Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Sixth Sunday of Easter 2017
Start Date 21st May 2017 11:15am
Description

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner

I wonder if any of you enjoy gardening? Over recent months, here at the Abbey, I’ve taken to tending and nurturing our little garden on the South side of the Chapter House.

In years past when we lived outside London and gardens were a little bigger, my job was to cut down, prune, burn and mow, and generally carry heavy stuff from one place to another.

I’m now beginning to learn more about the gentle and creative side of this work, and of course there’s strong biblical association with both pruning and growing, planting seeds and spiritual growth.

Indeed a growing plant can give a helpful picture of how faithful Christians grow in Christ, and of course Jesus loved using nature and gardening to illustrate his parables.

Its also helpful to be reminded that the one who plants and the one who waters, work together with the same purpose. And both are rewarded for their hard work.

The first few wintery months of this year have already flown past and soon Eastertide will be over, and the Church will settle down to the second half of the liturgical year, to a time of what we might call consolidation.

Apart from occasional festivals, not least the great feasts of Ascension and Pentecost fast approaching, the colour of the vestments will be green, the colour of growth in nature, as well as signifying our need to grow in the things of the Spirit.

We all know that feeding is necessary for continued growth, and of course the Church feeds her children in Word and Sacrament, which between them contain all we need.

So we spend these months between now and the new start in Advent growing and maturing in our Christian faith and life; not necessarily in any dramatic way, but none the less truly and at a deep level within.

The obvious comparison with the world of nature has not escaped Christian writers.  

A famous instance can be found hidden in the depths of history, in an often forgotten old manual of devotion first published in the eighteenth century by Bishop Challoner:

‘The Garden of the Soul. A Manual of Spiritual Exercises and Instructions for Christians who, living in the World, aspire to Devotion’.

This little work combines the functions of a prayer book with instructions and practical advice, and over many years its proved so popular that seven editions were printed in seventeen years, and has been revised and reprinted well into the 20th century. 

The difference between the ‘Garden of the Soul’ and many such books before and after, was that it gave, as it were, the theory as well as the practice: it was a treatise on the spiritual life, as well as a collection of exercises on how actually to live the Christian faith.

Over many years it was used by countless people as their own private prayer book.

Although out of print, its readily available via the internet, for less than the cost of a modern paperback novel.

Literally for centuries the book (and others like it) have been used year after year, the prayers well-known and well-used. Perhaps in this simple fact we find a clue to true growth: faithfulness and a willingness to plod along, not seeking novelty for its own sake much the same way in which we have to live our daily lives.

This ‘steadiness’ in Christian devotion and living may sometimes lose its power and appeal, especially if we are prone to discontent and find it hard to persevere for one reason or another.

But we need constantly to be drawn back to it, if our own growth is not to be erratic or uncontrolled. Any sense of ‘unreality’ we may feel in our spiritual lives reveals that we are seeking much more our own gratification, rather than faithfully pursuing our Christian duties.

All this adds up to the conclusion that such simple, daily faithfulness is not easy.

There is so much to draw us away from it our own circumstances, our highs and lows, our falling away into self-centredness and so on.

The plain fact is that we are called to be God’s servants where and as we are. It is part and parcel of living the lives we have been given.

This ‘ordinariness’ of Christian living is shewn (and achieved) by regular worship at the altar, by daily prayers and Bible reading, by all other appointed means of serving God and others. It may not sound very dramatic, but its the only way.

In recent years there has been a move, personified by what’s called ‘messy church’,

to make worship and devotion match people in the circumstances of life as many live it today.

While its good that people should understand what’s going on, that there should be no love of antiquarianism for its own sake, making the Church a museum rather than the Temple of the Living God, at the same time there is a need for our faith to be grounded firmly on a basis that never changes and which can withstand the buffeting of fashion.

I have come to think that this basis can only really be found in an individual’s strong hold on a conviction of simplicity and faithful daily devotion on which a life can be built and on which it can grow.

And so we come to realise that spiritual growth is a continual turning to Christ. Here we come to understand an astonishing truth, that spiritual growth is really a growth in relationship, a constant deepening of our relationship with Christ. 

We grow through our awareness of Christ’s constant presence. As todays Gospel reminds us, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’.

We grow as our trust in him grows. We grow as our will becomes one with his.

We grow as we repent the many little ruptures in our relationship with him that our sinfulness has caused.

As we approach this second half of the Church’s year, then, we go forward into a time of consolidation in these matters. We settle down to cultivate the garden of our souls, regularly and devotedly tending them, and rejoicing in the fruits of our labours.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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