Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
In 1020, Cambridge existed on the edge of the marshy fen as an increasingly important trading port, the river giving it good links to the European mainland at a time when more than punts sailed through the town. Canute was on the throne, and memories of the earlier Viking raids in the local area would still have been fresh: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 1010 the Vikings arrived and ‘the land three months ravaged and burned; and they even went into the wild fen… Thetford they burned and Cambridge.’
Almost two centuries before a group of students arrived from Oxford with the intent of pursuing their studies here, and a full 250 years before the foundation of Peterhouse, the oldest of the University’s colleges, this parish church was built. Much of Cambridge’s history from this period remains shadowy, though archaeological findings reveal that the area between St Bene’t’s and the market place was the most densely populated part of the Anglo-Saxon town. As they were established, parish churches came to be the focal points of their local community: significant as places where the dead were buried, and where new life was received in baptism. They were the places from which processions went out, particularly at rogationtide, as the local population sought God’s blessing on the crops. Priests collected tithes, offered the mass and pronounced absolution, celebrated feast days and oversaw fasts. A late tenth century homilist denounced eating and drinking, gossip, games and raucous laughter in churches, indicating that they functioned not just as places of devotion and worship but as alehouses, guildhalls and council chambers as well: as centres of their communities.
And for those who lived around them, the new stone churches which began to proliferate from the early eleventh century onwards marked a sense of permanence and stability. For a population at risk from invasion, disease, fire or poverty the local church located the eternal in the temporal. Through its ministry the people were recalled to the steadfast love of God, present in their midst, shaping and directing their lives from the grace they received in baptism to the final resting place the churchyards offered to the dead awaiting resurrection. They marked a promise that shaped people’s lives: that the God who created the heavens and the earth, and who will one day judge the living and the dead, is present in this place, in these lives.
Jacob, in our Old Testament reading, set up a pillar to mark the place of his dream. In time it became second only to Jerusalem among Israel’s shrines. For Jacob, it marked the place where his life was recreated. When he went to sleep he was an exile, banished from his home and family for stealing his brother’s birthright. Alone and guilty he was cut off from his past and seemed to have forfeited his future. Until God speaks. ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give you to you and to your offspring… Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.’
When he awakes, Jacob is still alone, still far from home, still guilty of stealing his brother’s birthright. But now he has a future because God has promised him one. He has done nothing to deserve it – in fact if this were a morality play Jacob would merit his exile and banishment for his deceit and double-dealing – but it is in the nature of grace that it is unmerited. And it’s God’s grace that will eventually enable Jacob to face his brother and be reconciled, and to become the one through whom God’s promise is fulfilled, as his offspring multiply and become the people of Israel.
Jacob’s pillar marks in stone the place of God’s promise. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!’ exclaims Jacob. And so it stands as a sign to others that the often unpromising ground of our lives can also be the place where angels tread; that when we feel like we’ve cut ourselves off from past or future God can intervene and do a new thing; that unbeknownst to us, the Lord can be in the places we are in, giving grace where we do not merit it and promise when life feels barren.
God’s promise to Jacob to be with him is based on God’s faithfulness, not Jacob’s. Jacob has already established himself as an untrustworthy sort, and he’s disappointing material for a founding father. There will be no heroic tales of virtue to tell about why God chose him or what he did to earn the promise. Instead there is gratitude, and the vow to live for the one who has promised to be with him and bless him.
There is nothing meritocratic about God’s promise to Jacob, who schemes and plots and refuses to play fair. And this might be an affront to our ideas of fairness, except that when we don’t deserve it, God loves us, too, and acts to save us and help us and recreate us. His promise to Jacob to be with him is kept, right through the Old Testament and the story of God’s faithfulness to his fickle people. And this promise reaches its fulfilment in Jesus, who is born as Emmanuel, God with us, and who lives our life and dies our death so that God’s promise is kept eternally: in Jesus God comes to be with us, so that when Jesus dies and rises again, he can bring us to be with him for ever.
Jacob’s pillar stood as a memorial of God’s promise, and as a sign that would encourage others to discover that the Lord is with them, too. It’s a marker in space of God’s faithfulness. And that’s what this church stands as a sign of, too: a place of enduring witness to the presence of God in this place, in this parish, for the people of the eleventh century who built it, right through to those of us of the 21stwho have succeeded them.
Cambridge is a very different place, a millennium on from the time this church was built, though the Anglo-Saxon past is still visible in the parish churches located every 100 metres or so in the city centre. The agrarian past has now ceded its place to the science and technology which have given the city the nickname Silicon Fen. The university is world-renowned, and its global reach makes this an international city. There is a thriving scene in culture and the arts. And yet this is the most unequal city in the UK in terms of income distribution.Students’ mental-health is getting worse.Homelessness remains a visible issue.
And for this place to stand as more than a monument to our history its vocation must be expressed afresh in each generation. This church is a sign of the faithful love of the God who promises to be with his people. Hallowed by a thousand years of prayer and worship, it’s not particularly hard to recognise that the Lord is in this place. The test of our vocation is the extent to which we help others to recognise the Lord in the places of their lives, perhaps especially when, like Jacob, they look like unpromising sites for a divine encounter. There is real continuity in this place – the mass is still offered, sins are confessed and absolution is given, new life is received in baptism and the dead are buried; people are called together into community – but that has to flow out from here, in service to the local community, which is a very changed city, where God has largely been forgotten or is considered irrelevant.
The church does not direct and order the life of the parish around it in the way it once did. But as the stones of this place stand as a perpetual reminder of the faithfulness of God, so the living stones of this place – all of us – stand as those who are to be reminders in flesh and blood of that same faithfulness. Like Jacob’s pillar, we are to be signs of God’s promise in time and space, people who help others recognise the presence and promise of God – especially those who, like Jacob, feel cut off from any sense of promise.
A thousand years ago, those who built this church recognised the continuity between what went on in here and what went on out there: God, who sustains all things in being, was relied upon for a good harvest, for fair weather, for the healing of illness and for the defence of the town. There was no real division between sacred and secular of the sort we have now imposed on the world. Now we live at a time when many people don’t recognise the presence of the Lord in the places of their lives. And they won’t recognise him without others who tell his story, and whose lives make God visible by the way they love and forgive and include and make new. That’s our task, as we prepare for our next thousand years.