“Running up the down escalator!”

Address given on 25 October 2020 (“Bible Sunday”)

Readings: Romans 15: 1-6 and Luke 4: 16-24

Last Sunday saw the enthronement of the 98th Archbishop of York – Stephen Cottrell. And while he may not have that much influence on us, in this southern Province of Canterbury, he is nevertheless an interesting character.

I once heard him preach at St Paul’s Cathedral – back in 2011, when it was surrounded by Occupy London protesters in their multi-coloured tents – but that service sticks in my mind mostly because of the sermon. And I have to confess, for me that is usually NOT the case!

9 years on and I remember him giving both a very erudite reflection on Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, and also a very human recollection of his childhood.
As a 10 or 11 year old, he said, he enjoyed nothing more than going with his friends to the local shopping centre and indulging in the slightly risky challenge of “running up the down escalator” – pitting himself against the motion of the machinery, and hoping he didn’t meet anyone else trying to come down.

And that “gravity-defying” experience, he said, was rather like that of Christian ministry – which at one and the same time can be both exhilarating and exhausting!
I don’t know if that image is still in his mind as he begins his new ministry as an Archbishop – but there’s no doubt that, like the rest of us, he will face a challenging time in the months and years ahead.

As he spoke on last Sunday, there were two themes that struck a chord with me, and that seem to resonate with this morning’s readings for “Bible Sunday”.

He spoke of the Church as a place where we are called to demonstrate our love, for each other and for our neighbour, through generosity of spirit and active concern for the weak and vulnerable. He spoke of his determination that the Church of England would respond to the recent report on Sexual Abuse not just with hand-wringing and apologies, but with real systematic change. And I’m quite sure that determination will last.

In the context of Covid 19, he described the wearing of face masks as an act love – something which may be inconvenient and sometimes seriously annoying to most of us, but potentially life-saving to some. And so, to paraphrase St Paul, “those who are strong ought to put up with it, for the sake of those who are at risk”.
And I think that applies to other aspects of our church life too. Ever since July, when we took our first steps back into public Worship, there’ve been frustrations for us, both at the things we can’t do yet, and at the way that certain things have to be done differently. And for those of us leading worship, the need to re-think absolutely everything – from wedding rings to Communion wafers, to shorter services without service sheets – that’s all been pretty exhausting. And, sadly, unlike the Archbishop’s escalator game it hasn’t also been quite so exhilarating.

I know that some people are disappointed that I have followed the guidelines quite so firmly – and yet I have to say that I am disappointed that anyone might expect me not to.
Protecting the weak and vulnerable is absolutely at the heart of our faith – not just in the words of St Paul but in Christ’s own ministry and teaching.

And that does mean sometimes doing without things, or doing what we’d prefer not to – seeking through our worship to build up those of our neighbours who most need it, and not just seeking to please ourselves.
The alternative would be to cut the vulnerable adrift and cater for the healthy – and I’m really not sure how that could be seen as a demonstration of our love for each other, and for our neighbour.

The second thing that I picked out from the Archbishop’s comments was that it is his job “to bring alive the Christian message of hope” – again perhaps something of an “uphill sprint” just now but one to which all Christians are called.

As many people, perhaps most people, struggle to grasp the reality of the situation we’re living through – let alone what the future might look like – being able to offer some sense of hopefulness is vital.

And as we celebrate Bible Sunday an obvious place for us to look for that message will be in the pages if Scripture, as Jesus himself did to inhabit the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news”.

There is, though, a question of how we do that – of how we offer hope into a context of mixed emotions and fears and levels of understanding.

It’s tempting to start with Scripture and to pull out the things we think people need to hear.
But shouldn’t we really focus on discovering what people are really interested in or concerned about, before we start offering any suggested answers?

Answering questions that no-one is asking cannot bring hope – at best it just leaves us talking to ourselves.

Just as our worship is at its richest when we bring all of our lives before God – “warts and all” – so our use of Scripture is most powerful when we acknowledge the things we’re struggling with, or that we can’t make sense of, and then “mine the tradition” – searching the Bible for meaning that resonates with reality.
Pray the Psalms – with their very earthy mix of despair, of anger, of resilient faith, of hope and salvation.
Read the Gospels with their central message of love triumphant over hatred, of good over evil, of light shining through the deepest darkness.
And if we can do that not only with our own experiences, but also for those of our neighbours, then perhaps we can bring that sense of hope that is so desperately needed.

Just to be clear then, I am not encouraging you to follow the boy Stephen’s example and heading into town to run up the down escalators – you may be relieved to hear!

But I do want us to share his aspiration to be bringers of hope – to do everything we can to listen to those around us, to gauge what the real challenges are, and then to offer some meaning and perspective from the story of our faith;
to express that faith in a way which will be understood and make sense to our neighbours;
to recognise the good things that are happening out there among out neighbours –
the acts of love and self-sacrifice that are too easily taken for granted,
and so to draw hope, and give hope, by celebrating and giving meaning to those things too.

This Bible Sunday reminds us then of both
the rich treasury of our faith –
and the need for humility in sharing that faith.

We do not have all the answers –
we cannot solve all the problems of our community,
let alone the world at large,
but we can be part of that solution.

Our scriptures and our faith give us a unique perspective on the events unfolding around us all.
We are called to offer that perspective
– as ably and as sensitively as we can.

Marking time..

Address given on Sunday 11 October 2020 – marking the 17th Anniversary of Wilton Parish Church’s Dedication

I think it’s fair to say that this anniversary year
has NOT quite unfolded as planned!
Concerts, social events, fund-raising campaign – so many things have been either shelved or postponed as we react to the unplanned events of 2020.

