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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor 2018

Nobody lights a lamp in order to hide it. They put it on a lampstand, so that people who come in can see the light.

The Right Reverend Jonathan Goodall Bishop of Ebbsfleet

Saturday, 13th October 2018 at 11.30 AM

I wonder what image you have of the man we’re here to celebrate, the saint whose prayers we’re here to request.  In the midst of all this wealth, and fame, and talent of centuries, what do you make of the man at the centre of it all?  Remember, we’re not here simply to celebrate Edward’s heavenly birthday.  (If we were doing that it’d be a cold and dark January day outside.)  Instead we’re here to celebrate the fact that bit by bit in the decades after Edward’s death the Church recognized in him the presence and gifts of God which we call holiness, and as a result they took his body from its ancient grave and lifted it up into a shrine above our heads so that his life could be seen for what it was – ‘They put it on a lampstand, so that people who come in can see the light.’   Even so, Edward has seemed to many—he may feel to you—to be a rather distant, even quite bloodless saint – a privileged and pious man, a man on a pedestal. 

Except that it’s not true.  His life had enough drama and humanity for ten men.  He was a central figure in a century of confusing and dangerous politics, and his life was a string of dramatic reversals in fortune.  He was the son of a political marriage between Anglo-Saxons and Normans.  When Edward was only a boy, his father the king was violently overthrown and the family fled as refugees to France.  There was a chance of return, but at 13 he and his brother were exiled orphans:  their father was dead, and their mother taken by the Scandinavian warlords who had seized the kingdom.  Not until three kings later, when Edward was 38 did he return from exile and begin to rule as king himself.  His marriage in his early 40s brought him into contact with in-laws who were contenders for the throne, and for a decade civil war threatened.  Only in his 50s did he begin to rule freely and plan for England’s future, turning it away from Scandinavia towards France (from the Vikings towards the Normans), and he began to build his Westminster Abbey.  But troubles began again with his half-brothers, and by the time he was about my age he was a completely broken man.  He suffered a series of seizures which proved fatal, and from his deathbed he authorized the consecration of the church he’d built here, the remains of which lie over there under his Shrine.  

So as you can see, Edward is anything but a privileged man on a pedestal.  Perhaps he was damaged by being abandoned as a child;  life had taught him to be cautious, and he always preferred peacekeeping to conflict.  But he was also a survivor:  determined, resourceful, and dutiful.  All of which makes Edward seem very believably, even attractively, human rather than saintly.  And when we look at Edward’s life more closely, like our predecessors we see that, through all the complexities and compromises, daily faith and prayer had taught him to live close to God, and he had experienced God living close – intimately close – him.  ‘[Edward’s] whole life’ (said St Aelred in a famous sermon preached here on a previous St Edward’s Day) ‘shone brightly from boyhood to old age with powers and miracles.’  They were powers and miracles of a very human character, with all its worries and hurts, being shaped by the Spirit of God who searches our hearts;   by prayer and humility;   by justice and a desire for the peace and well-being of a nation he waited half his life to rule.

In God’s providence, this church (which has quite literally been built around Edward’s presence and memory) gives this city, gives our nation and culture, a clear symbol of God’s closeness to human experience.  Every grave and every name around you, whether famous or not, reminds us of a human being to whom God made himself close.

That’s something true, of course, of all churches, whatever their size, and wherever they are built.  But at the heart of the city, the heart of a nation, this church is a powerful and moving sign of God’s nearness to every kind of human community.  It confidently proclaims not only that God is a home for the poor as well as the rich, the gifted and the ordinary, the strong as well as the weak, the powerless and the powerful;  but that no condition or experience of life can put a person, or a nation, beyond the closeness of God – ‘nothing’, as St Paul says, ‘can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus’.

Humanly speaking a great deal went wrong in Edward’s life, and its many dangerous moments required many compromises.  It’s much the same in the lives of most of us, if we are honest.  It is also true in the life of a nation:  world wars, economic boom and bust, cultural revolutions, prejudice and injustice.  But through it all God’s intimacy with human life goes on, making possible our praise and penitence and contemplation. 

When we come to worship in a place like this, in the company of a man like St Edward, we come for a moment to be more human not less.  We’re aware of the complicated and not always very pretty patterns of human relationships in our lives overall, and in the struggles of our communities and our world.  We come nonetheless to wrap ourselves in something greater, to clothe ourselves with Christ and with the witness of Christ’s saints;  to speak words that are stronger than our words, and to enter into a deeper silence than we could ever make for ourselves.  We didn’t leave our real lives at the door of the church to come in speak words that are untrue, but we brought our real lives inside, into a larger space, a greater truth.   And at the centre we see a lamp on a lampstand, Edward, a human life full of the presence of God, and we see the altar where we too can be filled with light.

So as you try to recognize God’s holiness in St Edward today, and try to recognize God silently at work in your own life—his light slowly growing in you, making you one of his confessors too —pray that in the future people may continue to encounter in and from this place the God who makes himself close to them, who sets them free in Christ to be themselves, to know and love him in Christ Jesus forever – to whom be might, majesty, dominion, praise and power now and for all eternity.  Amen.

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