George Herbert’s Invitation

Spring was in the air, even if the thermometer tried to tell us otherwise, at Ely Cathedral this morning for the King’s School Confirmation. Congratulations to all the candidates and best wishes to their families as they celebrate together.

We kept the Feast of George Herbert, 17th century courtier, musician, poet and priest, and my talk was based on his poem about Holy Communion called The Invitation. I spoke without notes but a scripted version follows. First, the poem itself:

“Come ye hither all, whose taste
Is your waste;
Save your cost, and mend your fare.
God is here prepar’d and drest,
And the feaste
God, in whom all dainties are.

Come ye hither all, whom wine
Doth define,
Naming you not to your good:
Weep that you have drunk amisse,
And drink this,
Which before you drink is bloud.

Come ye hither all, whom pain
Doth arraigne,
Bringing all your sinnes to sight:
Taste and fear not: God is here
In this cheer
And on sinne doth cast the fright.

Come ye hither all, whom joy
Doth destroy,
While ye graze without your bounds:
Here is joy that drowneth quite
Your delight,
As a floud the lower grounds.

Come ye hither all, whose love
Is your dove,
And exalts you to the skie:
Here is love, which having breath
Ev’n in death,
After death can never die.

Lord I have invited all,
And I shall
Still invite, still call to thee:
For it seems but just and right
In my sight,
Where is all, there all should be.

Oh no! I’m sure you all know the feeling. That invite you had such a buzz about accepting but was such a disappointment. That one more drink that sent you over the edge. That painful hangover as a result. That amorous adventure that was frankly out of order. That romance that was going to be for ever until reality dawned.

It’s all so much the world of today. So I wonder if it’s good news or bad news, if you’d like to turn to George Herbert’s poem The Invitation, to discover that it was just the same 400 years ago when he wrote it. Come ye hither all, whom wine doth define, naming you not to your good: weep that you have drunk amisse. Come ye hither all, whom pain doth arraigne, bringing all your sinnes to sight. Come ye hither all, whom joy doth destroy, while ye graze without your bounds. Come ye hither all, whose love is your dove, and exalts you to the skie. Old language, but the same message. Oh dear.

The thing about Herbert though was that he wasn’t just a courtier who’s seen it all. He was a priest, a famously devout one, who also saw through it to something else, something better. He wasn’t going to give up on invitations, on parties: he just saw that there was a better sort. Another sort of feast in which all our desires are really satisfied. Like the Prodigal Son really, though Hebert thankfully saw the light before he was eating acorns in the mud.

This new sort of invitation comes from God, and takes up the idea that to be with him when his kingdom comes is like being at a great party where everyone of every sort is welcome and has the time of their lives – but without the downside of doing it our way. Feasting without being locked into a world of consumption and waste. Drinking, but no remember not to forget. Forgiveness not fear when we get it wrong. Relationships that get it right. Love that lasts for ever.

Now you are perfectly at liberty to think that talk like this is pie in the sky. No-one, certainly not me, is telling you that you have to believe Jesus’ message of a new sort of life that is more than rolling around in the mud.

But if you do choose to live as a secularist, be ready for the consequences. If things like God and goodness are just our imaginings – and each to their own, then when the terrorist strikes who’s to say that they’re wrong? And if we’re just the product of our genes and free will is an illusion, the whole idea of choice, responsibility and morality doesn’t make sense anyway. And in the immortal words of Private Frazer, we’re doomed, we’re all doomed.

Choose that bleak world if you want: because you see, I do believe that we have choice, that we are moral beings, that we have the freedom to dare a good future. So I want you to choose, even if your choice is not mine.

But I invite you, if choice is real, to choose something really worth living for; to accept the invitation to the party that redefines the world. Today, in being confirmed and coming to communion, our candidates are accepting that invitation. They’re making a start on the greatest adventure that life can bring. Choosing such a future of inclusive welcome and responsible adventure, and even leading others in choosing it, is close to the heart of the spirit of this school. What it means to you isn’t what it will mean when you’re old and wrinkly like me – but thank goodness for that. You’re making a start and now’s the time to go for it with all the verve of youth.

And to the rest of you, fourteen or twice forty, you too can choose to accept the invitation today. For as Herbert put it, where is all there all should be.