A big thankyou for inviting me to come and join you on this very special occasion as Dean Close School celebrates the 125th anniversary of its foundation. Dr Francis Close, after whom the school was as you know named, went to be Dean of Carlisle after serving for 30 years as Rector here in Cheltenham, and it was in Carlisle that I encountered his memory, when I myself was Archdeacon and Canon of the Cathedral there.
If you go into that Cathedral you will be struck by the fine gates that are set across the entrance to the area where the congregation sit, and which Dean Close installed. To beautify the building perhaps? Or keep the dogs out? Well actually, no. What really happened was that he arrived at the Cathedral to find to his horror that there was no sermon at Evensong. Now as you also probably know, Close was a fervent evangelical, and to have a service without a sermon was insufferable, so a sermon was introduced. Upon which the congregation started to leave after the service and anthem but before the preachment. And so it was that the gates were installed, to keep the congregation in.
Now I am absolutely sure that life at Dean Close School never feels like a lock-in – which is a good thing, because for all that I admire Close, I think he was wrong on this one. Wrong because however much it is true that the gospel is the word of life, and I think that is very true indeed, part of the good news of that word of life is that it always comes to us as pure gift from God, the ultimate Free Offer, but one which requires us to make an equally free and conscious choice to receive it. The best human relationships work in just the same way, if you think about it. So penning people in until they submit to salvation just isn’t on.
But why raise the matter now, beyond the fact that it makes a good Dean Close story? Well, I was invited to preach on something I was passionate about, and I am passionate about young people about how together we can build a really Big Society, one that is far more authentic than one orchestrated by a government, which will always feel a bit like having gates put up to guide us in the way that someone else has set for us.
So I want to think aloud with you about how I see young people and the schools and people that serve them playing their part in seizing the moment that is before us, to build a better society, bottom up. Carpe diem, and all that. I want to take one big point from the Old Testament reading we shared, the one from Amos, and then three linked ones from our better known New Testament reading, the one from Revelation.
Amos first, then. But let me get there by observing that a big school occasion like this reminds us that there can be a narrow line between generating an appropriate sense of occasion and pride, and rather less savoury sort of tribalism. The key watershed between them lies in the ethos of the school or other institution, because exactly the same applies on national occasions or in a big company. If the organisation is just out to feather its own nest, then things can get nasty. But if the organisation has an ethos of service to others, then the energy it generates does not stay as it were locked in its own fridge, but goes to feed and help others.
The fridge picture works for me because I remember that when our children were young and we had caravan holidays. the kids would play in the caravan in our garden at the end of the season, before we shut it up for the winter. One spring we came to get it ready for the road again, opened up the fridge … and the milk walked out. Or maybe you can remember that rather nice duck pate that you bought for Christmas, but only discovered after New Year hidden behind the thermostat, growing a nice crop of green fur. Even good things go off if they are not put to a good use.
So, to get back to Amos, it has to be said that in their early years the people of Israel were thoroughly tribal. My God is bigger than your God would be a simple way of putting it. And the prophet’s job was to bless our lot, and curse the others.
Enter Amos. He gives the usual series of curses; but then goes on to say some equally harsh things about Israel. And in the passage we heard today he makes a very interesting move. He suggests that the one same God is God of all the nations, and that he had a hand not only in bringing Israel out of Egypt, but the Philistines out of Caphtor and the Aramaeans out of Kir. Israel has a special place in God’s plan, but only as the elder brother, as it were, who will welcome back his younger siblings, so that Jerusalem – as we see in Revelation – becomes the home city of the whole world.
How hard it was for the elder son in Jesus’ famous parable to welcome back his prodigal brother. How hard it was and is for Israel to fulfil this destiny which transcends its own interests and makes room for everyone else. How hard it is for each of us in our own personal lives to do the same. Which is why Christ came of course, to break through this incessant self-centredness that so plagues us, the thing we call sin, and give us the new start and help and guidance we need. And if you think you can manage without the help, I really do have to suggest you look more often in the mirror; and in a Dean Close memorial sermon I really do too have to say that the love of God in Christ is right there for you now, young or old, just a prayer away. So if life is tough or you are all too conscious of your weaknesses, ask Him to help.
But let me take this basic point from Amos now, the point that God is not just there as a our personal protector and prop but there to inspire us to share in his work of saving the whole world, and take it a bit further.
I said I was passionate about young people. I had the privilege to be at a Regeneration Summit in Sheffield, called by young people, in which a crowd of them met with around 50 bishops and other church leaders to try and face up to the disconnect between the C of E and youth culture today. I was very moved by the realisation that younger people themselves were forging the way forward for us, and have seen in my own diocese just what a contribution they can make to our life as a whole. At a recent Council meeting for instance when we were looking to find new ways forward, it was a youth member who challenged us to be honest then about what we had been doing that hadn’t worked too well in the past. Ouch! But yes! For whatever reason, people as young as some of you here today are showing real leadership and ability in a way I think I never could have at a similar age, and I want to back it and run with it as much as I can.
It isn’t, though, just about youth. If young people or any people are going to make a difference that is not just about them making themselves heard or getting their own way, they are going to have to buy in to the Amos principle, or the fridge effect if you prefer: to a way of life that turns the world upside down and lives for others not itself, rejoicing in God’s strength not their own; and seeking his kingdom not theirs.
So – quickly – over to Revelation for an amazing dream-picture of that kingdom, of what God is trying to bring about. First, and importantly, it is a new heaven and a new earth: this is not about escaping from the world, but transforming it, seeing it become what it was always meant to be. Church is not an escape pod from ordinary life but a landing craft for the revolution that will reshape it. Nothing less than the total healing of the nations is in view. Secondly, the nations will find that healing because a new community has been created that is itself healed, every tear wiped away, where even death is no more. This is a vision of transformed relationships, a society in which every member is striving to give life away to others not seize it for themselves. It is the sort of society that a school, or a church, or a company, can start to model right now, and so become the salt and yeast and light that spreads to the whole world. Then thirdly, the people who will make up such a society are able to do it because they each as an individual have found the deep healing and self-realisation that comes when the Lamb, when Christ, when God is their light; so much their light that the light is shining right within them, and they are as it were living temples of God.
And that is where we must begin: with the challenge to every one of us, young or old, to be alive and alight with the presence of Christ within us. That will be the dynamo that as your school knows can drive the rest: the formation of a Christ-like character in us, the instillation of Christian virtues, the growth of each and every person into the full stature of Christ, shaped in the special way God has intended for them.
125 years on, these are still the core values of Dean Close School as they are I believe the sure foundation on which a truly Big Society can be built. Carpe diem; seize the day; be again so rooted in Christ, that together you grow strong shoots, that will bear fruit for the whole world. Amen.