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How do I love thee? – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

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Sermon preached by Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor, on Trinity Sunday 2022

Readings Proverbs 8. 1–4, 22–31, Romans 5. 1–5, John 14. 23–29

Title: How do I love thee?

‘How do I love thee, let me count the ways!’.

So wrote the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ostensibly about the love she had for her husband. But for Barrett Browning, a faithful Christian with a lively theological mind, the many forms of love which we experience in our earthbound life, were consummated most fully through the love of God, the love from which all other loves come.

Of course, there is an irony in the first line of the poem because it supposes we can count the ways that we love, but we can never really count the ways can we? Barrett Browing knew that, and I think we all know that too- Love is beyond numbers, and beyond measure and sometimes beyond even our understanding.

In our reading from the Book of Proverbs, we see a representation of wisdom, a name assigned to Christ, designated as a co-worker and a delight to God the creator. There at the beginning of all things there was a relationship, a community of love, which delighted in the human race, a human race always destined to be loved and have the capacity to love in return. But if we’re not counting the ways– how do we human beings show that love for which we were made? How do we express, how do we show that we love God? How do others know that we love God?

Is it through great works, or through a keen intellect? Is through knowledge, or charity? Is it through status or effort? Are we rewarded for long service? Humans may monitor such things and measure them and indeed judge them- but God counts none of these things.  For God only looks at the heart, each and every heart. It is the greatest mystery and miracle that God asks nothing of us but love.

Since the beginning of time, human beings have made known our love of God, shown our love of God, through worship, through adoration. How do I love thee? we might ask the creator of heaven and earth. Let me offer praise, might be our answer.

Tom Wright, Theologian and former Bishop of Durham, describes worship as ‘love on its knees before the beloved’.  He implies that Christian worship calls us always to humility, to obedience and to love. Worship is an activity of the human heart. It is a school for the soul and it is the place where love is made.

It is the way that human beings can ultimately show their love for God: an expression of that first commandment: To love with heart, and mind and strength.

Trinity Sunday is a day when the Church acknowledges the call to worship God. We don’t have to understand the Trinity, we just have to worship, letting ourselves be swept up into adoration of God who is our creator, our redeemer and our sustainer.

Worship is not a means to an end, it is an end in itself -but through the grace of God it is always a beginning, because being drawn into the loving community of God can only result in building a loving community in the name of God. Worship is not a mission strategy, but it is the source of all mission, it is the bedrock of all evangelism, it is the engine oil of all loving service in the name of God. It is where God’s love is poured in our hearts.

Of course, it is from the love of God that other loves come, because when we are drawn into worship, that divine love shines upon us and within us, so that we may bring light and love to the world. Our love for God ripples out into the wider pool of our lives and into the ocean of our humanity, and that love can move us to speak against injustice and prejudice, and name corruption, and call out evil, and attend to feeding the hungry, caring for creation, binding up the broken hearted and raising up and honoring the most vulnerable. Through worship, the Spirit of truth guides us into all truth.

The Love of God and God’s love for us, always provokes us to greater loves which know no boundaries and carry no agenda and seek no gain nor reward, we are called, for this loves sake, to love neighbour beyond the self, the second great commandment.

God is always drawing us into the community of love, and this is what the love of God means. If we enter into that love, if we even speak the words of love given to us in Christ, we will find that we are, in Michael Ramsey’s words: humble to the dust, full of gratitude and our whole scale of priorities and concerns may be turned upside down, because the first thing, the love of God and our response to it, will indeed come first. First before everything else, before family even, before work, before politics, before nation, before the conveniences and habits we cling to, before even our traditions and our history.

If the church decided to count the ways, if we took a measure of how we assign worth to God, we might note that nationally, fewer and fewer people attend worship. We do pretty well here in York but it’s not like this everywhere. Does that really matter? Is our mission to get more numbers in at any cost- is our mission economic? A numbers game? Or is our mission simply to be faithful- to love God and have faith that God will do the rest? Is not the love of God the best witness to our faith and the best measure of our health as a church?

Jesus said ‘when two or three are gathered together my name, there I am in the midst of them’. In Cathedrals of all places we know this to be true because cathedrals, of all the ecclesiastical entities of the church, seem to have an increasingly unique vocation. We’re not just about the big services!

Day by day, in this Cathedral we offer prayer and worship-morning and evening, and in between we break bread together, we are never closed (barring global pandemics), we are open to all, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, that’s more than Tesco.  The reason? Worship.

Worship is our primary purpose in this place, and even when no-one comes to join us, even when people have other priorities, even when it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, or isn’t at a convenient time, worship continues come rain or come shine, even if there are just two or three of us. Without that, this place is just a museum or a glorious heritage asset. Worship brings this place to life and it gives life to those who come here, and it gives life the world. We do this on behalf of, and for, everyone.

I have to break the news that we don’t worship for the numbers: maybe that’s why we’re growing? It’s great to have a full house, but if one person offers prayer here that is enough.  T.S Elliot, who wrote quite a lot about Cathedrals (as well as Cats) said that “The ‘use’ of a cathedral is the performance of the complete liturgy of the church through the Christian Year.

‘The numbers of people attending seems to me of quite minor importance’, he said. ‘I should feel no misgivings even were there no congregation at all.’

The Cathedral, for Elliot was a sign and a symbol of the continuous worship of God, whether by one, or one hundred, or one thousand. Perhaps we are called to be a sign and a symbol of the continuous worship of God, and an embodiment of humanities vocation to love God with heart, and mind and strength, seven whole days a week, not just one in seven- a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving on the altar of the Lord? Perhaps we are called to be the sacred heart of culture, a gift, for all those who cannot, or choose not to be present? We worship to show our love of God, and humanities capacity for love.

When I see people kneeling in prayer, and approaching the altar with such awe and reverence, lighting a candle, when I see what is brought into worship and how people prioritize worship against all the other demands on their time, the places they have come from, the problems they are facing, the suffering, the endurance they bear, the hopes they have, the joys they celebrate, when I see all this, I remember why we are here and I remember that this worship thing that the church is called by God to do- is truly, a priceless gift and our true purpose.

Oscar Romero said  ‘let us not measure the church by the number of its members or by its material buildings. That doesn’t matter, what matters is you the people, your hearts. God’s grace, giving you God’s truth and life.  Don’t measure yourself by your numbers. Measure yourselves by the sincerity of heart with which you follow the truth and light of our divine redeemer.’

Perhaps the seemingly impossible mission that God is calling the church to fulfil in this age- is to be faithful and to adore, to bow down in worship, and embody love on its knees before the beloved, and to the glory of the one and only living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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