Sermons

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 2 June 2019.

Scripture: Revelation 22: 12-14, 16, 17, 20-21 / Luke 24: 44-53

Text: Come, and let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift      (Revelation 22: 17)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

Shortly before his death in 1633 at the age of 39, George Herbert sent a collection of his poems to one of his friends, a man called Nicholas Ferrar.

Along with the poems came a note that if Ferrar thought any of Herbert’s poems might bring comfort or hope, or be to the advantage of any poor dejected soul, then he was welcome to make them public. 

On the other hand if Ferrar didn’t consider them worth much the poems should be burned.

Thankfully Ferrar didn’t go anywhere near his fireplace. 

Born into a wealthy and artistic Welsh family, April 1593, educated at Westminster College and then Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1620 George Herbert was appointed to the position of orator of the university.

A prestigious position, Herbert described it as the finest place in the university, and with his two predecessors going on to attain high public office in the court of King James VI and I, Herbert appeared destined for great things.

Evidently God had other plans because having sought ordination with the Church of England, in 1630 George Herbert was ordained and appointed rector of St Andrews parish church in the village of Lower Bernerton near Salisbury.

For the next three years, until his death from consumption, Herbert devoted his life to preaching and celebrating the sacraments, visiting those who were sick and providing food and clothes for those in need.

He also wrote poetry, poetry inspired by his work as a priest, poetry which reflected his many pastoral experiences and poetry which explored his sometimes difficult spiritual journey.

Perhaps you noticed this morning’s opening hymn was one of Herbert’s poems[1]

Herbert described his poems as a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul and reading his poetry, one of the themes which emerges is a man of strong but questioning faith, a man who thought deeply about his own life experience and those of his parishioners, and who came to see above all the joys and sorrows of human life, above all the cares, concerns, questions and doubts, God was always there, always present, always welcoming, forgiving, accepting.

And nowhere did Herbert find God’s presence, welcome, forgiveness and acceptance more evident than at the Lord’s table.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, 

Guiltie of dust and sinne. 

But quick-y’d Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, 

If I lacked any thing

The gospels reveal throughout the events of the first Easter the disciples did not cover themselves in glory.

You will recall it was at Caesarea Philippi Jesus first told them he was going to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die before being raised on the third day[2]

The disciples were dismayed and Peter in particular was adamant no such thing would be allowed to happen.

Yet it did happen; it happened exactly as Jesus told them it would happen, and while Judas betrayed him with a kiss and Peter denied knowing him, the others fled into hiding.

However unflattering, there is a raw honesty to the Easter gospel – and there is a raw honesty to the opening lines of Herbert’s poem.

Love has made him welcome and yet the poet has drawn back, conflicted and convicted by a sense of his own unworthiness.

Perhaps the poet’s conflicts and his raw sense of unworthiness resonates with you.

If it does then let me remind you Love’s invitation to sit at his table is not for the saints of this world, the people who live perfect lives, enjoy perfect marriages, friendships and relationships, live in the perfect house and have the perfect figure and the perfect lifestyle.

Rather it is for those people who like the poet recognise, acknowledge and are willing to admit our weakness, our faults and failings, the mistakes and regrets in life which often haunt and keep us awake at night – and who come this morning looking to God in Christ for forgiveness, the opportunity to make amends and the chance to start again.

Having denied knowing Jesus three times in the courtyard of the high priest, do you imagine Peter felt proud of himself when the cock crowed and looking Jesus in the eye, Peter realised what he had done?

If the story had ended at that point, Peter’s burden of shame and guilt would have been overwhelming.

But the story didn’t end at that point for as the Easter gospel unfolds, Peter meets the risen Christ on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and three times Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to declare his love.

The profound insight of Christian faith is the story of life and of humanity that never ends in what the poet describes as the guilt of dust and sinne.

Rather the events of Calvary and the dawning of an empty tomb lead to a very different outcome.

A guest, I answer’d worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

It is sometimes said if an offer sounds too good to be true then it probably is………. well, isn’t there something of that in the poet’s response?

Acknowledging he is not worthy to be there because he is so unkind and ungrateful, the poet cannot even look Love in the eye.

Can you?

Sunday by Sunday as we gather to worship, overlooking our sanctuary is the stain glassed image of Christ the shepherd, a lamb draped over his shoulders.

And behind the image lies the story of the lost sheep and the good shepherd who is not satisfied when all but one of his flock are safely penned up for the night but who goes looking and will not rest until the missing lamb is found.

Lost sheep?

There are many voices which come to us from every side and hold up fantasies about what life should be like and what we should be like.

Today’s culture of celebrity and entertainment can often delude people to aspire to something quite unattainable – the perfect whatever - and for all its wonderful advantages, the pressure which comes through social media sites, for women more than men, and for young people in particular, can be undermining and sometimes overwhelming.

The Christian culture of love could not be more different.

Love is the father who goes running to meet his returning son.

Love is the healer who feels a woman tug his cloak.

Love is the One who hears the cry of the blind Bartimaeus above the noise of the crowd and who notices Jericho’s little tax collector Zacchaeus hiding up a tree.

In other words, the love that is God in Christ comes looking, refuses to turn away or walk away, reaches out, accepting, welcoming, healing, forgiving…………. and smiling, takes the poet by the hand and makes a little joke; you can’t look at me ………who made the eyes but I?

St Luke tells us of the moment the risen Jesus finally took his leave of the disciples.

It is the moment of parting we call the Ascension, the moment when the Jesus of earth finally becomes the Christ of heaven.

And what I want you to notice is the same disciples who doubtless couldn’t bring themselves to look Jesus in the eye, now hear Jesus telling them to be witnesses to all they have seen and heard.

Here is the heart of the gospel, the life transforming insight that far from finding something to hate about us, God finds plenty about us to love – and asks us all to enjoy and to share that love.

When George Herbert sent his collection of poems to his friend Nicholas Farrer he was careful as to the order in which he placed them.

Herbert placed this poem right at the end – and at the very end of the Bible comes the invitation to all who thirst.

And the message I think is clear; in all the challenges and opportunities, in all the joys and sorrows, in all the successes and failures of human life and experience, Love has the final word, God’s love in Christ.

So listen as the poem reaches its climax for above all the unhealthy, undermining, life-denying voices of the world, there is one voice and one voice only worth listening to, the voice of Love who invites us to his table

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 deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat

Risen, ascended Lord, as we rejoice at your triumph, fill your Church on earth with power and compassion, that all who are estranged by sin may find forgiveness and know your peace, to the glory of God the Father. Amen

 

[1] CH4 122, Let all the world in every corner sing.

[2] Matthew 16 vv21ff