First Reading Exodus 3.1-6
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Second Reading Ephesians 6.13-17
Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Gospel Reading John 15:1-5
”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
As I mentioned in my words of welcome, we have all come carrying different thoughts and emotions but here we are standing together on the holy ground of this this cathedral, often referred to as the mother church of the diocese – a familiar place where the presence of God is deeply recognised. And you have come here from all those places across the diocese which are your local context – your centre – the places to which you were each called and the places where you serve God in this season.
Over this past 18 months or so we have been acutely aware of place, not least during periods of lockdown as we have inhabited restricted place. For many of us that’s been long periods at home but people have been in other places too – not least chaplains, teachers in our schools… and the list could go on.
We have been aware of place. We will never forget the turbulence and shock of having to close the doors of our Church buildings in March 2020 – our ancient and modern places of accepted holy ground. And the journey of returning to in-person gathering in specific places has had many twists and turns – Thank you for your navigation of guidance, risk assessments etc. and amid so many different views, thoughts, and feelings. Thank you.
And during the months of pandemic there has been much use of the metaphor of navigation. One of the most memorable podcasts I made was one focused on navigation which included a cartographer.
I was fascinated hearing him speak about the personal maps people draw with the centre of the map being where they are physically located. And he spoke about cartographers who had drawn such maps during lockdown, mapping their restricted worlds within a tiny radius.
We have all been very aware of place and where we could and could not be. Indeed, we have even become familiar with the ground beneath our feet being marked – showing where you can and cannot stand.
Place and how to inhabit it has taken a lot of mental and emotional energy.
And I’ve heard many people over these past 18 months say that as they have become more aware of place they have had an increased awareness of the need to care for the planet as place.
As people, created in the image of God and inhabitants of earth, we are people who are always located and who are created to live in relationship with God, neighbour and creation. Throughout scripture, from the garden of Eden in Genesis through to the mysterious imagery of the heavenly city in Revelation, the significance of place is never separate from issues of relationship.
The story of the people of God in the Old Testament is one in which place is key. There is the leaving of place to journey; sagas of wandering and wilderness, of settling, of endless conflict over territory, stories of exile and displacement, of Holy places and of temple.
Then when we come to the Gospels, we encounter God coming to earth to be placed among us in physical space. I love the translation of John 1:14 in the Message Bible which reads ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood’ – reflecting that crucial intertwining of the relationship between God, people, and place – earthly, physical, and temporal, as well as heavenly, mysterious, and eternal.
Place is vital in our vision of living, sharing and longing for Christ’s life in all its fullness, as we seek to join in with what God is doing in reconciling the world to Godself – making all things new, bringing to completion the kingdom of justice and mercy and peace
How do we inhabit the places of our different contexts in this season, so aware of the past as we shape the future with hope?
Three key things I want to comment on:
Firstly, Noticing …
Moses knew about fear and brokenness, and by the time he was a young man he had experienced a number of twists and turns in life which had taken him to different places, including a basket in a river and a home in a palace. Yet it is not seemingly amid the crises we read about in Exodus 1 and 2 that Moses has a deep encounter with God. It is after this, in a period of some ordinariness of everyday life in an unexpected place and in an unexpected way.
The important thing was that Moses was open to noticing – to being curious and to turning aside. And he both noticed and paused. He lingered in order to be present to God, and this led to determining the shape of the next chapter.
As we live the present in the places we inhabit, looking to the future, how are we noticing God’s presence? Amid all that could overwhelm us, and in those places where we feel anxious, and overstretched, has our curiosity for God become dulled? Or are we able to notice the presence of God and turn aside, even amid the stuff of daily life, in order to discern what comes next? How do we recognise that whatever the pressures, the concerns or indeed the mundane, that we do stand on holy ground in the presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the past, present, and future?
So, Noticing. And then secondly, how does our ministry in this season enable the whole people of God to inhabit the everyday places of their lives as holy ground?
Perhaps this is particularly poignant in this season as people, for the moment, return to some of the places of their lives from which they’ve been absent for much of the past 18 months – sent out to live to God’s praise and glory, trailing the wet footprints of their baptism wherever they go.
I am acutely aware that there are a lot of different labels around in the Church of England at present which captures some of this: Everyday faith, Growing Faith, missionary disciples .... and our own LIFE vision speaks of ‘nurturing confident disciples to live out their faith 7 days a week’. Yet ultimately it is all about our encouraging and nurturing every child and adult in their faith journey to increasingly recognise the ground on which they walk Sunday to Saturday as holy ground; and to have an expectant heart not only to encounter the mystery of God in the places of their week, but also to inhabit those places authentically as followers of Jesus Christ who week by week pray that ‘we whom the spirt lights might give light to the world’; and who, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.
