimpses enough to show that the mystery lies within the ordinary and the familiar.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God
It will flame out like shining from shook foil…”
How sad it is then that commentators, “bleared and smeared with trade”, feel that parables have to be decoded, explained by means of abstracts. Small wonder Jesus became exasperated.
“If you have ears to hear, then hear!”
It has been suggested that the explanation which followed was added by a later hand.
The point of the parable of the Sower would not have been lost on the original hearers. They were concerned with the bread of their lives.
“If today the Christian Churches are unable to nourish men with the bread of life (so that they are looking for it in the East) it is because the church very early sold itself… claiming to be the repository of the truth, reducing everything in heaven and earth to its own dismally parochial boundaries.” (Harry Williams)
Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists each have their own experiences of the Eternal Word which are so similar and so rich, that we stand in danger of murdering the mystery of these experiences by insisting they fit boxes of the same shape and material.
There is no God but God. He is found all about us in what he creates. The bread of life gives life only by being eaten; not by being inspected.
The seeds of God scattered by the hand of the Sower, grow into that life-giving bread.
Each time you come into contact with the bread on the altar, or with the daily bread for which we continually pray, all the scattered pieces of our true selves are being gathered again.
This mystery I think we appreciate best in the love we show each other. The strength of our fellowship is the mark of the restoration of the fragments; the wasted seeds on stony ground or thorny soil.
People need people. In our relationships with others we offer what is perhaps our greatest gift to each other – the gift of healing of these shattered pieces.
Jesus said: “Greater love has no man than he lay down his life for his friends.”
I take that to mean having a willing vulnerability to be open to another’s needs, to be at that person’s disposal, and to share in another’s quest to become whole.
The more I realise this, the more ‘gathered’ I become – sometimes thirty, sometimes sixty, sometimes a hundredfold. I become more real and more whole. I become more open to fellowship with God’s universe; and, being fully at home, I probably shall not even need a hat.