Rt. Rev'd David Conner, Dean of Windsor, 3rd May 2015, Fourth Sunday after Easter: Isaiah 60: 1-14; Revelation 3: 1-13


3rd May 2015


It was, I think, during last November that the poet, biographer, teacher and university academic Jon Stallworthy died. Well-known of course in Oxford, he did not quite live to see his eightieth birthday.


A few weeks ago, I found myself browsing through a book that I had received as a gift from some friends in 1980, thirty five years ago, and had hardly looked into since. Plucked from the bookshelves after all that time, it brought back memories, and it reminded me of the speed of the passing of the years. It was an anthology of some twentieth century poetry. In it, I came across a piece by Jon Stallworthy. I had not known or noticed it before. It somehow struck a chord with me.


The poem is called Sindhi Woman. It is about a poor Indian woman whom the poet spots in a Karachi market; a bazaar. In spite of her barefooted poverty, her grace and charm captivate the poet. The poem is only two short verses long. The first goes as follows.


Barefoot through the bazaar,

and with the same undulant grace

as the cloth blown back from her face,

she glides with a stone jar

high on her head

and not a ripple in her tread.


The woman moves with dignity, seemingly without effort, in spite of the load she carries. And the poet continues in the second verse:


Watching her cross erect

stones, garbage, excrement and crumbs

of glass in the Karachi slums,

I, with my stoop, reflect

They stand most straight

Who learn to walk beneath a weight.


The ‘stones, garbage, excrement and crumbs of glass’ speak of the impoverished context out of which this elegant person emerges, carrying her load, and over which she somehow seems to triumph. And the poet notes:


I, with my stoop, reflect

they stand most straight

who learn to walk beneath a weight.


The poem is simple, but I think it speaks profoundly.


they stand most straight

who learn to walk beneath a weight.


I have no reason to believe that Jon Stallworthy was an especially religious person, in any conventional way. But the message he conveys through his poem certainly chimes in with a kind of wisdom that you can find in our great religious traditions; wisdom that both warns and reassures us that genuine human stature is not achieved, not arrived at, without some kind of struggle. This is most surely true of the Christian tradition.


Our New Testament reading tonight, from the Revelation to John, opened with a message addressed to the Church in Sardis. Apparently, Sardis was a flourishing economic centre near the end of the first century and was known for its influential Jewish community. It seems that the Christian community was well adjusted to its surroundings. There is no suggestion that the Christians in Sardis faced serious opposition or social conflict. In short, the Christians appear to have been having life easy. But the author of the Revelation claims that the Christians of Sardis “are dead” and not “alive”. And so it often happens that, when Christians become too comfortably adjusted to the world in which they live, too ‘acceptable’ to others, they lose what you might call their ‘cutting edge’. They become flabby, and really have little to offer.


they stand most straight

who learn to walk beneath a weight.


The disconcerting fact is that what have been called the ‘eternal truths’ and ‘enduring values’ disclosed in and through the life of Jesus Christ are, in many ways, offensive; not only to everybody else but to us also. They constitute a burden and a weight that we almost naturally resist. The translation of the ideals of self-sacrifice, and self-forgetfulness in the interest of the good of others, into the vocabulary of everyday life is hard. Yet it is our vocation to engage in that exercise in order to contribute to the raising of our world to the level of what we understand in Christ to be its true humanity.


Nonetheless, perhaps like the Christians in Sardis at the end of the first century, we in our own time have developed a tendency to be too well-adjusted to the culture in which we find ourselves. In a rather uncritical way, we attempt to gain credibility by aping the world around us, by adopting its mores, and by blessing and baptising its assumptions. Perhaps this is seen most in what has become in the Church an obsession with ‘growth’, and the insistence on measuring so-called ‘success’ by reference to the expansion of the organisation!


This can happen at the expense of our providing any kind of challenge. Indeed, we offer an escape from real challenge, sometimes by trivialising and domesticating religion; trying to attract more followers by turning it into a kind of recreational entertainment to lift the spirit of those who will return to daily life refreshed and contented. Some will smile at us but we are generally looked upon as harmless creatures. We might be seen to be a bit eccentric but we ruffle few feathers. In a tolerant society, we shall be tolerated. But, to what end?


I am not advocating a retreat into sectarianism. I do not believe that the Church should be ‘counter-cultural’ but I do believe that Christians should be ‘culture-critical’; wary of those movements that seem to inhibit development into what we perceive to be God’s will as disclosed to us in Jesus Christ. In a way, I am asking for no more than that we should take our religion ‘seriously’, try to allow the very things in it that we resist to shape our own lives, and attempt to become conduits through which its flavour might seep into the world of which we cannot help but be a part; agents of some kind of leavening.


I am, I suppose, asking that we should bear the weight of a certain responsibility; a responsibility laid upon us by virtue of our professed discipleship. That responsibility must be to demonstrate something of the strange difference that Christ makes to life; what other reason could there be for us to take the name of ‘Christian’?


It is by bearing the weight of that responsibility that we, as individuals and as the Church, will grow in the only way that really matters; grow in faithfulness to our vocation; grow, you might say, in integrity.


they stand most straight

who learn to walk beneath a weight.


Should you, at this stage, think that I am commending to you a life of earnest misery, let me remind you of some words of Jesus that put things into context. Somewhere in the Gospels, it is recorded that he invites us to take his ‘yoke’ upon us but always to remember that, in some odd way, his yoke is easy and his burden is light. A wonderful grace is given to those who emerge out of their spiritual comfort zone to bear witness to Christ. But that’s another story, and another sermon.



David Conner

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