I want to begin by saying how glad I am to be back among you, and to express my gratitude to the Brothers for the opportunity to be on sabbatical for the last 10 weeks, and especially to Brother Keith who covered for me. I also want to say thank you, to all of you who have held me in your prayers these last weeks, as I did you in mine.
My time away was extraordinary. I was able to see members of my family, some of whom I have not seen since before 2019. I spent time in Oxford, which, as you know is where the community began in 1866, and is a place over the last years I am coming to know well, and where I feel at home. The Sunday before I left Oxford, I preached in Father Benson’s former parish, standing in the pulpit where he once stood, which for me is always a thrill.
The bulk of my time away however I spent walking in Wales. The experience was exhilarating; the scenery spectacular; the people constantly generous. Even on the day, which my sister described as level 2 fun (in other words, not fun at the time, but fun in hindsight) when it took me 8 hours to walk 9 miles, which included the equivalent of 82 flights of stairs, and along paths far too close to the cliff edge for my liking, I never once thought of giving up, or wondered why on earth I was doing this. Every afternoon at the end of my walk, I was simply glad of a beer, a hot shower, a good meal, and a comfortable bed. Every morning, except for a few days when it was pouring rain; the day of the Queen’s funeral; and a couple days when all I wanted to do was sit in a coffee shop with my novel, I was ready to head out once again and walk. Of a possible 190 miles, I walked 135 of them, so I’m totally thrilled.
I am already looking for another walk to go on, but I assure you, the next one won’t have any hills!
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? We want everything easy peasy, no challenges, completely straightforward. We want to get to our destination even before we have left home, and we certainly want to avoid the hills. I know I do. I did.
It’s true for us, and it was certainly true from the people of Israel. God’s people had at last returned from their long years of exile. The Temple was in ruins, its glories a mere memory. What was in its place was as nothing. It was stark. It was barren. It was unprayed in. Where was the marble and cedar? Where was the gold? Where were the beautiful vestments and the incense and the intricately carved woodwork? Where oh where was their beautiful Temple?
And where were all the people, the pilgrims, the throngs, the hoards. Where were they?
Once again God’s people were starting over, and the challenges ahead of them seemed insurmountable.
Like the people of Israel, we have recently returned from exile. Our temples have not been plundered and destroyed. We have still our marble, and stained glass, and vestments, and incense. But there are many challenges ahead, and the question on many minds, and certainly those I have spoken with over these last weeks, is where are all the people, the pilgrims, the throngs, the hoards? Where are they? What we have in front of us is as nothing compared to what we once knew.
What will the church look like in a year, never mind five? What will this country look like in a week, never mind a month? What will the world look like tomorrow, never mind the one our grandchildren will inherit? We look at what we have, and long for what we had, and our hearts sink as we gaze at the challenges ahead, knowing full well there are still other hills, still other sets of steep stairs, still other cliff edge paths, that we cannot yet see.
And into this trepidation, dare I say fear and anxiety, God says
Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.
Yet now take courage … for I am with you … do not fear.
These simple, yet profound words weave themselves throughout every page of Scripture. We hear them, or at least similar words, in the garden at the beginning of time, when God walked in the midst of creation at the time of the evening breeze. I am with you. We hear them finally in the garden at the end of time where will be found the throne of God and the Lamb and where God’s servants will see God’s face. I am with you. We hear them countless times in between, and we see them specifically in the person of Jesus, the word made flesh, God dwelling amongst us. I am with you.
Yet now take courage … for I am with you … do not fear.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed. To be discouraged. To be daunted. To give up hope. To live in fear. Especially when there is so much that is overwhelming, discouraging, daunting, seemingly hopeless, and downright terrifying. And that is exactly where God’s people found themselves as they looked at that sorry excuse for a Temple. It was as nothing and they lost heart, remembering what they had before.
And into that very moment, God said: take courage … I am with you … do not fear.
RS Thomas, the Welsh poet put it this way in one of his poems:
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregation
of shadows and the sea’s
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of the bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
But a voice sounds
in my ear: Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint’s name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
We see the challenges ahead of us and we are often tempted to turn back, already exhausted, dejected, discouraged, afraid. Yet the voice of the poet and the call of God call us back saying: Why so fast mortal? These very seas are baptized. The parish has a saint’s name time cannot unfrock. In cities that have outgrown their promise people are becoming pilgrims again…You must remain kneeling. Even as this moon making its way through the earth’s cumbersome shadow, prayer, too, has its phases.
Take courage … I am with you … do not fear … why so fast mortal?
There are many challenges that lie ahead of us: hills and stairs to climb, temples to rebuild, peace to bring; civility to restore, and into it all the God who dwells among us in the person of Jesus says to us, peace … do not be afraid … I am with you to the end of time.
These are words worth, not only hanging on to. These are words worth living, and even dying for.
Peace … do not be afraid … I am with you.
So next time you are afraid, remember the simple promise of God to the people of Israel, and to us in the person of Jesus:
Take courage … I am with you … do not fear.
 Haggai 2: 4 – 5
 Genesis 3: 8
 Revelation 22: 3 – 4
 John 1: 14
 Mark 4: 39
 Matthew 28: 10
 Matthew 28: 20
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