Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 28 September 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Whenever I think of angels I am reminded of my first assistant priest in Sydney, Fr Gordon Holroyd, who was a monk in his late middle age. He had stayed on as assistant priest after standing in as acting Rector at Christ Church St Laurence in the vacancy before I came. Oddly, I already knew him: when I was training for the priesthood at St Stephen’s House in Oxford he had been our spiritual director.
Fr Gordon was everyone’s mental image of Friar Tuck, with the addition of enormous NHS spectacles which magnified his eyes to double size and a stomach which needed no magnification. He had a large collection of pub glasses bearing the legend ‘Gordon’s Gin’. He was a priest of the Society of the Sacred Mission, trained in Kelham, the order’s theological college, and had spent his life travelling the world in various tasks for SSM. A slow-speaking but quick-witted Yorkshireman, Gordon’s sermons invariably began ‘let me tell you a story’. Disconcertingly, the story was often the same one you’d heard last time, allegedly adapted to the day’s Gospel.
Three stand out in my memory. There was one which I’m sure you will have heard before – but then we heard it several times so you’ll cope: it is the story of a Yorkshire monumental mason, asked by a grieving husband to carve on his deceased wife’s headstone the legend ‘She were thine’. Inspecting the finished work the widower sees the words ‘She were thin’ and indignantly says to the mason, ‘you’ve left off the ‘e’, Returning the following week he is presented with a headstone which reads ‘Eee, she were thin!’ I have no idea what that was supposed to illustrate.
The second, equally adaptable, was, Gordon felt, sufficiently risqué to run past me before preaching it at midnight Mass in 1996 (tho’ it also, inevitably, resurfaced later). It’s a story which, again, you may know, about Mae West. Mae West invites a journalist to ‘come up and see her’, not ‘some time’, but on a specific occasion. On entering the room the journalist’s gaze is locked on a rope of pearls on which you could hang a suspension bridge. He exclaims ‘My goodness, Miss West, what wonderful pearls’; Mae West replies, ‘My goodness had nothing to do with it.’ That was, of course, an apt parable of the incarnation for us.
And then there was a story, told against himself, from his time as a novice monk. The Society of the Sacred Mission, you may know, is under the patronage of the Holy Angels and its great Feast is Michaelmas. Ordinands, brothers and priests often claimed to have seen angels. On this particular night during his novitiate Gordon was washing up after the evening meal in the refectory and an elderly priest shambled up to him and said, ‘Brother Gordon, there’s an angel at the front door’.
Gordon duly dropped the dish he was washing and ran to the front door of the monastery. There he found a filthy and ungracious tramp whom he duly fed and watered as was the custom of the house. He then returned, less than pleased at the prank played on him, to the dishes. On the way he met the elderly priest. ‘You have deceived me’, he cried, ‘you said there was an angel at the door.’ To which the old priest replied ‘Hebrews 13.2’, which is of course,
Do not neglect to show hospitality, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it’
That, of course, is in turn a reference to what happened to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, the source of that famous icon of the Trinity, by Rublev, where God is represented as three angels in perfect harmony sharing the feast which Abraham and Sarah have provided. Angels are one way in which people describe an encounter with God. So that story is not only about receiving strangers, but also about the hospitable relationship of the Trinity itself, of how God’s love is something we can share and do something about, not an abstract idea. Actual hospitality, welcoming and feeding people, was a sign of religious virtue in the Ancient Near East, where an unexpected guest was often seen as a messenger of the divine. The entire Bible – Old and New Testaments – extols in countless ways the virtue of hospitality. In the guest that we welcome it is always, in some way, God who visits us, God who, through the guest, may bring us a message. And that is what angels are all about.
The gospels tell us that at various times Jesus explicitly and solemnly declared that it is he himself that we receive in the weak, the poor, the afflicted as well as in his more apostolic messengers. We will be judged according to what we have done or failed to do with respect to those who need our welcome and assistance. We can exclude no one, since the neighbour is a gift, not a choice: the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that, in answer to the question who is my neighbour? meaning, to whom do I owe love? And the key to that story is that we can be anywhere in it – the religious people who walk past on the other side, the good Samaritan himself, or the man who has been beaten up and left for dead.
Fr Gordon Holroyd, by the time I knew him in Sydney, had shed many of his youthful enthusiasms for the religious life and the technical rights and wrongs of how to perform the Christian faith; he was quite sure that God could get along without us keeping his church safe from the alleged threat of the moment. In place of all that neurosis he offered ‘Let me tell you a story’ as a gentle way in to making you feel comfortable and at home with the gospel. If you already knew the story it didn’t matter; you’d enjoy the sonorous Yorkshireman’s retelling of it. You’d maybe even join in the punchline. Because you felt at home.
Gordon drove many people mad. I don’t exaggerate. He could lose a vital piece of paper, forget a date, double-book a service and run into your car all in one afternoon. Then he’d smile and say how sorry he was and tell you he’d do better next time, and by the way, he was cooking that evening and wouldn’t you like a gin (Gordon’s, of course) while he got on with it. If people went to him with a problem, small or great, he’d give them a big hug and tell them it would get better if they’d just have a gin while he cooked them a vast and rather wonderful meal. And while he did that, could he just tell you a story….
Gordon never set the ecclesiastical world on fire. He bumbled his way lovingly through a number of parishes and posts, here and in Australia, often seeming to snatch disaster from the jaws of success. He ended rather uncomfortably: a botched operation left him debilitated and a few years later he died, still only in his late sixties, in a nursing home in Scarborough, having had a final ministry as an assistant priest in Harrogate. At his wonderful Requiem Mass in St Wilfrid’s Harrogate, much was said about his stories and his legendary hospitality. I don’t know if he knew it, but he was certainly angelic, in God’s telling of the world.
Gordon wasn’t a big success, even in church terms, but he understood that generosity is at the heart of the Gospel. Whenever I am irritated by someone using the scriptures to be narrow, exclusive or condemnatory, I am reminded of him reading the second lesson at evening prayer one hot Sydney afternoon, from Matthew 22. It is the story of those tiresome Sadducees trying to catch Jesus out: they are the equivalent of those who will tell you that orthodox Christianity condemns this and requires that, and if we deviate from the party line, we are lost and damned. This particular political and doctrinal trap was about the resurrection (in which they didn’t believe). They sought to catch Jesus out with a silly hypothetical question about a woman who has been married by seven brothers in turn, according to the Jewish law, as each has died. If there is a resurrection, whose wife will she be?
Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. You are completely wrong’
Gordon banged the Bible shut and said emphatically, ‘that’s the best verse in the bible!’ And that was an angelic moment too!