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York Minster, Sung Eucharist, Sunday 22 September 2019, 10.00
In the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
A Bishop was visiting a parish in his Diocese, and had to stay overnight. The Vicar’s son was very excited that the Bishop was going to stay, and begged his father to be allowed to take the bishop his early morning cup of tea. The Vicar was a little anxious, but drilled his son as to exactly what he should do and say. ‘You should knock on the door, clearly, three times,’ he said, ‘and call out “It’s the boy, my Lord, it’s time to get up”.’ So the boy rehearsed until he was word perfect. The day dawned, and the boy climbed the stairs from the kitchen, carrying the Bishop’s cup of tea. He knocked boldly on the door, three times, but his memory failed him, and in desperation he blurted out: ‘It’s the Lord, my boy, your time is up!’
Time is something we can’t escape. Our lives are measured (if not governed) by it, and we are always, and increasingly, aware of the pressure of time. Today marks – for Heather and for me – the end of 9 happy years at York Minster, and in a few weeks’ time we set out on an exciting journey – leaving the Church of England for the Scottish Episcopal Church, and mainland England for the Western Isles of Scotland. In our visits to the Hebrides in recent months, we’ve become acutely aware of a significant local concept: ‘island time’ – an unhurriedness – born of the fact that the extreme weather can mean that the ferry or the flight simply doesn’t run, and that what was planned for today will have to wait until tomorrow. For a precentor, that’s really tough! Because precentors like time to be measured and precise: we start services on time and liturgy is planned down to the last detail.
Before the Gospel we sang a hymn which I couldn’t resist choosing for today: Sing, choirs of heaven, a setting of the ancient Easter Exsultet to Richard Shephard’s magisterial tune, Scampston. This is very much a ‘York’ tune: it featured in the 2000 and 2016 Mystery Plays, and in recent years the hymn has been sung here on Easter Day. The words and music together take us beyond ourselves into the heavenly realms, as we ‘join our cheerful songs with angels round the throne’, glorifying God for Jesus’ resurrection. The hymn is a window which opens onto eternity.
In a sense, cathedrals are about eternity. Anyone who’s tried to get a quick decision from Chapter or from the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England, will know all about that! But seriously, cathedrals move slowly – on an almost geological timescale – because they are (and should be) places which celebrate the eternal: the mystery of God who was, and is, and is to come. They are places where it’s worth taking time to get things right: our music, our mission, our stone and glass, our safeguarding.
So what can we say about time in relation to our Christian faith? At the heart of our faith are the two gospel truths: that God, in Jesus, one the one hand shares our life, and on the other changes it. In taking human flesh, the eternal Word – the second person of the Trinity – is born as a human being and enters the realm of time, with all the limitations that brings. In doing this, God enters time, inhabits and sanctifies it – marks it out as holy. We live in the year of Our Lord 2019.
Christian worship reflects this hallowing of time. We set apart particular days to worship God – each Sunday is special because it recalls the resurrection: a key moment in the sanctification of time. A little later, we shall hear these words in the Eucharistic Prayer:
From sunrise to sunset this day is holy,
for Christ has risen from the tomb
and scattered the darkness of death
with light that will not fade.
This day the risen Lord walks with your gathered people,
unfolds for us your word,
and makes himself known in the breaking of the bread.
The seasons carve up the Christian Year into chunks, each with its own theme: Advent for waiting, Christmas for the incarnation, Lent for penitence and so on.
Within the days and seasons, we set apart special times of day for worship, and within those services we divide time still further – for reading the scriptures, for praying, for receiving the sacrament. Music plays a vital part in this, because music itself delineates time – through note values, bar lines, and the sections of a composition. Music—within worship and elsewhere—helps reinforce God’s hallowing of time.
God, in Jesus, shares our life – and sanctifies the time of our earthly existence. We give this concrete expression in worship, but more than that—if we’re serious about this—we will see all time as God’s time, as time made holy. We’re used to the idea that all material things come from God, and so anything we consider to be our own is technically a gift from God. It’s no different with time. Time is gifted to us, and to be used wisely.
This comes home forcefully in this morning’s NT Reading. Paul writes to Timothy of the need to pray for our earthly rulers – those who wield authority in the here and now. (And God knows that is especially urgent than at the present.) In other words, our faith must be part of the substance of daily life – and not a parallel universe into which we escape.
One of my great Anglican heroes, Thomas Ken, the non-juror Bishop of Bath and Wells and hymnwriter puts it well:
Redeem thy mis-spent time that’s past,
live this day as if ’twere thy last:
improve thy talent with due care;
for the great day thyself prepare.
But let’s hold it there a minute. I said earlier that the two gospel truths are that God shares our life and changes it. God hallows time, but also transforms it. The point of Jesus sharing our humanity, is that we may share his divinity.
The death and resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit have eternal consequences. They mean that, ultimately, our existence is not limited by time, but is eternal. Our hope of new life in Christ begins now but continues beyond the grave into eternity, where we become citizens of heaven.
Eternity gives our lives a proper sense of perspective. It’s good to be reminded that this world isn’t all that there is, and that the best is still yet to be. Cathedrals are a real help here, because they take us out of ourselves, and force us to look beyond and contemplate the eternal. The builders of this Gothic Minster understood this profoundly: they set out to create in stone and glass a building which pointed beyond itself to the eternal God. Before every Sunday Eucharist we remind ourselves of this as we sing in the South Quire Aisle:
This is none other than the house of God.
This is the gate of heaven.
The Jonathan Dove mass setting we have this morning does something similar. Remember the closing bars of the Gloria earlier, and listen later for the Sanctus. This is music which engages us with eternity, which opens the heart to the glory of God who is above and beyond and the one to whom we belong. But Dove’s music is at the same time measured – and so the window it opens onto eternity is a window here on earth – sung and heard by real people in real time. As such it offers us the chance to contemplate eternity from where we are, from within the present moment in time.
The Bible has two words for time: there is chronos, the measured passing of time, and kairos, critical time. The birth of Jesus was once such kairos moment, as was his death and his resurrection. Each was a breaking in of the eternal and the divine into the passage of measured time.
For us, although we live within chronos, time in the kairos sense is still important. God is always a God of the present moment – always liable to break into our lives when we least expect it. The point at which I decided to respond to the advert for a priest on the Isle of Lewis was one such kairos moment; a God-moment which has been an agent of change – for us as a family and, by extension, for the Minster.
As a community, it’s vital that we expect and recognise those kairos moments, asking the all-important question, ‘What would God have us do now?’ The Minster—with a relatively new Dean, two new Chapter members about to arrive, and a new Archbishop just around the corner—is well-placed to seize the time, aligning its next strategic plan with a shared understanding of God’s mission here. But to do it properly will take time and effort – and might seem like an eternity!
To conclude, I’ve asked the choir to sing another fine York
piece: Philip Moore’s setting of a prayer by Christina Rossetti – O Lord God of time and eternity. As it is sung, please make the prayer your own.
O Lord God of time and eternity,
who makes us creatures of time,
that when time is over, we may attain your blessed eternity:
with time, your gift, give us also wisdom to redeem the time,
so our day of grace is not lost, for our Lord Jesus’ sake.
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