“The Lord is here?”

Address given on 13 September 2020

Readings Numbers 21: 4-9; Philippians 2: 6 – 11; John 3: 13-17

On Friday. very many people in the United States, and elsewhere, marked the 19th Anniversary of 9/11 – the deliberate destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and the loss of those who were working in them.

And, among the coverage of that anniversary, I came across a story about the “Ground Zero Cross” – a 20 foot section of steel girder, with its cross bar, which had been discovered among the debris of the North Tower, and which clearly resembled the empty cross of Christ.
Once this structure had been exposed, it quickly became a sort of shrine for those working on the site.
And, for many a it was a powerful sign of Christian hope – that just as the pain and desolation of Good Friday would lead on to the resurrection and new life, so the pain and desolation of 9/11 would not have the final say – life would flourish again, albeit a life changed by experience;
human kindness and resilience would shine through that initial sense of hopelessness.

Archbishop Rowan Williams – who happened to be in New York at the time of the attacks – was asked the question “where was God that day?” And after a moment of thought, he pointed to those selfless acts of bravery and compassion and said “there” – in that “selfless” and “self-giving” human response” God’s love was realised.

And if that seems a slightly evasive answer, then I’d want to defend it on the grounds that it brings us right back to the message of the Cross – and victory won over evil not by a dramatic show of power and divine intervention, but through human cost and self—giving, human suffering giving way to hope.

And so, back in 2001, for many working to clear what remained of the twin towers, and many others since, that Steel girder Cross made absolute sense – and was blessed as “symbol of hope for all”.

But that wasn’t quite true. The organisation known as “American Atheists” – the US equivalent of our “National Secular Society” – quickly objected to the presence of any religious symbol on what is, clearly a public space.
What represents a symbol of hope to some, suggests a kind of “power-grab” to others who don’t identify with that symbol. And in the end, it took two Supreme Court judgement to rule that the Cross should stay, and it now stands in front of the” 9/11 Memorial and Museum” – where it can be seen either as a religious symbol of hope, or as an important historic artefact.

In the context of our own observance of Holy Cross Day, it’s worth noting the strength of reaction to that cross – positive and negative. Although there were, and are, presumably plenty of people who remain indifferent to it – the symbol of the cross does have the power to disturb.

It doesn’t quite fit with our notions of how societies work – of human achievement and success.
The cross, after all, is first and foremost a symbol of shame: it’s only through the lens of Christian faith that it become more than that.
And if you don’t accept that faith,
or don’t really understand it, then it must seem a truly bizarre symbol on which to pin our hopes.

Growing up in 1970s Lancashire, I remember well the tradition of Whit Walks – when the Cross of Christ was carried proudly in procession, following the band through the streets – to the amusement of some, and the bafflement of others – and with a slight tinge of triumphalism about it. If I’m honest, it felt more like a show of strength – a demonstration that the Church was still there – rather than a demonstration of God’s presence among us.

But then the potential for different reactions and emotions evoked by the Cross is right there in our readings; “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Clearly the brass serpent that Moses raised up was both a symbol of hope and of power – those who were bitten by snakes expected that symbol to save and protect them.
And Jesus, John suggests, is “lifted up” both in the literal sense – to his death on the cross – but also in the sense of being exalted; raised up to eternal glory.
At the cross God’s power is displayed,
but through human weakness,
and the self-giving love of Jesus himself.
And here the Cross and the scriptures reflect something of our human nature. We have a tendency to “lift up” certain individuals – either as being worthy of our respect and admiration, or in order to “make an example” of someone to be shamed and punished.

The media sometimes delight in building up some new celebrity – in the arts, or sport or politics, and then knocking them down again – hounding them until their human failings are plain for all to see.
And all of us, consciously or otherwise, are inclined to “build up” those who stand for what we are thinking – to praise them as champions of our cause, without always questioning their judgement, whereas the painful truth will sometimes be that they, and we, are wrong!

Just as the disciples didn’t want to believe him, when Jesus told them he must be killed, we will sometimes have to wrestle with our own thoughts and emotions in the pursuit of truth and wisdom.

The cross of Christ points to the fact that there was only ever one man, Jesus himself, who was without reproach, and who truly deserves our admiration and devotion.
The way of the Cross – the Christian life – is as difficult as it is rewarding. It requires us to follow Christ’s own example – to give ourselves to the service of others, in ways that will not always win us approval or acceptance.

Yet it’s in that self-giving – and in the dogged pursuit of truth and justice – that we experience the depths of human compassion and resilience, and that the depths of God’s love is revealed.
And in that revelation lies the true power of the Cross.

In New York, in Wilton – made of metal or of wood – the Cross becomes a symbol of hope when it is seen to be the focus of both divine love and compassionate, human action.

As we continue to adapt to the evolving trials of Covid 19, and to other challenges in our national life,
the Cross of Christ calls us to respond with that same self-giving compassion and, in whatever ways we can, to turn that compassion into action.

Just as in New York, in the weeks that followed 9/11, that is where God will be found today.

Rebuilding with “living stones”

Address given on 5 July 2020, at the first public worship since “lockdown” began.

The picture on the screen behind me is called “living stones” – and, if you can’t see it, I’ll describe it a series of human-like figures forming a bridge – with a central arch and two uprights – and spanning a ravine.
Across the top of the bridge, another figure appears to be leading yet others who are carrying goods of some kind, their “shared burden”.

And it’s meant to symbolise for us the “living stones” of the Church – and to reflect our dependence on, and obligation to, each other.