Who would ever have imagined this House of Prayer being closed to the public, or our celebrations of Easter here being cancelled?

And one of the consequences for this Dedication Festival is that I can’t do my usual trawl through the Visitors Book or comments on TripAdvisor – because this year there aren’t any!

So instead, I want to reflect on some of the things that have kept us busy over the past 6 months,
and where this Parish Church now sits in relation to the town it serves, and those many other people who feel some kind of connection to it.
As you will know from experience, this year has demanded a certain amount of creative thinking –
faced with a wall of things we can’t now do, we’ve had to invent new ways to achieve the same goals.
Our efforts to be a parish church – and to reach as many of our neighbours as we can – have most recently involved the filming and then posting online of services like this one.

And within that process I discovered a new phrase. Whenever I take the basic file from the recorder, and ask my computer to convert it into a suitable format for our website and Facebook page, the same phrase pops up.

As I click a button that says “export”, a little blue line appears on the screen, to indicate progress – and above it the two words “consuming” and “time”.

It usually takes 30 – 40 minutes to complete that process, so you’ll see why I’ve had time to notice them!
And it occurred to me, while twiddling my thumbs, that depending on where you put the emphasis, those two words could mean quite different things.

I assume it’s meant as “consuming time” –
the time taken for the computer programme to consume the information on my memory card.
But switch the emphasis to the second word, and it suggests a more intriguing concept of
consuming time itself!

And I wondered what would happen if I applied my little word game to the world outside my study.

“Consuming time” makes a lot of sense,
having witnessed this week’s relaunch of Wilton Shopping Village as The Guild. Their marketing has been very skilful, with new road signs, and enticing images on Facebook and Instagram clearly designed to draw us there, and to prompt some conspicuous consumption.

And if we wander into Salisbury,
or one of the larger shopping centres,
we’re likely to observe not only those in the act of spending money and acquiring things,
but also those who seem to draw their retail therapy simply from the atmosphere,
consuming the experience of being there –
albeit a rather changed experience this year.

So whether we approve or not, consuming time seems to be very much a part of our culture today.
But what about my rogue interpretation of consuming time? Are we in fact using well the time we’ve been given – or are other things/other people eating it all up for us?

Many of us always seem so busy –
with little time to enjoy the things we’ve acquired, or even the gifts of nature that we haven’t needed to acquire?

How much time do we spend “On hold” waiting for a real person to speak to us on the phone?
How much time do we spend in meetings or filling in forms before we can actually get on and do something?
How much time do we lose, waiting for our internet provider to actually provide internet access?
How much time to we waste sitting in the traffic queue o the Wilton Road, wondering why our 2 minute journey home is taking for like 20?!

Clearly we can’t only do the things we find fulfilling and avoid those tedious things that have to be done – lovely though that would be – but it’s worth checking the balance now and then.

Are we doing certain things because they are necessary and helpful – to us or to someone else? Or are we doing them just because we think we really ought to?
And if it IS out of a sense of duty – rather than necessity – then we need to be careful, so that we don’t wind up worn-out, confused and no use to anyone.

In the life of a church – an anniversary, such as the one we celebrate now, is as good an opportunity as any to take stock and assess what we are doing, and how we do it.

As we celebrate 175 years of life in this building – are we busily intent now on preserving this building for another 175 years? Or is there more to it?

On one level, we can’t avoid that challenge of maintaining this building, – or the meetings and form-filling involved in keeping it safe.

But might this anniversary also inspire us
to refresh our sense of purpose –
to reflect on the people who’ve cared for and worshipped in his church since 1845,
why they did so,
and what it is we think we’re doing when we come here?

Isn’t the surest way to ensure that this building is still standing in the year 2195 to celebrate the life that is here now, and to try and build on it?

And if we can’t do all those things we used to do,
then let’s seize any new opportunities that arise and do whatever we can now do as well as we can, with whoever wants to be a part of it all.

The chief priests and scribes in today’s gospel reading clearly saw themselves as guardians of the Temple – fulfilling their duty by repelling all innovation or criticism.
And there’s perhaps a warning for us, who know this place so well, not to allow ourselves to become guardians of the past but instead to seek to be enablers of the present.

At this time we have to “guard” the way this church is used, in order to avoid infection. We can’t open our doors every day as we used to. And yet, even without the Morning Prayers that 4 or 5 of us used to offer here each day, easily ten times that number of people ARE now connecting with our daily prayer online.
Even when it is locked, this Parish Church can still be a focus for prayer.
As with so many things in 2020,
we’ve stumbled across new ways of doing things – which may yet prove to be temporary;
or a better alternative to what existed before;
or, more likely, a new opportunity to add alongside the tried and tested.

The important thing is that we don’t denigrate those things when they seem to appeal more to others than to us – “perfect praise”, Jesus suggests, may be found in the most surprising of places and people.

This Temple to God’s glory is not just for us, and neither is it the only place in Wilton where God is to be found.

God is not contained in THIS house,
any more than in the Temple that Solomon built –
and yet, still, his presence can be felt here,
can be seen here reflected in glass and stone –
and can be communicated from here,
through camera lens and phone or computer screen.

Let us give thanks then for the vision of Sidney Herbert and Ekaterina Voronstov, in providing this church
as a window on the reality of God’s presence on earth,
and a glimpse of the life of heaven.

And let us always aim for beauty and truth in our worship, so that there are moments when we find ourselves lifted beyond time – and resting in the timeless presence of God.