A Sermon from Sherborne

Vocation and Invitation

A sermon preached at Castleton Church on Sunday 22 January 2017 by The Reverend Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes

Jesus saith unto them, “Come and see.”  [John 1: 39]

It is a magnificently unassuming invitation: three monosyllables, three everyday words of welcome and openness which transformed the lives of Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. No doubt they were drawn by Jesus’ simplicity of style, directness, integrity and clear strength of personality; there was also a depth to him which impelled Andrew to say, “We have found the Messiah.” Just think of it – God, not pavilioned in splendour nor radiant in magnificence, but walking the earth, enjoying its humble blessings!

The other day I came across a poem of great delight, simple in its profundity and its appeal. Immanence, a word which refers to God’s being and remaining with us in the world and our lives, was written by the Christian mystical poet Evelyn Underhill. Her works were widely read and admired in the first half of the 20th century, and some of her books and poetry are still considered classics. Immanence has three verses, which I shall read to you now, interspersed with my somewhat meagre prose.

 

I come in the little things,

Saith the Lord:

Not borne on morning wings

Of majesty, but I have set My Feet

Amidst the delicate and bladed wheat

That springs triumphant in the furrowed sod.

There do I dwell, in weakness and in power;

Not broken or divided, saith our God!

In your strait garden plot I come to flower:

About your porch My Vine

Meek, fruitful, doth entwine;

Waits, at the threshold, Love’s appointed hour.

 

We do not believe, nor does the poet, that God is the wheat, the flower or the vine – that would be pantheism. But He manifests Himself to us in “the little things” of the natural world; and this is most appropriate for Plough Sunday, when the plough and the farmer’s work are blessed, and prayers are said for the fruitfulness of the seed and the earth. Yet the words My Vine have capitals M and V – a veiled reference to Jesus’ saying “I am the true vine”, a powerful metaphor. We shall return, with the poet, to the last line, Waits, at the threshold, Love’s appointed hour, at the very end.

For the moment let us consider what Jesus means by the Vine. “I am the vine, ye are the branches” he says to his disciples after the Last Supper (John 15: 1-5). In case any should think that shows a lack of humility on his part, it is worth remembering that he has just washed their feet, much to Simon Peter’s initial indignation. Jesus replies to Peter’s objection, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me” (John 13: 5-9). The Vine serves and nourishes the branches. Like Peter at that first meeting with Jesus at the start of John’s Gospel, we are invited to “Come and see”, to be a branch of that Vine, that Love, which “waits at the threshold.” And immediately we are reminded of Holman Hunt’s depiction of another I am saying of Jesus, “I am the Light of the World.” There is Jesus standing with a lantern, knocking at the door, which is overgrown with brambles and has no outside handle. It is the door of our own heart, our “hard and wayward heart”, as Evelyn Underhill puts it in her second verse.

 

I come in the little things,

Saith the Lord:

Yea! On the glancing wings

Of eager birds, the softly pattering feet

Of furred and gentle beasts, I come to meet

Your hard and wayward heart. In brown bright eyes

That peep from out the brake, I stand confest.

On every nest

Where feathery Patience is content to brood

And leaves her pleasure for the high emprize

Of motherhood –

There doth My Godhead rest.

 

See how she almost imperceptibly inserts the hard heart into a stanza that is otherwise about how God is revealed to us – if we have eyes to see – in the animals and birds of His creation. It is in these, in the created world, that He comes to meet us; above all in the ordinary yet extraordinary life of Jesus, suggested here by the oblique reference to Mary, the model of patient motherhood.

What is our own part in this? First, let us be reassured by Isaiah’s words in the first reading: “The Lord hath called me from the womb…..and said unto me, ‘Thou art my servant…..in whom I will be glorified’…..Kings shall see and arise…..because of the Lord that is faithful and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee” (Isaiah 49: 1, 3, 7). We are called, from before we were born. As the psalmist says, “For my reins are thine: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb; I will give thanks unto thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” It is God’s call; but it is also our call, our vocation. If we walk towards Him, He will come to meet us, arms open wide. “Come, and see,” He says. And He comes not in majesty and awe but in human form, and in the little things.

As we see from the end of our poem, that is His “Immemorial Plan”  –  to wait for “Love’s appointed hour” when we may invite Him to “Pass the low lintel” of our heart. For He takes the “highway of humility” (wonderful paradox). Here, to finish, is Evelyn Underhill’s third verse.

 

I come in the little things,

Saith the Lord:

My starry wings I do forsake,

Love’s highway of humility to take:

Meekly I fit My stature to your need.

In beggar’s part

About your gates I shall not cease to plead –

As man, to speak with man –

Till by such art

I shall achieve My Immemorial Plan,

Pass the low lintel of the human heart.

The Reverend Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes 22/01/2017
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton