The above arrangements, though in the Convent Chapel, are not those referred to in the address, below.
Address at Sunday Eucharist, 6th May, 2018, Convent of the Incarnation, Sisters of the Love of God, Oxford.
This morning’s address comes courtesy of Blackburn Rovers Football Club. Yesterday, at the match in Lancashire, opposite where we were sitting, was their Latin motto: Arte et Labore. ‘Gift’, skills given by God, Grace, without which there would be nothing; together with labour are needed; because without disciplined practice and working, those God-given gifts, the seed that God has planted, can be choked because of the world, folly, and laziness: and come to nothing. Fruitfulness requires God to plant the seed, and our active response and participation which allows that seed to grow.
There’s an anecdotal story about a vicar visiting a gardener, and having to listen to all the stories of her hard work over the years. Perhaps through boredom, or wanting to reprimand her lack of faith, he challenges her with the words: “Don’t forget that it is God who is the source of all beauty and fruitfulness: he is the real gardener.” Her response was “All I can say is that you ought to have seen when it was left to him alone!”
The lectionary readings today have in common an acknowledgement of the Christian community’s development in understanding of what to do now that the Lord is raised. Acts explores the practical boundaries between Christian community and the Jewish Church, which values and norms are lasting? It is Peter, so often depicted as the Conservative Jewish-orientated leader of the apostles, who asks the question “Can anyone really withhold baptism” from those in whom Holy spirit is clearly present? This is part of the unfurling agenda in which all foods, peoples, and nations are declared clean. (Acts 10:44-48).
This startling departure redefines Israel’s priestly rôle for all nations. Cultural distinctiveness and identity is seen to have come to fruition, not in a radical departure from the vocation of Israel to be a light to the Gentiles, but in a new fruitfulness and power: this is a victory which we hear of in the second reading, from the first Epistle of John (1 John 5:1-6), a victory of love, bringing obedience and faith to equip all to love God and all His children: ‘this is the victory that conquers the world.’
The Gospel (John 15:9-17), yet again this week, with simple vocabulary drives home a straightforward truth, which is difficult to appropriate. To be fruitful, as we heard last Sunday in the story of the vine and vinedresser, depends upon our abiding in Christ; being in communion with him means being connected to one another, so that we, to adopt a phrase of Sister Anne, might “love our neighbour whatever”.
But despite this being repeated Sunday after Sunday since Easter, as if saying “How many times do I have to tell you this?!”, despite this theological priority and power, it is remaining in the love of the Father for the Son, and being satisfied with the Holy Spirit which is that Love, that is so very difficult.
Again and again we vainly imagine that there are other theological truths which are more significant than this communion, participation, and unity. And the Church’s history is peppered with schism and heresy, which put opinion over communion. God is relationship: he is communion. And yet despite our stubbornness, God has not abandoned us, even when we refuse to see that we are all still part of the same vine which is Christ. He has left us no ‘perfect church’ or single communion which we are to join: he has not abandoned us, in whatever branch of the Church we find ourselves. ‘I call you friends; I choose you; I appoint you to be fruitful’ Jesus says in the gospel. The commandments he gives us are not absolute ends in themselves, but given to equip us to love the Lord, and one another, and remain in that love which is the All-Holy Spirit – as St Seraphim makes clear again and again.
Many problems and disappointments we may feel as we earnestly make our intercessions, how often that which is longed-for does not come, and the end we have asked for remains elusive: we must abide, remain, and continually pray that the deepest level of unity, in the mystery of God himself, be not breached by any of our impatience, folly, inadequacy, or sin.
Abiding, remaining, is not always easy. Far from it. We remember with love and affection sisters of this community who travelled with us for however long, but who found that abiding here was just too hard: not what they thought it would be, or not what they were really for.
And even if we don’t leave, how many times a month do we, in the words of George Herbert, do we strike
the board, and cry
No more! I will abroad! (‘The Pulley’)
It’s very hard to see sometimes what we are all contributing, or able to make a difference, how we might serve, even, when all the opportunities we’d like to take seem hemmed-off. But he has chosen us; loved us; and in his mercy, placed us where we are to serve him, even if, in this life, we can’t see how.
Last week there were moments of God nudging this blind and unobservant priest speaking to you. In the Eucharist on Thursday the words of the Eucharistic prayer “how wonderful the work of your hands O Lord” nearly stopped me in my tracks. The magnitude of the word meant I suddenly found it difficult to just push on. In Sister Claire Louise’s words, I had almost say to him ‘Put me down, Lord: I have to finish this!’ It is a rare but wonderful thing to be surprised by a familiar truth, which comes from beyond ourselves.
But it was last Sunday in particular that I was struck by another extraordinary vision. I so often don’t notice things like flower arrangements, but I was left nearly breathless as I saw one in front of the Lady Chapel, one of the foot of our Lady, and an arrangement at the bottom of the lectern. They opened me up to see what is here every week, and indeed all around me all the time. I sort of understood what their beauty was really about. Floral arrangements at special occasions, (wedding receptions, college “dos” and the like) can be rather showy things, putting on a front. But these arrangements were ‘all around’: someone had placed purple tulips by the altar and by Our Lady, among other flowers with variegated green around the lectern. They were arranged in such a way that made one aware of the space between the flowers. The arrangements made the flowers, the blossom, and the leaves – all beautiful in themselves – into a connected arrangement: a model of communion. And it was this arrangement, which the flowers had not themselves chosen, that showed and enhanced the space, and ordered wonder between them.
God arranges us, unique and beautiful in ourselves, loved ultimately by him, in such a way so as not to be a showy ‘front’, but to make visible his Love: to show the beauty of space in creation: to make visible the invisible God.
That is a sacramental sign to remind us to trust the Lord in his wisdom, who knows what he is about: he who has chosen us, places us is in such a way together that his arrangements are truth, and love, and light for the world. Our mission, therefore, is to remain where he places us: to live really in this present, knowing it won’t always be the mountaintop experiences of religious inspiration, or always receiving gift upon gift, but there will also be the need for labour, for laborious obedience and trust. Arte et labore, as the motto of the newly promoted Championship team Blackburn Rovers tells us: as laborious as it is, as impatient as we can get, abide in this Love: remain in him. That way, we can learn the patience to appreciate that this Arranger knows what he is about: let’s remain where he has placed us – until we are clothed with the power from high.