Before the ending of the day - Farewell Sermon
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
6 November 2016, 10:30 (The Third Sunday before Advent)
On Friday 31 December 1999 Ruth and I gathered in the evening with our family in the rectory at Limpsfield where we lived. To mark the passing over into a new millennium we were going to eat a meal together and share readings which we had chosen.
I think we had limited it to two each so that we could go out for midnight and join a crowd in the churchyard with candles, fizz and fireworks!
I remember choosing the reading that you will find at the back of the service booklet from Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
I thought then, and still do, that it powerfully depicts the frailty and fleetingness of our human lives: the heart of the passage runs thus:
The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.
Yes, our lives are small and short and in the context of the immensity of the cosmos it is arrant arrogance to think that we are the centre of the universe and indeed its meaning.
Yet that is the spirit of our age: a consumer centred materialist society that predicates that unless God is our equal and will submit to our provisional understanding in laws and proofs then he cannot and does not exist.
Mystery and the unknown are an intrinsic truth of science and the whole commitment of investigation, experiment and discovery.
There is always more to learn and know – and there are limits to what we can ever achieve or understand on our own.
To our finite and limited lives, God stoops to speak to us in love and meets us in Jesus Christ in humility.
And the experience of this encounter is what we call and know as prayer and worship.
Today I end my ministry as this cathedral’s precentor where I have had the joy, delight and privilege of co-ordinating and creating acts of worship in this extraordinary, beautiful and holy building.
In Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus, Martin Dysart a psychiatrist says: “Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that...”
Both individuals and society are transformed, flourish and find fulfilment in this unique encounter with God in his mystery and in his revelation.
You don’t have to be clever, strong, rich or famous but you do have to be humble enough to recognise the overwhelming power and presence of the divine – and particularly in the familiar, the everyday and those patterns and certitudes that feed our confidence and self-centredness.
The world is complex, divided and fragmented and through the ages people have abused and exploited God to achieve dominance and a sense of moral justification.
These four Sundays from All Saints to Advent are the Kingdom Season when the reality and vision of God’s purposes are expressed in his reign of love in Christ on earth and in heaven.
These thoughts and words are expressed in the stories of our faith in Holy Scripture, in our common life and in our individual experiences, personalities and temperaments.
The kingdom is among us in the stories we tell, the songs we sing, the relationships that are formed by love and faithful service.
We have failed to share this story of salvation effectively in recent years and have abdicated society’s responsibility to transmit the values that form a Christian civilisation.
Multi-faith and multi-cultural societies cannot be morally neutral but must have a tolerance formed by the universality of God’s love and truth.
That universality though has an edge and a demand to commit to its truth and its sacrificial love in Jesus Christ.
As we arrive at the threshold of the United States presidential election, it is astonishing that a nation so powerful and supposedly committed to freedom, truth and trust could have such flawed and compromised candidates.
And our own land is gripped by a preoccupation with material pleasure and self-absorption at the expense of a practical vision of community, care and service beyond ourselves.
Our readings this morning challenge us in our comfort and complacency.
Job in his goodness endures the most terrible afflictions, losing not only his wealth, his children but now even his skin.
He wants an answer from God in his titanic struggle but remains faithful and wants the words of his response to be recorded and engraved in stone for ever: For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
These words might make us think of Handel’s Messiah but this is a much grittier and more tenuous sentiment.
Job asserts three times that he shall see a future vindicator, in Hebrew goel, but he leaves the time and manner of this vindication undefined.
It is in Jesus that a vindicator becomes a redeemer.
And in St Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians we are taken into the mystery of the Kingdom which in Christ has come and been won yet in time still awaits its final fulfilment on the day of the Lord.
This is the tension that we live in and for which we need to hold fast and stand firm to the traditions we have been taught.
Beware though, for the traditions are not of our making and our gospel reading from St Luke speaks to us of this.
The Sadducees, who deduced from the Torah that there is no resurrection, ridicule Jesus by quizzing him on the law of levirate marriage, the object of which was to ensure a legal heir for a man.
By Jesus’ day this law had fallen in to abeyance and the matter was purely a rabbinic academic one. They wanted to catch Jesus out and mock him.
They make God and his heaven subject to human rationality and comprehension.
Jesus takes their question seriously but also kicks it into the long grass by telling them that God’s friendship takes us through and beyond the horizon of death into a freedom and relationship that is beyond the temporalities of human marriage.
I sense that in many ways this is what our beloved Church of England has become embroiled in when we are obsessed by particularities rather than the relationships that will determine their integrity and holiness.
Certainly marriage is about sex but not principally so; procreation, attraction and appetite though powerful drives are defined in love by commitment and relationship.
We might all do well to think and pray as to how the holiness of God transforms all human relationships and places them in a new and unlimited context.
It is this eternity breaking into time that the incarnation has made real and accessible for all people and ages.
It is made real in the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic miracle.
Jesus gives us himself in a meal where food becomes the Word, and his words become our food.
The sacrifice of love is poured out in broken bread and the cup of blessing and forgiveness.
In our nothingness we are called into everything: the power and gift of the holy Eucharist is not what we do but what God does for us and who he is.
This is the heart of worship – and it makes us the Church, God’s holy people.
We do not leave this building today empty handed but with bread and healing and hope for the world.
“Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that...” – and without worship the world will shrink and ultimately perish.
Our lives are short but they are placed in the context of eternity.
In Jesus we are invited to enter that infinite freedom each day.
And so back to the sparrow and the mead hall.
Ruth and I have flown through this cathedral for eight and a half years and we are now to fly out and away.
Ruth has moved between 25 and 30 times in her life and this move will probably be our last and take us nearby.
We have loved this place and its people – the warmth and the love of community at prayer and the belonging to the beauty and power of a community of prayer.
We shall miss the extraordinary beauty of holiness: the music and the mystery, the rhythms of the weeks and years and the overflowing love of human friendship.
Unlike the sparrow, Ruth and I are not flying out into the dark and cold of winter because faith and hope and love hold us all in Jesus Christ.
We are never separated by time or years in the communion of the saints and the promise of the Kingdom.
May God bless you individually and as a Cathedral Church – that we may look back with thanks and look forward with the excitement of faith.