Readings: James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50.
Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at the service of Welcome to first year students of Ripon College Cuddesdon at All Saint’s Cuddesdon.
‘Time is an illusion’. We all know the truth of this famous saying by Albert Einstein even if we don’t understand the maths. Time is a human construct and doesn’t exist. But the turn of the seasons and the unfolding of the years have a powerful effect on us through memories and imaginings as well as the physical deterioration.
This week time, more especially the past, has been much on my mind. At the end of the week the felling of the beech tree in college seemed to sever a physical link with 350 years of history whilst the week started with an event in Christ Church at which the past was brought into the present as if reborn.
On Monday I found myself in the cathedral, that beautiful jewel of a place that stands as a monument in stone to the history of the church community in Oxford. Strangely enough my fellow worshipers at Evensong that night were Diocesan Advisory Committees from across the country who had come together to celebrate their missionary mandate to embody the work of God in bricks and mortar and faculties. However, I was not there as a participant of their conference, instead I had gone to hear a certain choir sing the office. Frideswide Voices, only a year old, is unique in Oxford, for it is the first and only girl chorister choir to sing the divine office in Oxford. Robed in their new surplices with hair brushed and tied back, clean black shoes and stunning purple cassocks the 17 girls led us through the ancient rite aiding us in our praise of God. It was a special evening not least because my daughter Katie was singing in it, but what struck me most was not so much the novelty of the situation but the retrieval of the past in the present. For as the Precentor pointed out, at last, after a thousand years of silence and exclusion female voices would once again be heard in Christ church echoing the songs of the nuns who first worshipped there along with Frideswide. For a moment the Anglo Saxon past and the modern day present coalesced into one, time warped into a single moment of praise from one community responding to the love of their Lord.
It’s often said that the church is not the building, it’s the community and, of course, in many ways that statement rings true. In our reading from the letter of James we have a wonderful ‘to do’ manual of how to build up the church community through empathy, care, reconciliation and prayer. But that does not necessarily mean that the church building does not play its own vital role in building up the church community. For many this church which has been here since 1180/the late thirteenth century is the sacrament of the church community, the outward and physical sign of an inward belief, the visible symbol of a faith that has underpinned the transient communities which have worshipped in them down the ages and constantly proclaimed truth to tentative seekers. For the three villages of our benefice these medieval gems are the oldest buildings in our villages, the guardian of memory and conveyor of history, where past and present merge as one. Many are the folk who have brought their children to the font or dressed the church for Harvest. Many are the students who have led their first Evensong here or sought solace in its silence when doubts and darkness creeps in. However permanent or transient the community, this building like that of Christ Church remind us that we are all as one community of faith.
But strangely enough it is these places, where prayer has been valid, that are often our most powerful instruments of mission. In a survey we recently did in Horspath village we asked residents what they most valued about St Giles’ church. The list of choices to choose from was in no way comprehensive and ranged from prayers to preaching, fellowship and events, but that which came out on top was its peace and quiet, followed by the history and then services. When we have gone away, our church space continues to preach and to welcome those on the fringes, for whom James’ vision of a church is simply too claustrophobic or frankly too intimidating for some. Jesus rightly challenges his disciples in our gospel reading when a sense of exclusion creeps into their view of the people of God. Instead Jesus broadens out our vision of church and condemns any exclusive ownership of the gospel: ‘whoever is not against us is for us’. It’s not just the people who go to church who are the church but all are included who love the Lord. For many it is this place of gentle witness, history and prayer that gives a space for encounter and inclusion into the community of faith.
So with the many who have prayed in this place before, be they student or farmer, bishop or pauper, evangelist or doubter, let us as one community of faithful give praise to our God together. Amen.