A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson
Ezekiel 34:11-16, Psalm 34:1-10, Acts 12:1-11, John 21:15-22
‘Thanks be to God for his saints of each past generation’
The opening words of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s lovely hymn of thanksgiving invite us to do just that – to give thanks to God, and particularly for those who have gone before us. Seated as we are on pews given in memory of some of those Christian forbears who worshipped here, in a Cathedral dreamed of and blessed by Bishop Augustus Short, and consecrated in the name of St Peter – we share a rich heritage with God’s ‘saints from each past generation.’
As we meet again to celebrate our Patronal Festival I find it somewhat surreal that throughout our Festival 150 year we used the tagline ‘Celebrating the Past, Imagining the Future’. What a year 2019 was: beginning with the playing of the First Chords on the newly restored organ, filled with special services and events which brought so many together in joyful thanksgiving. One year ago we had a weekend filled with activity – live broadcasting to City and State by the ABC Radio from the nave platform, a civic reception graciously hosted by the Lord Mayor, an attempt at cracking a record for a long peal on the bells and, of course, our worship here on Sunday 29 June 2019 – exactly one hundred and fifty years since the laying of the foundation stone. The weather that weekend was cold, wet and windy – but the warmth of our being together pushed that aside as we gathered to listen to our Archbishop, lay a commemorative stone, and enjoy spit-roasted lamb!
And then, on the back of the drought, the summer of bushfires was followed by a virus that had us scrambling to buy hand sanitiser, toilet paper, flour and pasta. Within weeks the names coronavirus and Covid-19 were tripping off our tongues, and we, along with much of the rest of the world, were in lock-down. Anxiously watching the numbers of cases and deaths climbing we also discovered that cruise-ships were perhaps not all they were cut out to be, long-planned holidays can be cancelled at a moment’s notice, and the streets are actually quite nice when not polluted by traffic. People in South Australia took to the parks, bought bicycles and began reaching out to people in new ways. Many others found themselves in a queue at Centre-link, their jobs gone and the future looking bleak. With all public worship ‘paused’ we were forced to discover news ways of being and doing church, and new skills and equipment had to be quickly acquired.
Was this really the future we had imagined when we met at this time last year?
‘Thanks be to God for his saints of each past generation, one with us still in one body, one great congregation: with them proclaim Jesus for ever the same, Author of life and salvation.’
We’ve learned a lot about the Cathedral through the video clips our Tour Leaders have offered us as we’ve focused on different parts of our sacred space. I draw your attention back to the windows in the Lady Chapel and the panels on the reredos with their depictions of the life of St Peter. Peter the Rock on which Jesus built his church; Peter the fisherman who, with his brother Andrew, left his nets to follow Jesus; Peter the insightful, who recognised a profound truth when he said to Jesus: “You are the Christ.” Peter the fearful who, when asked a simple question by a simple person denied ever knowing Jesus – not once, but three times. Peter the remorseful who, not once, but three times, was asked by Jesus: Simon, do you love me? Peter the caring who took on the privilege of caring for and feeding the sheep, the lambs of Christ. Peter the bold who stood up on the Day of Pentecost and proclaimed to the masses, “These are not drunk!” Peter the open-minded who responded to a request from the Gentile Cornelius and so enabled the Gospel to break out of the narrow confines of 1st century Palestine. Peter the faithful who, if tradition is to be believed, died on a cross hanging upside down thus giving us the unique inverted cross with its crossed keys as a symbol.
‘Thanks be to God for his blessings which daily surround us’
In these months of fearful anxiety, by no means over yet, we have discovered anew what it means for today’s Peters to feed the sheep. Led by Canon Jenny we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the extended team of pastoral carers who have diligently, lovingly, and gently made phone calls week after week. As Cathedral Staff have sought to do our bit in feeding the sheep of the Cathedral, we in turn have been richly blessed by your love and support, your emails, phone calls and letters of encouragement.
Music has always played a significant role in the life of St Peter’s Cathedral. It has been particularly hard on our Choir not to be able to gather as they normally do each week. Director of Music Ant Hunt, barely started in his new position, found himself with no choir to conduct, no Holy Week music to prepare. But haven’t we been well served and well resourced? And what a joy to have a full choir here this morning, complete with five Probationers.
Last Monday a sizeable number of people gathered on the forecourt to pray with thanksgiving for those in the wider community who have seen us through these times – the so-called frontline medical workers, our leaders, and those who have faithfully continued ensuring there were supplies of fresh water, power, food, and so on. We acknowledged the simple ringing of a single Cathedral bell each morning, and rewarded Rev’d Peter with the recognition he deserves. When the bells came crashing in for the first time since the middle of March a great cheer of applause broke out among the smiling crowd.
‘Thanks be to God for the years that are yet in his keeping’
In uncertain times the simple things of faith take on a renewed importance. Among my favourite prayers is that of Richard of Chichester which includes the following words: “Most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.” As we journey on into the years that are yet in God’s keeping, this prayer mantra could be worth embedding in our minds and hearts.
As the last few months have shown, there is no predicting the future. With absolute certainty I can say that when our Festival 150 planning team and, later, the Cathedral Council, adopted the slogan ‘Celebrating the Past, Imagining the Future’ not a single one of us imagined just how quickly and differently the future would unfold. All the more reason to hold on to the faith affirmed at baptism and confirmation and work to “know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”
‘Thanks be to God who has called us and daily befriends us’
So begins the last verse of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn ending with the words ‘now in that name, Jesus for ever the same, forth to his service he sends us.’ Celebrating, giving thanks, even imagining is worth little and soon forgotten unless there is action arising out of it all. Such is the case each time we celebrate the Eucharist, receive Holy Communion (whether in one kind or two). It is the re-membering that happens as we gather, as we rehearse again the words uttered by Jesus at the Last Supper, as we leave this beautiful, cosy, familiar and sacred place and go out into the world. “Go,” says Jesus towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Go into all the world and make disciples. Take the message of my love for each one of you and share it with another. By your fruits you shall be known, Jesus says elsewhere. ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’ is the final injunction of this morning’s service.
Pray that next year, next decade, next century we will be remembered as people who sought to know, love and follow Christ more nearly every day, and who shared that love with our neighbours and our enemies.
‘Thanks be to God who has called us and daily befriends us, who with the Son and the Spirit unchanging befriends us; now in that name, Jesus for ever the same, forth to his service he sends us.’
Ancient and Modern #310, sung to Lobe den Herren