Sunday, 28 June 2015

Summer on Lindisfarne

Our readings on this summer Sunday are of St Peter whose festival is tomorrow. It’s moving to be here on this particular day. Tomorrow I shall have been ordained forty years, so it’s a special time of thankfulness. Also, this is my last sermon as Dean of Durham outside the Cathedral at an ‘away match’. Where else was I meant come but back here on my beloved Lindisfarne, Durham’s mother house? And today is significant for you because the monastic church that St Aidan’s successor Finan built here on this Island in the seventh century was dedicated to St Peter. So on this festival Sunday we celebrate the centuries there has been a church, a Christian presence, in this wonderful and numinous place.

And that is the first of three themes I want to mention today. Aidan’s monastery founded nearly fourteen centuries ago, and the Priory that was re-founded by the Benedictine monks of Durham in the twelfth century, were at the heart of this island community. As was this church of St Mary which has its own long story to tell. This building was here to serve the islanders, while the Priory served the monks and their mission across Northumbria and beyond. But they belonged together on this one holy site. Today, the one is a romantic ruin loved by tourists and sea-birds; but the other continues to do what it always has: be the home of a living Christian community and a sign of God here among us.

Great monastic churches were often dedicated to St Peter, or to Peter and Paul. Finan’s church would not have been large, but it was ‘great’ in its significance, for from here the mission of those Irish monks, and the native Saxons who joined them, spread far and wide, not only across Northumbria but across England. Canterbury may claim to be the mother church of English Christianity, but you and I know better, for Lindisfarne has a stronger claim. Its reach was right across England: the North of course, and the Midlands too, and East Anglia and as far south as Sussex. You can see how appropriate it was for the headquarters of a great mission enterprise should be dedicated to Peter. In our gospel, he is the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Messiah, God’s anointed one. He is the one, Petros the rock, on whom Jesus promises to build his church; he is the one he gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to, charging him to take the gospel to the world and to bind and loose in his name. So we honour and celebrate the great apostle whose influence was so far-reaching, just as the influence of Lindisfarne’s own Apostle Aidan who perhaps took him as his model and touched countless lives six centuries later.  

But the Christian presence on Lindisfarne is about more than simply the life of the Priory and this parish church. Churches and priories, even when they are in ruins, stand for the truth that God is in the midst of the whole of our life, not simply the churchgoing part of it. We call it ‘common grace’, and we need to recognise it. It’s another of the Bishops of Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, who symbolises it for me (and I can hardly come here from his shrine at Durham and not mention Cuthbert who is so cherished by us all). This is my second theme. What people loved in Cuthbert and remembered him for among many other things was his love of the natural world, his closeness to animals and birds, flowers and vegetation, the land, the soil and the deep salt sea. He was England’s St Francis, or rather, because he lived so many centuries before him, we should say that St Francis of Assisi was Italy’s St Cuthbert. For us who also love the seascape and landscape and natural history of this Holy Island, it is difficult not to be reminded of Cuthbert who loved these things as well.
Common grace means celebrating the presence of God in all creation, and in the life and activity of human beings. So your music festival in which this church is taking an active part is a way of honouring the goodness of God at the heart of things, and perhaps making it a little more conscious to us all so that we can give thanks for it. But there’s another aspect of common grace that comes to my mind this summer. Pope Francis has just issued his courageous encyclical on climate change and the threats it poses to all of life on our planet. It’s clear in the way he writes that he has St Francis very much in mind. He says, for instance, that we need to get away from the old idea that humankind exercises ‘dominion’ over nature, which has been taken as a licence to exploit it, and instead recover St Francis’s friendship with the natural world, his courtesy towards it, how he saw the good earth as a home to all living creatures, not just to the human race. Pope Francis could have said all this of Cuthbert too. So a festival that celebrates God in our midst helps create an environment, an ecology if you like, in which we are more open to seeing nature’s gifts for what they are and reverencing them, whether it is in the beauty of this island or the beauty of music and the arts, or the beauty of human character and community and our closest personal relationships.
My third point brings these two themes together. Today we are dedicating a new frontal for the Fishermen’s Altar in the north aisle. This aisle is a much-loved space within a much-loved church. It symbolises the sea that is all around us, and the lives of those who derive their living and indeed their very identity from the sea. St Peter was of course a fisherman, one of those Jesus summoned to leave their nets and follow him and become fishers of people instead. The Sea of Galilee plays a big part in the gospels just as the North Sea dominates life on Lindisfarne. You can’t get on or off Holy Island without taking account of the tides, a daily reminder of primordial rhythms that were familiar to every ancient society but of which most of us have become almost unaware in modernity. That too is one of Pope Francis’s pleas, to reconnect ourselves once more to the patterns of the seasons and the days, dusk and dawn, the phases of the moon and the ebb and flow of tides. Cuthbert, who regularly plied the sea between here and the Inner Farne, knew all about these. So should we who come after him.
So the altar in this sacred place with its beautiful frontal that we dedicate on St Peter’s Day joins it all together: God’s grace that abounds in nature and in human art and craftsmanship; this island community that is so dependent on the sea, and this ancient place of prayer at the heart of England’s Holy Island where all of life is offered to God in praise and prayer. We are here this morning to celebrate the eucharist. That word means thankfulness. It’s the most important word in any celebration and the greatest word in the life of faith: gratitude to God for his goodness and lovingkindness to us and to all people; gratitude to him for the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, whose apostle Peter we celebrate today. And gratitude too for our life and work as a community on this island where we recognise in one another’s creativity, talents and dedication the God-given gifts that keep us alive and sustain what we are and do, and delight us with glimpses of the One whom the Gospel calls Immanuel, the God who is with us always in his risen and ascended Son.
Lindisfarne, 28 June 2015. Matthew 16.13-19

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