Vicar's Sermon - 19th February 2017
Towards the end of last year the congregation here took part in a ‘timeline’ exercise during morning worship. Laid out across the front of the nave were large rolls of wall paper marked out with each of the centuries that the church has been here in Barnard Castle. To help us to orientate ourselves we added to the timeline some of the key ‘national events’ in British history and then each member of the congregation was asked to stick three post-its on the timeline: one for a red letter day in our common life (a key moment for us as a church); one for a blue day in the life of the church, an occasion of sadness or disappointment; lastly we added a yellow post-it for something in our history that inspires hope. Last year was the 150th anniversary of Barnard Castle being a ‘parish’ in its own right: prior to 1866 Barney was joined at the hip to its mother church in Gainford. Our shared ministry development team did a fair amount of work studying the story of the church down those 150 years: we uncovered a huge missionary endeavour that began in the 1880s and resulted in Lay Missions being led in Streatlam, Stainton, Kinninvie and the like; work that led to regular worship being held in these places and then fed into the development of the Mission Hall at the bottom of the Bank. Way back then there were 40 local folk signed up to the Church Army, dozens of Sunday School Teachers and Lay visitors.
Why did we devote time and energy to these two exercises? The answer lies in the power of story. None of us here are great historians but each and every one of us lives out of some story or other – its useful to uncover the guiding narrative of groups and communities (let alone churches). This, of course, is what the Auckland Castle Trust and the Eleven Arches project in Bishop are doing: they are attempting to frame a narrative for this part of the world. More than this, through the development of the Castle, it is hoped that the history of Christianity in the British Isles might be told, not for its own sake, but in order to shape our future.
Narrative and story-telling are incredibly powerful and, as we see in the United States control of the guiding story of a community is a contested thing: Truth (whatever that is) doesn’t come into it, what people perceive as the story does. Some narratives can be dangerous – they legitimise actions that might not once have been countenanced. Some narratives can be crippling: they lock people into the past, into nostalgia for an age that has gone. It is probably true to say that the North East needs to uncover a new story – something that will take us beyond being the area of Britain that has been repeatedly ‘done unto’ by others, something that will take us beyond the story of our proud mining heritage… and its loss.
This morning we have heard one of the most powerful stories of all time: The Creation story, or at least the Judaeo/Christian creation story. This story has been fundamental to much of our life for thousands of years. It has shaped how we see our place in the world. It has shaped our relationship with nature. It shapes our understanding of who we are as human beings and through that it shapes our communities and politics and our ethics. But it might not have done.
For this story was, most scholars agree, written at the time when the people of God were slaves in Babylon and in Babylon there was another creation story that guided the Babylonian people. It was a story of violence and warfare, of a great battle in the heavens won by the god Marduk who slew a great beast out of whose dismembered body the creation sprang.
This was not the story that Jewish mums and dads wanted to tell their children, it wasn’t good enough. Creation is an act of power (yes) but power doesn’t quite encapsulate what Israel had discovered, which was that creation springs from the power of Love. I’m not sure what sort of value the outpourings of the entrails of a dismembered beast might have but the creation story in Genesis elevates humanity to being ‘in the image of God’. I somehow doubt that ancient Middle Eastern Babylon had a high regard for women – here we are told ‘male and female he created them’. Creation, the author says again and again is ‘good’- why, because its origin is in the heart of God.
And of course, when we speak of creation we are to understand something that is happening right now, not just something that happened once and for all ‘way back then’. This world wasn’t just wound up and left to ‘unwind’ by the Divine watchmaker. No. It is held and sustained by the inexhaustible, timeless, energy that pours out its life for the creation every moment of every day. We are held in the attention of God; He can’t take His eyes off us because He delights in us. It is as if, were He to turn from us, everything would collapse into nothingness. So we can find His Presence in and through all things. We can work with the grain of His purposes. We can sense His presence ‘deep down things’ because the world as we know it and the wonders of the heavens show us something of His character and love.
Modern stories have no place for this. Modern stories say we are of no value, we are of little worth. We are just accidents on the blue planet, lost in the infinities of space and time. We are of no more value than the dust that rose in the universe following the Big Bang that then formed into the rocks and planets that career through space. There is no meaning. There is no purpose to our existence – to seek a purpose is delusional…and yet even the writer of the most depressing book in the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes) sensed eternity in his heart. All he could see was vanity…but he felt there was more.
Which brings us to the seventh day of creation for the story starts with the base of ‘Let there be light’ and slowly builds up the layers of creation until the animal kingdom and Humankind is brought into being and blessed by God but this still is not enough…not enough for the story teller who refuses to allow us to believe that the world and the created order exists only for itself; who (writing as a member of a community of slaves) cannot end the story with men and women looked into unceasing toil as they exercise dominion over the world. No. We exist to worship and enjoy God for ever. Sabbath recognises that for 6 days we might labour and in doing so might forget our creator – but by setting aside one day we sanctify the rest, by stepping out of the rat race of work we put it in its place we elevate other values, higher values than the bottom line. Sabbath reminds us that creation is an act of relationship: our Creator always and forever attending to us but inviting us to attend to Him; inviting us to get to know Him, to return His love. I all the ages of evolution imagine the day in heaven when humanity, aware of itself in a way that is not known by the animals, first uttered words of thanks and praise for the new day.
The stories we tell one another really matter. This one is foundational. We should never let it go for (when we live out of it) it helps us to stand taller as children of God in His world and to His praise and glory.