Leavers' Sermon 2015
KJG Song of Solomon 2:1 I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
2 As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
3 As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
4 He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
5 Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
6 His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.
7 I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.(Sol 2:1-7 KJG)
Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:
9 Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called,
that ye should inherit a blessing.
10 For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile:
11 Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil. (1Pe 3:8-13 KJG)
Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage;
hold fast that which is good; render to no-one evil for evil;
strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak;
help the afflicted; honour all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
And the blessing of God Almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be amongst you, and remain with you always.
Thank you for all your kind wishes, and your prayers;
I am doing OK, chemo and surgery finished, RT tomorrow.
Back in December, before I realized
just how horrible this course of therapy was going to be,
when I thought I could keep working with a bit of help from Huw, I thought it would be fun to preach on 1 Cor 11.15
hair is a woman’s crowning glory.
I soon realized that wasn’t realistic,
and Huw made it easy for me to let go.
He wdnt thank me for saying this, but it is no flattery,
he has made the unbearable bearable.
We all of us owe him a great debt of gratitude.
3 is the number of perfection in Christian number symbolism,
just as 7 is in Jewish number symbolism.
All good Christian sermons come in 3 parts;
and so does cancer treatment.
Chemotherapy = F, strange, unimaginable, terrifying:
it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 1031).
Surgery: radical, fleshly = S, incarnate:
what is born of the flesh is flesh; and what is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 36)
RT, the HS, the one that doesn’t seem to be doing anything because it is neither terrifying nor apparently radical,
and yet it is the strengthener, the purifier,
he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap (Malachi 32).
This parallel is not meant as blasphemy or a joke,
but to say how deep both things go into the nature of our humanity.
It has been a horrible seven months.
Enduring in myself is bad enough; enduring the pain of others, esp my children and husband, that is the worst.
As Mary had to see Jesus’ pain,
so they have stood by helplessly regarding mine.
And I have had to face the dismantling of my earthly being.
My funeral is planned, I am as ready as I can be
for my journey to my long home, if I am soon to be called.
So what is different between me in this state,
nearing the end of a 7-month onslaught of medical interventions, and all of you?
You are younger, most of you, fitter, healthier.
But your humanity is not less fragile than my own.
Life is as fragile as it is precious for all of us.
I have a form of BC which is quite aggressive;
I’ve informed myself about it, and read the statistics,
and been terrified.
But I’ve also been told by the medical professionals,
Huw among them, that statistics can’t really tell me anything about my chances as an individual.
I have to live with being as much in the dark as all of you are about how long we have
to ‘use aright the time that is left to us
here on earth’ as the funeral prayer puts it.
That may seem an incredibly dark way of beginning a sermon
which ought to be up-beat and life-affirming.
But there is nothing ‘life-affirming’ about pretending
that any of us is going to live forever.
When people in the book of Daniel address the Babylonian king
they have to begin with a certain phrase,
as a matter of court protocol.
It’s like the old Trivial Pursuit question,
Q: what did the Queen Mother’s lady-in-waiting have to say to the QM if the Queen rang her on the telephone?
A: Your Majesty, Her Majesty, Your Majesty.
The court officials of Babylon had to begin their words with the phrase ‘O king, live for ever’
– even though they knew perfectly well, king and servant alike,
that wishing it were so cannot make it happen.
Real affirmation of life, real celebration of our earthly existence, cannot be like this:
it has to be about being honest, telling the truth,
facing up to the fleeting nature of our humanity.
CARPE DIEM, as I said in relation to the death of Sam Edwards only a few weeks ago.
What do people do all day when they have cancer?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I have spent a lot of time watching third-rate telly and reading second rate literature.
I have spent almost no time on first-rate stuff;
partly because my brain is not in a state for absorbing top-class material –
chemo affects thought processes as well as bodily systems;
and partly because at a time of intense experience and pressure,
I don’t want to explore imaginary people’s lives and problems
when my own is almost more than I can bear;
I want comfort, familiarity, clarity.
Hence my reliance on the formulaic and repetitive – whether that is knitting, or tending my orchid collection, or watching football, or second-rate books and third rate telly programmes.
Again I mention this not merely as an expression
of what the past year has been for me,
though as we are one Body in Christ
I do mean to share that with you, my fellow-pilgrims.
I share it because what life holds for you when you leave here should be mostly good and beautiful, creative and affirming;
but sometimes it will be painful and distressing,
and it is as well to understand yourself
when you do have pain and grief to endure,
so that you do not become
an additional burden to yourself, within yourself,
on top of what life throws at you from without.
One of the oldest proverbs known to European thought, perhaps the oldest, was inscribed at the temple of Apollo
at Delphi in ancient Greece –
know thyself, γνῶθι σεαυτόν.
True peace of mind comes only with this quality
This is because it is a quality which preserves us
from the destructive effects of other people’s expectations,
of career pressures and financial and health anxieties,
and self-imposed perfectionism.
Back to the third rate telly and second rate books.
Third-rate telly: you may not know that there are two updated versions of Sherlock Holmes current – in UK the best known is Benedict Cumberbatch (which began promisingly but is now almost laughably self-regarding and silly);
the other is translated to NY with a female Watson (Lucy Liu) and the ever-wonderful Johnny Lee Miller in the title role.
