Sermon on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Sea Sunday) at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Llandudno and St Tudno’s Church on the Great Orme, in the Ministry Area of Bro Tudno
The Ministry Area’s order of service with the lections, including a poem in addition to the First Reading and the Holy Gospel, can be found here.
How do you know where you are?
[Let me warn you that, from somebody who struggles to change a light bulb let alone replace a flat tyre, this morning’s sermon contains not one but two engineering references. My scientific advice is not to be trusted, and is followed strictly at your own risk… But let’s begin somewhere more comfortable.]
Had you walked into Holy Trinity Church in the Lincolnshire village of Barrow upon Humber exactly 300 hundred years ago, you would likely have found the organ being played by the young John Harrison. Music was his hobby. Professionally, he was a self-taught clockmaker — but one of very great genius. And he was applying himself to one of the greatest engineering challenges of his age. Britain was already a great maritime power, but it ships struggled with the fundamental navigational challenge of being able to calculate exactly where they were. Determining a ship’s longitude — its exact location east or west of the prime meridian — required knowing the exact time, and pendulum clocks were useless at sea. What was needed was a chronometer — a clock that was not affected by variations in temperature, pressure or humidity; that remained accurate over long time intervals; that resisted corrosion in salt air; and that was able to function on board a constantly-moving ship. Isaac Newton and Christiaan Huygens, the sharpest engineering minds of their generation, thought the task impossible. But John Harrison, at his workbench away from his organ keyboard, cracked it. In 1707, 2,000 Royal Navy sailors had died off the Scilly Isles, shipwrecked from not knowing where they were. John Harrison’s splendid sea clocks revolutionized navigation and saved countless lives at sea.
How do we know where we are?
The book of the prophet Amos is one written for a people who don’t know where they are, for a nation that has lost its way. Israel will be made desolate, will be laid waste, says Amos, if it does not return to God’s ways of justice and fairness and merciful living. You are lost, says Amos; and, that you might find yourself, God is setting a plumb-line in your midst. “And the Lord said me, ‘See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel.’” A plumb-line is a sort of pendulum — a piece of heavy metal, suspended from on high by a rope, and the line of the rope, when it hangs still, no matter from which angle you look at it, gives you a perfect vertical. Masons used a plumb-line to build church towers and tall buildings — you knew you were building straight, for here is your line. “See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel,” says the Lord. “See, I am telling you, I am showing your consciences, the straight lines of justice and fairness and merciful living. Build you community, your society — judge your individual actions — against this line. For if you do not, there is desolation; there are lives laid waste.”
How do we know where we are? How do our consciences see that plumb-line?
When we first encounter John the Baptist in the Gospels, he is in the wilderness of Judea, dressed in clothing of camel’s hair (Matthew writes), and his food was locusts and wild honey. He is a sort of recluse, set apart from the hustle of things. We’re reminded that John was a child of silence: Zechariah, his father, was struck dumb when the angel Gabriel told him his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son, whereas Mary was able to respond with the Magnificat’s song; and when, during their pregnancies, Mary and Elizabeth meet, John, aware of the presence of Christ, leaps for joy in his mother’s womb, but it’s a silent greeting of the Christ child, compared to Bethlehem’s choirs of angels.
When we first encounter John the Baptist in the Gospels, he is a man of the silent wilderness, a man who tries to see God’s ways through quiet contemplation, a man who tries to find where he is through a still beholding.
The Orthodox priest-theologian, Andrew Louth, writes that we all have a capacity for “reason conceived as receptive of truth…, human intelligence concerned with simply beholding, contemplating, knowing reality.”
How good are you at finding where you are by taking yourself away, into contemplation and stillness. Your soul will be lost without it.
When we encounter John the Baptist today, he is at the heart of the city, his loud, outspoken words in the public square a cause of offence to powerful men and women. Herod has him imprisoned, and Herodias eventually has him put to death. This is John the Prophet — not prophesying in terms of seeing the future, but prophesying by seeing justice and fairness and merciful living ignored, prophesying by seeing the plumb-line hanging there and crookedness all around it, and daring to stand still and point it out. The leading scholar of the prophetic of our times, Walter Brueggemann, says that the prophet nurtures and evokes a consciousness and perception that is alternative to the dominant consciousness and perceptions of the world. In the heat of things, in the heart of the city, here is a man who sees the world clearly, and who knows that he must stand somewhere else.
How good at you at finding where you should be by having before you always, even in heat of things, even in the heart of the everyday, God’s alternative reality of justice and fairness and mercy?
How do we know where we are? By taking time to behold, to contemplate, to know reality and glory. And by always bringing God’s reality and glory to the back-and-forth of the everyday. “Thus evermore shall rise to thee / Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.”