Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany 2020
26th Jan 2020
Epiphany 3 (2020)
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.
At the beginning of each year I have often gone off to spend a few days in a monastery. It always feels like a good time to get away for a few days and to be quiet and get my head straight – it has become for me a time of reflection, and a kind of spiritual detox after the rush and tear of the Christmas festivities. I used to visit a monastery, which is about two hours from London. It would always took me about a day before I could get quiet and to ‘centre down’. I would then begin to hear things that I don’t hear in my usual distracted state. I would begin to see things a bit more clearly and notice things that would otherwise pass me by.
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 more time alone is said to be more stressful that it’s ever been. This stress can gnaw away at us, and sap 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 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 or diamond credit card, telling you that you have only to subscribe to Reader’s Digest and you could win a holiday for two in the Bahamas. All sorts of things can go wrong during the day and many of them are seemingly inescapable.
After my first day at the monastery this time I became aware not only of the quietness but also of the fine detail of my surroundings, and in particular of the way in which the monastery chapel is built. It’s actually only twenty years old but it resembles an old medieval barn; made entirely of wood. It has huge wooden oak beams and buttresses held together by wooden pegs which have been hammered in at strategic places. The whole structure has been made from seasoned and matured oak, which when originally used for building I’m told is really quite soft. It has to be weathered and is left out of doors for two or three years before it’s used. The 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 that will is likely to last for centuries. I was reminded of the hymn to God as ‘the strength and stay upholding all creation’. The skeletal planks are held together and underpinned by flimsy little wooden pegs or wedges, and these are placed strategically where joints need to be secured. And these joints are more than capable of holding up and holding together the strong pressures and forces that push against them. Just like the human body. 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!
That barn, that place of worship, 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. What holds us together is the unity God gives us in this Holy Eucharist with the diversity and the particularity of our existences and our own loves. The Church is not just a secret sect, a holy club, a society of friends, or a company of religious junkies. We are the body of Christ, knit together, bonded and united and made into an organic whole in this celebration of Holy Communion as we are receive Christ under God’s roof. 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) become one, and as this union is formed, as it is experienced in worship, so it allows the faith and hope and love in us to be built up, not withstanding the odd signs of wear and tear. This morning’s psalmist expresses this great movement as a prayer of desire, a desire that he live in the house of God all the days of his life. The poet William Blake puts in human and practical terms when he says, “We are put on this earth a little space to learn 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 handshake, and this is begun when the priest says ‘We are the body of Christ. By one spirit we were all Baptized into one body. Let us endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace.’ This unity and these bonds are like those wooden pegs that hold the structure together, and we shake hands or sometimes wave if someone is marooned by the pews or even now and again there is a hug (or at the extreme end of things a peck on the cheek!). These are our signs of peace. Life today places us under inevitable and often 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 who 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’. Commitment to the Christian community and the giving of the self that goes with it has brought great richness of experience and increase of love and enlightenment and peace in its wake. But crucially it celebrates and goes to the heart of life as it is lived. Christians aren’t idealists. This is the way of Christ. It is in his teaching. We are as a living Church his body on earth. We are ‘bearing the beams of love’.
It is the holding together that is hard –
The resisting of the centrifugal forces
Acting on mind and heart
That break the tenuous links of thought and feeling.
And then there is the fear (which on black days
Transmutes itself into a dark seducer
Parodying hope) that the next revolution of the hand
Upon the sadly common clock
Will bring the final, the inoperable rupture,
and burst the dams of past
And future pains.
It is the holding you must help us in:
We cannot enter heaven in fragments
The gates will not allow of that.
And you must give the means to keep it
If you love us, as I fear you do.
Father John Ball,
Parish Priest, Holy Cross Church,