A sermon for Evensong
All that I have to say in the next few minutes is contained in a very helpful visual aid that is built into the fabric of this Cathedral. The Baldacchino, the canopy over the altar, is a sign and reminder of all that I will say. You could, of course, decide that means that all that follows is redundant, and you would be right to a point. However, as a Baldacchino is rather uncommon in Anglican architecture, it may be that it would benefit from some explanation as to what it is a sign and reminder of!
It was, the Gospel tells us, the middle of the Festival of Booths when Jesus had this rather difficult exchange. The Festival of Booths is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot. It is a harvest festival at the end of the agricultural year. It is also an annual reminder of the forty years that the people of Israel lived in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. It takes its name from the way in which it was (and still is) celebrated. The people of Israel build booths from temporary material and live in them for a week - the duration of the festival. These booths can be built from any kind of material, but the roof must be organic. This represents the temporary dwellings that farmers live in during the harvest. It also represents the tents that the people of Israel lived in during their forty years in the wilderness. The book of Leviticus commands that ‘You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt’ (Lev. 23.42-43).
During the time in the wilderness, and for a long time once the people had entered the Promised Land, the place of meeting with God continued to be a tent, a temporary dwelling. It was not until King David that the idea of a house for God was thought of, and God forbade David to build it. Solomon built the Temple, the house of God, for the God who does not dwell in places made by human hands and whom heaven and earth cannot contain (cf. 1 Kings 8.27-28). During the Feast of Booths, the people of Israel dwell in booths, to remind them that they used to dwell like this and to remind them that it was in a tent that they went to meet with God.
And all of this is why we have a Baldacchino in the Cathedral over the altar. It is a reminder of the Tent of Meeting, where God would meet with his people. It is a reminder of the temporary dwellings in which God’s people lived. And it is a call to us to meet with Jesus, who taught in the Temple in the middle of the Feast of Booths. If the Baldacchino in the Cathedral is a sign and a reminder, it is a sign and a reminder of the tents in which God’s people lived in the wilderness and the Tent of Meeting in which they met with God.
As with all good signs, the Baldacchino points us to things. It is a reminder of these Bible stories, and it is a pointer to their message to us. So let me suggest three things that this sign might have to say to us this evening.
The first thing is ‘remember where you came from’. The Feast of Booths and the Baldacchino remind us of the time our ancestors spend in the wilderness. They remind us not to leave behind our origins. They remind us of the way in which God met with his people in the Tent of Meeting, and remind us to recall the ways in which God has met with us in the past. St John records Jesus and his contemporaries arguing fiercely about where Jesus came from. I met with a bishop from India this week, and he was speaking about how the Church has been important in preserving the identities of tribal peoples in north India. Origins are important. They are what have brought us to where we are today. So this evening, let us give thanks for the places we came from, for the people who brought us on our journey thus far, and for the ways in which we have met with God.
The first message the sign of the Baldacchino has for us is ‘remember where you came from’. The second is, ‘don’t get fixed down by money and power’. The reading from the book of Ezra tells of the people returning from exile in Babylon, accompanied by gold and silver and by royal proclamations. The temptations of money and power were what Israel had failed after they entered the Promised Land, and that was why they went into exile. As they return to the Land, they return to these temptations. Money and power hold us where we are, they tempt us to hold on to them. They make us work to retain what we have, and in doing that we are distorted from being the people that we are and that God made us to be. Money and power tempt us to ignore those who have neither. Those who dwell in booths today can be found in Calais, and in makeshift accommodation across Europe. The displaced and the refugees, the desperate and the persecuted, they are the people who live in tents and temporary shelters. For the people of Israel, living in tents for a week is part of remembering not to get fixed by the temptations of money and power, not to ignore the plight of the refugee and the desperate today. That too is what the Baldacchino points us to.
‘Remember where you came from’; ‘don’t get fixed down by money and power’. Those are the first two messages that the Baldacchino offers us. And the third is this: ‘We cannot grasp God’. We cannot grasp God, we cannot make God belong to us so that we can use God’s power over others. The Tent of Meeting was not a place to fix God, confining him to the canvas. Rather it was a sign that God could, and did, move with the people. God moves, God goes ahead of us, God takes us in new directions, surprising directions, even to Wells. The Eastern Orthodox associate the Feast of Booths with the story of the Transfiguration. On the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured and appears with Moses and Elijah. Peter’s response is to try and fix this down into three tents. But God cannot be fixed down, we cannot grasp God and hold on to him in this way or that. We cannot have God on our own terms. David Jenkins, who died recently, wrote that ‘God is far too great a mystery for us to penetrate to the heart of his Being and there is always something hidden’ (Living with Questions, p. 51). In a similar vein, Jesus tells his hearers ‘You will search for me, but you will not find me’. To try to grasp God is to try to control God. We cannot do that. The Baldacchino, with its open sides, stands as a reminder to us that there is always more to God than we think or imagine; that we cannot control God; and that God moves, and may take us in new directions and on new paths.
As we hear of the Feast of Booths, and we consider the sign that is offered by the Baldacchino in this Cathedral, we are given these messages: ‘Remember where you came from’; ‘don’t get fixed down by money and power’; and ‘we cannot grasp God’. May we hear them and follow our living God.
First given in Derby Cathedral 18.9.16.