Sunday, 21 August 2011

Unlocking the Gates to the Garden of Love

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday, 22nd of August, 2011, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Gospel: Matthew 23:13-22

Unlocking the Gates to the Garden of Love

May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity (+) the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It seemed to me that there is a lot of swearing in our Gospel reading this morning.  Now, if I were lecturing at a theological college, I could have a lot of fun with that, but the sort of language I would need to illustrate it would not be appropriate to this holy and beautiful place.  Instead, something else leapt out at me – “You who shut up the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces, neither going in yourselves, nor allowing others to go in who want to”. 

It’s a pretty bracing image, isn’t it?  And maybe some of us recognise in that awful picture of jealousy and small-mindedness, ourselves. It made me think of a poem by William Blake.  Poetry scares me, but this one stuck in my mind many years ago, and here it is:

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ``Thou shalt not'' writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

Sometimes I think I can see Mr Blake’s sad face as he gazes through the railings at something that once was beautiful, and thinks of all his joys and desires that others want to suffocate and hurt.  Of course, the modern mind – perhaps it was ever thus - thinks of sex when it hears about “joys and desires”, but, for a change, something quite different came to my mind.

I was making a funeral visit, preparing the order of service, with the daughter and only child of a lady who had lived into her late nineties and been away with the fairies for most of the last decade.  She was one of those for whom Heaven would not have been a surprise.  Her late husband had been a war hero, literally the man who went down with the ship, having tried his best to send everyone else to safety.  For years after grateful colleagues would knock at her door and offer their thanks that he had saved their lives.  “Of course, I couldn’t let them in”, she used to say, “What would the neighbours think?” 

She and her daughter – the lady I was visiting – were evacuated to Oxford during that war, along with other members of their family, from London.  I heard tales of marvellous family parties, singing round the piano.  And every time, the last song was “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner”.

We got to a sticky bit in the order of service – what music to have at the end?  My friend was quite exhausted by now, and said “Oh, let’s just have what we had at the start, or let the organist do whatever he likes”.  I said, “What about “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner”?”  She said “Oh no, I don’t think that would be appropriate”.  I said “Whyever not?”  “Well, it wouldn’t be allowed”  I straightened up to the full height of my pomposity and said, “I’m taking the service, whatever I allow, is allowed”.  “But I don’t have a recording”.  “I’m a Londoner, I do ….”

At the end of that service at the Crematorium, she led her children and grandchildren singing that happy song, indeed, positively dancing, out of the chapel.  I confess, I joined in.

Just for once, though I was indeed in a black gown, and I was walking my round, I had managed to kick open the door, take “Thou Shalt Not” from the lintel, and dig up the briars.  And it felt marvellous. 

Alas for you, scribes, and Pharisees, and hypocrites, who choose to stand guard over a locked door.  Hear the voice of the Good News which says: Kick it down, replant those sweet flowers, and shed your black gowns, because the garden is meant for Love, and let God show you there is a world of joy and delight that you are missing out on. 

Let God show you.      

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
August 2011

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