A Sermon from Sherborne

Love one another

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 6 May 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Dr Murray Dell, who died in 2015, was for some years Vicar of Lyme Regis, and before that Dean of St George’s Cathedral, Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Sadly I met him but the once. A medical doctor as well as a priest, he wrote a number of books which I have read with great personal profit. In one of them, Shadow of the Best, he told the story of a writer, Elizabeth Byrd, who once saw the words of a simple Scottish housewife transform a badly disabled boy into a confident young man.

Elizabeth Byrd was staying with an old friend, Mrs McIntosh, in a stone cottage on a bleak Highland mountain. It was a stormy night in the middle of winter, and suddenly the lights flickered and died. Mrs McIntosh delved for the candles, and while she was lighting them there came a knock at the door. A boy hobbled in. He was about twelve years old, and his legs were badly deformed. “My father tried to call you”, he said, “but your phone is dead. So I came to make sure you are alright.” The wind continued to rise, raving and screaming, but Elizabeth Byrd told the boy how much she enjoyed the high drama of a storm. “So you’re not scared?” the boy asked.

Elizabeth Byrd started to say no, she wasn’t scared, but Mrs McIntosh interrupted. Though obviously afraid of nothing herself, she quickly said what any boy longs to hear. “Of course we were scared, but not anymore. Not now we’ve got a man in the house.”

There was a moment’s silence. Then the boy rose. “I’ll just see that everything’s alright”, he said. And he hobbled out with a little swagger. By her gracious words, inspired by imaginative love and mercifully unrestrained by political correctness, Mrs McIntosh had transformed a handicapped boy into a confident man.

And Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” [John 15.12]. That’s from today’s Gospel, John 15. But he said virtually the same thing two chapters earlier: “I give you a new commandment: love one another; love one another as I have loved you. By your love for one another everyone will know that you are my disciples.” [13.34-35]. I think he meant it.

The vital thing is that, when Jesus told his disciples to love one another, he did not mean that they should love in a vague, generalised sort of way. He meant that they should use their imaginations actively to love and care for one another. Christian love has to be expressed in thoroughly practical, concrete, tangible ways, or else it is not love at all. As Murray Dell wrote, it has to be expressed “in and through things we can touch and see and smell and taste and hear.”

That was something discovered during the Second World War by a leading psychiatrist, D. W. Winnicott. He was one of a group of experts gathered together to discuss the future of the children of war-stricken Europe. He was asked particularly to suggest the appropriate psychological response to the needs of children throughout Europe who had been traumatised by the war. He replied simply, “Give them food.”

An important official quickly interrupted. “No, no. We don’t mean physical things. We mean the right psychological approach.” But Dr Winnicott replied again, “Give them food.” He saw that the giving of food at that particular moment would not only be catering for the physical needs of the children, but for their psychological needs too. Giving food would say more clearly than anything else that the victors in the war cared for the vanquished, the hurt and the hungry. Winnicott saw that unless love expresses itself in tangible, practical, physical ways, it is not love at all.

Isn’t it tragic that in this country we are having to learn that all over again as the scandalous treatment by successive governments of what has been called the “Windrush generation” has been revealed?

I wonder if anyone still reads Willa Cather? I hope so. In her 1927 novel Death comes for the Archbishop, Jean Marie Latour has been sent to New Mexico as a missionary bishop. Strange and wonderful things begin to happen around him, which some attribute to the appearance of a miraculous portrait of the Blessed Virgin. The bishop does not find such a superstitious explanation adequate: “Where there is great love there are always miracles”, he said at length. “The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”’

Jesus, in today’s Gospel, repeats his greatest commandment – to love one another. We are all signed-up to that in theory, or else we would not be here. But translating it into practice is another matter. “To love the world for me’s no chore; my trouble is the man next door.” William Blake wrote long 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.” We need to start in little ways: a word of encouragement, a helping hand, a smile. And if we are at the receiving end of the helping hand, and deep-down resent it, we need to learn how to respond with grace and with humility. Let me leave you with a prayer written for church members many years ago by someone who knew their – our – weaknesses well. I have amended it slightly so that it is up to date, and utterly relevant to us today:

Let me be a little kinder; let me be a little blinder

To the faults of those about me; let me praise a little more.

Let me be, when I am weary, just a little bit more cheery;

Let me serve a little better those whom I am striving for.

Let me be a little braver, when temptation bids me waver;

Let me strive a little harder to be all that I should be.

Let me be a little meeker with the brother who is weaker;

Let me think more of my neighbour and a little less of me.

Let me be a bit more prayerful, let me be a bit more careful

Of my daily love and welcome to the stranger at the door;

Let me be both kind and thoughtful even when I find folk awful:

Help me trust you, Lord, and serve you; help me love you more and more.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 06/05/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne