The sermon preached at this year's stone circle service, at Mitchell's Fold
I was up here a couple and a half weeks ago, just walking; I did a couple of ascents of Corndon, and then I walked the length of Stapeley out and back. Though we were into June, Spring takes its time up here, so the may blossom was still at its finest, mixed with laburnum in the hedgerows. The cuckoo was calling for much of the time - he’ll be packed and ready to fly south by now - and a curlew flew straight over me at one point. The pipits, stonechats and whinchats were all really busy, and the song of skylarks was all about me. In places where the old gorse had been hacked down, bright new shoots of new growth were appearing. Swifts carved through the air, and house martins too on the side of Corndon. The views were of course utterly amazing, and everything about me spoke of life in all its variety and abundance.
People long ago and so beyond our sight and knowledge that we can only guess at their thoughts felt the need to worship up here, and on a day like that I can understand why. We are scientifically astute and aware, and technology has placed at our individual fingertips power that our ancestors of even a couple of hundred years ago, let alone our bronze age forebears, could hardly have guessed at. But even we can have our breath taken away, both literally by the wind, and metaphorically by the wonder of it all, when we come to these high places. This is a place to come to in order to feel small, and it’s good to feel small now and again.
We can guess that for our very distant ancestors, the round of the seasons, and the new life of Spring, these were things that could only be guaranteed if whatever gods they believed in were properly placated and appeased. We know better now, but we also know that the changing seasons have to do with the prison of time in which, for all our technical ability and sophisticated ideas, even we are trapped. We can’t escape. Every year may seem like a circle - Spring into Summer, Summer into Autumn and then Winter, but then Spring again - but it’s actually a spiral, in which each Spring we’re that bit older, and maybe we manage to be wiser and wealthier, but we’re also (let’s face it) that bit nearer the exit door.
And we’re becoming more aware I think of just how fragile it all is. I delighted in the cuckoo I heard and the curlew I saw because last year I never heard the cuckoo, not once; and curlews have had a hard time of it on these moors and commons over recent years. Swifts too. Our human prosperity is hurting the only home we have, and hurting the creatures we share our home with. Cuckoos and curlews and swifts are like the canary down the mine - their disappearance the first sign of a bigger problem.
We believe all this is made by God, and that God has given us dominion over the world, over the living things with which we share this world, over the direction of our own lives. We are the risk God takes with his creation; he longs for us to respond to his creative love - but we don’t have to. We can ignore him. We can go our own way. Even if that way ultimately leads nowhere.
Covid has also concentrated our minds somewhat, and it would be nice to think it’s given us all a wake-up call. I’ve heard some fellow ministers telling positive stories of new people coming to faith and existing churchfolk catching a new vision; but I suspect there’s also an element of whistling in the dark, and hoping for the best. Some people are less positive; a naturalist friend of mine, not a Christian but quite a spiritual person even so, gets very negative when he talks about the natural world about us. But I could also get depressed when the media insists we all need to get back to just having fun again. Yes, I want to reply, let’s get back to enjoying our world; but responsibly, with care and thought and consideration for others, and especially with real thought for the future. As the saying goes, we don’t inherit this world from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.
Back to my walk on Stapeley two and a half weeks ago. Each Spring is a reminder of God’s generous and prodigal love. Like the jars of water turned to wine in the story of the wedding at Cana, there’s more beauty and richness and loveliness than I can take in. But every Spring is also a reminder of the opportunity and the challenge before me - to think again and start again, and live again.
The cross of Christ is the sign of death changed into the sign of new life, and the means of death turned into a throne. And I learn at the cross that I don’t have to be imprisoned by my past, or by my failures, or by my sin, or by the spiral of time in which (as for my naturalist friend) each Spring isn’t quite what the last one was.
And what the cross also says to me is that what I can’t manage to do on my own I can do with Christ. As Christians we are called to be builders of God’s kingdom. Whenever we pray the Lord’s prayer and say “thy Kingdom come” we’re committing ourselves to do that - it’s not just a pious hope, “thy Kingdom come”, it’s me offering myself in God’s service, you too. But we build the kingdom not by working for God, but by working with God - adding our own effort and enthusiasm and faith to what he is already doing.
And when we make a mess through our selfishness or thoughtlessness of timidity, God always stands ready to forgive; what we damage and break, he gives us the chance to repair. Vessels of clay, Paul calls us, but made to hold immense riches. We are to be channels of God’s love, makers of peace, bringers of hope. God hasn’t created the world, past tense; God is creating the world, and he chooses to do this through me and through you - if we let him, if we open ourselves to his loving and healing and creative Spirit.
So for me this high place each year is a great place to renew a cross-shaped vision of things. The vertical of the cross, like the great standing stone here, reaches between earth and heaven, from me to God. There’s no way I could ever reach that high - but Jesus shows us how God is always reaching down to us. The horizontal of the cross, like the breadth of the view from up here, reaching out. Jesus doesn’t lift his disciples our of the world, but gives us for the world, sends us out, and then comes with us. We have dominion; and our model of dominion is surely the servant-kingship of Christ, where we value each another, and love our neighbour as ourselves, and recognise God’s glory in all that he has made. So let’s live in this world, and for this world, as people of the cross. Amen.