The Cantignorus Chorus – part of our Centre’s SingSpire programme – has been covered on this blog a number of times. Now it has also made it to the pulpit of St Paul’s, as the Revd Canon Dilly Baker (Rector of St Mary’s Stoke Newington) preached about the Chorus in her All Saints’ Sermon at the Cathedral.
Here it is…
“In his holy flirtation with the world, God sometimes drops a handkerchief. Those handkerchiefs are called saints.” What a lovely way to describe a saint – a description offered to us by Frederick Beuckner, an American theologian. A bit quaint perhaps – after all we’ve ditched handkerchiefs and flirting in favour of Kleenex tissues and speed dating. But I like it. I for one prefer to think of God less as a speed dater and more as a flirt. In his love affair with humanity God offers us hints of his presence along the way – the casually dropped handkerchief, impregnated with the scent of the divine. The Saint is the one who keeps alive for us, the whiff of God.
Perhaps such a description doesn’t sit too easily with those saints whom the church has revered through the centuries. They are a motley crew, aren’t they? Their own lives might well have displayed a love affair with God, but sometimes that can be hard to appreciate; many of them remain distant, eccentric characters, whose way of living seems so far removed from the way we construct and order our lives, that far from drawing us in to a love affair with God their own discipleship can leave us feeling somewhat distant or perplexed. We might be fascinated by some of the more quirky, bizarre characters such as Simon Stylites who took it upon himself to sit on a pillar for most of his 39 years, or St Margaret of Antioch who managed to hack her way out of the belly of a dragon using her crucifix…. but what are we to make of that?
For St Paul, writing to that little community of Christians in Ephesus, the saints were those ordinary women and men, just like you and I, who were striving to model their own lives on that of Christ; he refers to the household of saints – those whose hearts had been touched by the grace of God and who were learning to live in that space of grace towards others. Luke, in our gospel passage, teases it out a little more – they are those who struggle at the edge of living – the poor, the bruised, the discarded, the forgotten. They are those who know what it feels like to be the scapegoat, the persecuted. They are those who don’t answer back, who get knocked down time and time again, who get up and carry on. They are those who have learnt generosity – giving their hearts away to others in tenderness of spirit; they carry a fragrance around with them – it is the sweet fragrance of the divine.
I know of some who fit that bill…
Let me tell you about another St Paul’s – in Hackney – where there’s a little communion of saints who gather once a week at the moment on a Wednesday evening. The vicar wrote a catchy number (he’s the first to admit it’s a bit cheesy) entitled ‘holding out a helping hand to you’. He then got together a pop up choir, called the ‘Cantignorus Chorus’ made up of some of the many people who use the church during the week. So there are members from the African lunch club, who support each other through mental health issues, there’s those from the Over 50’s dance group – not one of them a day under 70, who jive to ear splitting reggae, down a fair amount of rum and look after each other in an extraordinarily generous way. There are those from Growing Communities – a social enterprise offering an alternative model to our relationship with food, trying to make our communities healthier and more sustainable, building a little bit of the New Jerusalem one might say, in Hackney’s backyard. There are those from Narcotics Anonymous, those washed up in the sex trade, those who are homeless and those who are hungry. Then there are the random passers by and the dog walkers and of course a fair smattering of the ever faithful band of churchgoers.
Last wed eve when the Cantignorus chorus gathered, Tom [Daggett], the musical director [and the Co-ordinator of SingSpire] asked who’d like to try their hand at singing a solo. A shy,homeless man, with significant mobility issues, tentatively raised his hand. Hobbling to the front, but encouraged by the enthusiasm of the choir he picked up the microphone, sang a verse, every note in tune, whilst the choir sang their ‘oos’ and ‘ahs’ as background accompaniment. And as he sang tears filled his eyes and as his solo drew to a close, he was met with rapturous, spontaneous applause.
I asked Niall, the vicar, and Tom the choir director, how they’d pulled it off; what was the secret of the choir’s success? ‘It’s about giving people opportunities to be saintly’ Niall said, ‘do that and they’ll always play to their strengths’. ‘Barriers are being broken down here’ said Tom; ‘people who would usually cross over the road to avoid each other, are finding themselves at home in each others company and there’s an amazing atmosphere of care and support’. ‘There’s no pretention here’ added Niall; ‘just searing honesty; very few skeletons locked away in the cupboard cos they’re dancing around for all to see …and amidst it all, I guess one catches a glimpse of the divine at work’.
I wonder where you’ve caught a whiff of the Divine at work recently? Where has a handkerchief been dropped in your path? Where and when have you encountered a saint – someone who has revealed something of God to you?
Bishop Graham Cray, speaking at a conference I attended a while ago, told us of a little prayer mantra he uses throughout the course of the day. It’s a good one – you stand in the queue at Morrisons checkout, or waiting in the rain for the Number 106 bus, or you’re squashed like a sardine during rush hour on the tube – look around you; search for the face of incarnate love and then say to yourself, ‘well, I didn’t expect Christ to show up looking like that, but it does look strangely like him’.
That takes some practice; for God drops his handkerchiefs in strange and unexpected places and if, in our love affair with God, we are walking or looking in the wrong direction, then we might well miss the signs and clues that God tempts us with along the way.
I wonder if you know the game scientists play to prove to us that we can only see what we expect to see. Playing cards in a pack are turned over quickly – we’re asked what we see. ‘The queen of hearts, the ace of spades, the 3 of diamonds, the….oh sorry, I didn’t quite catch that last one. What was it?’ So we go through them again…… ‘gosh, no, still didn’t get it.’ Once more – slowly this time…… oh, its a 4 of clubs – but I couldn’t see it because the 4 is red not black.
But God is often dealing us a wild card. If we can pick up on the clues that God gives us; If we have eyes to see, if we have hearts expansive enough to bear the weight of God’s love then I’d hazard a guess that between us, we probably know a lot more saints than just those famous ones whom the church in every generation reveres. Between us, we’ve surely encountered the nondescript, the bumbling, and the inept ones; we’ve rubbed shoulders with the justly proud and the overly humble. We’ve walked with the wonderfully capable and the woefully decrepit. We’ve known the poor in spirit, those who are empty enough to reveal to us something of God. At some point, each of them has provided an opening for God to continue his love affair with us.
And in a moment we will get out of our seats and make our way to receive the sacrament; we will walk in the steps of all those who, over the centuries have tried, however inadequately, to walk the way of Christ. Together with those who have gone before us and all those who will come after us, we are part of this great communion of saints. As we kneel to receive the sacrament, may the broken bread speak to us this evening of all those whose broken lives reveal something of God’s grace and beauty; as we drink the wine of the kingdom may we celebrate the lives of all those saints who have offered us a window on the sacred. Then fed and blessed we will leave this sacred space; we will go out into the streets of London, eager to continue God’s love affair with humanity, and who knows – perhaps even willing to drop a handkerchief or two along the way. Amen.