None of this is about denying pain, struggle, lament, and questions. When Paul urges the Christians in Ephesusto put on their feet whatever will make them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, it is in the context of struggle. Paul recognises the spiritual forces of evil – and knows the power of God. And Paul’s words are a call to resilience which is spiritual as well as physical, emotional and mental. How is our ministry encouraging people to stand firm in their faith, rooted in the strength of God’s love as they inhabit the places of daily life, knowing them as holy ground, and even in darkness?
Yet all of this will only happen if our gathering for worship, our reading of Scripture, our prayer and liturgy, our conversations over coffee, truly recognise and invite the sharing of stories from the places of people’s week and sends people back out to inhabit their daily ground as holy, putting on their feet whatever will make them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace in what they say and do (..and that might never involve a church rota!).
And in our calling as leaders to nurture individuals to notice and to inhabit the places of their lives as holy ground, we are not nurturing individualism. This is about being members of the Body of Christ, both when we are gathered and when we are scattered – always the branches of the one vine. I believe we learnt more about that during pandemic.
[Incidentally, it raises interesting questions about what we’ve discovered in our worshipping over zoom or similar. We know that it’s connected with new and different people located in different places, and yet there is still more reflection to be had on what zoom worship has and has not been… And where does place come into all of that?]
So firstly, noticing; Secondly, how does our ministry in this season enable the whole people of God to inhabit the everyday places of their lives as holy ground?
And then thirdly, what does being branches of the one vine mean for us as part of Christ’s church, inhabiting the land of this diocese together?
There will be a focus at the diocesan Synod in November on continuing our LIFE vision and looking at where the spotlight is shining as we move into the next years of LIFE together. And the commitments under the spotlight have been discerned in listening to all the different stories people have shared, and in what has been noticed over these past years, not least during this time of pandemic.
You will hear more after the synod in November – I’m simply flagging it now because our LIFE vision is about how together we inhabit the places of this diocese.
This is why the deanery strategic plans are important. They are about how we inhabit the ground and shape ourselves with courage and imagination, committed to abiding in Christ together, continually seeking God’s kingdom; noticing the fruitfulness as well as what might need pruning – and the starting place is not money and clergy numbers.
And perhaps this is the natural point to say something about parish and place.
I am sad and frustrated at so much of what has been fanned into flame regarding ‘Save our Parishes’. Please hear unequivocally that I and Bishop Robert and the archdeacons and senior staff team are absolutely committed to our parish system, which is about relationship, place and the local. We are clear in our commitment to healthy local parish ministry (when I was ordained, I never saw myself as being anything other than a parish priest immersed in local communities).
Every centimetre of ground or water in England is within a parish (although I hope that in our humility, we recognise brothers and sisters from other denominations who share in our calling). At the heart of our parish system is the cure of souls – a commitment to sharing and living Christ’s love and hope with every person of every age and every background because every person in England is located in a parish, even if they don’t have a permanent roof over their head.
And as we hold fast to healthy, local, parish ministry, we also want to explore new ways of connecting with people – Chaplains have been living this for years!
Some of that connection will include joining in with those whose identification with place might be more defined by activity rather than the place where they reside.
That commitment to people located in every place with different hopes and needs, and recognising that people’s sense of belonging might be about human activity such as sport or music, means that I hope we will welcome and nurture new ways of connecting with people and growing fruitful new worshipping communities.
Some of these will emerge from within parish ministry around gatherings such as Messy Church and Forest Church which may lead to the shaping of distinct and sacramental worshipping communities with the marks of what it means to be church. Others will emerge from our investment in Sportily or new church plants or our Church Army Centres for Mission. All have a place in our church landscape of varied configuration. And there is work going on to reflect theologically on when something is an expression of something which already exists, and what makes something a distinct new worshipping community – always recognising that nurturing strong relationships with local parish clergy is going to be key as we abide together in Christ.
Holy ground is God’s ground which we inhabit at God’s invitation by God’s grace. Our hospitality of one another and our relationship with one another is important as we inhabit that ground generously with a common and renewed vision, part of that one true vine, longing for fruitfulness.
And part of that is being brave in honestly naming the places where we are simply trying to preserve things from the past, sometimes because we don’t have the courage to name the withering or recognise the need for pruning. ‘Abiding’ is not to be confused with simply keeping on doing what we’ve always done. We need courage and imagination (and I do recognise that’s not always easy when we are weary, although it can be freeing once we’ve named it).
As I conclude, I want to underline that none of this is simply about doing more and more stuff, or endlessly striving. This is about how we authentically inhabit the places of our contexts, open to noticing God in unexpected places and ways; It’s about how we recognise the ground on which we walk as holy ground, and the ways we minister so that the whole baptised people of God live the daily places of their lives as holy ground, witnessing to God’s love. It’s about how together we abide in Christ as we inhabit the holy ground of this diocese in many different ways, praying that together we might be fruitful as we remain faithful, as we live the present and shape the future, knowing that without Christ we can do nothing.
Thank you to every one of you – It is a privilege to be sharing in this together. Thank you. Amen