Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 20 October 2013
Evensong & Benediction on the Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity, 20 October 2013
Readings: Nehemiah 8. 9 – end and John 16. 1-11
This evening I’d like to begin with a text that that doesn’t appear in either of the readings but which I think draws them together. Then I’d like to go on to think about a major question in the life of the church especially for us in the catholic tradition.
First the text: Matthew 17.4 ‘Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
This question is asked by S Peter on the Mount of the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John are granted a vision of the Lord’s true nature while he is with them in the flesh. What baffles the modern hearer is the reference to booths. Why should anyone witnessing such an extraordinary thing want to build a shelter? Answer: Because that’s what Jews do. Jews have the ancient tradition of building booths to commemorate the makeshift dwellings that they built as they made their slow progress towards the Promised Land. Day by day they had shelter and one day they would have a shelter they’d never have to leave. They’d be home. Go past any synagogue in September/October and you’ll often see a shelter built in the grounds. Jews will be celebrating Succoth, the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. The booths are an important sign of a theological truth. God is with them. No wonder then in Nehemiah this evening there is rejoicing. Nehemiah and Ezra in 4C BC restored the nation and its institutions after the Persian exile. Booths had pride of place.
God’s presence is just as much a truth for us. Jesus is the Emmanuel (‘God with us’). John’s gospel articulates this in a word that is used over and over again: ‘abide’. ‘Abide’ occurs 10 times in chapter 15 alone: ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love’ (v 9). John’s readers needed to know this because as we heard in chapter 16 this evening there would be places in which they would not abide. They wouldn’t be abiding in the synagogues. They’d be thrown out. They might not be abiding on earth much longer because of persecution. The disciples would soon no longer abide with the earthly Jesus: ‘Now I am going to him who sent me …’ he says. Abiding here is temporary. Abiding with the Father in heaven is eternal.
So far (theologically) so good. God is with us. He abides with us. We are to abide with him. For us the sign of abiding going forward is the Church. Just as it was the vocation of the Jews to be the sign of God’s abiding presence (‘Let us go with you because we have heard that God is with you’ [Zechariah 8.23]) so the Church as the New Jerusalem has taken over this role. The Church is our spiritual home or rather it’s a halfway house offering both a home now yet also schooling us for our eternal home in heaven. Just as the Transfiguration prefigured the resurrection so the Church represented by our buildings is a foretaste of heaven. In the catholic tradition these buildings aren’t just assembly rooms or meeting houses. They speak of glory both in their architecture, decoration and liturgy. This church along with the Annunciation Marble Arch and St Cyprian’s says this loud and clear.
The building of these churches went hand in hand with the re-foundation of religious communities (monks and nuns) in the Church of England. The catholic tradition in our church owes a lot to the questions posed by those who went on the Grand Tour in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Visiting Continental Europe churchmen asked the question: ‘Where do we see churches like the Church of England in France, Germany and Italy?’ Well, they didn’t. And one of the biggest gaps in the English church landscape was convents and monasteries. So some rose to the challenge: the likes of Fr Upton Richards and Mother Harriet Brownlow Byron founded the All Saints Sisters of the Poor here in 1851 eight years before this church was consecrated. The assumption that I grew up with as a young person in a catholic parish was that when it comes to the spiritual life of the Church monks and nuns are the real deal. My parish priest used to say to me: ‘If you want to learn how to pray, stay close to the religious.’
Over the years I’ve tried to do that, yet barring a miracle the days of monasteries and convents are probably over. The existing communities in the Church of England may be gone in our lifetime. The convent across the road closed ten years or so ago. This presents us with a spiritual crisis. If monks and nuns are the exemplars and guardians of our prayer life; if the regular spiritual discipline of Morning and Evening Prayer and frequent communion in parish churches is a reflection of the fuller liturgical round of the convent chapel then what is the future of the Church Catholic for us in parishes? Are we a moon without a sun? If we are then a major part of our life is finished.
But it’s worth bearing in mind why the monastic life has declined – and this is true not just in the Church of England but for the Church in the western world generally. Two things have marked their decline. The first is that in many ways single sex communities appealed to people who (to put it coyly as we used to say) weren’t ‘the marrying kind’. And if you didn’t want to marry but had high ideals and wanted to change the world, then what better way to do it than in community? But we aren’t in 1850 now we’re in 2013. Now there’s hardly any stigma about being single. Gay people live openly, form civil partnerships and soon will marry. Gender is no bar to going into medicine, teaching or social work. The second reason for the decline is that many communities were hermetically sealed. They were worlds on their own. With the windows closed and the blinds down they turned in on themselves and became toxic.
So those who pray regularly and do so in their churches are now the real deal, the ones who keep the lamps lit and the symbols of God’s abiding alive. This is an exciting prospect because it means that we’re able to adapt the tradition in ways that meet the lives of those in which our buildings are set. At the Annunciation there is now Midday Prayer at 12.30pm every day apart from Tuesday when there’s a mass. It’s usually led by a lay person. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament has started monthly. Perhaps it may be more frequent in the future. In a 24/7 culture Central London parishes like this and our neighbours can rediscover what it means not to be a pale reflection of something else but offering something distinct in their own right. This is the booth. It’s well that we’re here. True joy and deep prayer will draw others in. This is our mission.