A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on August 7, 2022 by Revd Richard Carter
Reading for address: Luke 9: 28-36
A week ago we held our Parish Awayday at Cuddesdon Theological College. Many of you were there. The theme was prayer. The College is set on a kind of raised plateau surrounded by the most beautiful ancient trees and beyond one looks out across Oxfordshire- you can see for miles. Every time I have been here I felt as if the place is permeated with prayer. It helps to know that great people of prayer have prayed here like Michael Ramsey and the Sisters who form a community here. Last week it helped that it was the most beautiful cloudy day which felt neither too hot or too cold- the red kites were in the sky and the birds were singing. It felt as if we were on a stage and God was the audience. And the day of prayer was reversing this it was silencing the actors- and calling us to look up and out and see the auditorium of God. And throughout the day I became more and more aware of the wonder of creation around us. How small our stage how vast this reality of God. We often see and hear only ourselves. We are locked into the stage of our own lives, our conversations, our localities , our noise, our anxieties our opinions, drowning out anything beyond us. But on this day we the actors were listening. On this day of prayer we were opened up to something so much greater and beyond us.
At the centre of the College grounds is the Bishop Edward King Chapel designed by Niall McLaughlin. Going inside its elliptical shape is filled with light. The beautiful tree-like timber columns lift your eyes to where the columns branch and form a latticed canopy high overhead – and through these bleached wooden ribs the sun light pours casting beams of refracted light and a maze of moving shadows. It is like looking up into the trees in a wood. . Again we were reminded of a God intimately with us but also so wondrously beyond us. You are part of a choir looking up to heaven. This is prayer. God with us beyond us, beyond us with us. A God who cannot be trapped or tied down. Oh if only we are attentive enough to see. If only we lift our eyes and give God space. It was a beautiful day, luminous, spacious, generous. It was a day when we allowed God in.
There are moments when its as though heaven and earth meet and it is in their interaction- and to and fro of the transcendent and the immanent each sets the other free. This chapel is like the ship of God in the air and reminds of Seamus Heaney’s poem Lightenings V111
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shimmied and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
Notice it is not simply the above which contains the divine- it is our world which Christ enters which is “marvellous”.
I have been acutely aware, as many of you must be, at the moment that things in the world around us don’t look good. And it’s hard to believe in the foreseeable future that things are going to get a whole lot better. Our Autumn Lecture Series this year is called What Am I Living For? The Search for Meaning. In the introduction to the series of lectures I write this:
We, like many people coming out of the pandemic, are wondering what we have learnt and what is the meaning we have discovered. Many have been bewildered by the horrific invasion of Ukraine, present events in the political life of our nation, the suffering in Afghanistan, the climate crisis and the predicament of migrants and refugees in every part of the world – including the grief caused by this nation’s immigration policy.
It was at a time of great moral confusion and disillusionment in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War that Viktor Frankl wrote his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, revealing the courage and hope of humanity even amidst such struggle.
What are we living for? In the western world we often like to think we have the power to fix things and fix people. We want solutions, answers, and those we can blame for the mess. But perhaps our search for meaning means living in the reality of the now, living in the midst of uncertainty with hope, living with love and generosity and grace even in the time of crisis and struggle.
Christ in today’s Gospel reminds his disciples that the kingdom of God is breaking into our world now. He does not give them a strategic plan for the future. Rather here and now in all the uncertainties and dangers they must look for God. It is a call to live provisionally, How often we become weighed down by all we accumulate and cannot let go of. How many of you look around your homes and think where did I get all this stuff. We can’t let go of it, and yet it weighs us down like hoarders. And our minds are the same weighed down by stuff -fears anxieties, and years of accumulated self-interest and defensiveness that so easily forget Christ’s return. Yet Christ repeatedly calls. He tells us not to be afraid. He tells us that the kingdom of God is pure gift. It’s not earnt or stashed away like material wealth- it goes on and on giving itself away. It is a purse that gives to the poor and never wears out – a purse that is never depleted because by giving it is always filled. The kingdom of God is generous beyond measure. Jesus tells us to give away our possessions, and to store up treasures in heaven for where our treasures are there will our hearts be also. It’s the breaking in of a wider open-hearted vision of God- life without clenched fists- life which shares its gifts, And a master who when he returns reverses the roles- waits upon us- tells us to sit down and feeds us. The call upon us is to be ready for Christ-for ourselves to be the faithful servants just as he was. In uncertainty still be ready at all times to welcome Christ at every moment. That’s our call to action. Live as if Jesus is visiting you today. He is.
