Eucharist Sermon - 20 June 2021

The Third Sunday of Trinity
2 Corinthians 6:1–13, Mark 4:35–end
Canon Professor Carol Harrison, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity
'Sleep'

‘Peace. Be still!’

When the disciples wake Jesus up, terrified that the storm is about to overwhelm them, Jesus commands the waves: ‘Peace. Be still’. The disciples are awestruck that even the winds and the sea obey him.

But the more I reflect on the figure of our Lord, asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, while the vessel tosses, the winds howl and the sea rages, it is his capacity to be at peace, to be still, and to sleep amidst all this life-threatening drama, that fills me with awe. Having left the crowds behind Jesus sleeps deeply, no doubt tired, needing rest. In one way this is a glimpse of his incarnate, human nature; his manhood, rather than his Godhead. And yet I contemplate it with awe and – I must admit – envy. Jesus’ capacity to be at peace, to be still, to rest, to sleep amidst so much tumult seems to me to be more evidence of his divinity than of his humanity.

Sleep! The word alone makes me want to sigh; I can only say it with a dying fall. Perhaps it is because I am getting old(er); because life is far from settled; because the challenges that it poses at every turn seem to be unremitting; because life has to be lived, not by being able to resolve difficulties and tensions but by learning – or at least trying – to live with them. ‘O What a thing is man! How far from power, from settled peace and rest!’. Sleep, I must admit, too often eludes me; refuses to come; or is fitful and restless. ‘I wake’ in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, ‘and feel the fell of dark, not day.

What hours, [he writes] O what black hours we have spent 
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went! 
And more must, in yet longer light's delay. 
With witness I speak this. But where I say 
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament 
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent 
To dearest him that lives alas! away. 

But is not necessarily dark depression and despair that keeps someone awake. More often – I hope – it is that our minds haven’t caught up with our bodies; they are still buzzing, processing, unable to switch off. In his 27th Sonnet, Shakespeare captures the disquieted lover, who knows no rest in body or mind; awake or asleep, while the one he longs for is not his:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed 
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head 
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expir’d:
For then my thoughts—from far where I abide— 
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee, 
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide, 
Looking on darkness which the blind do see: 
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight 
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view, 
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night, 
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind, 
For thee, and for myself no quiet find. 

We sometimes describe a person who is soundly and deeply asleep as ‘sleeping like a baby’. Babies, as we can all observe, sleep anywhere and through anything. My son, when he was little, was unfailingly lulled to sleep by the sound of machinery or the movement of the car; he slept soundly through fire alarms and burglar arms and through endless, boring papers at the conferences he was dragged to. Sleep came before everything – he would even fall asleep while he was eating!

Unlike theologians, it is the poets who seem to be preoccupied with sleep. I struggle to think of theological reflections on sleep but literature, which explores the imagination, the subconscious, the world of our affections and motivations is full of references to sleep – or the absence of it. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare captures the contrast between the sleep of the old and the young when he has Friar Lawrence say to Romeo - who is paying him an early morning visit and clearly hasn’t slept:

‘Care keeps his watch in every old man’s eye,
And where care lodges, sleep will never lie.
But where unbruisèd youth with unstuffed brain
Doth couch his limbs, there golden sleep doth reign.
Therefore thy earliness doth me assure
Thou art uproused by some distemperature.’ (Act 2 Scene 3)

And Macbeth, as you will all remember, having murdered Duncan, is said to have ‘murdered sleep’, As Lady Macbeth exclaims:

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, 
Chief nourisher in life’s feast’ (Macbeth 2.2.46-51)

So a disquieted, restless mind struggles or fails to sleep. In contrast, a quiet, peaceful, still mind sleeps – what we sometimes call the ‘sleep of the just’ or ‘the sleep of the righteous’. These sayings are significant: for true peace and stillness belong, I suspect, only to the just and the righteous. The root of the word ‘justice’ is ‘to render to someone their due’ – and I would like to suggest that it is only when we render to God his due; when we acknowledge that it is to Him that we owe our existence, our well-being, and anything that is true and good in us; that we are entirely dependent upon Him for all that are and all that we do – only then can we begin to find peace and stillness. For they are not something we attain, but are given by Him.

In the passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians in our second lesson, we heard him describe the lives of the apostles as enduring the storms and tempests and challenges of life - afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger. That they survived these trials was only through the exercise of virtues - purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech. All these virtues Paul attributes, not to the apostles’ own efforts or powers, but, as he puts it, to the ‘power of God’; they are the ‘weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute’.

That was easily said; but it is far from straightforward to embrace. Yes, we all know what it is to suffer, to be confronted by trials and difficulties, to be tossed by storms within and outside ourselves. We know how frequently peace, settled rest, stillness eludes us; how our sleep can be disturbed, fractured, haunted by disquiet, despair, depression, unresolved thoughts and unfulfilled desires. But we must remember that the ‘purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech’ that can resolve, calm and still these storms; that provide an armour to overcome any assaults on our peace of mind and heart, are not ones we can acquire through our own efforts but only from the ‘power of God.’ It is this ‘power’ which Job described in our first lesson- God’s creating and redeeming presence; a presence that we are given to receive, participate in and to know, when, having exchanged the peace with each other, later on in this service, we turn towards the altar to receive the gift and grace of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.

Peace. Be Still!

The picture of Jesus lying asleep on a cushion in the storm-tossed boat is one that we need to hold on to: for it tells us that everything – our existence, our safety, our well-being, our peace and stillness – come only from God. Unless we are babes in arms or ’unbruisèd youth’, without God’s gracious presence with us and his gracious gifts to us; without the faith and trust which he gives, peace, stillness – and sleep – will always elude us.

‘I will lay me down in peace and take my rest, for it is thou, Lord, only that makest me dwell in safety’.

Amen