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A Sermon from Sherborne
By the light of the silvery moon
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 7 July 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
Never did I think I would be preaching to you by the light of the silvery moon. But I promise you that I will not croon, or spoon, sing you a tune or cuddle you soon (except my lawful wedded wife, of course) – though if you are under, say, fifty, you won’t have the first idea that I’m quoting from a song sung in a 1953 film by Doris Day and Gordon MacRae. (I hasten to add I was only 2 at the time!).
But here it is, the Moon, on its last day with us. Seven metres in diameter, the illuminated globe uses high-definition NASA imagery of the moon’s surface. It has travelled the world and captivated thousands. Yet even before it arrived, a few visitors to the Abbey were asking why we were allowing a “pagan symbol” to be so prominently displayed. I do despair sometimes, I really do. Such invincible ignorance. In the very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, we read that on the fourth day of creation, God created “lights in the firmament of the heaven”, including “two great lights; the greater light [the sun] to rule the day, and the lesser light [the moon] to rule the night”, “and God saw that it was good”. The moon is God’s creation, just as are the earth, the sun and the stars. As the Psalmist put it, “Yours are the heavens; the earth also is yours; you laid the foundations of the world and all that is in it.” [Ps 89.12]
The Psalmist also sang, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses: What are mortals that you should be mindful of them? Mere human beings that you should seek them out?” [Ps 8.4-5].
I think he must have had an experience like mine, when Sandra and I were on holiday in Morocco. We had booked, as tourists do, to go out into the desert for a “traditional Moroccan meal” under the stars, cooked (we were told) by real nomadic tribesmen (who else?).
I don’t remember much about the meal, but I was transfixed by the huge sky, uncontaminated by urban light pollution. Never had I seen so many shooting stars. Never had the moon seemed so huge. Never had I felt so insignificant. The moon and the stars cut me down to size, as it were. Yet like the Psalmist I realised anew that, small, flawed and insignificant as we are, God loves us – each and every one of us – with total and all-embracing love.
Of course, the Bible is well aware that the credulous will make “gods” of anything – the sun, the moon, or images made of metal, wood or stone. Everything can be abused and misused. The prophets were rightly sarcastic about the idea of a man making an idol and then kneeling down before it and worshipping it. But if instead the craftsman’s art is used to create something beautiful which will point us to God, that is an entirely different matter.
The fact is that the art installation “The Museum of the Moon” in its travels has had the effect of making thousands and thousands of people “consider the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses” – and to be humbled before the Creator. And only when we have been humbled can we discover the astonishing answer the Psalmist gives to his question “What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them?” He sings “You have made them little lower than the angels; you adorn them with glory and honour…. O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your name in all the world!” [8.6, 10]
Humility before the Lord our God is a necessary prerequisite to hearing the call of Christ, to answering it, and to continuing in it. For Christ speaks with a still, small voice, and if we are too full of ourselves and our preoccupations and prejudices, we will simply fail to hear that voice. That’s why, when he was President of the United States of America, Dwight D. Eisenhower would sometimes, on a clear night, take his guests at a private dinner party onto the White House lawns to look up at the sky. He would identify the galaxies they could see, and the principal stars, and quote their distance from the earth. And after a silence he would say to his important, powerful guests, “I guess that cuts us down to size. That puts everything in perspective.”
From Washington DC to Dorset. I love the story of Colonel T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, from the time when he had relinquished all his rank and importance to become an aircraftsman in the RAF, enlisting under the name J. H. Ross. Sometimes, when he was based in Dorset, he would go to tea with Mr and Mrs Thomas Hardy at Max Gate. One day he turned up, in his aircraftsman’s uniform, on the same afternoon as the Mayoress of Dorchester. The Mayoress was affronted. She turned to Mrs Hardy and said in French that, in all her born days, she had never been asked to sit down to tea with a nobody from the ranks.
There was a deep silence. It was broken when T. E. Lawrence said courteously, and in perfect French, “I beg your pardon, Madame, but may I be of any use as your interpreter? Mrs Hardy knows no French.” There followed the very complete collapse of the Mayoress of Dorchester.
In today’s New Testament lesson, Paul writes to the Galatians “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” [Gal. 6.14]. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says “whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” [Luke 10.16]. There are many people today, as there were then, who look with contempt on a little Jewish tent-maker, who wandered about Asia Minor with a strange new message. There are many today, as there were then, who regard a village carpenter from Nazareth as a person of no importance because he happened to work with his hands. But the carpenter’s call and the tentmaker’s message echo down the centuries, and if we have the grace, the courage and the humility to heed them, then we will one day taste Christ’s banquet in his Kingdom – as I was reminded at supper in Morocco, in the desert, by the light of the silvery moon.