Sermon preached by Canon Andrew Meynell at the Benefice Service at All Saints’, Cuddesdon on Sunday 4th February 2018.
Readings: Isaiah 57 14-21, Luke 7 1-10
Mary Oliver connects with this beatitude in the little poem:
The Uses of Sorrow
Someone I loved once gave me
A box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
That this too was a gift.
I want to think about what this mourning time is and what sort of comfort or gift we can expect from it. Will we be able, like Mary Oliver, understand that the darkness of mourning can ever be seen as a gift?
It takes time – and it took Mary Oliver years to experience the box full of darkness, before she could see it as a gift or before she could receive comfort from it.
During the Epiphany season, I’ve been wondering about the wise men bringing their gifts to Bethlehem, and have been thinking about what these gifts these three strangers might be for those who mourn and who might be for us In our faith journey through this liminal time and what comfort they might bring.
The periods of mourning are something we all have to experience at some point in our lives: It’s a period of transition. Alan Jamieson a NZ pastor and writer, was a help to me as I wondered: he speaks about it being like a chrysalis: changing from one mode of being into another, letting go of some things and allowing a new form to take its place. It is a liminal time, a threshold into something new. We of course cannot pre-empt what shape that process will take, and how painful it will be.
One thing for sure it will be dark. St John of the Cross calls it the dark night of the soul: and I think that the first of these strangers bringing gifts is darkness itself. Its disorientating, different from ordinary darkness – it’s the darkest of nights and seemingly unending. We don’t know what lies ahead. We can’t locate God or work out what God is doing in our lives or in the world. But this darkness invites us to a new depth of trust in God.
St John of the X’s knew this dark night of the soul from his own experience and he came to love it. His life was marked by real darkness. Not long before John was born his father died. He, his mother and two brothers were forced into the streets moving from place to place in search of work. His mother eventually found space for John in the Institute for disadvantaged children. Eventually he found work in a hospice for people dying from syphilis. At 21 he left the hospice and join the community of Friars, and was trained to be ordained as a priest. Many years later, innocently caught in political battles within the order, he was arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to emotional and physical abuse.
In Toledo he was imprisoned in an old unused toilet cistern in what he described as hour upon hour of interminable blindness. The only light he had was a mid-day ray that poked through a slit, high on the prison wall, which served only to mock him as it passed on, leaving him in 23 more hours of blackness. It was a physical darkness as well as inner one when he felt God withdraw and leave him in his despair. The only sound he could hear was the trickle of a stream deep below him. Both the sound and the darkness invited him to new depths of trust in God and to an acceptance of his own vulnerability and lack of insight. For John this darkness was not impersonal like a difficult situation but someone, a presence leaving an indelible imprint on the human spirit and consequently on his entire life. He was forced to face this darkness and it became his friend. The first stranger.
The second stranger in this time bears the gift of inertia. In this darkness, there is no room for doing, no opportunity for activity. This is a time for hibernation, of being enwrapped in a cocoon, and of learning to simply be. A time where “doing” must cease in favour of learning to “to be in the now” and of realising that simply “being” delights God. We don’t have to do anything — God delights in us. I remind you that this inertia is the stranger whom we must befriend.
This is where other people come in through their words of comfort: Isaiah: ‘I will lead them and repay them with comfort, creating for their mourners the fruit of their lips. Peace, peace, to the far and near, says the lord, and I will heal them’. It seems to me that Isaiah is talking here about listening to what people are telling you with the fruit of their lips – their words of comfort.
We may feel powerless and hurt and holding on to our self pity. We think we should be busy but haven’t the energy. So listen to this person who comes to you as a stranger. Let go, let God, Let be.
The third stranger brings the gift of loss. Before we can move on, there will be much loss — the loss of old ways of living our faith, the loss of our sense of self- identity and role, and the loss of our prized images. With these losses come grief: grief for the loss of a surety and security which we once knew.
Memories can haunt us and we tend to hold onto them looking back, enjoying the memory. But we cant live in a museum. We cannot hold them in aspic. This is hard, emotional work but perhaps in time we will begin to see even this strange time as a gift. it is also necessary. Sooner or later we must stretch those silken threads of our cocoon. We must allow space to be opened up in us – to let the new come.
This is where the centurion comes in. Even though he doesn’t recognise it himself, his new friends the people of Capernaum recognised it. Other people often notice it first… He too was a stranger, being a Roman invader, concerned enough to want to encourage those who lived in the town to live out and develop their faith, in helping them build their synagogue. They knew that what he needed to bring comfort in his hour of darkness, was beyond their powers/expertise, But they know of someone who did know – they Introduce him to Jesus. And of course, Jesus is immediately inclusive and unconditional – He immediately spots that both have been doing the very thing that actually works – through their friendship with each other – and addresses both their needs: the centurion in healing his servant, and the people of Capernaum recognising their kindness. Jesus becomes the channel through which the gift of comfort and healing travels to everyone.
So we ask Christ to help us in our transitional liminal times, to discern to turn our darknesses, our inertia and our losses that we can turn them into friends. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
End with poem by Mary Oliver
Heavy by Mary Oliver
I thought I could not go
any closer to grief
I went closer,
and I did not die.
had his hand in this,
as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter, as the poet said,
was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(Brave even among Lions),
“it’s not the weight you carry
but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
It’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot, and would not
put it down.”
So I went practising.
Have you noticed?
Have you heard
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?
How I linger to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe
also troubled –
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love to which there is no reply?