Preached at Cuddesdon Welcome Service on 5th October by Rev’ Emma Pennington.
Some words from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. In Little Gidding he writes,
What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
For many people the traditional time of new beginnings is when we mark the turning of another calendar year in January. Reflecting on all that has taken place in the last twelve months, it is then that we turn our faces like a confident Janus away from the dying days of December and take up the promises and challenges of the New Year. But for me, who am still so governed by the structures and traditions of educational establishments, it is this time of year, the autumn or Michaelmas, that marks a beginning, a new start.
As Eliot’s words so wonderfully reflect, intermixed with this sense of a new chapter in the book of life is also the poignant sense of loss and something coming to an end. You don’t have to be embarking on the crazy trust game called ordination to experience it, for the world all around us is dying away as the golden days of summer slowly darken into the barren landscape of winter. All of us live with the constant mingling of beginnings and endings, of the new emerging from the old and an ending that is a dying back to reveal the new. I am sure that none of us that live on this seashore of undulating change underestimate how it can feel at various times. Thrown about in the flotsum and jetsum of life, new beginnings can at one moment bring the elation of change and possibility mixed with the fear and deep insecurity of letting go whilst at another the depths of sadness at an ending can drown out any sense of new life. We all in our different ways and at different times both swim and sink with the transience of our existence.
Our readings today do not so much give us a way out, as a rock on which to cling that will see us through both the times of new beginnings and endings, and so enable us to embrace them with that sense of trust and acceptance that Eliot manages to convey in his poem. For the Israelites, this rock comes in the form of two solid stone tablets on which are etched the Ten Commandments. In these literal stones God gives his people the words and tools of guidance on which they can construct their lives. They are not simply a list of rules which a dictator God gives to his chosen servants to ensure they uphold their covenant with him and become a successful, law-abiding nation, but, as the storytelling format for children Godly Play so nicely puts it, they are given as the ten best ways by which to live. It often feels these days as if the tablets of the Ten Commandments are somehow like stones in a churchyard, rather quaint and from the past but with little meaning in our progressive and liberal society. Until, of course, you explore the ten best ways with a group of children through Godly play and then you will hear that breaking a marriage or wanting what others have has as much relevance today as it did thousands of years ago. God gives us sure rocks on which to build our lives and yet we, like Moses, so easily smash them up until they are only rubble on which we then stumble and fall. So God gives us another stone or rock on which to build our lives.
In our Gospel reading Jesus tells another parable of vineyard and it is clear to the chief priests and scribes exactly who this story is directed towards. It is very likely that it is Matthew rather than Jesus himself who concludes its telling with the poignant reference from Psalm 118. Looking back Matthew can see how Jesus’ words were fulfilled in his own death: he was the son who the landowner finally sent at harvest time to collect his produce and was killed by those wicked tenants. But Matthew looks further and realizes that not only did this parable come true but also that the prophecy of the Psalmist was also brought to fulfilment in the person of Jesus. It is he who is the stone, which the ones who should have known better, the very builders themselves, rejected, that becomes the most important stone within the building, holding all the others together, the key stone, as Paul was later to refer to Jesus in Ephesians. Jesus is the cornerstone on which the edifice of our lives can safely be built.
So as we reflect on this time of change all around us, of new beginnings and endings, let us once more seek to build our lives on the rock of Christ (and not to mistake him for the shifting sands of our own illusions and pride). I leave you with the words of T.S. Eliot once again:
With the drawing of his Love and the voice of this Calling We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Amen.