St Philip, Sydenham

18th June 2006

Love bade me welcome

If you are one of the many people who think that poetry is nothing more than a rather long-winded, flowery way of saying something which could be stated much more briefly in ordinary language then let me invite you to consider the following two statements:

Statement Number One says:

It’s a well-known fact that any success and fame we may achieve in this life doesn’t last very long after we are dead. [22 words]

Statement Number Two says:

The paths of glory lead but to the grave [9 words]

Both statements are saying exactly the same thing; but the poetic statement says it in well under half the number of words. So before dismissing poetry as long-winded, just bear that in mind for the next few minutes.

Understanding and remembering what we need to believe as Christians has never been easy. That is why the Bible contains so much poetry; that’s why so much of what we believe has been written down in the form of hymns. And that is why, incidentally, Jesus wrapped up so much of his teaching in the form or parables and stories. He occasionally used abstract words like ‘forgiveness’ and ‘truth’ and ‘authority’. But by far the greatest part of his teaching about the Nature of God and Man took the form of stories and examples – about debtors, nets, talents, lamps and so forth – all of them things with which those who listened to him would have been thoroughly familiar.

This morning I want to use both a story and a poem to explain one very important truth about our relationship with God: one which is so often misunderstood or misrepresented, not least by priests when they preach at funerals.

Listening to them you would think that the Christian message was ‘Jim Smith, whom we all loved so much, was a thoroughly nice person and God was so attracted to him that at the moment of Jim’s death he welcomed him with open arms into his heavenly Kingdom as someone who had earned his rightful place in it’

If only it were as simple as that!

So here is a parable which, even if it doesn’t describe the complete truth about our relationship with God nevertheless comes a great deal closer to it than those misleading sermons which we so often hear. And after the parable an ancient poem which says precisely the same thing but (yes, you’ve guessed it!) says it in a fraction of the number of words.

So here is the story:

Once upon a time, many years ago, there lived a man called George who made his living by cleaning the windows in the big houses of the city where he lived.

As a window-cleaner, George was admirable. He did a thoroughly good job and worked hard for the money he earned. But that was about the limit of George’s goodness. Not only did he pinch small ornaments and valuables whose loss he thought would pass unnoticed; he also took the opportunity to have it off with the younger female staff in the house whenever he got the opportunity. Worse than that, George was a notorious scandal-monger and gossip, relaying to his pals any sordid secrets of the households whose windows he cleaned so brilliantly Worse still, he told all his friends in the criminal fraternity which houses were, and which were not, worth burgling, and what particular artifacts to look out for.

Interestingly enough he had never got caught. He put that down partly to his skill at knowing just what and what not to steal himself, and partly to the fact that, believing himself to be God’s gift to women, he imagined that none of the fair sex in the domestic household would ever complain to their employers about him.

Now it so happened that one of the buildings whose windows George was asked to clean from time to time was the King’s Palace. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did George took full advantage of the opportunity to boost his income by being a little more light-fingered than usual.

One day George got a letter in the post. It was on the royal notepaper and it said: Your presence is required at the Palace next Tuesday at 1pm prompt, and it ended, rather surprisingly, with the words ‘Love from the King’.

Well George imagined that he was being asked to do his usual job of window-cleaning – which suited his books rather nicely as he was feeling a bit hard-up at the time. So the following Tuesday he put on his overalls, and went with his bucket and cloths to the palace.

But from the moment he entered the Palace things started going wrong. Instead of being shown where to fill his bucket, one of the servants gently removed it from him, and, much to his horror, another servant, equally graciously, ushered him into the Palace dining-room and sat him down alongside the King himself.

You can imagine George’s dis-ease. For one thing he was wearing his boiler-suit. For another he had arrived with the firm intention of picking up one or two ornaments to sell-on. Worst of all, perhaps, he’d been looking forward to having a bit on the side in one of the many broom-cupboards with one of the maids.

Yet here George found himself being treated as a guest by the very person whose belongings he had stolen, whose servants he had abused, being served dinner by His Majesty himself.

George’s natural reaction was to turn tail and flee. Never in all his life had he felt so ashamed of himself and of what he had done. But such was the graciousness of his Host that within a few minutes George found himself owning up to all the ways in which he had done him wrong.

And far from finding that he had ‘got away with it’, when George had finished owning up to all his misdeeds, his Host said, ‘I know all about that George. You see, I knew you even before you first entered the palace to clean the windows. But because my Beloved Son laid down his life in the Great War in order that people like you might be forgiven, you and I can be reconciled with one another – always providing that you, George, are prepared to accept that forgiveness with all that it entails’.

And that is the end of the story. But now let me read you George Herbert’s poem entitled Love which tells precisely the same tale in a fifth of the number of words.

Love bade me welcome

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

 

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