A Sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Genesis 15 v1-12, 17-18; Luke 13 v31-end
One of my childhood heroes was Father Mark, the Vicar of the suburban Midlands parish where my Grandma lived. She often told me how Father Mark had one day walked past a building site while the workers were on a tea-break. They were evidently underwhelmed at the sight of the parish priest doing his rounds, cassocked and clutching a bag of rock buns, a gift from a parishioner, and sniggered loudly. Father Mark stopped. He asked the foreman to fill a hod with bricks. Then, with the loaded hod against his shoulder, he hitched up his cassock and climbed the ladder to the top of the builders’ scaffold. Descending, he dusted off his hands, offered the open-mouthed workers a rock bun, and went on his way. Don’t expect me to do the same, but the story made quite an impression.
I wonder what those builders – or Father Mark – would make of our Ladders of Light? I doubt their glowing rungs could bear the weight of a priest, with or without a loaded hod (or a bag of rock buns). And they do not appear to go anywhere. Some stretch from the floor of the nave to the clerestory; others from the south gallery to the north; but where they arrive is indeterminate: the top of a pillar, or a bit of the roofspace. The journey, the ladders of light imply, is as important as the destination. Our means of travel is as important as the place to which we’re travelling.
That’s certainly the experience of Abram. Back home in what is present-day Iraq, God promises to make him a great nation. In obedience to God’s command he leaves those ancestral lands and relocates to Canaan. There’s a sojourn in Egypt along the way, to complicate matters, but it’s in Canaan that we find him in the fifteenth chapter of the book of Genesis. Abram has arrived in the land he has been promised. But there’s a wrinkle in the counterpane. Of the great nation which he has been promised there is no sign. He is childless.
That’s the context for one of the most significant exchanges in the whole of Scripture. Notwithstanding Abram’s great age God maintains his promise that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. “And Abram believed the LORD” Genesis records, “and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness”.
It’s one of the hinge moments in the human story that the Bible tells, and, like most hinges, it has two parts.
The first is that up to this point, Abram obeys. Now, he trusts. Hitherto God has told him to move, and he has. Now, God tells him that he will have many heirs. Abram does not challenge God or God’s message. He does not question God’s integrity or query the reliability of what God says. Abram believes, and acts.
The second is that Abram’s trust is all that’s needed. It’s enough for God. God takes Abram’s trust and reckons it to him as righteousness. Abram’s trust is a down payment. Abram’s trust settles his eternal account with God.
So Abram’s trust is ultimately his means of travel. True, he has made a geographical journey from Ur of the Chaldees to the far-off Oak of Mamre. No doubt his feet are sore; no doubt his many herds are exhausted. But alongside the geographical journey Abram makes a journey to a new identity as the father of a great nation. That is a journey of a different kind. God promises the seemingly impossible, and Abram believes. That’s the journey of trust.
It’s become a trite observation, but Abram’s journey is a journey upon which our world is singularly unwilling to embark. Our trust in one another is fragile: questioning others’ integrity or querying their reliability has become a global pastime. To take just one example: the issue of the Irish backstop was critical in the political debates of last week. Analyse the rhetoric around it. One Honourable Member’s comment was “the vassal state must not be replaced by penal servitude”. The EU might not release the UK from what has been designed as a temporary measure; the EU cannot be trusted. The backstop, indeed the Prime Minister’s whole deal, were ultimately issues of trust.
We cannot tell what the future holds for us as a nation and today it would be rash to attempt to predict it. But it will be dark indeed if we do not get better at trusting one another.
And here the Church surely has something to contribute. We trust God. We’re here not just for the sublime music or the decent coffee but because we trust God. We trust that when prayer is uttered it is heard. We trust that when we stretch out our hands to receive bread and wine we in fact receive a gift of unimaginable worth. We trust God. So dare we trust one another? It so happens that opportunities for practicing trust and growing in trust abound at the Cathedral this Lent.
The ladders of light set out for us what trust looks like. They invite us to ascend without knowing where to. Don’t worry too much about where you might land, they say; just dare to imagine how things might be different? Trust! The stanzas of Lemn Sissay’s new constitution for the United Kingdom are spread around the building. The lawyer in me knows it’s not a constitution at all. It’s not a tightly-drafted document prescribing powers and responsibilities. It’s instead a series of prompts. Dream about the meaning of education, Lemn says whimsically: dream about the status of looked-after children; dream about the value of jellyfish. Trust! And the Salisbury Conversations are just that: Conversations. There’s no meaningful vote at their end, no agreement and definitely no hard borders. There’s just the opportunity to hear views that provoke and inspire. Trust!
If we are serious about following in the footsteps of Jesus then we must get better at trusting God and we must get better at trusting one another. Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem when the Pharisees come and warn him of Herod’s ill intent. He will not be deterred. He knows that the city is the place where prophets are killed. And yet he journeys on because he trusts that that is God’s purpose and because he trusts God. The means of travel is as important as the place to which he is travelling. I suppose that Father Mark knew that too. Amen.