Sermon preached on 26th February 2017 (George Herbert Commemoration).
Readings: Revelation 19: 5-9 Matthew 11: 25-end
There aren’t many Vicars who could claim, like Jesus, to be able to walk on water. And yet both of the clergy (officiating) here this morning DID just that last week!
The Wood family spent the last few days of half term in the small village of Karesuando, which straddles the border of Finland and Sweden, with a river running through the middle. The national border is exactly half way across the road bridge which joins the two river banks – and the river itself was frozen solid and covered in snow.
And so it was that, in a matter of minutes, we were able to walk from Sweden to Finland – and from one time zone to another – across the frozen waters of the Muonio river!
It was while we were staying there, on the Friday evening, that I saw perhaps the most amazing sight that I’ve ever experienced. And what I saw – was a vision of my wife.
Now, if I stopped there, she would probably quite pleased – but I haven’t finished the sentence.
What I saw was a vision of my wife scampering up a snow-clad hillside, apparently with the boundless energy of a hyperactive gazelle. And that’s not something we’re used to seeing!
What was responsible for this uncharacteristic turn of speed, however, was the appearance of the Northern lights overhead.
This is something that she has long dreamed of seeing – and we were fortunate to be treated to one of the best displays there for some time.
I have to confess that I didn’t respond in quite the same way – either in terms of speed or enthusiasm. The lights were very beautiful – but I found myself standing there in the same way I might stand alongside the Eiffel Tower, or the Coliseum in Rome – recognising something I’ve seen many timed on TV and then seeing it “for real”. I knew this was something special – but it didn’t really “reach” me deep down.
For me there were other moments which touched me more profoundly – encounters with the local people and animals – and a sense of “connection” despite their living in a very different culture from our own.
And it occurs to me that if the wonders of creation – if the beauty and mystery of nature – can speak to each of us so powerfully, but in such different ways, the same must also true of the ways in which God reveals himself to us.
If we do not all respond to the same experiences in the same way – then presumably we will not all be brought closer to God by the same sights or sounds or ideas.
One of the important challenges then, as we head into Lent this week, is for each of us to rediscover what it is that feeds us as an individual – what is it that causes us to stop and stare in wonder – what makes us feel spiritually alive?
In doing so we can gain a stronger sense of our identity – of what really makes us the people we are. And we can also learn more about the God who formed us – not only from our own experiences, but by noticing the wonder in other people’s eyes, as they respond to the things that move them most.
The question of identity – and other people – came into focus in a rather bizarre way, through the equally challenging utterances of Donald Trump.
On the day after our family had walked across the invisible border between Finland and Sweden, he attempted to strengthen his call for stronger border controls in the USA with the words “just look what happened in Sweden last night”.
Well, as far as we could see, not much happened in Sweden that night – except that it snowed a lot and everyone stayed indoors – apart from mad dogs and Englishmen seeking the Northern lights!
And I just want to take a moment to think about this whole question of borders – and of whom we should allow in or keep out of each nation.
From the perspective of the US – it’s surely worth recalling that almost all acts of violence in America are committed by Americans, not by immigrants. Even on the question of religious extremism, I think that is true: those of us old enough to remember the 1990s will almost certainly recall the WACO massacre. No Muslim terrorist or immigrant of any race or creed has ever caused such loss of life as occurred then.
Meanwhile, in Africa, just 6 years after Sudan and South Sudan separated into different nations – in order to ease tensions between Muslim and Christian communities – those religious differences have been replaced by tribal tensions and civil war of different kind.
The famine which now threatens the lives of Sudan’s children is entirely manmade – a result of people trying to define more and more tightly who is “us” and who is “them”.
In Sudan and South Sudan, establishing clear borders has NOT resulted in security and peace – quite the opposite.
“Keeping out foreigners” is not the solution to the social ills of either continent.
The way we order society within each nation – the way we value other people, inside our borders and beyond, – are far more important to our long term security and peace.
I haven’t yet mentioned George Herbert, our local holy man, whom we commemorate today, so just one more though!
As a politician and public speaker he was well versed in the ways of the world – the way people jockeyed for power and influence.
As a poet and musician he knew how to move the heart and inspire the soul.
As a pastor here, in what was then a tiny rural community, he was very much aware of the natural rhythms and cycles of agricultural life.
For him there was no separation between the world of faith and the concerns of everyday life.
For him there was no distinction between rich and poor – all were welcome, all were accountable to each other and to God, and all were equally in need of God’s love and forgiveness.
And it seems to me that’s not a bad vision for both our church and our society at large – the aspiration that both might allow us to be ourselves without condemnation – and to marvel at the world as we see it and be valued for those things.
Jesus said “Come to me all you that are weary and I will give you rest. Learn from me and you will find rest for your souls.”
Perhaps, during Lent, each of us can aim to accept that invitation for ourselves – to find our rest, our space, in the presence of God – and then, in our encounters with other people, to extend that same welcome and reassurance to all who come looking.