Sermon: Saturday 18 May 2013
Installation of the Dean of Leicester
The Very Revd David Monteith
Genesis 11:1-9 Acts 2:1-8, 12-13
A Cathedral dedicated to St Martin of Tours implies a long heritage back to Celtic Christianity. Elsewhere in this county we find St Egelwin’s in Scalford and places like Nanpantan and Charnwood all betraying Celtic origins. In the 7th century Leicester’s Irish bishop is Diuma. And now you have an Irish Dean! Leicester has been shaped by all sorts of people. We have the European friars and monks who left behind their Abbeys and Priories, we had Romans galore, a Jewish community dating back to medieval times, and so on. This is long before the East African diaspora, or the more recently arrived Somali’s and Eastern Europeans. Leicester is a melting pot of peoples and languages. As one of the more recent arrivals, speaking with a strange accent, I feel at home – standing amongst friends!
The story goes that a teacher returned to her class of little ones after being away on study leave. She had focussed on psychology and was keen to implement what she had learnt. So the first morning back she asked the children if they would stand if they ever felt stupid. At first there was silence and then a long pause. Eventually a little chap stood up. The teacher asked ‘now Jacob do you really feel stupid?’ ‘Agh no miss,’ he said, ‘but I just didn’t want to see you standing there all by yourself’.
It is not good to stand alone. We gather on the eve of Pentecost, the Christian feast of solidarity. 50 days after Easter we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Christian church. Following the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, his bedraggled and isolated friends were waiting in the city when they experienced a noise and a sight which transformed them. The Spirit of God came and the church discovered that it could speak all the languages that made up their cosmopolitan city. This caused amazement and perplexity – both useful vocations for any church then and now.
The new creation, the Church, gained a new sense of solidarity and with that came confidence. This small group risked a new kind of conversation which is full square part of the public discourse – not a holy sect but a communicating community, witnessing and adding savour to their city. This new creation seems to be just as diverse and extraordinary as the first creation pictured in Genesis and Denise Levertov’s poem – ‘the Spirit of God moving across the waters’. So we have many languages and many peoples!
Our first reading from our pre-history tells the story of Babel. People had gathered together rather than scattering across the earth. Rather than many voices, they had reduced to one language. Sectarian and fundamentalist thinking reduces the number of words in a vocabulary. Think about the dangers for our world now that we all speak Google. At Babel this community speaking only one language builds a tower – demonstrating what simple uniformity can do. This tower trophy is destroyed in judgement and God brings more languages into being. The theologian Walter Brueggeman says ‘it is a unity grounded in fear and characterised by coercion. A human unity without the vision of God’s will is likely to be ordered in oppressive conformity. And it will finally be in vain’ (p100 Genesis, Interpretation, JKP, 1982). The 1970s and ’80s in Northern Ireland taught me all anyone ever need to know about such behaviour. A church set in the city which discovered DNA fingerprinting and helped to map the genetic diversity of our populations must live fully aware that neat uniformity is not only naive but an affront to the creative will and work of God. At Pentecost it was such a multi voiced chorus that witnesses claimed they were drunk. When the local newspaper headlines on Monday following Sunday worship says such a thing here, we will have made a start!
But there are two further things in this story which beg notice:
The first is that they struggle to describe their experience. The writer says it was a sound like the rush of a violent wind and that there were divided tongues as of fire. Ordinary language fails as we try to articulate our experience and yearning for God. That’s true for nearly all life’s most important things.
Cathedrals are called to embrace the interface between the spiritual and the secular. This is one of the places where we see the limits of language. Read through the prayers left by our visitors and you see it plainly. Rob Bell has pointed out that just because it is hard to articulate this it doesn’t make it any less real. He writes that:
‘in our modern world many people understand spirit to mean something less real, less tangible, less substantive – something nonphysical, often relegated to the realm of religion. Something that may or may not exist.’
He goes on to contrast that with the biblical witness. There the Spirit is described as:
‘the giant megaphone parked one millimetre from your ear, announcing to you in clearly pronounced unmistakeable sounds that this is real.’
– p108, What we talk about when we talk about God, Collins, 2013
This Cathedral is invited to inhabit this reality as its foremost vocation and to create the kind of space which frees up others to explore this spirituality in countless languages, metaphors, images, experiences and church traditions.
Secondly, we read that ‘each one heard them speaking in their own language’. The Pentecost gift is not only speaking but it is also listening. Without the ability to listen all these languages, all this vivid experience and all the newcomers which became part of the community would have been an impossible and even a painful mess. Hearing of course is more than just the reception of sounds but it is the learning to decipher them and it is establishing a relationship where communication becomes possible. The Spirit is at work in the church and in the world wherever we learn to listen and give permission to talk. This cathedral, especially since news of Richard III broke, has been joyfully and painfully discovering new language and the need for new listening. This is put most clearly by the author Sara Miles, she says of the church at Pentecost:
‘the thing that sucks about being a Christian is that God actually lives and speaks in other people’
– p xvii, Jesus Freak, Sara Miles, Canterbury Press, 2012
The Spirit is inviting us to become a listening project. We start with description, faltering syntax and we struggle patiently to understand. But as we do so, time and time we start to sense a different speech which is in tune with the language of heaven. We hear of love triumphant, justice eternal and mercy attainable. So now Leicester Cathedral is called to hear the stories of this community. We will hear of deprivation because of unemployment and changes to welfare, stories too of scarcity despite wealth’s cushioning, stories of innovative partnerships as we plan to lay King Richard to rest, stories of indignity from the displaced of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq now here as neighbours, stories of desperation to the point of suicide from our farmers endlessly undercut by giant supermarkets, whole faith communities labelled as terrorist threats, political hot heads or sex groomers, and stories of the church itself with new converts, generous volunteers and yet still ill at ease with itself over matters of gender, sexuality and its place in a more secular society.
A church characterised by such speaking and listening will never be tidy or slick resolved neatly through legislation or policy. Rather a Pentecostal church is messy sustained by the Spirit and the possibility that there can be new speaking and listening. At Pentecost our boxes, labels and categories which so often are the reasons for little listening and for far too much speaking are blown apart by God’s breath.
To finish where I started: in one strand of Celtic Christianity God’s Spirit isn’t pictured as a dove but instead as the wild goose who comes and goes unpredictably and whose call is evocative and disruptive. The poet Mary Oliver writes of such geese:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine…
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
Over and over assuring your place in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
Come Holy Spirit, free our speaking, equip our listening and make this Cathedral a living sign of Pentecost. Amen.
© The Very Reverend David Monteith