Last Sunday after Trinity (B) Evensong
Worcester College, Oxford
Lessons: Ecclesiastes 12; Luke 18: 9-14
That greatest of wordsmiths of the last century, in my estimation, T S Eliot, much loved by Anglican clergy looking for a handy quote, wrote in one of his Four Quartets ‘Burnt Norton’
“Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still.”
One of the things that I imagine we have in common is that we all have to produce a lot of words. I Tweet and blog and write sermons, and articles and welcomes and papers for this that and the other, not learned papers, I hasten to add, but the kind of papers that organisations consume. And whether they make it on to paper or are accessed on one kind of screen or another, the words have to be produced. And they remain powerful.
Today, as you well know, is the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, for this is Crispin’s Day. When I was doing my O level history we had to concentrate on critical things like the repeal of the Corn Laws rather than anything as exciting as that battle and the routing of the French. So like many people my knowledge of that day is drawn from Shakespeare’s retelling of the events in ‘Henry V’.
At ceremonies all over the place this weekend that most famous of speeches, that cannot fail to stir the heart, will be declaimed.
This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be rememberèd; We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile This day shall gentle his condition: And gentlemen in England, now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Oh that I could deliver it like Olivier or Branagh or like Alex Hassel in his final performance this evening at the RSC. But whether I have their gravitas or not, the words have a life of their own, the most amazing power to stir the heart and make you believe them. And Shakespeare, whose 400th anniversary of death we’ll celebrate next year, is a real person to me. I live next to the Globe Theatre and his brother Edmund is buried in the choir in front of my stall and there in the nave is a memorial to the Bard and a window above it, with all the characters and Henry V among them.
The book Ecclesiastes, from which our first lesson was the final Chapter, was probably written two thousand years before Shakespeare was doing his work. The passage we heard is sublime poetry – a meditation on what it means to get old. The speaker is in Hebrew known as the ‘Gatherer’ although in our translations ‘the Preacher’ or ‘the Teacher’ are more common titles. But I like ‘Gatherer’ as here’s someone expert at gathering words, gathering allusions and using them to terrific effect.
Before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.
Of course the verse that makes every undergraduate snigger and nod their head comes towards the very end
Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
But these words, these images, these descriptors are as crisp and real and relevant as when they were written. They haven’t ‘cracked or broken’ as Eliot says words can but like reeds in the wind have bent over time to the eyes of the reader and the ears of the hearer. And that’s the beauty of words that are so inspired.
Jesus was of course a great employer of language, not of the written kind, as far as we know, though that would be a find beyond all finds. But how he spoke then, how he speaks through scriptures now is powerful. It was so powerful that when people heard him they passed on what he’d said until someone like – well let’s call him for the sake of argument ‘Luke’ – wrote it down.
The parable that we heard as the Second Lesson is a memorable one because of the language used and the immediacy of the characters. With just a few words they’re drawn for us – the self important arrogance of the Pharisee, the self knowing humility of the tax collector; the easy ability to compare ourselves favourably alongside others, the rareness of the ability to see ourselves as God sees us. And the beauty of the story is that we’re there, in that space, in the Temple, witnessing what’s going on and seeing ourselves somewhere between the two.
‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Perhaps we feel that the words we use ‘Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish’ – perhaps they become as ephemeral as some of the means of communication that we use today. I suspect Henry V would not have been as effective with a Tweet to his troops even if he did use every one of the 140 characters available to him!
There’s of course a difference between the Gatherer and Eliot, between Luke and Shakespeare and that has to be about what we understand divine inspiration to be but even more than that about that deep inhabiting of word that’s part of our understanding of the divine.
I’m fast approaching my first carol service – we keep that until 1 December but it now looks frighteningly near and you’ll soon be at the end of the term before you know it. And I, in our 36 carol services, will hear the readings again and again. But if I tire of hearing of shepherds and angels and magi I won’t tire of hearing what St John says of God at the end of almost all our services. In the first chapter of his Gospel John writes
And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
The Word for God is not something written on a page, the word is not something heard on the wind, the word is not something received and then quickly forgotten, for God, the word is living, inhabited and the carrier of the divine nature. The Word is God, Jesus is the Living Word, the incarnate Word, the visible, knowable manifestation of the Word that when it was first spoken brought all things into being; Jesus is the Word that sounds throughout the universe sounding in the particular, in history, in time, for time. Jesus is the word that will not crack, will not break, will not slip, slide, perish or decay.
The incarnate Word is written on human hearts and inspires us to make that word known because we know that it’s a word that when spoken gives life, that when heard and received, gives life. It’s a word more powerful than that spoken to troops awaiting to enter a battle, a word that moves us more deeply than any actor’s oration can, it’s a word that makes us desire to live the only life, live for Christ, in the now, in the here, in this present moment.
The Teacher, the Gatherer, ends by saying to his readers
‘The end of the matter; all has been heard.’
Enough has been said; you’ve heard these words. But never allow the words that God speaks to you be like any of the others you hear. Other words may inspire for the moment but when God speaks to you through his incarnate Word he speaks words of eternity. And in whatever words you use follow that sacred teaching
‘find pleasing words, and [write] words of truth plainly’ for this is Crispin’s Day and God is speaking to us.