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What lies before us – The Reverend Canon Victoria Johnson

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Sermon Preached on the Tercentenary of Grinling Gibbons, Wood Carver and Yorkshire Day

York Minster, Sunday 1 August 2021 by Canon Victoria Johnson

Readings: Psalm 84, 1 Chronicles 22. 6–end, 1 Corinthians 3. 10–17.

What lies before us.

A celebration of the tercentenary of a Master Wood Carver and sculptor and the annual commemoration of God’s own county, on Yorkshire Day: two events which combine during this service and may together help us reflect on the future that lies before us, and how we might be called to fashion it.

Grinling Gibbons, is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important wood carvers in history. He wasn’t a Yorkshire man and he wasn’t English, he was an immigrant from Rotterdam-but it was here in this city that he flourished as an artist and created works of beauty to inspire and memorialize, among them three elaborate carvings here in York Minster for three Archbishops. It was here in this city that he honed his skills among the guilds, craftspeople and businesses that contributed to the life of this northern metropolis three hundred years ago.

In a building like this, it seems fitting that we remember all those who carved stone and wood and painted glass, creating windows into new worlds delighting the eye and inspiring the heart, monuments to the transcendent and the timeless. As we sit beneath the Great West Window, locally known as the Heart of Yorkshire, in the city of the county, we also mark Yorkshire day, a much more recent celebration of a county with a rich heritage and history.

But to be of any worth, or significance, both of our celebrations today must also encourage us look to the future, otherwise they are simply fossilized traditions, time stood still. For we cannot celebrate Grinling Gibbons without a thought for the artisans and craftspeople of today, giving thanks for their skills and considering how they are supported, trained and nurtured within a modern economy. We cannot celebrate our county and its heritage without consideration of what it might represent now and in the future, we are all part of living traditions.

For the past is not all that we have: we have a future waiting to be shaped before us, and as we slowly emerge from a global pandemic, what kind of city, what kind of church, what kind of county, what kind of country, what kind of world are we hoping to build for those generations who come after us?

Our readings, speak rather fittingly of a building for the future. King David commissions his son Solomon to build a temple, a house for the Lord, with the assistance of stonecutters, masons, carpenters and all kinds of artisans working in gold, silver, bronze and iron. In our second reading, we move from an architectural vision of a physical house made by human hands to a different kind of temple in the form of a person, a temple built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God comes to dwell with us, and God sanctifies humanity -we are his temple- so that each and every person made in his image, is a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.  Each builder must chose with care how to build on this foundation we are told.

Let’s think about how we might create and build communities which are built on the foundation of Jesus Christ whether they be communities of faith, communities of collaboration in our city, or communities of friendship across our county- with Christ as our foundation what might those communities look like?

Today we can draw upon another moment in history associated with 1st August. William Wilberforce, a Yorkshire MP and committed Christian campaigned for the Abolition of Slavery. His rather plain slate memorial is just over there.

He died on 29th July 1833, not quite seeing the Act of Abolition passed on this day in 1834. Here was someone who was trying to create and shape a new future built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, someone who believed that every person in their glory and uniqueness, was made in God’s image and we should build a world to reflect that. Here was someone who believed in new futures of justice and mercy for all people everywhere, new futures of compassion and kindness and generosity.  We still need to work towards those new futures in our society today, where the evil of racism persists, where there is still discrimination, poverty, injustice and modern day slavery.

Yesterday in the Yorkshire Post, the Archbishop of York said that Yorkshire Day might also be the day on which, we as citizens of this county, commit to addressing the current climate emergency and the associated floods, droughts, famines and extreme weather events we see all the more frequently, affecting everyone but always detrimentally affecting the poorest and most vulnerable in our world. In the midst of a global pandemic and a climate emergency, we have discovered that we are all in this together, and when one suffers all suffer.

So what kind of future lies before us?

What might need to be re-shaped, re-fashioned, and re-built to create a future which is worth celebrating? A future where communities of love, peace and justice flourish, not only in Yorkshire but across the whole of humanity in all of its fullness and diversity?

If we are tasked with building a new kind of future, or carving something beautiful from a past, and sometimes present reality which is far from perfect, how might we go about it? What is our vision for our city, our county, our nation, our world?

At the beginning of this year, Amanda Gorman, in her own words ‘a skinny black girl descended from slaves’, recited a poem at the inauguration of Joe Biden as President of the United States, called ‘The Hill we climb’.

With her very presence and her words crafted from pain and a history of oppression, she carved out in the air a vision of a new future for her society, and that vision was as beautiful as any sculpture that could be made with human hands. She spoke of her country, made up of countys and cities and townships:

And yes, she said, we are far from polished, far from pristine,
but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man. And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.

We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.

What kind of temple, what kind of city, what kind of county and country- what kind of world stands before us now – waiting to be built?

This temple, this building was created to give glory to Jesus Christ who offered a vision of new future, a kingdom beyond all earthly kingdoms, beyond our definitions of space and time, a kingdom above every earthly city, and state and nation- a kingdom which we pray will come on earth as it is in heaven.

The Kingdom of which he spoke was not bound by borders or any human dividing lines, entry into this kingdom was not restricted by class, gender, race, wealth or status, there would be in this kingdom, no male or female, no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, for all are made one in Christ, who is for us the sure foundation, the cornerstone on which we build.

Today, on the 1st August 2021, as we rightly celebrate the past and the riches that it shares with us, may we also look at what stands before us, and take up our tools, and begin the work of carving a future of which we can all be proud.


In the name of Christ, Amen.

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