The Sparrow Finds a Home
A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields for the memorial of Dorothy Cone
27 June 2018, by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this service: Psalm 84
It was June 2012. The afternoon of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It was a month before I was instituted at St Martin’s, after seven years in the baking heat of North Carolina. Britain was meanwhile in the middle of the greatest summer of rainfall since the days of Noah. I’d walked with my son down to the Thames to see the great flotilla of boats, but we were defeated by the crowds and the downpour. I ended up watching the TV in the Austen Williams Room, sitting next to Dorothy Cone. Dorothy was probably the first congregation member I’d met. We watched as the Queen’s boat edged sideways from the middle of the river so that she could disembark. ‘We’ve been lucky with the weather,’ said Dorothy. Beholding the torrential rain outside, I was totally baffled by this remark. ‘If it had been windy, the boat wouldn’t have been able to do that,’ she said. And she winked, a bit like Richie Benaud, and I had no idea whether she was serious or not.
That first encounter summed up my relationship with Dorothy. Everything she said was a wry observation. It was all based on her decades of knowledge about the things she knew best. And I never quite knew if she was taking me seriously or not. ‘Didn’t catch your sermon,’ she’d say – ‘I was stewarding and I had to be outside for those few minutes.’ And again, that wry half-wink. ‘Sorry I haven’t signed your most recent letter of thanks to a Christmas Appeal donor,’ I’d say. ‘It isn’t my most recent – I’ve left another five in your pigeonhole just now,’ she’d say, again with that little glint in her eye, always one step ahead, her dedication putting my work-rate to shame without her ever needing precisely to say so.
Dorothy would have made quite an impressive rebel and tearaway, because only her advanced age masked the truth that she was totally insubordinate, uniquely headstrong, fiercely competitive and intransigently protective about her sphere of influence. But the extraordinary thing is that she devoted these ungovernable characteristics to the glory of God and the flourishing of St Martin’s – the only two things that mattered, and two things that were, for her, indistinguishable.
Psalm 84 is a beautiful celebration of what it means to be in God’s presence. It talks about three kinds of happiness, and I want to explore how we find each kind represented in Dorothy’s life. ‘Happy are those,’ it says, ‘who live in your house.’ Dorothy inhabited every inch of this building, and the one next door. ‘Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself’: that’s how I think of Dorothy – a sparrow, flitting here and there, perching, distributing good things, having a quick word, a quiet word, a little word, before the action started, after the dust had settled, when the time was right. The psalm says, ‘My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.’ That’s not really Dorothy’s language. But the love in her life she found, and gave, here, right here. She adored her God, and she embodied those much-quoted words, ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God.’ ‘For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.’ You’d think this psalm had been written about Dorothy. I’m not sure she actually spent a thousand elsewhere.
But there’s a second kind of happiness, which is all about St Martin’s and was all about Dorothy. ‘Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs.’ The old translation, which Dorothy knew best, says, ‘Who, going through the place of misery, use it for a well.’ It’s one of the most poignant images in scripture. This is about pilgrimage. Imagine pilgrims walking to Jerusalem in tears, and then, on their return journey, being nourished by the pools of water generated by their tears on the outward journey. It’s about letting yourself be dispossessed of your sadness, your life’s unfulfilled ambitions, your disappointments, defeats and unresolved struggles, and letting yourself be engulfed by a bigger story, of goodness, truth and beauty, of faith, hope and love. It’s about wisdom. It’s about Dorothy Cone.
Then last there’s a third kind of happiness, tucked in right at the end. ‘O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.’ If the first happiness is about home, and the second is about the journey, this last one is fundamentally about the destination – and that destination is relationship. I’m not sure I’ve met anyone as determined as Dorothy. She was not going to retire, she was not going to leave her home, she was not going to let anyone help her sort out her affairs. Why? Because for her, St Martin’s, where she took up so many roles, all devoted to hospitality and charity and care and compassion, wasn’t in the end a building – St Martin’s was a network of relationships, where everyone was working together for a good far greater than their own comfort or their own prestige. And what is that good? Fundamentally it’s about relationship, and relationship is about trust, and for Dorothy God was a relationship of trust that underpinned and held together her whole being and everything she valued. ‘The Lord God is a sun and shield,’ says the psalm – in other words a provider of life growth in regular times and a defender and first resort in difficult times.
It’s going to be a long time before I walk into church on a Sunday or a Monday or a Wednesday or into the Charity office any day and am not expecting to see Dorothy. She embodied St Martin’s. But in her, God gave us a glimpse of three kinds of happiness. The happiness of home; the happiness of the journey; the happiness of relationship. Our past, our present and our ultimate future, all compressed into the body of this sparrow who here found a nest. Happy was this swallow; happy was this swallow; happy was this indomitable and sometimes infuriating ball bearing of passion and faith. And happy will she be forevermore.
Thank God for Dorothy Cone. Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.