Festal Evensong

July 7, 2019

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Preached by The Rev’d Canon Jonathan Boardman, Vicar of St Paul’s Clapham, using Genesis 29.1-20 and Mark 6.7-29 at Festal Evensong on Sunday 7th July 2019, the 3rd Sunday after Trinity.

What a pleasure to preach here today: I was born in 1963 and from first infancy was exposed to my mother’s love of Radio 2 – this means that some chart and near chart toppers left an indelible echo sounding in my four year old head and heart. And so this place where a certain song’s fiftieth birthday was celebrated by a new recording with your Cathedral Choir should feel assured that without a doubt “I’m a believer” in “Winchester Cathedral”.

My general and particular credentials established I would like to thank the Dean for her invitation. We go back a long way – to theological college in 1980s Cambridge, in fact – and so impressed was I by Catherine’s artistic sensibilities back then that I have never forgotten or indeed failed to observe her friendly instructions on how to enter a room to best effect – ‘Close the door behind you with both hands thus creating a frame from which, smiling, to take in the whole space before uttering a cheerful greeting.’ Her story telling ability which undoubtedly has informed her preaching was also notable – for example, managing to convince an undergraduate friend of mine that she had worked as a tassel dancer prior to finding her vocation was a narrative triumph; a triumph which might raise hopes amongst the more credulous to expect a recreation of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils during the last hymn. I’m hoping my head doesn’t end up on the collection plate.

Art is, for sure, story-telling. A work of art – painting, sculpture, a text in poetry or prose, a film, an installation, performance art, a piece of music – they all say something.  A work of art is a vision of the past seen through the author’s contemporary lenses, or a record of the here and now (as it was then), or the imaging of the future built upon the concerns of the author’s today – or perhaps it could be all three at once. Art plays with time in a most beguiling way. But art is also essentially the reader or viewer’s response and that, unlike the work of art itself, is fixed in time: it’s the single, the significant moment of aesthetic, moral and emotional encounter.

I lived and worked for twenty years in Rome during which time I was inevitably exposed to a vast range of masterpieces. Watching classic Italian films on local terrestrial TV channels was perhaps one of the least likely mediums for such artistic revelation but one that touched me deepest for its very ordinariness. Amongst my favourites in the genre is ‘Ieri, Oggi, e Domani’ ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ directed by the actor Vittorio De Sica. It’s a tryptich of comedies ranging from Naples, through Milan to Rome each starring Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. It won the oscar for best foreign language film in 1965 and clerverly catches the timelessness of the various Italian regions, accents, class differences, prejudices and pleasures. But what it will always do for me is evoke the precise period, forty years after its production, when I lived and worked in Italy:  a time when I grew close to that country’s cultural identity and deepened my knowledge of its people, language and art.

In this afternoon’s lessons we encounter two supreme examples of biblical story telling. As always at Evensong the first is from the Hebrew Scriptures, the second from the New Testament.

The story of Jacob’s search for a wife, as is frequently the case in the book Genesis, is the repetition in form of an earlier story, that of the wooing of Jacob’s mother Rebecca. It is as if we are being told that it is a truth repeatedly acknowledged that a single man must be in want of a wife possessed of a good fortune – and what’s more he’ll look in the same place, Haran, and from amongst the same people as his father did. However, Jacob’s uncle Laban is considerably more canny when it comes to disposing of his daughters, Leah and Rachel and other women from his household than was their father Bethuel when he agreed to Rebecca’s marriage. It’s just as if Mr Bennet had achieved his aim at the end of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ of emptying Longbourne of its unmarried female inhabitants in one fell swoop.

The story of Jacob’s acquisition of two wives and their hand-maids in return for fourteen year’s service is a significant element in the larger history of Israel: Israel the individual, as it is Jacob’s alternative name: Israel the family with its twelve brothers and the variety of personality types (from show-off through murderous to merciful and guileless) which might be fully expected therein: and Israel the Hebrew Nation with its division into twelve tribes and an epic future ahead. But the seed of the story, its artistic node from which developments will spring, is the fact that Jacob desires Rachel and falls in love with her. We are not told of his reaction to being tricked into marrying Leah, or being manipulated into working double the period originally agreed to – though an Eastender’s degree of ‘Cor Blimey’ shock-and-awe might have been considered appropriate.

The art here is made by fitting the telling of the story to a traditional pattern and revealing the play of human emotion only in understatement which stimulates the reader or listener’s response to a special and surprising degree. For it is love and human empathy, which makes its entrance here, and it is love in its subtle, contradictory shades that will go on to command the drama until the towering close of Genesis with its account of Joseph and his brothers.

The author of St Mark’s gospel is a story teller schooled in the traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures and one of the most successful of distinctive voices to be found in the New Testament. Noted for the brevity and energy of its account of Jesus’ ministry, Mark’s gospel also exhibits striking levels of sophisticated artistry. How often has a flash-back in a film or TV show functioned as a key to understanding the plot? Countless times – but in the biblical canon narrative flash backs are very rare. In Mark, Chapter 6 the helter-skelter of Jesus’ miracles, calling disciples and sending them out as missionaries is interrupted as what he is doing provokes a vivid memory in an observer: King Herod Antipas calls to mind John the Baptist, his ministry and his death, and his own role in it. The reader, the listener, is invited into a character’s mind as the theatrical circumstances are rehearsed in a narrative which is like a crafted box within another box. Jesus’ link to John’s preaching of repentance is re-emphasized in this way and the stage set for a tableaux in which the future life of the church is outlined in his feeding the five thousand – the narrative metaphor for the Eucharistic meal, the love-feast, still at the very heart of the Christian life.

Being able to tell good stories undoubtedly depends on artistic skill and experience. But behind every ripping yarn there is an inspirational power which we Christians characterize in the biblical context as the Holy Spirit. Secular analysts are keener to fix on John Keat’s concept ‘negative capability’ as a recipe for successful artistic truth. But does such a firm distinction really have to be made? I don’t think so.

Earlier this week going to an appointment at Guy’s Hospital to discuss a course of chemo therapy which I need following surgery I paused on St Thomas’ Street to read a blue plaque. It told me John Keats had lived there whilst following his medical studies. In an instant my imagination took me back to a walk along the Itchen towards Twyford Down with a friend only a few weeks ago. It was my first ever trip to Winchester. We were inevitably talking about ‘Ode to Autumn’. Standing outside Guys again my concerns were lifted by that memory and those inspired lines re-awoke in my head and heart.

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.

Here was the Holy Spirit, here was negative capability both speaking to my soul in one voice. And I took courage. I pray that all of you will do so too.

May we all have trust in the power which God has given the artist to share love, to identify truth and to create beauty.