There’s also a background theme of wisdom:
it takes wisdom to know that we need to cooperate, in the way that’s depicted here – to recognise that none of us can do everything by ourselves;
it takes wisdom to know how to cooperate – to recognise that not all of us can do any one thing equally well;
It takes wisdom to know where each of us fits within the whole structure.

If one of the girders of our bridge suddenly felt like a stroll across the top instead, then we’d either be faced with a gaping hole, and a rather ominous sagging at one end,
or else one of the other pieces would be forced into taking the strain instead, which may well be too great for them.

There’s wisdom, then, in recognising the particular skills and strengths that we each possess – and those we don’t – and there’s wisdom then in using those skills in the most effective and supportive way that we can.

One of the great lessons of the past few weeks is that everything may suddenly change, and that different circumstances call for a different kind of structure in order to provide what is needed.

One of the biggest challenges – when lockdown kicked in – was that many of those who are normally most active in our community – the army of retired volunteers who serve on committees, run community groups, provide drivers for the Link scheme and so on – they were suddenly taken out of the picture and told firmly to stay at home. And some of them then needed help themselves just to acquire the basics.
We’re feeling the effects of that restriction now in church, as we try to reopen without the majority of our volunteers and with many of our congregations still shielding.

What’s been interesting, more generally, is that when the need arose – other people came into the frame: the response team here in Wilton has been superb;
and also that those who were “locked down” – and prevented from doing those normal tasks – have instead found other ways to stay in touch and support each other.
Shares in the various phone and screen companies must surely have been buoyed up by the amount of traffic between us!

And, even though our normal committee meetings and social groups couldn’t happen, still a lot has been achieved from our various homes; and “virtual” meetings have gradually begun to feel less alien and more productive.

It was particularly good to be part of the Grapevine meeting, a couple of weeks ago, when not only were we able to welcome back Robin Lalonde (from his Devonshire home) but, thanks to the screen-sharing skills of Julian Lyne-Pirkis, we were all transported to Nigeria to see for ourselves the differing challenges of his work place there.

So there have been some unexpected benefits of lockdown which, if anything, have helped to strengthen our sense of connectedness – of fellowship.

The imagery of the “living stones” works well for us, I think, but what then about the concept of wisdom?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus himself introduces a note of ambiguity. He seems first to praise wisdom, but then thanks the Father for “hiding these things from the wise and intelligent”.

If wisdom is such a precious thing, why would God want to hide anything from those who are wise?

I did just check the Greek original, just in case I could helpfully blame it on the translator, but I can’t – it IS basically the same word for both wisdom and the wise.

So presumably Jesus is making some point here!

Could it be that he’s highlighting for us the difference between ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’?
There are things that we know, because we have learned them or seen them – adding up to the sum total of our knoweldge;
so too there are things that we learn from what we know – by thinking and reflecting on all that we’ve seen and heard – and from which flows wisdom.

Perhaps then it’s over-reliance on our own knowledge – on our own abilities – that Jesus is discouraging here.
True wisdom, on the other hand, draws not only on the experience and insights of other people but on God himself.
Wisdom points beyond ourselves, and deepens our relationship with one another and with God.

And it’s that collective wisdom that we need now – to help us make sense of what we’ve experienced over the past few months;
to make sense of the changing knowledge and circumstances with which each day seems to present us;
and, not least,
to work out what on earth we’re meant to do next!

That applies, I think, to our worship and our church life as much as to everything else:
it’s natural now to be craving all that we know –
to want to get back, as quickly as possible,
to all those things that we’ve been deprived of since March.
And yet, at the moment, we can’t go back to doing those things, and I’m not even sure it would be the right thing to do if we could.

If in fact we can take things slowly – over the coming weeks or months – we have a precious opportunity to reflect on whatever we’ve discovered while the churches have been closed – how we managed, or struggled, to pray alone; how we managed to “feed” ourselves in the absence of Holy Communion; how we managed to maintain that sense of fellowship from our own homes – AND what things we really couldn’t find without meeting together in church.

And with the wisdom that comes from those reflections, we can then start to rebuild the structure of our churches in the way that is right for now – and for the new circumstances that will emerge in the months ahead.

If we can, then, let’s focus not on what we are missing, but on who we are missing here.
And by that I mean those who’d normally be in church with us -some of whom will be joining us later from the other end of the camera – but also the far greater number of others who have been watching our services, and following the daily prayers I’ve been posting online.

As we begin to expand our activities again, can we continue to support them?
Can we make space for them within our structures, so that they too can become “living stones” – and support us in return?

Clearly, there is a limit to what we can do – too much weight on the bridge and it will buckle and give way: but that’s where the collective wisdom comes into to play again – in discerning where and how to channel the skills and energies that we have.

We are yoked together in Christ’s service – but, he assures us, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light:
if we are wise, we will learn to carry just what we need,
and how to share the load, so that we all may flourish,
and together build up a ‘spiritual house’ to his glory.

THE CHURCH IS OPENING!

From 4th July we begin the gradual process of “unlocking” our churches.

We want to do this safely for all involved and so will be starting small, beginning with the Parish Church, and taking each step carefully.

A thorough Risk Assessment has been undertaken and measures put in place to ensure social distancing and minimal risk of contamination..

Beginning of SUNDAY 5TH JULY, there will be MORNING PRAYER at 10.45am.
(This will be a relatively short service 35/40 mins. and will not include Holy Communion.)

We will also be open for PRIVATE PRAYER on WEDNESDAYS from 9 – 10am.

We believe that our church is now as safe as it can be, and look forward to gathering for worship again!

Saving God,
open the gates of righteousness,
that your pilgrim people may enter
and be built into a living temple
on the cornerstone of our salvation,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.