Our faith is not a theory or a means of talking, or describing or even solving. It is a relationship with the world in which we live, a growing attentiveness, a deeper humility, a deepening compassion for the suffering of the world and a living with, even when we can’t answer it or solve it. It is a relationship which takes us beyond the confines of the church to seek and discover God in all his people. Our goal is not talking about the Gospel it is living it. Living Christ. Living reconciliation. When we become attentive to what we considered the places of scarcity and poverty, we begin to rediscover the grace and gifts of the eternal. Where is it that we glimpse God’s kingdom? It is when we step aside from our locked in anxieties of self-preservation and begin to discover the other- perhaps this is at a hospital bedside, or in the experience of hospitality or unconditional acceptance, or recognising the beauty and gifts of a person you have overlooked, or recognising the courage and dignity of someone who has so little material security and yet can still live so generously. Over and over again in this community of St Martin’s and among the members of our International Group I am moved by acts of kindness and generosity and the sharing of genuine care which show me Christ’s return.
Yesterday for Jamaican Independence day as part of Nazareth contemplative prayer I interviewed a member of our congregation Ruth Hutchinson, You can hear her on St Martin’s digital, she is captivating. She describes coning to England from Jamaica to work in the National Health Service in 1959 and the first time she went to church the vicar leading her out at the end said to her: “Don’t come back the congregation won’t like you coming here. The church, the house of God, has often shut Christ out- And then Ruth describes coming to St Martin’s the place she had heard on the radio in Jamaica, the place where all are welcomed and she was welcomed and loved. When you go to England you must go to that Church, St Martin’s her father had told her- her description brings tears to the eyes and makes you long even more for the whole church to live that welcome.
I want to end this reflection with an illustration of this transgiguration. All week like me perhaps some of you I have heard some of the news that the media have got hold of dripping out of the Lambeth Conference. I am sure many wonderful edifying discussions and prayers having taken place but of course what leaks out is news of division and conflict and the story that leaks most caustically of course, as it has for more than twenty years, all focused around the perceived theological moral rights and wrongs of same sex partnerships. Thankfully it seems that much of society in this country has moved on but sadly it seems the Anglican Communion has still deeply divided. And thus for many the church which should be the place of Christ’s welcome drives people away.
Yesterday there was a vision of Christ’s transfigured kingdom. On a beautiful summers day more than 200 people gathered together in a marquee beside the ancient church, we were from many different parts of the world, of all ages, and all walks of life, godchildren led the intercessions and played the trumpets, smaller kids built things with lego and brought them up to the altar as an offering, someone in the village had provided flowers from their garden, a wonderful string quartet played, friends read poems about love and psalms and bible readings- and two people who we love, simply professed their love for each other and then we shared Eucharist with baskets of bread.
They each spoke so tenderly about that love, how they never believed that they would ever find anyone they loved so much, the delight and gifts and beauty they found in each other’s company and how they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. It was beautiful to behold. We watched them commit their lives to each other, many I am sure moved to tears by the sincerity, tenderness and gentleness of their love. It was a liturgy of life in all its fulness. “What is it those Bishop’s fear?” “If only” one of my friends Cath said to me afterwards as she cradled her own child, if only instead of talking, the Anglican Bishops at Lambeth Conference could have witnessed this celebration. I don’t know how anyone would not have been moved and changed.”
I am not so optimistic but I pray her own child will grow up to witness such a church. All of us who were there at this celebration knew we were witnessing the real thing- the love of God- and on this day as two wonderful women gently holding hands committed their lives to each other in faithful love it was impossible for any of us not to feel the Spirit of God descending like a dove- “these are my beloved, in whom I delight.”
Like the day at Cuddesdon this too was one of those beautiful holy-days, luminous, spacious, generous attentive to one another, attentive to God. It was a day when we allowed God in. A day we were ready to welcome God’s coming among us. I hope and pray the Church will allow God in and our love for one another out -out to all the world.