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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Finding a Voice: a sermon on St Hild's Day

What’s your recurring nightmare? Falling off a cliff? Taking that exam? Having a tooth out?  One of mine is a dream quite common among clergy, apparently, being strangled by my own priestly vestments as I try to get out of them after a service.  Today’s gospel reading reminds me of another of my nightmares. When I hear Jesus’ parables about great feasts, I imagine myself at a party finding that I’m expected to do a ‘turn’.  There are two kinds of people: those who seize the main chance glimpsing celebrity just minutes away; and those who shrink from the awful certainty of public failure, embarrassment and shame. They know how to take the lowest place. We all know which class we belong to.  And even if there is some chance of faking it, you still feel in your heart of hearts that everyone is seeing through you. 

The Venerable Bede wrote about just such a shrinking violet in his History of the English Church and People.  It was late in the 7th century.  He says that when the guests at a feast were asked to entertain the gathering, a lay brother saw the harp coming his way, and got out as fast as he could, fleeing outside to a stable to sleep.  And his worst dream came back to haunt him: someone standing beside him telling him to sing something.  ‘I can’t sing’ he replied, ‘that’s why I left the party and came out here’.  ‘But you shall sing’ persisted his visitant.  ‘What about?’ asked Caedmon. ‘Sing about the creation of all things’.  And this untutored man who had never written or sung a verse in his life broke into the purest song of praise.  Next morning, he was brought to the abbess of the double monastery where there were both women and men.  She saw at once that divine inspiration had taken hold of him.  She had him admitted as a monk, and taught him the scriptures which he turned into verse and, says Bede, through his gift, inspired his hearers ‘to love and do good’ and prepare for the joys of heaven.  We sang about this in Canon Brown’s hymn.

Caedmon was the earliest English Christian poet.  I am telling you about him because of that abbess who recognised his gift: Hild, as the Saxons called her; Hilda in Bede’s Latin.  She was one of the great leaders of the Saxon church in the 7th century, born 1400 years ago next year, a princess called back to Northumbria by St Aidan, admitted to the religious life and associated since then with three places in the North East commemorated on the kneelers executed by our broderers at the Hild altar in this Cathedral. The first is South Shields where the parish church in the town centre plausibly stands on an ancient Saxon place of worship. Next comes Hartlepool where one of the North East’s great churches, the grand gothic pile of St Hilda, stands on the numinous windy headland near the medieval sea wall where a plaque tells you that you are not far from the monastery where she was abbess.

Finally comes Whitby which is properly Yorkshire but for today an honorary part of North East England and definitely Northumbria.  The marvellous abbey ruins on the cliffs above the town stand on the original Saxon site. Here too, Hild was abbess and hosted the Synod of 664 AD at which the Northumbrian church made the difficult choice to follow continental Roman customs for calculating the date of Easter rather than the Irish traditions of Lindisfarne in which she herself had been schooled.  I see her trying to find reconciliation between those two ways of being Christian, for unlike others, she did not abandon England when the decision went against Lindisfarne. 

I love the story of Hild taking in the unknown Caedmon as the midwife of his gift so as to bring it out into the open.  There is always a risk in this, discerning and nurturing what perplexes other people, recognising the work of God in the life of another human being.  In the gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the importance of invitation: it is the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind who should be welcomed to the banquet.  And this is what Hild did for Caedmon, recognising his gift of poetry and song, a gift not only of versification but of interpretation: understanding the ways and works of the Creator and speaking about them. It’s a lovely picture of how human beings grow and flourish when they are, so to speak, brought inside and their gifts and talents are celebrated.

Some of you have recently seen the film Little Voice. Jane Horrocks plays an ultra-timid daughter who is so dominated by her overbearing mother that she can’t speak above a stage-whisper.  She spends her days in her bedroom listening to LPs of songs from the shows: Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey.  And she sings along with them, sings as them, for she can sing – not just hum or whistle but really sing.  One evening Little Voice is overheard by a seedy, dead-end talent scout, Michael Caine, who recognises her gift and realises this is his last big chance for a big prize. So he puts her on the stage.  It’s not a straightforward rags to riches story.  But it is a picture of finding one’s voice, and through it, finding herself. Through Hild, Caedmon, a 7th century Little Voice, found his gift, found his voice, found his God, and found himself.

I see in this a metaphor of Christian ministry.  I don’t mean what the clergy do, but what we all do for one another as the people of God, our companions in the church. Isn’t the task of ministry to try to recognise what God is doing in the world and in those around us, and help make it conscious, articulate, so that they find their God, their voice and their gifts?  That is much harder than baldly stating the truths of Christianity or pressing home moral certainties. As I read the gospels, I find Jesus gong about his work in a way that brings out the possibilities inherent in ordinary men and women, enticing them into responding more fully to the love and grace of God: piping so that people not only listen but dance. It’s suggestive rather than insistent.  It offers people the freedom to say yes, or no, or maybe, or it’s hard, or I wish I could; but this is how to draw out of them the song they alone can sing.  Oscar Wilde said that what makes Jesus a poet is that he makes poets of us all.  Precisely this gift of opening the lips of others to proclaim the words and works of God is how I read Hild’s act in bringing another person to life. 

There are few things more important than to do this for one another.  We can never know how much a little word of encouragement can mean to someone else: ‘thank you’, ‘that touched me’, ‘God spoke to me through what you did for me’.  Words and gestures like these are so often how God gives us the gifts and the strength to carry on serving him as followers of Jesus.  It means being open to other people, responsive to them in their tentativeness and lack of confidence, glimpsing what God is doing and could do through them, as Hild discerned with Caedmon. There are those who have done this for us.  We must do it for others. 
This is how the church is built up as we respond together the to ‘one hope of our calling’.  Who knows whether there is a Caedmon somewhere waiting for us to prompt them, nudge them, encourage them to find their voice, open their mouths and sing?

Durham Cathedral, St Hild’s Day, 17 November 2013
Luke 14.7-14

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