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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

At a Flower Festival

I have loved this church for many years.  It is one of the region's finest, and I don’t say that lightly, as I was once vicar of another great Northumberland church north of here.  I brought the friends of Durham Cathedral to Corbridge a couple of years ago, and they loved it too. You feel here a story that speaks of centuries, not just the middle ages but long before that, even earlier than Saxon times. For here in the Roman town of Corstopitum on the ancient road called Dere Street, now better known as the A68, there are visible traces of life and faith that take us back for as long as there has been a Christian gospel and a church. There is so much to enjoy here at St Andrew’s, both inside and out. And best of all, because I am an inveterate church-crawler, I have always found it open. An open church says so much about hospitality, not just yours but God’s. It says that this is God's place and all may freely come and taste that the Lord is good.

And this weekend you have created a wonderful flower festival. That seems to me to sum up three aspects of the life of this church: beauty, welcome and memory.  Let me try to say how.  Beauty first.  This flower festival is a feast for the senses.  Flowers give us so much to see and enjoy: shapes, patterns, colours, textures.  Some are brilliant and draw the eye at once; others are more muted, playing in a minor key.  The interplay of light and shadow in this church is the richer because of the flowers: they affect how we read the colours and textures of our native sandstone.  And then there are the more subtle enjoyments offered to other senses too: the church has a scent that is different from every day, the exquisite mingling of flowery and leafy smells with those of old stone and woodwork and fabrics.   This flower festival opens up our capacity to respond to all that is lovely in our world. 

But beauty, famously, is in the eye of the beholder. To respond to it we need to love the person or thing before us.  And that at once draws in our capacity to create, and to give ourselves to what we create.  The story of creation in Genesis shows how completely committed God is to every stage of his work: he not only gives himself totally to what he does, but he loves what he fashions and shapes.  So it is with us who are his image.  This festival is a true work of art because it is an act of self-giving and love on your part.  At one level, it shows your love for this church, and I guess that there can be few people in this village who do not care about this ancient and beautiful place.  At a deeper level, it shows your love for God that you would want to go to this degree of care in making this church what it is for these few days. What matters about beauty is where it leads us. It isn’t an end in itself: it’s a gift to lead us to God.  Its message today is: look around you at all this.  Let it teach you about trusting the God who cares for you even more than he cares for the passing beauty of a bird or a flower.  Because the hard truth is that once cut, a flower is no longer a living thing. Its beauty passes, soon to be consigned to the compost heap or bonfire.  Yet the loveliness of the human soul and the loveliness of God are eternal.  So it is the beauty of holiness that we need to nurture in ourselves and one another. And by offering what we are to him in the worship of this church, we are being true to where lasting beauty and joy are to be found: in the heart of God himself. 

My second word for this festival was welcome.  I believe this flows straight out of beauty, because it invites everyone in to enjoy it. It asks, no it demands, to be shared with as many people as possible: the beauty of this festival, this church, our life together as a community, the beauty of God himself.  Beauty is evidence of God’s love, even if we don’t always recognise it. “Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin” wrote George Herbert in his most famous poem. So this festival is our way of showing love. We do this by welcoming and being hospitable to others: our friends and neighbours in this village, across Tynedale and many others from far and wide.  I said at the beginning how good it is to find this church open whenever I come.  But this weekend has, I’m sure, underlined the joy of hospitality, being an open church that welcomes everybody to enjoy it and - who knows - to find here a living, working church that offers a friendship and care that reflect nothing less than the love of God himself. 

But then there’s the third word, memory. The theme of this festival is “A Backward Glance”. And that’s about our story here in this ancient place, a story that spans the whole of what we call Anno Domini from Roman times to the present. Looking back is vitally important for all of us in our communities, and for each of us personally. My mother died this summer, and now I am having to go through her home, the house I was brought up in from the 1950s until I left to go to university. So many memories are evoked by the sights and smell and feel of that house and what it contains, not least in my own letters to her which, it turns out, she lovingly kept and cherished all her life. Of course, memories can be a painful as well as thankful, but they have formed and shaped us, made us what we are today and what we hope to become tomorrow. So it is in our village community and in the community of this church. Here at this festival, our heritage of memories both ancient and modern is laid out for us to enjoy, to reflect on, and perhaps be challenged by as well.

I hear the author of our epistle reading reminding Timothy of the importance of remembering. He tells of his past life as a persecutor and man of violence; but then he goes on to remember how God in his mercy has come to him, how his grace has “overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” – not just overflowed but overflowed for me. That’s how personal he makes it. Here at the eucharist, we obey the command to “do this in memory of me”, which means keeping the events of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and glory alive in our present experience “until he comes again”. Remembering, looking back, is at the heart of our Christian faith, because it is memory that has the power to transform us in the present and give us hope for the future. At this altar, we enfold our own memories in the memory we have of Jesus that draws us together in him and makes us what we are as his household, his people, his body.

So an open church and a beautiful festival and a warm, hospitable community and a celebration of memories from the distant and nearer past are the best possible symbol of how God embraces us and the stories we tell. welcome us back into his friendship.  Call it mission if you like: what is important is that we do what we do in God’s name, and for his sake, because he is an outward-facing God for whom the world and its concerns, its joy and its pain, are always on his heart.  By throwing open the doors of our church this weekend, we are saying that they are on our hearts too.  If the spirit of this festival has touched us in some deep way, then we shall keep its spirit alive in our common life long after the flowers have become a thing of the past.  This is what God looks for us as we celebrate the life of the Jesus among us, and treasure the memories of our lives gathered up in his so that we live out his beauty and welcome in his world. 

St Andrew, Corbridge, 11 September 2016. 1 Timothy 1.12-17, Luke 15.1-10


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