A sermon by the Very Reverend June Osborne DL, Dean of Salisbury
1 Kings 8 v 22-30; Matthew 21 v 12-16
In something I read this week it was suggested that people temperamentally divide into three types: those who are rowers, those who drift around on rafts and those who are canoeists.
· The rowers like to travel in a vessel which allows them to look back from where they’ve come;
· Those who drift on rafts like living in the present. It’s about coping with immediate demands even if that means going round in circles.
· Or perhaps you are a canoeist who is more comfortable looking where you’re going, inspired by what lies ahead, by the future?
The fact is that all of us have to manage our life in relation to the past, the present and the future, all of them play their part in making sense of our life but perhaps it’s true that each of us is more comfortable with one aspect of time than another.
When this Cathedral was first built I suspect that the people who experienced it saw in it their sense of the future. From Pepperbox Hill or the old drove roads, from the chalk downs of Wiltshire or wherever they viewed it they saw a spectacle of the kingdom of heaven. In the glory of the architecture and the sheer ambition of its scale they were given a symbol of God’s presence and the promise that the best was yet to come. If they made it into the building then in these high roofs, light-filled spaces and soaring arches they would have felt the exhilaration of eternal life, of a reality less brutal than the one they knew and in which they could invest their imagination. A vision of the future.
So isn’t it curious that people now visit this building in order to connect with the past? Whether tourist or worshipper they’re drawn by a sense of history and by admiration of past achievements.
Both of our readings this morning talk about the vocation of the Temple in Jerusalem, its purpose. Or rather the Temples in Jerusalem because the one dedicated by Solomon as a house of prayer was not the one in which Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers. Jewish narratives tell us that the Temple built by Solomon lasted about 400 years. We think it was destroyed after the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, probably in 587BC. Its replacement, the second Temple, was the project of those returning from exile around 70 years later but it became known as Herod’s Temple because about 20 years before Jesus was born Herod the Great virtually rebuilt it. It was his newly refurbished structure which was the seat of Jewish religious life and Jewish identity through which Jesus walked.
The temple Solomon consecrated to God’s use and the temple of Jesus’ contemporaries, like this Cathedral church, stood out of time. Such manmade structures are intended to be symbols of timeless realities, speaking of the continuity of things like faith and national identity, of God in this place, the God who resides with us, who once pledged his covenant love to us, who acts on our behalf and who will be faithful to us into eternity. So the vocation of such religious buildings is to tie together the realities of our past, present and future into one place of divine promise and praise.
In listening to these two stories of Jesus in the temple it’s vital that we remember that by the time the oral traditions about Jesus were being written into the form we call the Gospel according to St Matthew that Temple structure was no more. Rome had lost patience with a nationalist uprising and brought it to an end by the destruction of Herod’s temple.
So the very first Christians who heard or read these stories from Matthew would have known instantly the interplay between
· the past – the prayer of Solomon speaking of a holy house,
· the now actions of Jesus – him acting out a prophetic act of overturning the tables of moneychangers, those who made devotion into a commercial transaction,
· and the devastating future they themselves had experienced, which they had no difficulty thinking Jesus might have foretold.
Jesus’ radical disturbance of the status quo, the way he brought into the temple the outcasts, the blind and lame and children prepared to call him the Messiah, was a judgment on the religious practices which had turned a consecrated place into a trading floor and a place of exclusion. The point of the temple was that you met God there, you tasted his steadfast love in this life and took away the prospect of the fullness of his glory in the next. The followers of Jesus, adjusting to a world with no temple remembered how their teacher had condemned the way the temple had failed in its vocation to be a house of God, a house of prayer, and linked that with its downfall.
With all that as background, on this day when we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of this great religious building, how does the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Salisbury stay true to its purpose?
Let me ask you to consider the planning we’ve been doing for the year ahead, for 2015.
I have said that most people are drawn to this place by their fascination with past achievements. That will certainly be true when next year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. The plans are almost in place, the events will be splendid, the tea towels are in boxes in the shop and the story of Bad King John and his barons will be rehearsed in song, pageant and pilgrimage; in schools, prisons, the British Library, on television and the website, in the Close and way beyond it. You will not be able to escape the narrative of our past. We have the best surviving copy of Magna Carta, the only one which is still where it was in 1215 and although that fact may owe more to luck than careful stewardship we are now going to make the most of it.
But the question for us is this: how do we manage to be not just rowers but canoeists?
How can we not just look back but look forward? What will our legacy be and what difference will the celebrations make? For instance, what does Magna Carta mean to the debate about ‘British values’ and how we live in our current world; how do we become peace makers, justice builders and how do we make sense of it? How can we offer people an encounter with the living God, a sense of hope in their future as well as an exhibition and guidebook? For offering the steadfast love of God is our purpose in 2015 as in every other year.
It seems to me that most of our neighbours are nostalgic about the past, too busy in the present and nervous or disbelieving about the future. They’re pretty sure there is no personal future beyond the grave and have an ever- diminishing sense of any eternity. So we need to offer this building to be for people what it was when it was first constructed – a glorious declaration not only of his faithfulness in our past and of the reality of God in the here and now but of the promise of a future in him and with him. Let us not just be drifters on rafts but both rowers and canoeists.