Words to a church celebrating a big anniversary
Two hundred years. To give you a snapshot of what was happening in 1814, consider these facts: it was the year George Stephenson tested the first locomotive; Napoleon was exiled; the Americans were at war with the British for their independence. One battle would be won that year in North America which led to the creation of the song, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. The battle of Waterloo was a year away.
More broadly, the industrial revolution was in full swing, irrevocably changing the social and economic landscape of Britain and the world; the British Empire was steadily increasing in size and influence; the transatlantic slave trade had just been abolished. The Victorian era lay ahead, cricket and football had yet to be codified and did not exist in any shape we would recognise; rugby had yet to be invented.
St. Nicholas Church endured throughout the nineteenth century and remained a central feature of Strood in the twentieth century. It celebrated its one hundredth anniversary as the Great War began and worshippers continued to attend here through the Great Depression, the rise of German fascism and the total war it unleashed, not least from the skies above us, the nuclear age, the Cold War and the economic crash of the early twenty-first century.
I could go on, but my point is to provide some context for one remarkable fact. Throughout these huge, tectonic shifts, people drew comfort and inspiration from exactly the same scripture readings we were exposed to this morning. Despite the sweeping, unimaginable changes of the last two centuries, the commitment to reading the Bible shows that human aspirations don’t change that much. We want to know why we are here and how we should live; we wish to draw comfort and help from ancient wisdom; we desire to worship the God who outlasts everything and for whom two hundred years is the blink of an eye.
Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians will have caught the imagination of worshippers in 1814 every bit as much as us today. Paul left his hearers with three injunctions as his epistle drew to a close: rejoice in the Lord; do not worry and experience the peace of God; reflect on the good at all times.
Words fall in and out of fashion and rejoicing is one of them. How often is this word used publicly? Mrs Thatcher famously used it to describe the taking of South Georgia in the battle for the Falkland Islands in 1982, but otherwise it seems to be reserved for Royal births. Rejoicing is not something people do as a matter of course yet here Paul suggests it is the routine duty of the Christian. This is not an easy ask of the British. Natural reserve and emotional caution has been our watchword for these two centuries. There are strong signs this is changing - perhaps a function of the power of American culture - but there is a risk of an insincere emotional overstatement now, where people feel bound by an enforced sense of happiness, whatever their true emotions.
To rejoice in God is to be gripped by a sense of his majesty and his love for the human race. This God of ours loves the world so much that he sent his Son, and now he sends us in the wake of his victory over death. There is a joy to be found in God which has incalculable depths and it is highly contagious. To be in the presence of someone touched by joy is impossible to resist. To know the love of God, to know our future is in his kindly hands, is a source of great resilience in life. The word passion is much more in vogue today. To rejoice in God is to be passionate for him. This passion does not have to result in endless smiling; no-one feels like smiling all the time, but neither is it expressed by the dour and unsmiling. God should naturally bubble to the surface in us, like the discovery of a new seam of oil.
Paul then calls on those early Christians not to worry. We use his words about the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in the final blessing, but detach it from its source, which says that if people wish to experience this peace, they should first pray to God with their requests and thanksgivings. He responds when we unburden our anxieties on him; as St. Peter says: ‘cast all your care on him, for he cares for you’. The people who worshipped here two hundred years ago would have had plenty of worries; despite the contention that ours is the age of anxiety, it is rooted in the insecurity of human nature to worry about life. And the first worshippers of this church were living through the violent upheaval of the industrial revolution, which altered the way people lived, worked and related. The surge towards living in towns and cities broke up close extended families and exposed people to new experiences and new risks. The call not to worry would have resonated with them deeply.
By chance, we are living through a different kind of revolution today, rooted in digital information. We are re-thinking how we relate one to another through the endless exposure of digital media which tempts us to self-promotion but often induces greater personal insecurity because we don’t match up. The resort to chemicals to treat our anxieties today may have their place after the right diagnosis, but the failure to offer up our worries to God that we might experience his peace is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of our generation.
Finally, Paul encourages the Church to meditate on whatever is good and true in life. This may be a greater challenge to us than to those who worshipped here in 1814, for we have access to more information in a day than they would have in a lifetime, and many of the media outlets we depend on think it’s important we hear only bad news; that somehow good news is trivial and a form of light-hearted entertainment. We should engage with bad news; it lies at the heart of intercession. Yet if we allow our minds to be governed by it – even addicted to it - we may miss the signs of God’s kingdom breaking through the ground around us. In our private lives, this asks us to forego gossip and slander. If we permit our minds to be filled with such innuendo, we will find it harder to lay hold of the good things God is doing in the lives of others.
Today we memorialise the enduring strength of this church and the God it worships. In time we will re-construct our memories of the years that lie ahead of us as worshippers at St. Nicholas. Good attention to what is true and honourable, what is pure and pleasing, will ensure God again finds his place at the heart of the church that was built for him.
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