Why do I mention this? I tend to find detective stories with join-the-dots plots and cardboard cutout characters very dull;.
Not that I think it compulsory for all tv detectives
to have unhappy marriages and drink problems,
but there has to be a happy medium
between Hercule Poirot and Kurt Wallander.
I prefer stories which at least approximate to messy reality
in their depiction of people.
Anyway, the point of all this rambling is to tell you about a scene in which what really captured my imagination was neither plot nor character
(to take the standard Aristotelian division of parts)
but rather backdrop.
An inscription, out of focus, irrelevant to the plot,
over the doorway into the NY city morgue:
Taceant colloquia. Effugiat risus.
Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae.
This is no place for idle chitchat;
it is no place for laughter.
This is the place where death delights in assisting life.
I found this fascinating and wanted to follow it up.
You young people may find this hard to believe,
but there was a time when you couldn’t freeze a tv programme in real time. I could, and did, and I looked up the quotation.
You can do the same if you want to.
You will find it printed as the introduction to some standard US works on forensic pathology,
and over the door in other mortuaries in the US.
But what concerns us is the sentiment.
Death is never, for Christians, the enemy.
Just as well, since we cannot fight it or escape it.
So why not embrace it instead?
Death delights to assist life.
Of course it’s talking about how to read the signs of death
CSI-style, to help investigation and protect the living.
But there’s a deeper life message in it too,
rather like the wise perception that to enjoy food fully
we must stop eating before satiety kicks in;
that it is contrast which gives clarity to both extremes.
So next we have to combine that perception from 3rd rate telly
with another, from the second-rate literature.
Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are the best kind of second-rate literature;
if you only read one,
and didn’t therefore notice their repetitive, formulaic nature,
you would think you had stumbled on something quite impressive.
Something I read in one of those books over 30 years ago,
and not since, has lodged in my mind and come back to my thinking recently;
from the novel set in Japan, with the garden of death –
not YOLO but YOLT - You Only Live Twice.
All I remember is this: Bond tries to write a haiku
(I suspect this means Fleming does)
but fails, he can’t get the sentiment into 17 syllables –
he can’t ‘kill his darlings’ in the old journalistic phrase
because the idea for him is too precious to submit to the form.
But if it isn’t 17 syllables it isn’t a haiku; if it doesn’t have six hexameter feet it can’t be Virgilian or Homeric epic, like the Virgilian half-lines.
The failed haiku is this:
You only live twice:
once when you are born
and once when you look death in the face.
I have looked death in the face these last six months.
But not I alone.
My children, my husband, my family, my friends,
and students and fellow-Fellows,
Church colleagues and neighbours at home,
you have all looked death in the face alongside me.
That is a lot of people;
and every person in a position like mine faces the same,
has the same outspreading penumbra of concern.
Looking death in the face is what Christian living really means.
In fact you could say, without melodrama,
that the whole of Christian living is a training for dying,
because it is a refusal to pretend that death is not what it is.
Facing death at the age of 50,
after an incredibly rewarding work life
and the bringing up of two children to the age of maturity
is not the same as facing it aged 22 like my nephew does.
But what that honest facing of human finitude does do,
is to force a person to prioritise.
What really matters in life?
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matt. 621)
My treasure is family, and God, and writing and preaching
and teaching and saying mass.
My heart is invested in all these things.
If you are leaving Caius this summer, ask yourself,
what is your heart invested in?
Where is your treasure?
Don’t plan to be happy tomorrow when you have a spouse,
and children, a career and money, a grand house, a fast car.
Just be happy now. Delight in everything that assists life –
being attentive to those around you,
seeing beauty in your environment, and in other people.
As the first letter of Peter says:
Have compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing:
but contrariwise blessing.(1Pe 3:8-9 KJG)
Keep the faith, if you have faith;
and whether you do or not,
never never never compromise your integrity;
not for money, not for a quiet life,
not for fear of scorn or ridicule, not for love or loyalty.
Integrity means wholeness:
anything that chips away at your integrity
will make you a little bit less like you,
until the day comes when the real you has vanished altogether,
and you become not master of your circumstance,
but circumstances’ slave.
I have talked of serious things.
They are not dark or gloomy to me,
but they might seem so to others.
I am not changing the subject for my closing words,
so much as completing the picture.
Life will throw at you all kinds of cynicism and pressure to disengage from our corporate identity as fellow-human beings.
Scripture throws back 1 Peter 3,
a blueprint for the life of integrity, of wholeness:
Curb your speech, save your anger for what deserves it instead of what only needles you; be kind, render to no-one evil for evil; practise goodness.
And long before that, in the OT,
we come back to what underlies everything I have said today, the reason people seek out this house of prayer;
the true meaning of worship:
To love God, and see him in all his works, including death;
that is the truest of all delights;
for under the shadow of his wings we find shelter,
and he keeps us as the apple of an eye.
To set God at the centre, and to seek his will in our daily lives, however short or long those lives may be,
that yields the richest harvest of reward, and delight.
Following Jesus our brother helps us to blossom
into lives lived with integrity,
measured by quality not quantity,
and that is the best gift that we can ever ask:
I sat down under his shadow with great delight,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his banner over me was love.