Sermon: Remembering and anticipating: Durham World Heritage Site 25th Anniversary.
Preached on 6th November 2011
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Several years ago I visited a National Trust property with some friends who had young children. On the way home their son, aged about three, piped up, “Mummy. The people we heard about today are historic, aren’t they?” His mother agreed. Pause. Then, “So does that mean one day I’ll be historic too?”
November is a month when the church does a lot of remembering people who might be dismissed as historic but actually are our companions on the journey of faith. Already we have remembered All Saints who are remembered by the Church universal, and All Souls – the faithful departed who are remembered with fondness and thanksgiving by each of us because of their impact for good on our lives. Yesterday we remembered this nation’s deliverance from gunpowder, treason and plot. Next Friday and Sunday we will remember those who gave their lives in war so that we might be free. The following week the Cathedral remembers two saints who are commemorated here, Hild of Whitby and Queen Margaret of Scotland. Then we remember our Founders and Benefactors who gave us this Cathedral to steward today, and finally on St Andrew’s Day we dedicate a plaque to Scottish soldiers imprisoned here during the Civil War when this Cathedral was desecrated by Cromwell’s army.
That is a lot of remembering for one month, and paradoxically our Sunday readings in November are not about remembering so much as looking forward to God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. So we have a double focus – remembering the example of our forebears in the faith whilst looking forward to our future hope. November is not a month for navel gazing but for star gazing with our saintly companions looking over our shoulders and encouraging us on.
And today we do that in the midst of our celebrations of the twenty fifth anniversary of the inscription of Durham Cathedral and Castle World Heritage Site. It is quite an achievement to be both 25 and hundreds of years old at the same time and that frame may help us as we look back with the wisdom of years and forward with youthful enthusiasm.
When I lived in the States I realised how much my history is in my blood; I had taken my sense of being situated in history for granted and only articulated it when I missed the buildings and culture that reminded me who I am. Place and buildings are important; Jesus lived in a particular place; God meets us in the midst of life lived in physical space that comes to carry significance for us. Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet of the last century, wrote of revisiting her childhood home in Tashkent and the sense of timelessness and belonging that significant places in our history bring to us.
(the text of the full poem, ‘And I can be tranquil’ is deleted for copyright reasons. It can be found on the web)
‘I haven’t been here for seven hundred years, but nothing has changed…’ If we substitute ‘Cathedral’ for ‘Asian house’ we could say that of Durham Cathedral. Hold that thought.
The gospel is about a wedding. In Jesus’ day weddings lasted for several nights – people worked in the day as normal and celebrated at night. After the marriage contract was sorted out and dowry and gifts exchanged, then came the festivities. The groom and his friends processed to the bride’s house where she was waiting with her friends; she was then escorted on the longest possible route back to the groom’s house to the cheers of onlookers. There was a marriage feast and parents and friends blessed the couple. Wedding garments were provided for all the guests, with food and drink in abundance – remember Jesus told a parable about wedding garments and turned water into wine when the supplies ran out.
But in this parable the bridegroom took his time coming and the bride’s party fell asleep. When the noise of his arrival woke them, five bridesmaids discovered that they were running out of lamp oil. There was nothing wrong in that, just unpreparedness, and in a village it would be easy to borrow some. But while they did that the rest went to the groom’s home. Jesus leaves the outcome hanging in the air with just the warning to keep awake because you know neither the day nor the hour.
Jesus made it clear at the start that this is a parable of the kingdom of heaven and he is the bridegroom. It was a shocking messianic claim in his day, and remains a warning to us about being ready for when Jesus is revealed in glory.
Paul, in the earliest New Testament document, also has words about Jesus’ coming in glory. Like Paul, his readers, a new little church, expected the return of the Lord very soon and were perplexed about what happened to Christians who died before this happened. Paul reassured them that they will not miss the resurrection, because the living believers will join those who have died to meet the Lord and be with him for ever. That question had great urgency in Paul’s day because of the general belief that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would happen very quickly. Two millennia later we have lost the sense of urgency so this weekend of celebration of the World Heritage Site is a good time to be reminded that Christ will come again in glory – a theme that reverberates through our worship between now and Christmas – and that we will join all the saints of this place, Cuthbert, Bede, Oswald, Hild, Margaret, Aidan, the colourful assortment of Priors and Bishops and monks who populated the monastery and all their successors at the Cathedral over the centuries: all these and thousands more are not merely heritage, but with us they await the moment when all creation will see Christ in his glory.
