Farewell Sermon (Eucharist)
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
27 April 2008, 10:30 (Easter 6 (Rogation Sunday))
The writer and critic, Philip Toynbee, kept two remarkable diaries during the last two years of his life. Entitled ‘Part of the Journey’ and ‘End of the Journey’ and published posthumously, they chronicle his insights and inner thoughts of living with cancer as death approached. Sitting in the garden of the hospice at Bartestree near Hereford where he spent the final weeks of his life, he wrote on Rogation Sunday: the Sixth Sunday after Easter. ‘Trees have the power to startle me more and more.’
150 years before, William Blake had written: ‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.’ He speaks of the need for what he calls ‘our doors of perception’ to be cleansed, for ‘unless the eye catch fire/The God within will not be seen.’
In his book ‘The Go-Between God’, John Taylor, a former Bishop of Winchester, has claimed that the chief work of the Holy Spirit is to open our eyes and give us a vision – a way of seeing things, which otherwise we do not have. And he suggests that the Holy Spirit can open our eyes in three particular ways.
First, he can open our eyes to the heart-breaking beauty of the world. Second, he can open our eyes to the brother or sister in Christ, or to the fellow man or woman, or to the point of human need. Third and supremely, he can open our eyes to Christ.
It is these three things I want to explore in the next few minutes. It’s the contrast between simply looking at the surface of things – whether they are natural objects or people - and seeing them as things which stand in the way, and on the other hand perceiving the creation and its creatures as subjects of mystery and wonder, to be treated with tenderness and gentleness.
For here I believe is the real distinction between those who may properly be called religious and those who may not. Being religious has little to do with a taste for churches. It has a great deal to do with a sense of wonder and awe and joy in the face of what is there for all to see: the fact that I am, that I am I and you are you, that a tree is its mysterious self.
It has to do with the fact that we are, each of us – in the words of the psalm – ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, each created with a detailed precision we should find breath-taking, and set in a creation (if only we had eyes to see) of such spectacular profusion, such spendthrift and extravagant richness, such intricate and absurd detail, as to leave us speechless. For example, Ben will tell you that there are 228 separate muscles on the head of a caterpillar!
And so first, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the natural beauty of the world which the psalmist says is ‘full of God’s glory’. Or as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God/It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.’ And Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts what I am trying to say perfectly when she writes: ‘Earth is crammed with heaven/And every bush is fired with God/But only he who sees takes off his shoes/The rest sit round it, plucking blackberries.’
So often it is the artist - the poet, the painter or the musician - who sees the extraordinary nature of the ordinary and enables us to begin to see with new eyes.
Secondly, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to each other. Which reminds me of a story in Mark’s gospel (Mk 8:22-26) of Jesus healing the man born blind. It neatly bridges the world of nature with the world of persons. For the question of seeing is central to the gospels. Jesus came to open the eyes of the blind – not just in the medical sense of that word, but to open our eyes in terms of insight, awareness, true perception.
In Mark’s story Jesus takes the blind man by the hand, puts spittle on his eyes, lays his hands on him, and then asks: ‘Can you see anything?’ ‘I can see people,’ the man replies, ‘they look like trees but they are walking about.’
Trees: not necessarily just green things that stand in the way, for (as Blake said) they can move you to tears of joy, nevertheless things, objects without feelings. So Jesus lays his hands on his eyes again and Mark tells us that he could then see clearly. Now he sees persons as persons.
There is a seeing with the eyes and a seeing with the heart. You can look with your eyes at your neighbour and simply see a walking object or you can see with your heart and see a person made like you in the image of God to be treated as you need to be treated yourself, with tenderness and love.
The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to our neighbour irrespective – and this is the point – of who he or she may be; irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race or culture or creed. You understand that each person is divine as yourself. So Bishop John Taylor writes that if for any reason we refuse really to see another person, we become incapable of sensing the presence of God.
Sensing the presence of God connects me now to the cathedral musicians – and particularly to Roger and the cathedral choirs. Choral music has been my meat day and night for the past six and a half years. It offers all of us, I believe, an important corrective to the notion that worship is all about doing and participation all the time. Choral music within the context of the cathedral’s daily liturgy and worship is what this and every cathedral is primarily here for and does best.
St Augustine wrote that the person who sings, prays twice. In a way, he was right, because when we sing something, the words are given new depth, and they are lifted onto another plane. How many of us, I wonder, have found that, through singing, we have been transported beyond ourselves and caught up into a deeper experience of the presence of God.
There is music which seems to me to express the very essence of the Anglican choral tradition. One such composition is the setting of Psalm 42 by the composer, Herbert Howells. It is an anthem of a seeker after God, of one who lives with questions.
Herbert Howells was deeply affected by the death, in infancy, of his son Michael from spinal meningitis. He was a person of great sensitivity, of spirituality and of faith – but a faith which dealt less in rock- solid certainties than in questions and mysteries. The anthem, he composed, is in E minor, but the first chord, as we shall hear, says it all: this piece is about ambiguity, not certainty.
The opening melody for tenor and bass in unison, with its rich, almost intoxicating harmony in the organ part, and the almost ‘blue note’ effect of the B flat enables us to picture in our mind’s eye the psalmist’s vision of a deer longing for water in the shimmering heat – an image which, in the thought of the psalmist, transfers to the desire of the human soul to see God.
The first setting of the question ‘When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?’ is set for full choir. Here is the universal question that all of us have asked at some time or other. ‘Given my life as it is – where is God in all this?’
The central section with its tortuous treble melody and chromatic shifts again paints a vivid picture: this time of the anguish of the person ‘whose tears are meat, day and night’. One hesitates to read too much into this, but the fact remains that Howells himself had been there. He had experienced the anguish of bereavement and separation – and so the music carries a definite conviction. The emotion is genuine and we cannot fail to be affected by it.
The full choir returns again, this time to play the adversary: those who say daily to the psalmist: ’Where is now thy God?’ A question which Howells does not feel qualified to answer. The tenors and basses enter again with the opening verse, this time with the trebles in counter-point, and we are once again plunged back into the sound world of the opening.
But then comes probably the finest moment of the whole anthem – the heart of the work. Howells’ final setting of the question ‘When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?’ For just four bars, a treble solo joins the other voice parts, and it is, as if it is, my voice (or your voice) which is now added to that of the psalmist and of everyone else.
It is as though the artist has hit upon the great truth that for every human being there is a fundamental longing for God, and through his setting of these words, we are able to say ‘me too’.
‘Like as the hart’ is not just a good setting of the musings of a Hebrew psalmist, but, within the context of today’s farewell, it is an engagement with the human condition as I and you and all of us know it: longing, questions, anguish, taunts, doubts – but in the midst of it all, a realization that God is somewhere there to be asked the questions.
A remarkable musician, and the remarkable musicians here, enable us to own all this for ourselves this morning and, most important of all here in this cathedral church, to own it day by day and Sunday by Sunday within the context of the daily liturgy, where we do appear morning and evening ‘before the presence of God’.
This is the most important and miraculous of the opening of our eyes when the figure of Jesus in history and in the Church, encounters us in and through our questions as the living Christ by bringing us close to the presence of God and to the fragile, transient beauty and wonder of the world of nature and the passing and transient nature of all human relationships.