Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Augustinian Ark

Sermon preached at the Patronal Festival of St Augustine in Canterbury 2014

 It is good to know that our insurance brokers are on the case. Our previous insurance firm put up our premiums out of fear that St Augustine would suffer when the Great Stour floods. Fortunately, we’ve now got the insurance sorted at a reasonable price so this, our lovely little cathedral, is insured against flood and fire. This means that if the Bishop should overfill the Baptismal font or the Deacon knock over the Paschal Candle at the Easter vigil, the Church is covered. We do not need to fear attacks by an over-excited thurible or a shark-infested water-stoup – at least not financially!

However, in recent times, we have certainly felt the extremes that the weather has thrown at us. The wind has dislodged slates and blown down fences. Sodden earth has slipped down railway embankments. The elements seem to be out to get us. Sometimes, the outside world does not seem as stable as we had hoped. Sometimes we cry out with the Psalmist, “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid.”


At the mention of the word “flood”, our minds immediately spring to Noah and the seven other human beings aboard the ark. Should the Great Stour finally burst its banks, could it be that this little cathedral of ours become a haven in which people can hide from the floods which might otherwise sweep them away? Not only could our Church be an ark, it must be an ark!


We have this idea of the ark as being a vessel on which we can ride safely on the flood water. St Augustine himself, in coming to England, must travel by sea, and we know that he makes it safely across because we are here! Yet, this is not something on which we focus in our Patronal Festival. We don’t celebrate St Augustine’s actual crossing of the sea, but rather that he brings back to us an organised Catholic Christianity. He does not face the flood of the English Channel (assuming that heis coming from France): the flood he faces is the enormity of the task in front of him. As far as he is concerned, St Augustine fears more about being either carried off by violent men, or carried away with the temptation of rejecting his calling than about a troublesome strip of water. The losses of either his faith or his life are the big concerns for him. So if the boat which carries him to these shores is not his ark, what is?


The fact of the matter is that Pope Gregory does not just send St Augustine here without support. He has written to the kings in France and to Aethelbehrt, the nearly Christian King of Kent, whose wife Bertha is very much a Christian. It is their support that gives St Augustine the insurance to fulfil his mission and, in turn, build the ark. For St Augustine, Christ is as present in his mission as He is on the ship that brings them both here.

Indeed, just as God delivers Noah safely in His ark, so does Our Lord deliver His disciples safely in the fishing boat in the storm. Further, we see Our Lord Himself guard His disciples through the stormy times in His ministry. They may desert Him when Jesus is arrested, but they still bear Jesus in their hearts and that is what delivers them safely. We can see that, in fact, a true ark is that which bears the Word of God. Noah’s ark bears those who believe God with all their heart.

The Ark of the Covenant bears the tablets of God’s commandment as well as manna, both being symbolic of Christ. Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin is described as an Ark too because she carries Christ with her. This presence of Christ is precisely what allows these arks to give us safe passage through the flood waters. The Psalmist says,

“GOD is our hope and strength : a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved : and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof rage and swell : and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same… God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed : God shall help her, and that right early.”


So here we are – the ark of Canterbury. Every day we are faced with turbulent waters that threaten our existence. We are buffeted by the winds of unkindness, inequality, unbelief and rocked by the currents of those who want us to change our teaching to suit the Doctrine of the world. Somehow we have “to take up arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them!” A little Church-ful? How? The Bride says in the Song of Songs,

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.”

Nothing can drown true love. The Church is the bride and the Ark in which we are carried to salvation. We can only be that Ark if we harbour true, equal, indifferent, undiscriminating love in our hearts.

Just how we do that is up to us, isn’t it?

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