Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
22nd Jan 2017
Epiphany 3 (2017)
One thing I have asked of the Lord that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. Psalm 27.4
I used to visit a monastery near Newbury in Berkshire, Elmore Abbey, about two hours from London. It was a place where I could hear myself, and in the course of a little time hear God, too. But it would always take me about a day before I could get properly quietened, and I would then begin to hear things that I couldn’t hear in my normal semi-distracted state. I could begin to see things a bit more clearly and notice things that would otherwise pass me by. This was truly restful. And all this within a framework of proper rest and regular prayer.
Life today, whether we live it alone or in family groups, with partners or friends, whether our lives are frantically busy or whether we spend time alone is said to be more stressful that it’s ever been. This stress can gnaw away at us, and sap our vital energies. The ‘phone might ring and it could as easily be a friend or loved one who is offering a welcome ‘hello’ or as possibly the offer to reconnect you to another gas supplier at a discount rate, or even perhaps a wrong number. A letter through the door might be sent with loving greetings or it might be another one of those letters offering you a platinum credit card, or telling you that a local estate agent is interested in buying your property. All sorts of things can go wrong during the day and many of them are beyond our immediate control. The stress build up insidiously.
After my first day at the monastery I became aware not only of the quietness but also of the fine detail of my surroundings. In particular I remembered the way in which the monastery chapel was built. It was even then only twenty years old but it resembled an great old medieval barn; and made entirely of oak. The huge wooden oak beams and buttresses were held together by misshapen wooden pegs. The oak was seasoned and matured oak, which when originally used for building is really quite soft and useless. It had to be weathered and left out of doors for two or three years before being used. What becomes green oak is an organic material which expands and contracts with the atmosphere and then hardens, and then becomes very hard and becomes a tough skeleton for a building that will likely last for centuries. I was reminded of the hymn to God as ‘the strength and stay upholding all creation’. The oak joints are more than capable of holding up and holding together the strong pressures that push against them. The apparent cracks that you see in the wood aren’t cracks at all but wooden stretch marks. This is a result of the building’s having expanded and contracted. It literally grows into its place. It lives! How appropriate that house of prayer should display these characteristics!
That barn, that place of regular and sustained prayer, was a visual sign for me for the existence of the Church as a body of faith and an organic whole. It was like an upturned boat or the inside of Jonah’s whale. It tells us that what holds us strongly together is the unity God gives us in which is His gift of himself to us. For we are the body of Christ, knit together, bonded and united and made into an organic whole “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread’. It is in the wholeness, the completeness of God that our lives find their wholeness and completeness. The Creator and the created (you and me) are to become one in love and trust.
This morning’s psalmist expresses this great movement as a prayer that he may live in the house of God all the days of his life. For within this house lies God himself, the One who alone gives life and ‘peace which passes all understanding’. The poet William Blake converts this message into a practice when he says, “We are put on this earth a little space to bear the beams of love”.
In the middle of this service we share a sign of peace with one another, a greeting; usually a hand shake, and this is begun when the priest says ‘We are the body of Christ. By one spirit we were all Baptised into one body. Let us keep the unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace.’ This unity and these bonds of peace are like those wooden pegs that hold the monastery structure together. Life today often places us under great strain, and the reaching out, the offering of the hand in the sign of peace is an expression of solidarity with the those outside of yourself, the wider community, whose members have all at some time or another suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and who are like you also ‘bearing the beams of love’. May we like the psalmist, learn to live in the house of God all our days. May that inhabitation be for our spiritual health, like the habitation of my barn monastery. May it be a source of healing and love as it invites us to a prayerful response to the presence of God, the centring of our being with an active willingness on our own part to ‘bear the beams of love’.