Winchester Festival Evensong sermon

July 8, 2018

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Preached by Canon Dr Anthony Cane using Deuteronomy 24.10-end and Acts 28.1-16 at  Winchester Festival Evensong on Sunday 8th July, the Sixth Sunday after Trinity.

 One of the pleasures of the football World Cup, alongside the unexpected one of English success, is the chance to watch the supporters, in all their colourful cultural diversity.  I especially enjoyed the Japanese fans who cleaned the stadium after their matches were over, going along the seats, putting rubbish into bags they’d brought along for the purpose.  Having been to Japan this year to visit my youngest son, this seemed entirely in character with the nation I encountered.

As my son is on a year-long placement with a Japanese multi-national, and our trip included a tour of their headquarters, I thought I had better find out about Japanese corporate culture.  I learnt, to give but one example, that the exchange of business cards has great significance and a precise etiquette.  Such cards must be treated with the utmost respect, as an extension of the other person.  They must therefore be both given and received with both hands.

Learning this led to further reflection on what we do with one hand, and what with two.  Supermarket shopping, in the context of such reflection, is both a practical example and a metaphor for contemporary living.   Whether we do this digitally or physically, one hand on the trolley or smartphone, we can easily scan a myriad consumer possibilities, tossing our choices into a virtual or physical trolley on the way to the checkout.

There are some things, however, we wouldn’t dream of doing with one hand.  Holding a new born baby.  Receiving a precious gift, or cooking a meal for friends.  Making or playing a musical instrument.  Indeed the Winchester Festival might be seen as dedicated to the art of doing things with both hands, and in an increasingly multi-tasking culture that is a great and important thing.  And in this the Festival is an ally of the vision of God, of which we heard in our readings this evening: in Deuteronomy, that the importance of people must not be forgotten as the farmer seeks to extract the maximum profit from the crop; and then in the Acts of the Apostles, of how an elderly sick man receives Paul’s full concentration and attention: he prays with him and lays his hands on him.   Note the plural, this is a two handed activity.

The great north African bishop , Augustine  of Hippo, distinguished two kinds of thing – those we use, and those we enjoy.  Things we use are a means to an end, and serve a limited purpose.  Things we enjoy are not useful in this way, but a joy in themselves.

I suggest to you that what we grasp or take or juggle in one hand, is what we use, and what we yearn for and treasure and shape our whole posture to receive and cherish is what we enjoy. What we use only requires one hand: we can use a number of things at the same time. But to enjoy something, or someone, for people are to be enjoyed rather than used, we really need both hands, because it takes all our concentration. That’s one of the ways we know something is a work of art: for while art can be used and bought and sold, it is fundamentally a gift to be enjoyed.

For Augustine, the art of living well involves discerning whether or not our priorities focus on what is worthy of our enjoyment.   He gives the example of exiles returning home, who become so captivated by pleasures of the journey that they lose their focus on why they set out in the first place.  If he were writing today it would be interesting to hear Augustine on the seductiveness of the iPhone; so much human inventiveness and skill dedicated to turning something useful, into an item to be contemplated for its own sake.  And for those of you who are technologically averse and tempted to feel a little smug at this point, Augustine’s point is that all of us will have things in our lives to which we give disproportionate importance.

A little more about what it means to enjoy and to use.   Many artists and creatives, as I’ve discovered in conversation over the years, come across people who think they’re wasting their life in the arts, when they should really be getting on with something more useful.  And they feel the pressure to become the sort of person who is always busy, and full of activity, and hard to pin down.  But the gift of the artist, and of artistic creation, cannot be limited to what is practically or economically useful.   What price can be put on something that revives the soul, and inspires us to enjoy, and enables us to delight in the richness of being alive?

Imagine you have attended Winchester Camarata’s concert this evening, with Laura Rickard on violin, and a person says to you on her way out, ‘My late husband gave me a violin fifty years ago today.’  You could respond along the lines of, ‘Well I never,’ and head off home or to the pub.  But what if instead you said ‘Do you still play?’, ‘Did you play together?’, ‘Have you ever been able to love again?’   That is a conversation to be enjoyed in the way that art and faith encourage. Not to help people to use.  There are instruction booklets, helplines and online videos to do that.  But rather to bring together people who are longing to enjoy, and be enjoyed, both hands engaged.

Creating or relating or praying or performing with both hands takes time – because what you receive with both hands takes longer to assimilate than what you seize with one.  And it takes gentleness – because treasuring an antiquarian book, or a person, or a place, with both hands, rather than grabbing them with one, means cherishing them, tenderly noticing their details, carefully attending to them, and rejoicing in them.

In this sermon I’ve been seeking to draw out something of the significance of the arts, and where that significance connects with the life of faith.   Lewis Hyde’s brilliant book The Gift has received high praise from both artists and spiritual communities, and illuminates the connections.  Its subtitle is ‘how the creative spirit transforms the world’ and it articulates why artistic gifts operate according to different rules to the market economy.  For the creative spirit is not fundamentally about acquiring, but about donation and giving.  This doesn’t mean money cannot be made from creative skills:  but there’s nothing in the creative act that will automatically make it pay, and the value of art, music and drama can never be defined solely by what someone is prepared to pay for it.  The same goes for what happens here in Winchester Cathedral, for although it has  bills that need to be paid, it’s life and work ultimately rest on what God has given, not least in the enjoyment of others and self-giving love seen in Jesus Christ.

The gifts of a two handed approach in all that we do, dedicated to what brings enjoyment and delight into the world, are beyond price.  And so my prayer for all of us, as the Winchester Festival gets underway, and is marked and celebrated in this Evensong, is that more and more, in the words of an ancient prayer, ‘among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there  be fixed, where true joys are to be found.’  Amen.

Let us pray:

Eternal Lord God, source of all beauty and harmony, we praise you for your gifts: of life itself, of other people, of music and all the creative arts.   We thank you for the inspiration given to creators and performers, for the faculties and powers which enable us to enjoy their work, and we pray that as our lives are enriched and renewed, so we may glorify you in a fuller dedication of ourselves, giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.    Amen.

We pray for the Church of every land; for a right ordering of human society; for justice and peace among the nations; for those in particular need this day, including those affected by devastating  floods in Japan, and for the Thai schoolboys currently being rescued; and for all who have a care and responsibility for the resources of the earth.

O God our Father, who dost never cease from the work that thou hast begun, and dost prosper with thy blessing all human labour; Make us wise and faithful stewards of thy gifts, that we may serve the common good, maintain the fabric of the world, and seek that justice where all may share the good things thou dost pour upon us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We pray for all who have departed this life, remembering before God those whose anniversary of death occurs at this time, all who have died recently, and those who mourn, especially the recently bereaved.

Almighty and eternal God, from whose love in Christ we cannot be parted either by death or life: Hear our prayers and thanksgivings for all whom we remember this day; fulfil in them the purpose of thy love; and bring us all, with them, to thy eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.