Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 26th September 2021
A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on by Canon Edward Probert
Sunday 26 September 2021, 10,30, The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
(Genesis 28.11-18; John 10.22-29)
Please scroll to the bottom of the page to follow a video of this sermon.
The huge worshipping space of this cathedral building was completed in 1258, and at Michaelmas that year the great ceremonials of its dedication took place. So it is that on the Sunday nearest to the feast of St Michael and All Angels, we today are keeping our Dedication Festival. An opportunity to celebrate the existence and purpose of this place – this extraordinary house of God where we have the privilege to worship this morning, the latest in the many people who have been here for worship and other purposes even in this strange and disjointed year, let alone of the vast number who have touched or been touched by these stones during 763 years.
Long before this, and from a place far different from these lush pastures of southern England, we have the story of the patriarch Jacob, travelling to a far country to find a wife, and settling down for the night to a hard bed on the earth, with a stone for a pillow. There his dream is of a ladder reaching up to heaven, actively linking the realm of God with the hard mundanity of that place. So he wakes up to say ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.
This is an easier thing to say than it is always to live out. I was vicar of a church over whose west doors, past which thousands of commuters and shoppers passed, was written this text in lovely gold script. The ringing message that this was none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven was somewhat undermined by the habit of not using those doors and therefore keeping the ironwork outer gates by the road chained shut. Churches do not exist in order to keep the Lord God trapped within: their vocation is that of Jacob’s ladder, to enable the free passage and exchange between the realm of God and the mundanity of passing life.
How we live out that vocation in this place is our constant challenge. It can be confusing and distracting to come here, every bit as much as it can be enlivening and uplifting. John’s gospel tells of Jesus attending the dedication festival at the Temple in Jerusalem, and of the frustration of those who wanted to know why he was keeping them in suspense about who he actually was. To paraphrase Jacob: ‘Jesus was in this place, and they did not know him’. And, just to add to their frustration, he gives them the kind of allusive, tangential and therefore puzzling answer so typical of this gospel.
This pandemic has of disrupted most things, and brought much harm and sadness. But we did take the opportunity of interrupted work here to rethink the ways in which we explain this place to those who come here. This is an attractive place and many people are attracted to it, and of course most of those don’t come during acts of worship – most come, quite naturally, at times when they can have a proper look around. So we worked to help people to use the signs and messages, the objects, the architecture, and the building to gain insights into the purpose and meaning of things like the font, the altars, the locked cupboards, the hidden spots like the vestry. Beyond these possibly mysterious things can be conveyed messages about the nature of God and of a community which seeks humbly to worship him in Christ. Part of the fruit of that work is the new signage around the cathedral, including the QR codes which convey further dimensions of interpretation. If you haven’t done so, please take the chance soon to engage with these things; little tools, little contributions to the immense and enduring task of unlocking the mysteries of God.
But of course, when Jacob rose from sleep, and took his pillow-stone and turned it into an altar, sacred to the worship of God, it followed an experience which was in a most ordinary place. It was the mystery of his encounter with God, the sleeping vision of earth connected to heaven, which was transformative, which provoked him to say: ‘The Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!’ The message of Jacob’s ladder, and equally of this cathedral building, is to be alert to the unexpected encounter with the mysteries of God. An encounter which can happen in the most ordinary of experiences, in the oddest of places, and which it’s your task and mine to interpret to the praise and glory of God.