That puts a new and specifically Christian focus on these World Heritage Site celebrations. Day by day as we celebrate the Eucharist, we say that we worship with ‘angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.’ We have unseen friends at the party as we worship God and live as Christians in these wonderful buildings, experiencing in Anna Akhmatova’s words, that “In the same way the grace of God still pours / from unassailable heights.”
But Jesus’ parable does not allow us to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. The problem for the bridesmaids was not that they had sinned terribly, or indeed that they had fallen asleep while they waited, but that they had not ensured that they had the resources – the oil – to do what they were responsible for doing which was to accompany the bride when her bridegroom came. Today their story asks us this question: are we ensuring that we have all the resources we need to fulfil the responsibilities with which we are entrusted before our Lord returns?
Some people will say that historic churches and cathedrals are a waste of time and resources and distract us from the task of proclaiming the gospel. I disagree. Not only are cathedrals one of the parts of the church where congregations are growing substantially, but we reach people who otherwise might never set foot in church. An ordinand, here on placement a few years ago, was initially dubious about Cathedrals but said to me after a week here that in her parish church the problem was getting people to come into church, here people don’t need to be asked, they come to us and ask us to introduce them to Christian faith that this church represents. If you are here during the week you will find thousands of people coming through our doors and being welcomed by our volunteers. Many come to pray or to seek counsel from our volunteer chaplains and Listeners who are on duty every day to help people to draw close to God in their distress. I could tell you stories of problems put into perspective or solved, lives turned around, vocations to Christian service acknowledged, and comfort and new hope gained. Some of you are here today because you first experienced God’s presence here in this Cathedral.
As we and our colleagues at the University say frequently, this is a living and working World Heritage Site. But we can also say at the Cathedral that we cherish our history and remember our forebears in the faith not just as a bit of the heritage but as our fellow Christians who in their day stewarded the heritage that we have inherited and with whom we shall one day see Christ in glory. Until then, the Cathedral is ours to steward and to pass on to succeeding generations for whom we will be historic.
The Cathedral Chapter has, over the last 18 months, been discussing the Cathedral’s mission and strategic aims and has described the Cathedral community as inhabiting a treasured sacred space set in the natural and human landscape of the World Heritage Site and having as our purpose to worship God, share the gospel of Jesus Christ, welcome all who come, celebrate and pass on our rich Christian heritage and discover our place in God’s creation. And so we have committed ourselves to conserve, develop and interpret our buildings, environment and historic collections, while respecting the Church as a place of prayer.
If we believe, with Paul, that the Lord is coming again and we should live as people of Christian hope, and if we believe Jesus’ words that how we live now affects our readiness for his sudden return, and if we believe the message of the liturgical season in November: that we remember our past and at the same time anticipate with hope our future, then how we steward this Cathedral is of vital significance to our discipleship as a community and as individuals.
Anna Akhmatova ended her poem of looking back and knowing herself rooted in her 700 year old past with surprising words that imply she grasped the point about not merely being nostalgic about the past but letting it be the springboard for future hope,
‘…And now, fence, bloom!
New reservoir, fill!’
As Christians responsible for a Cathedral, we celebrate the twenty fifth anniversary of our inscription as a World Heritage Site with thankfulness and responsibility to let the inheritance that is ours bloom and fill, so that our living heritage of historic people and buildings bears witness to our Lord who one day is coming in glory. That is the challenge we face in these difficult time of international economic despair and hardship for many people in this region. That is why it is so important that this World Heritage Site has a living, working, praying Cathedral at its heart. Therefore can I ask each of you to consider how you can support the mission of this Cathedral – through gifts of money, certainly, but also with your time and talents. The notice sheet gives details of some particular areas where more volunteers would be welcomed. I close with a prayer as we look back with thanks to our past and with anticipation to our future as part of this great heritage in Durham.
For the fidelity of your servants in past centuries,
We praise you, O Lord;
For ancient stones and liturgies,
For you inheritance of ripened learning and long disciplines of prayer and peace,
We praise you, O Lord;
Make us wise stewards of this inheritance of faith,
Keep us faithful to our ancient calling,
Alive to our present opportunities
And confident in our glorious inheritance with all the saints,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(prayer incorporating phrases from prayers by Kenneth Cragg and Christopher Idle)
1 Thessalonians 4:13-end, Matthew 25:1-13