Jeremiah 28.5-9; Romans 6.12-23; Matthew 10.40-42
The Very Rev'd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark
The Dean's final sermon, preached at the Choral Eucharist on Sunday 2 July 2023.
It has been amazing, people have been so kind and generous. Little gifts keep arriving all the time, first when we celebrated our Civil Partnership – even when we said no gifts please – and now, as retirement fast approaches, even more. So much kindness, wrapped up, presented, given with love - and all very gratefully received.
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favourite things.
Julie Andrews sang those words to the Von Trapp children as the storm raged outside. That variety of things that bring us joy, the gifts that keep on giving.
On Thursday we had an event in the Herb Garden. Local artist Angela Wright has created a shiny nest in the branches of the big London Plane tree that overlooks the approach to London Bridge. The glistening nest sits there in the boughs, asking you the question, ‘What kind of bird would nest here?’ Angela is a weaver, she created the ‘Forty Days’ waterfall of wool that we had as one of our Lent art installations, she wove that river of wool that flowed down the nave when the bells arrived back in the Cathedral following their restoration. She created a hanging in the link for Wool Week and wove twigs and branches into a cocoon in the Herb Garden. Now she has taken golden wire and has woven it into the nest that you can see there.
We applauded her work, and drank her health, and then she gave me this box. Not a brown paper package tied up with string at all, but shiny with this purple bow. I untied it and there inside was this, a little nest to remind me of the big one and two eggs inside. It was a lovely gift, and as with all the gifts I have been given, I will treasure it.
Gifts don’t need to be big or extravagant. In the gospel for today Jesus mentions a glass of water for a prophet as being a true gift. In the harsh sunlight, in the wilderness, in the desert, in those deserted places where the prophets lived, often out of fear for their lives because of the reaction from the powerful people to the truth of what they were saying, a glass, a cup of cold water is the gift of life itself, that deep quenching of the thirst within.
St Paul in writing to the Romans in our Second Reading also speaks of gift.
‘The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
He’s comparing the gifts that the world can give, the gifts that seem to satisfy our cravings and desires but in reality just aren’t up to the job, with the gift that God gives.
‘The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life.’
Death and life are contrasted, just as in the First Reading the prophet Jeremiah contrasts those who prophesy war with the words of the true prophet who speaks only of peace, who looks for the wholeness that God alone gives. Choose life we’re told, choose peace, choose the gift that really will make your life like a watered garden.
The poet George Herbert wrote a poem called ‘The Gifts of God’. These are the first two stanzas.
When God at first made Man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world's riches, which disperséd lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flow'd, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone, of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
The glass of blessings, that cup of cold water, all that we need, all that God knows that we need – strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure – but Herbert says that there is yet more with God, there are more gifts still to be given from that glass of blessings, the yet more to come that’s always true with God.
I looked at the mini nest and I knew that it was a gift that spoke powerfully of this place. The psalmist in Psalm 84 says this
The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young.
This has been for me a place of gifts and blessings and I know that it is for many of you, who are here in person and online, so many people who look to this place as not just a house that they can call home, not just a nest in which they can be brooded into mature and full life, but the safe house, the caring home, the warm and enveloping nest, that this is a house of gifts, a glass of blessings, to mix my metaphors.
Yet the truth is that this is also a prophetic place where we dare to speak of those things that others often find hard, and not just to speak of them but to do them. We speak of inclusive, faithful, radical as the hallmarks of our life and each of these has a prophetic edge – including those who the church finds it hard to include, speaking of faith to those who live with doubt, embracing the radical and finding in it hope. These are the strands of the nest that we have woven, these are the gifts that we give to the wider church, this is the free gift of life that we know in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The sparrows and the swallows find a place in the house of God and so have we, in all our rich and amazing diversity, and in receiving the gifts we are, you are, the gifts of God, to the church and to the world.
Herbert goes on in his poem to say this
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness.
God’s greatest gift to us is the rest that we look to in Christ, but we still hold on to that prophetic restlessness that has made this place the place it is, the nest it is, the home it is. As St Augustine wrote ‘Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you’. We are restless until justice is done, restless until peace comes, restless until love reigns, restless until the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.
But God says to us today, a cup of water is not enough for you. I give you the greatest gift – bread and wine, body and blood, my body, my blood, to be your food, to be your drink, in my house, in this home, in the nest with swallow and sparrow and the whole of creation.
The free gift of God is Jesus, Jesus present here, Jesus sacramentally present, the one who in the wilderness feeds our hunger, quenches our thirst, Jesus who is sheer, beautiful gift placed into our open empty hands, placed in a crib, nailed to a cross, given because God so loved the world.
‘Let us (said he) pour on him all we can’.
We have been gifted with God in this place and you are that gift for which I give thanks and praise.