Sermon for Evensong & Benediction – Epiphany 3 Sunday 20 January 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: 1 Samuel 3.1-20; Ephesians 4.1-16
“The lamp of God had not yet gone out.”
During our post-Christmas break in the North East, we spent an afternoon visiting Ushaw College near Durham. Beyond a belt of trees which screen it from the road and the nearby former pit villages, you come to an imposing central Georgian block; flanked on one side by a great Gothic chapel and on the other by a library in similar style.. There is a cloister and newer buildings erected at a time when the place was booming as the seminary for the Roman Catholic Church in the North of England; its priest factory; its spiritual power house.
But just like the collieries, the seminary is no more. The college is being reinvented as a heritage centre. The library holds the archives of northern Roman Catholicism. The original Pugin chapel is a theatre. Durham University uses part of the building for a music centre. Visitors can take afternoon tea in the refectory where students once ate, or in the reading room, or stay the night in rooms once occupied by the priests who taught there.
As we walked around we came to the main chapel. The original – also by Pugin – had been replaced by Hansom – the designer of the cab which bore his name. Pugin’s high altar was retained and a lamp burned there to show that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in the tabernacle. The chapel at least is still in use.
I was reminded of the passage at the end of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.” It’s wartime and Charles Ryder has returned as a soldier to the Brideshead he had known in earlier years. The great house has been taken over by the army and his unit is to be stationed there. The family with whom he had been so involved are either dead or dispersed; only old Nanny Hawkins is still in her room telling her beads. After visiting her, Charles finds his way to the chapel: “the art nouveau lamp burned once more before the altar….. a small red flame.”
A lamp burns in this church, too, to mark the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and as silent witness to Christ’s promise at the close of Matthew’s Gospel: “I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”
As I walked around that great building from which the glory seemed to have departed, I found myself wondering about our building. It’s about the same age. It too was built to advance the Church’s mission in this land. What might its future be? Might it end up as an arts centre, a concert venue; the Vicarage turned into a tea room and the Parish Room a gift shop?
“The word of God was rare in those days, there were not many visions.”
The boy Samuel, born in answer to his childless mother Hannah’s anguished prayer in the temple at Shiloh, has been dedicated to the service of the Lord in that same shrine. But things are far from well there. The priest Eli is old and his powers are failing. His sons Hophni and Phineas are an abusive pair, preying on pilgrims to satisfy their greed and lust. Eli does nothing to restrain them.
But “the lamp of God had not gone out yet,” he was not done with his people yet. He is raising up a new prophet so that his word will be heard again; so that the vision of faith may be renewed and the people led into the next phase of their life as God’s chosen. This prophet is the boy Samuel – as yet too young to know the Lord whose voice he hears in the night; mistaking it for that of Eli. But Eli has not completely lost the plot; he remains enough of a priest to realise that it is God who has spoken to the child. So, he instructs the lad that next time he hears the voice he is to say: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” He will insist that the lad tell him what God has said; even though he suspects it will be of no comfort to him. It is God’s word and must be heard. It will speak of the death of his sons and the capture of the Ark of the Covenant – Israel’s most sacred relic– by the Philistines.
“The word of God was rare in those days, there were not many visions.”
We might well think that is true in our own day – although it may simply be the case that we prefer to shut our ears to the voice of prophecy and close our eyes to visions because they are too disturbing.
We have had our own Hophnis and Phineases who have brought shame on the Church. We have had our Elis who have turned a blind eye to scandalous conduct which has damaged lives and sullied the good name of the Church of Christ.
But that is not the whole story. There have been and still are faithful people like Hannah who pray for God’s help. There have been and still are faithful priests who have tended the lamp of God, proclaimed the word and ministered at his altar, keeping alive the memory of faith.
And our task is to remain faithful, to listen in the hours of darkness for the word of God; to make Samuel’s words our prayer: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Our task is to pray, like his mother Hannah for the gift of new life. Like Eli, we must be willing to listen to that Word from God – however challenging it may be. We must be willing to be faithful – even if all this were to be taken away from us.
The letter to the Ephesians, from which our second reading came, is written from prison. And yet it conveys a cosmic vision of the eternal purposes of God: to unite all things in heaven and earth in Christ. Could this have seemed at all possible to an apostle in chains and to a small church in the midst of an overwhelmingly pagan world?
The letter calls the Ephesians, and it calls us, to live a life worthy of that vision and of our calling: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We are to do this confident that God has given us gifts of grace for this task: apostleship, prophecy, evangelism, pastoral care and teaching. These gifts are entrusted to people “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the full measure of the stature of Christ.”
Just as the Lord was with Samuel as he grew and “let none of his words fall to the ground.,” so too, “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
God has not withdrawn these gifts from us. Day-by-day his word is proclaimed in this place; here the sacraments of his grace are ministered; here prayer is offered for the needs of the Church and the world, for communities and families, for the sick and suffering; for the dead; here troubled souls can find forgiveness and encouragement; the knowledge that God loves them whoever they are, whatever they have done or failed to do. Here people can sense the prayers of all the Hannahs who have been here before them pouring out their souls, opening their hearts to God.
At the close of “Brideshead Revisited,” Charles Ryder leaves the chapel in gloomy mood; thinking of this place where ten years earlier for him love had been lost and hopes of happiness dashed. Thinking too of the present desolation of the place, the words of Lamentations sung at Tenebrae in Holy Week come to his mind; “Quomode solo sedet civitas – How solitary sits the city,” and the world-weary refrain of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
“And yet,” he thinks, “and yet that is not the last word; it is not even an apt word; it is a dead word from ten years back.”
Something unintended has come out of the work of those who had built that house, and out of the “fierce little human tragedy” in which he had played; something none of those involved could have anticipated:
“- a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which old knights saw from their tombs………; that flame burns again for other soldiers far from home…..”
He quickens his pace and when he reaches the mess, the second-in-command says to his usually long-faced company commander: “You’re looking unusually cheerful today.”
We who minister and worship in this church, who work to sustain its life, can only have glimpses of the consequences of what we do. Much of its effect is hidden from us and will perhaps only be revealed years later, if ever, this side of heaven. But we are given glimpses and hints when people thank us for keeping the place open and maintaining its round of services.
So a major part of the reason we come here is not for ourselves but for others: so that they might leave here, their step quickened, their heads held high; feeling that God loves them and has a purpose for their lives, and is with them always. And the often unexpected side-effect of this is that we feel the same about ourselves; in contributing something or somehow to the encouragement of others, we find encouragement ourselves. We discover that the word of the Lord is not silent in our days, that there is a vision to inspire us so that we might not perish, that the lamp of God has not gone out. And we might be surprised when someone says to us: “You’re looking unusually cheerful today.”