“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.