Pentecost 4: Only Connect
4th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green
Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14, Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Perhaps the phrase brings to mind the eclectic and rather niche gameshow, hosted by Victoria Coren Mitchell, But it’s also the epigram to the EM Forster novel, Howard’s End, where we have the charming line: "The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them," Margaret sighs. "It's one of the curses of London.” Don’t worry, though, we don’t replace people at StMargaret’s, we just add them to a new rota.
‘Only connect’ comes later in the key speech of the novel:
Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect
‘Live in fragments no longer. Only connect.’
‘Living in fragments’ is a bit of a theme for early twentieth-century literature, struggling with the collapse of the British Empire and the Great War. T.S. Eliot’s great poem The Wasteland includes more lines about the curses of London:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Eliot here is quoting Dante’s Inferno, likening the crowds that flow over London Bridge to the massed souls just past the gates of Hell. Here are the souls, in Dante’s poem, who are lukewarm, having done no good and no great evil, but who have stood for nothing. Tellingly, Dante says they do not die for they were never alive. Eliot’s poem, which is a comment on the barrenness, the miscommunication and the fragmentation of modern life, is saying of the crowds, of the lack of meaning, the loss of connection in the daily trudge; that it has no life. That we have made of London an impersonal hell. All this at London Bridge in the shadow of our cathedral, but at the time there was no Borough Market so it may well have been impossible to get a decent lunch.
Now I’m sorry if this seems a very oblique way to begin a sermon.
Only Connect, as I said, is a bit of an obscure quiz and if I’ve taken in too much of the ethos of the show in using the line, let me draw it back together. Because faith is about connection. It’s about knowing and living with yourself. Whether that’s doing a job that you feel is meaningful; that’s a good use of your time and abilities; building a life with a person you can love and respect, And this weekend we might celebrate that it’s somewhat easier than in E.M. Forster’s time to connect ourselves with our sexuality; connection is having time to pursue what makes you happy, and above all being at peace with the person you were created to be.
This may take a little reflection. Part of the difficulty of modern life is that we compartmentalise. You wouldn’t believe how many people I see regularly, who walk past me utterly oblivious if I’m not wearing a dog collar. It’s more likely that they’ll recognise my oversize-greyhound. And shortly after I was ordained 10 years ago, I, a sensitive young curate, was walking through Soho only to be heckled by a middle aged woman with a large glass of Pinot Grigio, shouting, “You’re not a real priest”. At such a sensitive time it could have forced an existential crisis. We’re all prone to a bit of imposter-syndrome. But all of us might be one person during the week, and quite another at the weekend. One person at work; one person at home; who are you are with your parents, your children, your partner, your old friends, your putney friends, your vicar, your work colleagues, wherever it is that you find yourself late on a Saturday night, early on a Sunday morning? This is usually where we struggle to connect.
And it’s not just the old ‘Herbert’ line: ‘Seven whole days, not one in seven, I will praise thee’; It’s about the fact that it puts a great deal of strain on us acting out different roles; we can start to lose that sense of who we really are. Something more than just mummy. That is where the cracks start to appear. Only connect, and you can find that being a self-aware son makes you a better father; only connect to realise that being a parent, a partner, paying the bills and keeping the house together is the work of many people, and you’re not failing at everything, but performing wonders. Only connect, and owning in church that unpleasant thing you did in work, eases the burden, even if it sets the bar a little higher next time. Only connect and it will be the best You that starts making decisions, not the pragmatist, the pessimist or the person fitting in with the crowd.
But our faith also asks us to connect with others.You shall love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart, if you only connect! But our challenge is really thrown down in being asked to love our enemies. To connect with those we disagree with. Even cat-lovers. One of the great things about church is, where else would you spend an hour with children, people who are retired, people with all different jobs, or none, people from across the world. The idea of a community is built on bringing together identity and difference, but we’re becoming less able and willing to find difference and approach others with an open mind. Only connect!
And if St Margaret’s Day is about anything, it’s about maintaining and growing relationships. Bringing together old friends, and making new ones. And as some of you have returned year on year for over a century,
well, nearly; St Margaret’s Day connects us to those we love and see no more, the growing list of friends who now worship on a further shore in a greater light, and equally back through the generations to those who first sang “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation” 1500 years ago (albeit in Latin), and all who have listened to these readings, sung these hymns and felt the pull of the divine on their lives. And given that we’re remembering St Margaret, we cannot but remember all those who have given their lives for the faith, from Jesus, through the apostles, the persecutions of Rome, the staggering testimonies of men and women like Maximilian Kolbe and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Nazi death camps and everyone in between. Ten thousand times ten thousand sound thy praise; but who am I? I had not known so many had undone death. Only Connect.
So when Isaiah extols us to ‘Rejoice with Jerusalem’, we can receive it as a present command if we only connect. And by Jerusalem, we understand the city of God, if by our faith, by our living connections, we can make this Wasteland the eternal city. Only connect and ‘You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice.’
Paul began our New Testament reading in words which lay aside formality and position: ‘My friends’, as Jesus said: ‘I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends’ These are the words of connection. ‘Bear one another’s burdens.’ We met some weeks ago discussing some of the difficult areas of faith and some of us spoke quite candidly about our experience of grief. What was especially moving was the way people had supported one another through these difficult times. Both that those grieving had felt able to reach out, and that their trust had been met in this community. That is what it means to ‘bear one another’s burdens’. Only connect. This is what it means that ‘the Kingdom of God has come near to you.’ Only connect. For as Jesus sent out the 70 to connect others with the Gospel, so we are sent out to connect with the world. And we too will return with joy if we’re able to take out a little St Margaret’s spirit with us into the world; not like greedy salesmen, but wanting to connect with the child of God that is in each of us.
There aren’t many prayers that I really love. It’s probably some terrible failing, but I prefer my own imperfect thoughts and words, not written down. But there is one prayer I return to. I think perhaps, because you can say it no matter how bad things are; whether I’m on a good day bustling about, or if my worst imaginings have come to pass, and like St Margaret, I’m in the dragon’s belly. It’s a prayer that acknowledges the value of every created thing, simply on the basis that we’re all points of connection, and God is present in every connection. It reads:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught… Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.
I am a link in a chain. Only connect. Amen.