A SERMON PREACHED ON THE OCCASION OF THE LAUNCH OF THE FRIENDS OF WESLEY HOUSE.
Given by The Revd Catherine Dixon on 25th July 2015 at Wesley Church Cambridge.
I stand before you as one of the newly ordained Wesley House class of 2013. Part of the process of preparing for ordination was the district testimony service, which some of you were able to share in with me, and it was my great honour to have as the preacher on that occasion my former tutor the Rev’d Dr Malcolm Guite. When Malcolm and I talked about the service and the readings we decided to begin with the poem the Rain Stick by Seamus Heaney, a poem that Malcolm has taught and written and preached on, and which I wanted to share with you this afternoon because in it I hear something of my own experience given back to me in fresh terms, and perhaps as we reflect on it together we might hear and connect with something of our wider experience.
The Rain Stick.
Upend the rainstick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk
Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly
And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,
Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next
Is undiminished for having happened once.
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if the music that transpires
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a shower. Listen now again.
(from The Spirit Level, Faber & Faber, 1996)
Upend the rain stick. What is the rain stick for us? We have surely all experienced our lives being upended – by choice, by others, by circumstances, by God. What a great image for call and vocation:
Upend the rain stick, and what happens next is a music that you would never have known to listen for.
The music of the rain stick – those sounds of downpour and sluice-rush, of spillage and backwash, of glitter-drizzle – can only be released if the stick is upended.
My life was upended when I came to Wesley House in 1999. I struggled to get past the disorientation of the upending, but I still heard some of that strange new music – courtesy of the Faculty of Divinity – which began to play in me. I stood there there like a pipe being played by water in Heaney’s words. And as the dry seeds trickle down through the cactus stalk of the rain stick and are transformed into a kind of music, so my theological education began its work of transformation in me.
Fast-forward a decade and we find me a happily married former Wesley House student running an establishment just down the road from this church. It might have seemed that my vocational journey had come to an end, just as eventually the seeds stop running through the rain stick and its music ceases.
But the marvel of it is that the stick can always be upended again. And – as Seamus Heaney puts its so exquisitely – what happens next is undiminished for having happened once, twice, ten, a thousand times before. I hear in that line the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit. We seem to reach a dead end, but the stick can always be upended, our lives can always be renewed, transformed by the grace of God.
Today we have met to recognise the importance of friends. For me it is a special joy to share in this service with two friends who helped, as it were, upended my rain stick – Peter Graves, through a chance meeting here on King Street, with the right word at the right time, and Derek Nicholls who, as Senior Circuit Steward, was instrumental in my move to Haslingfield as lay pastor. And then, of course, there is Wesley House itself, to which I returned, and where I found not only the joy of continued theological education, but the importance of being part of a community of learning and reflection and prayer, and the guidance of Cindy and Jane and Jonathan in shaping my sense of all that I am called to and all that I can be in God. Upend the rain stick and what happens next is a music that you would never have known to listen for.
The poem ends with three words: Listen now again. In that final invitation I hear the call to listen to what we have seen and heard and thought we have known, the ways we have been upended, and rather than hear the trauma of the upending, to hear the extraordinary range of sounds, of music that is made possible only by the upending. That has been my personal experience of vocational journey and of theological education. I stand here today as a product of the way Wesley House has been a part of the work of God in upending lives and allowing the music of learning and reflection, of worship and community sing in them.
A short while ago it seemed that work would come to an end. There were those who saw Wesley House only as a dry stick. And yet, through that process, the stick has been upended and new sounds have come forth undiminished.
Being upended, as I know from personal experience, is not always welcome, comfortable or easy. It can bring trauma and pain. But I believe God is at work in the upending; the God who in Jesus was turning the world upside down. It is the model offered by the gospels of the one who has come to announce that the weakest and marginalised are blessed; the one who lifts up the lowly and fills the humble with good things; the one who dines with sinners, who embraces the unclean and forgives those who deny him.
There were many Gospel readings that we could have heard today that emphasis the transforming, upending qualities of the Word made flesh. But I chose those parables of the kingdom from Mark 4:21-34 because when they came up in the lectionary the other week I smiled and thought of Wesley House. This past year many have made the mistake of thinking nothing is going on at Wesley House. Well, as Jane and Cindy and Bob can testify, this may have been the busiest year in the life of the house. But, as in the parable of the growing seed, it is all work that has been hidden – well, until we installed an enormous crane on site. And as in the parable new life has been growing, with all the birth pangs that go with it. We may not have quite reached the harvest but that life is beginning to spring up.
New life is not possible without those to nurture it, to love it, to care for it – whether that new life is a puppy, a baby, a college. Those of us who have been involved in the life of the House this year – as staff, as Trustees, as continuing students – have been aware of the prayerful support and good wishes of so many as we have continued the life of the House in diaspora. And it was with that in mind that we inaugurated the Friends of Wesley House. To acknowledge and thank all those who continue to support us, who believe that what we do is valuable and important and is of God, as we seek to continue to create a global community in the Wesleyan tradition of learning and reflection and prayer, as we continue to upend the rain sticks of peoples lives and to let the word of God sing in us and through us.
And to ask for your continued support – as advocates for the House, as supporters of the bursary fund, as those who pray for us and with us – which you can do through the link on our website. As those who help us upend our rain stick so we are not just dry stalks, but flowing with living water.
Today we may seem small, we may seem few. But the parable of the mustard seed teaches us that from such small beginnings can come a home for all the birds of the air. It is our vision that, by the grace of God, Wesley House will become a home for Methodists from all the world, lay and ordained, who wish to reflect and to study in the Wesleyan tradition.
Thank you for being part of this process. For standing with us as we dream, and as those dreams become reality; as we seek to be faithful to the vision of our founders; and as we undergo the disorientation of being upended and seek to hear again the undiminished sound of the Word of God, and to share the news that Wesley House is far from a redundant dry stick but a place where living water flows and where all who are thirsty may come and drink.
So let us heed the words of Seamus Heaney and listen now again, and perhaps hear something of our own upending, our own transformation, something of the grace of God, in the Rain Stick.