Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

01 Oct 2017


Preacher: The Dean

Readings: Ezekiel 37.15-28; 1 John 2.22-29


Blackheath, South Norwood, Norbury, Clapham, Horley – not a role call of traffic jams in South London and Surrey – though it could well be – but the parishes and the areas from which these five new Honorary Canons are drawn.  These are the communities in which they’re serving as priests, pastors of their people, teachers, shepherds, servants.  This diocese is huge, it encompasses communities that are some of the most deprived in the country and some of the wealthiest, places of poverty and places of privilege and everything that lies between.  But the thing about the church is that whatever the community is like in which we’re set, basically, basically, what we do is the same.

I, and I know I can speak on behalf of my colleague Paul as well, am deeply honoured to have been presented with the Lancelot Andrewes medal by Bishop Christopher.  It’s overwhelmingly kind and especially for ‘Godly Service and Zeal for the Gospel’, which in addition to having to carry the title ‘Very Reverend’ is a lot to live up to!  Paul is celebrating at the moment having been Head Verger, Dean’s Verger, here for the last 25 years.  That’s involved a great deal of zeal and a great deal of service.  For those of you who are unaware of what the role of vergers in a Cathedral is, well, to put it simply they’re the ones who make services happen, who get things ready for them, assist with them and clear up afterwards.  They make sure that we have everything we need when we need it, they open the Cathedral and close it, they do everything from moving the chairs to administering communion. 

A few years ago we were filmed for a documentary series about three cathedrals – Wakefield, Wells and Southwark.  You may remember it. The cameraman followed us round for a week recording everything that we get up to.  But I remember one scene in which he filmed Paul opening the main doors of the Cathedral and Paul said something like ‘This is my favourite task of the day, opening up God’s house.’

The people of Israel and Judah are divided and dispersed.  The situation for the nation is not good and God calls on the prophet Ezekiel to speak into that in the most dramatic fashion.  Like some early Paul Daniels performing a trick, Ezekiel was to take two separate sticks and in the sight of the people make them into one stick in his hand.  This was to show the people what God was going to do.  He was going to bring them back from the places to which they’d been dispersed, he was going to reunite them, he was going to make them his people, he would be their God and they would know in him their freedom and their safety.

And then God says the most wonderful thing

‘My dwelling-place shall be with them.’

God who’d travelled with them from slavery to freedom, who’d tabernacled with them in the wilderness, God who’d inhabited the temple with divine glory and divine presence, would do so again.  God would live with them, one God with one people.

John in his first letter to the churches uses similar language, but he speaks of us abiding in him, we dwelling with the God who dwells with us, we abiding with the God who abides with us.

The psalmist famously says in Psalm 84

I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of ungodliness.

It should be a motto for vergers!  But it also reminds us all what part of the purpose of the church is in every community, in every place, Blackheath, South Norwood, Norbury, Clapham, Horley and here at the Cathedral.  The church is the abiding place of the indwelling God at the heart of every community and we are all the ones who are ready to welcome disparate people into the house to make of them one people for one God.

This requires of each of us, ordained or lay, priest or people, that ‘Godly service and Zeal for the Gospel’ for which the Lancelot Andrewes Medal is presented.

This has been a distressing year for all of us in London as terrorist attacks and disastrous fires have devastated lives and threatened to destroy communities.  But one of the things that we’ve seen in the midst of all the horror has been the vital role that churches have played in ministering to the needs of the people they serve at every level, physical, practical and spiritual.  We’ve seen it here after the attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market as the Cathedral was closed for a week but ministry continued and we’ve seen it in the churches around Grenfell Tower – zeal and service in bringing together the broken sticks of lives and uniting people and communities.

These five fine priests, who’ve joined the College of Canons of this Cathedral Church today, have given and continue to give exemplary service and it’s right that we honour them for their own godly service and zeal for the Gospel.  But in honouring them we honour their churches and congregations, the doorkeepers, the welcomers, the ones ready to receive the stranger and the outcast, the hurting and the lonely. 

‘My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’ says God, then and now in Blackheath, South Norwood, Norbury, Clapham, Horley, in Southwark and beyond.