Sermon: Sunday 23 September 2012
The Revd Canon David Monteith, Canon Chancellor
I have just returned from two lovely weeks of holiday – it was 30 degrees during the day and 20 degrees in the evening; the food and drink was great, the pool was perfect, the company was convivial and the trashy novels were devoured, but boy did it feel lovely to sleep again in my own bed! This is not only because it is familiar but also because it is at home and at its best home is where I belong and where I am safe.
During the last months as Acting Archdeacon I have had many schemes for church re-ordering pass over my desk, usually involving installing a loo, providing a modest kitchen and very often removing the pews and replacing them with chairs. The statement of need which is required for permission to be granted usually lays out the arguments about the flexibility required for the range of contemporary worship we now enjoy in the church. We know here that flexibility is a big bonus. But of course most churches find that the chairs are rarely moved once installed and that people who regularly attend worship sit in the same chair most weeks.
Those of you who are maybe new to the Cathedral, like some of the friends and supporters of our new choristers, will discover that you will find an area where you feel comfortable from those who like to sneak in at the back, to those who want to see the altar or pulpit to those who want to see the choir. There is more going on here than meets the eye – we are exploring the space in order to find a place.
I want us to think a little this morning about place compared to space because the idea of place has been vital in the thinking that has led to the publication of our plans for Cathedral Gardens. We hope to create a garden with trees and greenery, with water and history, with lighting and seating and art. All these ideas have come about because we have explored the notion of a garden as a special place within our human story and within our faith tradition. It’s not just a space but a place that is about welcome, a place of memory and respect, a place with echoes of Eden and Revelation, a garden where agony is known and destiny honed, a place where resurrection can be shown when a strangely familiar gardener is glimpsed.
Wendell Berry, as a farmer, knows all about place and as a poet knows how to describe it. He says: ‘Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place’ (Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry 2005). Our prehistoric origins in Eden are not just the backdrop to life but Adam as the man of the ground, that’s the meaning of his name is called to till the ground. Then the idyl is broken when displacement occurs – Cain is killed and it is said that his voice is calling out from the ground. So there is emplacement and there is displacement.
To contemporary hearers who often are very mobile – many of us having lived in many places, where we can be anywhere in the world still connected by email and Twitter, the centrality of Place in our faith story is quite jarring!
I recognise this jarring sensation when I read a gospel such as that set for today which first tells me it happens after they leave the mountain and pass through Galilee, and then they come to Capernaum and then they go into the house. Why do we need all that geography? Can’t we just get to the point? No, because those hills and roads and towns and communities shaped the way Jesus was. His bones are the work of human and divine love made of the very same substance as those hills. All these were not just spaces but places.
Further, Jesus is aware of places that can make for the nurture and health of people and those where human greed and destruction have overtaken. So he goes to Cana because a wedding celebrates all the potential of loving abundance. And he goes to the temple and overturns the table because he sees the abusiveness of religion married to a sacrificial economic market. This gospel tells us that he is on his way through Galilee and that the Son of Man will be betrayed. These words point to Jerusalem – the place of sacrifice yet here in Capernaum he creates a place like Jerusalem. He takes his place as a teacher – he sits down. And then by placing a child in the centre of the room he creates a gathering. A community is formed with an innocent at its centre. In Jerusalem the community gather around the blood sacrifice and all that upholds it from the religious authorities to the corrupt local politicians to the invading Romans.
Here at the centre of Jesus’ circle where a victim is normally found to be stoned, instead Jesus holds that little one and rather than wishing to destroy, a place of care is created with a community transformed by the power of this humility – ‘whoever receives one such little one in my name receives me’. There is the contrast between the hands into which the Son of Man will be betrayed in the previous verses with the hands of trust which hold, embrace and reveal God’s kingdom.
Walter Brueggeman in his book The Land explores the value of place. He says: ‘place is a space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment and undefined freedom.’ (The Land, p5).
So Brueggeman goes on to argue that we as humans these days don’t so much suffer from meaninglessness but instead from placelessness. Our homogenous world covered in all the same brand logos whether in Khartoum or San Francisco reduces our sense of place. Our disconnections from each other reduce the sense of place because it is relationships that hold us together with a sense of meaning.
Over the years this cathedral has a growing sense of place within this city, county and diocese. People remember gathering here after 9/11 or when the Queen visited. Those associated with the Royal Tigers Regiment come to remember. The likely find of Richard III’s remains adds another layer and contour.
The Gardens will become a place where engagement proposals are made, where a Christian and a Sikh make friends, where birds will nest and adults will be baptised, where meals will be shared and arguments healed. This is not about a development of city centre space just like another piece of urban renewal because it is the further formation of the kind of place Jesus created in a home in Capernaum.
It is a place with Jesus at the centre and a people of all kinds who gather around him recognising that some will be there easily and others not so, some will be able to rejoice whilst others will wish to lash out or destroy and yet all will be transformed because where Jesus is we find the humility and innocence and vulnerability we see in a child and from which we have become disconnected from in ourselves and in our actions.
So cherish this place because it is God’s. At best it can reveal his kingdom of love. As I’ve already quoted: ‘Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place’.
© Canon David Monteith, Canon Chancellor and Acting Archdeacon of Leicester