July 15, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by the Very Revd Catherine Ogle, Dean of Winchester using Isaiah 6: 1-8 John 21: 15 – 17 at College of Canons Eucharist on Monday 15 July 2019, St Swithun’s Day.
(Introductory words of welcome to the College of Canons)
The place in which we meet tells a long story of cycles of creation, destruction and restoration. The destruction has come both from deliberate assault and from natural wear and tear. And restoration can be on-going and gradual, (masons repairing the mortar between stones) or urgent and dramatic, as with William Walkers subterranean feat. Well, these last few years have seen again a great triumph of restoration. Thanks to so much hard work on the part of my predecessor, Dean James and his colleagues, we have been privileged to see restored glory revealed. What was broken is now renewed, (the roof no longer leaks! The stunning windows and ceiling are restored) what was hidden has been revealed, (the new exhibitions share our rich heritage and stories) and in the case of the great screen, what was obscured under a thick layer of dark dust has been made clean. This has probably been the greatest surprise for me: the overwhelming beauty and impact of the screen. I’ve seen people stand here and cry. Our crucified Saviour surrounded by the heavenly host and saints of all eras: a heavenly vision.
Amongst the saints is, of course, St Swithun whom we remember and honour today, Swithun, Bishop of Winchester in the ninth century, around whom a significant cult developed here in the enlarged Old Minster in the 11th century, with miraculous healings encouraging pilgrimage. You can see him on the north side of the screen, one of the large figures (three up and two across)….against his body is his crozier, his right hand is raised in blessing and in his left hand he holds a little bridge, symbolic of the real bridge that he had commissioned, spanning the River Itchen. By tradition, you’ll remember, the bridge was the site of the miraculous restoration of the broken eggs.
Each of the saints on the screen is given something to represent their character or work. Swithun is given his bridge and the significance of this rewards further thought. A bridge crosses a divide, creates a connection between people and places. Bridges enable movement, trade, economic growth and cultural engagement. Bridges enable relationship, which might be love and friendship or war-fare, with a bridge there is both opportunity and risk. Just think, how, after natural disaster, the disruption of roads and the bridges that carry them, hampers rescue efforts. Bridges connect and enable life. They become a metaphor for all that bridges difference, connects across divides, enables reconciliation. ‘Like a bridge over troubled water…’
The place in which we are gathered now is intended to be a bridge, a place of connection, connecting people with God, and with one another, enabling renewal, inspiration and unity, life in fullness and abundance.
This building is intended to overwhelm and inspire, connecting people with God’s holy presence. A bridge between earth and heaven, between past present and future, giving a brief human life perspective and connection.
We see this experience when the prophet Isaiah receives a vision of God in the Temple, and his encounter with overwhelming holiness. The vision puts his life into perspective and he realises, at first, his own utter wretchedness. But he is forgiven and set free. The Lord asks, ‘Whom shall I send?’ Isaiah replies, ‘Here am I; send me!’ He has been emboldened to become Gods messenger.
When Peter encounters the risen Christ, and they talk on the shore of the lake, he is a man burdened by three-fold failure and betrayal. In Christ however, Peter encounters not recrimination, but utter and honest love. William Temple calls this passage of John’s gospel, ‘The restoration of Peter’. The threefold question and request, ‘Simon, Do you love me?’ ‘Yes Lord, you know that I love you.’ ‘Feed my lambs’…the three questions, the three affirmations, the three requests, feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep…these are restoration. Peter is forgiven, emboldened and can at last become the person, the Rock, that Jesus always knew that he would be.
An encounter with Gods holiness and with God’s love in Christ, is transforming. It emboldens men and women and children to share faith, hope and love. And love emboldens service.
Our cathedrals and churches are bridges to connect us with God and to connect us with one another.
As I seek to understand these days, both what’s happening on the surface, and at depth, it seems to me that we are struggling to retain the bonds of human connection that foster and express shared values and virtues. Intolerance is emboldened. We can tailor the news and information that we read and hear around our existing views, so we need only listen to the people with whom we already agree. We risk forgetting how to listen to opposing views. Public discourse, fuelled by instant response on social media, becomes intolerant. This has public and tangible impact. A priest whose family came originally from the Caribbean and who has lived in London all her life, tells me that she’s increasing receiving racial abuse on the street.
In the face of this emboldening of hostility and division, our image of St Swithun and the bridge call us back to an utterly different way. We are called by the God who creates us, restores us and emboldens us to love and to service. Christ reconciles us to God and to one another enabling the most holy and precious connection human and divine. Just as this place may be a bridge and place of connection, so we too can seek to build bridges, and to be bridges for others into faith, hope and love. The Lord asks, ‘Do you love me? Feed my sheep.’