Sermon preached at the Commemoration of Founders and Benefactors at Ripon Cathedral on October 14th 2018.
Ecclesiasticus 44.1-15; Matthew 5.13-16
If you travel three hours’ north from Suva on the Fijian island of Viti Levu, you will reach the turn-off that leads to the village of Maniava. This was a journey I took around about this time two years ago, with Archbishop Winston Halapua (the Archbishop of Polynesia) and forty young people from the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. When we arrived in Maniava, I for one was glad of the ceasing of the bumpy journey. The cool air conditioning of the car however was replaced by the intense heat and humidity of the mid-point of the day. It was clear to me, that we had arrived into what looked like a temporary place, there were no homes as such, rather tents and precarious looking tin-structures. It turned out that the tin that made up the homes was what was recovered scattered across the surrounding valley and hillsides. Maniava was virtually destroyed in 2015 by a cyclone. One of the effects of climate change is increased everything: increased heat, increased sea levels, increased intensity of tropical storms. The effects are real, and they are happening now. The people of Maniava were, in spite of their immense obvious struggles with a lack of adequate and safe shelter, filled with joy in their welcome; they sang praises to God; they even provided a chair for me so I didn’t have to sit on the ground (just one of so many examples of gracious hospitality that I found deeply humbling). Following our welcome, we left the relative comfort of the shade and headed outside and up a hill to the site where their new church was to be built. My task was to help Archbishop Winston dig the first soil for the foundations, and bless the land. The children from the village eagerly gathered round to help me, two of them spent the whole time clearing ants away from my feet, and some put their hands with mine and together we pushed the spade downwards into the dry and dusty soil. It was heavy and hot work.
All that of course, is a world away (quite literally) from North Yorkshire some two years on. So why mention this now, here? Well, as our Diocesan Bishop, Bishop Nick often says, we need sometimes to look through the eyes of another culture in order to understand our own. We have already listened to the language of the founders of this Cathedral church, the language of Anglo-Saxon. Our forebears in faith inhabited a world that of course was vastly different from the world we live in now, but as we listen to their language we are connected with them in ways that we cannot see but perhaps, if we consider it for a moment, we can sense. The first word of that Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is ‘Listen!’ And that too perhaps is the foundation word of discipleship – Listen. Of course Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf rendered that first word ‘So’ (and here I must defer to the Anglo-Saxon scholar Canon Professor Joyce Hill in our midst; I’d be keen to know her thoughts). But in a sense, whether ‘listen’ or ‘so’ – it is a call to attention: something is happening here, and we need to take note.
‘Let us now sing the praises of famous men…’ so our reading from Ecclesiasticus entreats us – again, listen, take note. All this is because of what they did, those founders and benefactors. Those whose vision gave us all this; which we are called to guard, nurture and gift on to generations to come. We might however want to say, ‘let us now sing the praises of famous men and women…’ History is written from the point of view of the victor, and those whose voices are the loudest. None of this, none of it would have happened without the women! Someone asked me on Friday, the feast of Wilfrid what he might have made of a woman as a bishop in this area. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess, was my reply. But I doubt it would be fair to ask Wilfrid that question; because we live in different times. What links us is Jesus’ command in our Gospel reading to be salt and light.
My friend and former colleague Nick King, who has produced the most wonderful translation of the New Testament reflects that ‘as Christians we can get our mission wrong in two ways. We can either see our task as lecturing the rest of the world on their errors; or we can think that no one will listen and keep quietly to ourselves.’ These images of salt and light, offer a middle way (isn’t that so classically Church of England?!). He continues to reflect that ‘we have to be gentle, merciful peacemakers; but we have to add ‘bite’ and illumination to the world.’ Jesus is telling a joke here; we are meant to laugh – ‘no one puts a light under a bucket do they?’ But there’s a lesson to be learnt here too: we have no cause to be shy about the Gospel message; we are called to be confident in our faith so that others might be curious and enquire what it is that gives us this confidence. And please note I am talking about confidence here, not arrogance. There’s a big difference!
In a little while we will listen to the names of those individuals who gave salt and light to the witness of this Cathedral church; individuals whose life stories are every bit as colourful and complex as their names: Eata, Cuthbert, Wilfrid, Eadhead (which if you google of course thinks what you are really after is advice on how to deadhead your roses in this autumn season!), Ceolfrith, Willibrord, Athelstan, and many many others, down to this present day: the Dean and Chapter, musicians, vergers, guides, welcomers, stone-masons, each and every person whose story is woven into the very fabric of this place. Cathedrals, this Cathedral speaks powerfully of the story of God in this city and region, but it also speaks of wider connections across borders and seas. Many (if not most) of the names just mentioned had strong connections with the countries of mainland Europe. One of the great tragedies and ironies of our current political climate is that we are so foolish and deluded and indeed arrogant to think that we are better and stronger if we go it alone. To be connected isn’t about all thinking exactly the same thing. In the somewhat irreverent but at times painfully accurate Monty Python film The Life of Brian, which tells the story of a man whose life parallels that of Jesus, Brian says to the crowd at one point: ‘You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!’ The crowd replies in unison, ‘Yes! We’re all individuals!’; Brian replies, ‘You’re all different!’ to which the crowd replies, ‘Yes, we’re all different!’. Then a lone man in the crowd shouts, ‘I’m not…’ to which the crowd says ‘Shhh!’
Earlier this year in his sermon during the consecration and dedication of the new church in the village of Maniava, the church whose foundations I had helped dig in that intense heat, Archbishop Winston drew a parallel between Jesus’ life and the Fijian concept of hospitality, often used at feast time: Help yourself! enjoy yourself – don’t stop! There’s plenty – take some home! (in Church of England terms just think lots and lots and lots of cake). Jesus’s life, death and resurrection showed that “the love of God is no longer locked up in Heaven,” he said. “It’s now on planet earth, never to stop. It’s overflowing. It keeps going, keeps coming, it embraces us and there’s no end.” And that love of God, said Archbishop Winston, had been demonstrated by the generosity of God’s people who had enabled the transformation of Maniava.
It is a world away, and yet it is right here with us, in this place and we I think are in that tiny Fijian church too – connected. God’s overflowing generosity in the Kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate.
So…let us now sing the praises of famous people; those written about, those whose names remain unknown, undocumented. Our ancestors in their generations. May their names be etched in our hearts; and may these ancient stones echo the wonder of your eternal name O God to whom all honour and praise is due now and for all eternity.