A Sermon from Sherborne
The importance of verbs
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 22 January 2017 by the Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
The most important words in the Bible are verbs, not nouns. The Bible is less concerned with who someone is than with what that someone is doing. That is true at the very start of the Old Testament, where God is described as creating heaven and earth and sweeping over the surface of the waters, and calling light and darkness into being. And then, in the Gospel reading we heard just now, Jesus calls his disciples with the words ‘Follow me’, and so the verbs continue until his last commission to them: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations’.
Movement, action, is a great Biblical theme. Our God is a God who always goes before his people and expects them – us – to follow him. In the Old Testament he went before the Israelites in the desert as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Judaism was meant to be the very opposite of those other religions of the Near East which claimed that their gods could be localised – in effect trapped – in a particular person, such as a king, or at a particular place, such as a mountain top, or in a particular image, such as a golden calf. The God of the Old Testament could never be pinned down, never possessed, never trapped. Once you begin to say that God is here in a book or there in a statue, then you have lost Him and possess instead an empty idol, and a living faith has become a fossilised religion. And the people of Israel symbolised that great truth even in the huge and magnificent temple in Jerusalem. There in the very heart of the temple they built a little room into which just one priest was allowed on just one day of the year. They called it the Holy of Holies, symbolising for them the holiness of God’s presence – but also that God can never be contained, possessed, hemmed-in. For that most sacred place in Judaism was completely and utterly empty. The ever-present God was already outside, going before his people, calling them on, challenging them to be pilgrims.
And it is exactly the same for us. This very church building, the finest building in Dorset and one of the most glorious churches in the land, only makes sense, only has point and purpose, if we see it as an oasis, an oasis where we can come for refreshment and rest. And the point about an oasis is that you don’t stay long. You don’t build bungalows or start an oasis-dwellers’ association. You rest, you are renewed and strengthened, and then you go on your way. Sherborne Abbey is a tent that just happens to be made out of stone; it is an oasis in the desert; it is here as a place where we may rest, and be refreshed by the love and the grace and the strength of God, and then it kicks us back into the world, to be the world’s light and salt and yeast. It is not for nothing that the last words you will hear in this morning’s Eucharist are the Deacon’s command (command, you note, not request): ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’ Go. And so you must, ‘In the name of Christ. Amen.’
Yet too often we allow our model of the Church, our understanding of it, to become static. Our churches and cathedrals have too often ceased being tents, and have become museums, ancient monuments, in which nothing must ever change. And if the church buildings become fossilised, set in a kind of holy aspic, then so will we, earning afresh Cardinal Newman’s judgement on the Church.
The Church, he said, is rather like a beautiful statue of a horse. The front legs are lifted from the ground ready to leap forward; every muscle of the back legs stands out, throbbing with life. As you look at the horse you expect it leap at any moment. But when you come back in twenty years, it hasn’t moved an inch
It should not be like that. We must not be like that. Let me inflict upon you some doggerel verse which pinpoints the problem but then suggests the answer to it:
Ten little Churchmen went to church when fine,
But it started raining, and then there were nine.
Nine little Churchmen stayed up very late,
One overslept himself, then there were eight.
Eight little Churchmen on the road to heaven:
One joined the tennis club, and then there were seven.
Seven little Churchmen had an outing in the sticks:
One got hooked on travel, and then there were six.
Six little Churchmen kept the place alive.
The Vicar upset one of them, and then there were five.
Five little Churchmen seemed loyal to the core.
One went on the Internet, and then there were four.
Four little Churchmen argued heatedly
Over ceremonial, and then there were three.
Three little Churchmen sang the service through,
Got a hymn they didn’t know, and then there were two.
Two little Churchmen disputed who should run
The next parochial concert, and then there was one.
One faithful Churchman, knowing what to do,
Asked a friend to come to church and then there were two.
Two sincere Churchmen each brought in one more,
So their number doubled, and then there were four.
Four loyal Churchmen simply couldn’t wait
Till they found four others, and then there were eight.
Eight eager Churchmen searching round for souls,
Praying, working, witnessing, drew others in by shoals.
Shoals at every service, cramming every pew:
O God supply this grace and zeal to our Parish, too.
St John Chrysostom put it like this:
When a thorn is fixed in your heel, the whole body feels it and cares for it. The back bends, the thighs contract, the head stoops and the eyes examine. With the greatest care the hands descend and the fingers draw out the thorn. So the whole Church works together.
Verbs, not nouns. ‘Use it or lose it’ is the slogan the newspapers employ to encourage us to wrestle with their crosswords and tackle their sudokus. And we know deep down that they are right. It’s the same with our physical bodies: they must be exercised or muscles will atrophy and joints seize-up. Use it or lose it. And what is true of our minds and our bodies is true too of our souls: use them or lose them. Use them in worship. Use them in prayer. Then use them in the service of Christ. Use them in serving others as Christ did. Take up your cross and follow him. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. In the name of Christ, Amen.