A sermon preached in Norwich Cathedral on the Sunday after Ascension, 5 June 2011, by the Revd James Buxton, Chaplain of Corpus Christi College Cambridge, and 2010/2011 Parker Preacher.
All mine are yours and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. +
Thank you very much for welcoming me to the Cathedral today. As this year’s Parker Preacher, and as the Chaplain and a Fellow of Archbishop Parker’s old college, (Corpus Christi in Cambridge), I would like to greet you on behalf of the Master, Fellows, and Scholars of Corpus. We treasure the relationships which were started because of Mathew Parker’s concern and generosity, and indeed that of his wife Margaret. And we hope that by God’s grace we will be enabled to continue to honour their intentions.
I would like to begin with a few words about the Parker sermons, or the Norfolk Course as it is known. I apologize to those who have heard an account of them before. They are surely a remarkable survival of one old Archbishop’s wishes, and those of his beloved wife. My maths is terrible, but if my calculations are correct, I am the 444th Parker preacher, and that means that since 1567 when the first ones were preached, there have been something like 2200 Parker sermons preached in Norfolk. It’s a terrific amount of preaching!
The sermons have always taken place in the same week every year, beginning on Rogation Sunday (that is last Sunday) at Thetford, and concluding here in Norwich on the Sunday after Ascension Day.
These days the sermons are shared out between two preachers who cover the four sermons between them over a two year span. The pattern is broadly the same today as it has always been, with two or three sermons preached in Norfolk, and two in Norwich itself. Originally it was the Master or a Fellow of the College who would have preached them all, riding from place to place during the week. Over a day’s ride, I would have thought, from Cambridge to Thetford for the first sermon, then onward to Mattishall by Tuesday. This was where Mrs Parker was born and brought up. She endowed the sermon herself, by allocating the income from nine acres of family land towards it. Apart from paying the preacher, the money was to be given, a shilling each to the thirty poorest households in the village, as well as to somebody called Mr Sparrow and his family, the schoolteacher, and the vicar. On Wednesday there was originally a sermon at Wymondham and then the two Norwich sermons, here at the Cathedral in the morning and finally the sermon at St George’s Fye Bridge, where I shall preach this afternoon.
The last – very touching and unusual act of the preacher – is to say prayers for the repose of William and Alice, Matthew Parker’s beloved parents, at the graveside in St Clement’s Church Yard.
As Archbishop Parker had various concerns. He felt that Norfolk was a very unruly place and religiously very wayward, and as a loyal son of this county, that bothered him a lot! There was a shortage of decent preachers in the countryside, and had a deep anxiety that the Church he led was in peril from opposing forces – those who missed the old dispensation dreadfully and wanted it back, and others who thought the reformation had only just begun and still had a long way to go until it was complete.
Parker’s avowed intention, was to keep a middle path between these poles in an effort to preserve and build up unity. The sermons weren’t just free standing – they came with scholarships at Corpus Christi College and gifts towards schools, alms houses and a concern for poor families – as we have seen in the case of Mattishall. Who can fail to admire that this sixteenth century figure could see that all these things were connected?
The first part of the week of sermons takes place within the short season of Rogationtide, which first came into the church calendar as early as the fifth century. Rogation from the Latin ‘Rogare’, to ask. Better observed in former times, these are days of intercession for God’s blessings upon rural life. Prayers for farmers, for fruitfulness in the land and for seasonal weather are said, and parishioners marked out the boundaries of their parishes as many still do, by beating the bounds.
Just imagine how, during times of unrest, and plague, drought and flood – and there have been many such times over the last half millennium - these rogation prayers for God’s mercy and generosity must have been heartfelt and intense. It is easy for us for us to forget this in the smoother and more prosperous seasons which we enjoy. I like to think that my forbears on the Norfolk Course would have dwelt on these things, their imaginations fired by the people and places they encountered on those Norfolk journeys. Today’s preacher, nipping up from Cambridge in his Ford Fiesta on the A11 may miss some of what they saw!
There is Rogation and then there is Ascension. For the Norfolk Course is also a spiritual journey – from heartfelt intercessions for fruitfulness in the land, to thanksgiving for the Ascended Christ. The theme moving from those intensely local prayers which we are called to say, for people and places to the cosmic and universal. From the farm labourer’s hut on the parish boundary, to the dwelling of Christ at the Father’s right hand in heaven. Not that these are in any sense opposites, as the message of these Ascension days, is the meeting of heaven and earth through the love of God and the work of his Son.
On this pivotal day in the Church’s year we look back towards Holy Week and Easter, to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the everlasting life and love that he lives for us for ever. It’s not at all that in the Ascension Christ has somehow gone away, like granny in an old newsreel, stepping off the platform into a steam train with the smoke curling around her as it pulls out of the station, leaving us waving ‘goodbye’ helplessly. I’m joking of course, but some of the imagery and hymns we have do put it rather like that, and we have to cast an indulgent eye on the too-literal representations of the scene we may have seen – like the big leathery clod-hoppers that are seen disappearing into a brilliant blue sky in a window of King’s College Chapel, or those famously dainty slippers you may have seen at Walsingham vanishing into a puff of cloud.
It is not Christ’s absence that we celebrate today, but something expressed beautifully in the prayer of Jesus from St John’s Gospel which was read a few minutes ago. Jesus longing that his disciples may be one, gathered up through his sacrificial work, in the Father’s love. This prayer expresses that sense of Jesus bringing his disciples with him into the Father’s presence, where they would always be safe and always cared for, bound together now and always by his love. That is why we prayed in the Collect today, that we might be exalted to the place where he has gone before. Words which express a profound truth: That in Christ our humanity is taken into the divine life, and that this is not just a future promise, but a present reality. By God’s grace, by Christ’s gift of his own life, by the power of the Holy Spirit, working in us, we may live in communion with God now.
It must have been that sense of utter security and trust that gave the disciples confidence, faith and hope on the first Ascension Day, so that they returned to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, together with Mary and other friends, to pray and to be full of joy, undaunted by the dangers and challenges which lay ahead. Confident that the Holy Spirit of Jesus would come to them as he had promised to them so clearly. The Spirit who is at once comforting and consoling, and also challenging and inspiring.
It is part of our calling to be Rogation people. People who ask God for goodness, peace, for his blessing on our lives, our parishes, our nearest and our dearest. And that means being deeply engaged in the local. But our life in Christ Ascended, animated and inspired by his Spirit calls us ever more deeply into his love, more and more to share his longing for that love to be all in all. That is why our prayers and our actions for peace and justice are so important. Our consciousness closer and closer to his, full of compassion for the whole universe, and especially for those parts of it which are distorted by fear, exploitation and need.
We know the pattern of the year and that we shall celebrate the coming of the Spirit in a week’s time. Let us now - in this Eucharist – and in the week ahead prepare our hearts and minds to be inspired again, to be surprised, and to be refreshed in our faith and love by the ascended Christ, when we celebrate the sending of his Spirit at Pentecost.
Jesus prayed to the Father, All mine are yours and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.