St Bride's: Sermons

Seen and Unseen

Seen and Unseen

Grave Stones in Suffolk taken by quaddles

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When I was aged about nineteen, in the days when I had no interest in religion whatsoever, and was certainly not a churchgoer, I attended a wedding at a little country church out in the middle of nowhere. Once the marriage service itself was over, the wedding photographer moved in - and did so with a vengeance: the photographs went on for hours and hours and hours. It was interminable. And by the time he had got as far as summoning all the 'second-cousins-once removed' for their special shot, I really had had enough, so I decided to leave them to it and go for a stroll around the churchyard.

In the farthest corner of the graveyard I came across some old tombs belonging to a family of former local dignitaries - monuments that had once been very grand and impressive, but were now crumbling and mildewed; untended and forgotten, some of them barely visible amidst the long grass. And for a reason that I have never really been able to explain, seeing those tombstones mouldering away there proved to be one of the turning points of my life. Because I suddenly realized with startling clarity that, one day, that would be my destiny, too. It was the first time that I had really faced the fact of my own mortality.

And with that recognition came two other, equally significant thoughts. The first was my realization of how precious the gift of life really is: we don't have it forever - so what we choose to do with the life that we have matters enormously. And secondly, it dawned on me that given that we have one shot, and one shot only, at being alive, if there were a spiritual dimension to life, wouldn't it be terrible if I missed it completely - simply because I had never got around to checking it out. And so began my adult exploration of the Christian faith - which, I have to say, ended up leading to the most surprising outcome imaginable. (Had you told me at the time that I would eventually end up as an ordained priest, I would have fallen about laughing!)

I suppose that one shouldn't really be surprised at quite how powerful such momentary glimpses of the transitory nature of human life can be. Indeed, part of the function of ancient cemeteries and ossuaries was precisely to remind the living of that very fact: on the Continent you will sometimes find displayed above the entrance to such places, a sentence in which the dead purport to address the living, with the chastening words: "What you are we once were; what we are you will be."

Now this might appear to be an unnecessarily gloomy theme for a glorious summer's morning such as this, on which we are celebrating a baptism - but actually it isn't - as you will see in a moment.

In our first reading today, St Paul reminds his readers that 'what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal' - urging them to put their trust in what is unseen, rather than what is seen. Which is a very strange thing for him to say - after all, surely it goes against everything that common sense tells us is the case: most of us experience reality in the here and now, in the things that we see around us. Except that, when you think about it more carefully, and in the context of the whole of human life, actually St Paul is absolutely right, and demonstrably so.

After all, think for a moment about what most people in our culture do put their trust in? Money: which can assure you absolute peace of mind - until, that is, the financial markets go into meltdown, and everything that had seemed rock solid and certain evaporates into thin air: jobs are lost; investments disappear; and thriving businesses go into liquidation. In Birmingham I knew people whose lives and livelihoods were utterly destroyed by the crash in 2007-8, and who have never yet fully recovered from the catastrophe.

So why not put your trust instead in bricks and mortar? After all, there is no greater security than that. Until, of course, one is hit by subsidence, a depressed housing marking leading to negative equity, or damage caused by fire, dry rot or deathwatch beetle. You see, the truth is that everything that we can see and touch is, by its very nature, transient. The story is told of a stupendously wealthy man who died suddenly and unexpectedly. On hearing the news someone asked, "How much did he actually leave?" To which an astute bystander replied: "Everything".

Visitors here to St Bride's discover this is in face the eighth church to have stood upon this site. It has been built and rebuilt many times over the centuries, and on two separate occasions it was completely destroyed: during the Great Fire of London in 1666, and during the Blitz. But the reason why St Bride's is still here today is because it has never been simply a building. It has survived because those of us worshipping here today are the inheritors of a continuous tradition of faith going back 1500 years in this place. Bricks and mortar come and go, just as the various churches here have come and gone - those are the things that are seen: the things that are unseen are timeless and changeless, and those are the things that remain.

We say the office of morning prayer here every morning down in the main Crypt Chapel, surrounded by what remains of those earlier churches. And there are times when, in the depths of the silence there, in the early morning, I know without any shadow of a doubt that I am surrounded by the prayers of all those past centuries of worshippers. It is an experience that is difficult to describe, because you cannot see it; you cannot measure it; but goodness me you can feel it - and when you do, you know that you are, in that instance, glimpsing the reality of which St Paul speaks.

Which is why, going back further still to Old Testament times - an era marked chaos and famine and war and upheaval and uncertainty - the words of the Psalmist continue to echo down the centures: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid." And the Psalmist meant it. Because he knew it to be true.

Life is such a precious gift, precisely because it is finite. Which is why, if we are wise, we must not only treasure it - we must also seek its hidden treasures. And that is why Joanna's parents have done such a very important thing today in bringing her here for baptism. She has become a member of the family of the Church - a family that exists not only in the present, but throughout time, past and future. And she is embarking upon a journey with God that will lead her to a fullness of life that goes far, far beyond the purely material, and to a quality of existence that will never be bound by the limitations of mortal life.

We ask God's blessing upon her, and upon her family, as Joanna's story becomes part of our story, and part of the continuing and unfolding story of this wonderful community of St Bride's.

Amen.

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