A Sermon from Sherborne

Recovering our Joie de Vivre

A sermon for the Feast of Pentecost, preached at the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey (and later at Castleton Church) on 9 June 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods

John Henderson, an unbeliever,

Had lately lost his Joie de Vivre

From reading far too many books.

He went about with gloomy looks;

Despair inhabited his breast

And made the man a perfect pest.

Not so his sister, Mary Lunn,

She had a whacking lot of fun!

Though unbelieving as a beast

She didn’t worry in the least,

But drank as hard as she was able

And sang and danced upon the table;

And when she met her brother Jack

She used to smack him on the back

So smartly as to make him jump,

And cry ‘What-ho! You’ve got the hump!’

A phrase which, more than any other,

Was gall and wormwood to her brother;

For, having an agnostic mind,

He was exceedingly refined.

The Christians, a declining band,

Would point with monitory hand

To Henderson his desperation,

To Mary Lunn her dissipation,

And often mutter, ‘Mark my words!

Something will happen to those birds!’

Which came to pass: for Mary Lunn

Died suddenly, at ninety-one,

Of Psittacosis, not before

Becoming an appalling bore.

While Henderson, I’m glad to state,

Though naturally celibate,

Married an intellectual wife

Who made him lead the Higher life

And wouldn’t give him any wine;

Whereby he fell in a decline,

And, at the time of writing this,

Is suffering from paralysis,

The which, we hear with no surprise,

Will shortly end in his demise.

The moral is (it is indeed!)

You mustn’t monkey with the Creed.            

[Hilaire Belloc, 1932]

I’m not sure that people read much Hilaire Belloc these days, but they did when he published those lines in 1932. Belloc was born a Frenchman but managed successfully to become English, even an English MP, as well as an English poet. But his religion remained unashamedly French, Latin, Mediterranean even: ‘exuberant, belligerent, cheerful, chivalrous, boozy, extravagant, aggressive, colourful, moody, worldly, flowery, over-the-top.’ [Richard Major]

I love the English Church. I love her deeply. But I have to admit that these are qualities and characteristics in which we don’t exactly excel. We have lost the exuberance of our medieval forebears; something of the spirit of Puritanism, un-Anglican though it may be, has got into our bloodstream. Given half a chance we make our religion narrow, dull, censorious, penny-pinching, mean-spirited and oh so deadly respectable. If the apostles were suddenly transported here in a time machine just after the amazing, exhilarating, intoxicating experience of the first Pentecost, we English would be out there tut-tutting away about the evils of drink and hoping they weren’t claiming it on their expenses.

But today is Pentecost, for heaven’s sake, and it’s time, unlike John Henderson an unbeliever, to recover our Joie de Vivre. And we can do it if we can remember, or rediscover, three things:

First, that the Holy Spirit is God in us, and in one another. You sometimes hear the Holy Spirit described as something, someone, essentially exterior and absent, who from time to time visits us, usually in very dramatic or melodramatic ways. But that is not the teaching of the New Testament. In fact the whole teaching of the New Testament about the Spirit is contained in two letters, in the little Greek preposition en, meaning in. Before the resurrection and ascension, Jesus is always described as being with his disciples, alongside the people, and so on. But from Pentecost the preposition changes. It is not with, but in, en. Jesus is in his disciples; his spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, is in his people. The gift of the Holy Spirit means that our deepest reality is a divine reality. The gift of the Holy Spirit is sign, promise, pledge that we are the sons and daughters of God, and that God is in us, and that we can overflow, like champagne in a glass, with His life.

As so often the poets have sensed this, even when they have had no help or encouragement from the Christian orthodoxy of their time. The 19th century American poet Walt Whitman was being more Christian than he knew when he declared:

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,

I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name.

 It is because of Pentecost, because of God in us, that we can echo that.

Then, second, besides filling us with his life, the Holy Spirit fills us with God’s love. And that means we will always want to attend to the needs of the individual, however humble he or she may be. If there is one thing which fills me not with sadness but with rage about today’s Church, it is our horrible tendency to talk about big concepts in CAPITAL LETTERS. I call it GOOD THING THEOLOGY, talking big about the needs of the world or the homeless or refugees or the marginalised and then being totally blind and deaf to them when they are here, among us. “To love the world for me’s no chore; my trouble is the folk next door.”

It’s humbug, and the Holy Spirit is a merciless exposer of humbug. William Blake was full of the Holy Spirit when he wrote 200 years ago:

He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars:

General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer.

The Holy Spirit challenges us today to do good to each other in Minute Particulars. Anything less is not of God.

Then, third, Pentecost reminds us that if God is not only close to us but in us, then we have One to whom we can always speak, provided we are prepared to allow Him to speak in us. As St Theresa put it long ago:

Speak to Him … for He hears. And Spirit with Spirit can meet. Closer is He than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.

And that is exactly what St Augustine discovered when he sought God in place after place and at last, at last, came to find God in himself. Pentecost is God’s gift of himself to us, God in us. As Evelyn Underhill, a great Anglican spiritual writer of the twentieth century put it, we have no need of wings to go to seek God. We have only to place ourselves in solitude, to consider God within us, and not estrange ourselves from so kind a guest. If we speak, we should try to remember that there is one within to whom we may speak. If we listen, we should recollect that we have one to listen to, who speaks more nearly. And we need never be separated from such good company, for there is nothing in this world that is not God. Speak to Him … for He hears. And Spirit with Spirit can meet. Closer is He than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.

And for that, thanks be to God.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 09/06/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne