Sermon for Suffolk Historic Churches Trust: watch out if you drop off during it!

Genesis 32:22-32: Jacob Wrestles at Peniel

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27 So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28 Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ 29 Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Watch out if you drop off during this sermon. Jacob dropped off twice – once at Bethel and again at Peniel. And twice he came up against God, despite being the notorious twister that he was.

Bethel was early on in his story, when he was escaping from Esau after tricking him so meanly. Bethel was where he saw the ladder to heaven with angels going up and down, and heard God’s promise that a great nation would be founded through him.

Peniel, which we’ve just heard about, comes later, when Jacob is on way his back from long years working for Laban and winning his Rachel, older and wiser. And this time the encounter is more complicated; it takes three turns, as God turns the tables back on him, and a rather cocky young Jacob starts to become the patriarch that he will be.

So at Peniel there is, firstly, an encounter with God once more. But secondly, this time it is followed by a serious bit of wrestling and a costly injury. And only then and thirdly is the promise re-iterated and new name given to confirm it, as Jacob becomes Israel.

Given what we’re here for, it will be no surprise if I suggest that this three-part story shows us three things about how holy places, holy places such as Bethel and Peniel became (both in the Holy Land and in the countless Welsh Chapels named after them), and holy places such as the many and wonderful historic churches of Suffolk are today, that in Suffolk I will say are the best in the world; although in Cambridgeshire I will say something that is not quite the same. Perhaps I need some de-twisting too.

So three things about our amazing churches,

First, they are places where we can encounter God, the other, the numinous, the liminal. And places therefore where we can go deep with God, and let our spirit be touched by his.

Do you remember the story of the call of the prophet Isaiah that we read on Trinity Sunday? How the air of the Temple thickened with the presence of God and smoke from the seraph’s thuribles? And all he’d done was just pop into church for a quiet few moment on his own… Watch out when you go to church. It’s never about just “going to church”. Can you feel even here, in this place where prayer has been valid for many a year, the presence of God?

A surprising reminder of the power of this presence came in some recently-published research reported in the Telegraph last week, who said, and I quote, “One in six young people are practising Christians, new figures show, as research suggests thousands convert after visiting church buildings. The figures, show that more than one in five (21 per cent) people between the ages of 11 and 18 describe themselves as active followers of Jesus, and 13 per cent say they are practising Christians who attend church.” The research was conducted by ComRes and the doyen of church statisticians Dr Peter Brierley so this is reliable stuff and really interesting. And at a time when we might be worried that our values are not being passed on to the upcoming generations, here is hope too that there may be a regained connection with the life of faith in a way that is likely to rebuild community too. And church buildings seem to be playing an important part in it.

Secondly, our churches are places where we can choose to wrestle with God and with ourselves, and grow in discipleship and faith, grow in the likeness of Christ, become “Christian” not just in word but in deed. And while some of this can and will happen when we are there on our own, doing it with others is an essential part of the deal, because God’s intention is not just to pluck a few lonely saints off the planet and rocket them up to heaven, but to save the whole bang shoot of society, you, me and all.

And amazingly, worryingly, he has chosen to begin it with us, with the funny thing we call church but he calls his body still here on earth. In the sacraments of the altar and font. In the reading and teaching of the lectern and pulpit. Even in the church coffee and PCC in the sometimes refurbished but often ersatz facilities of the dusty back corners, where we find out for real whether the walk of our actual behaviour matches the talk of our prayers.

Let me take you to an unlikely place where this is happening, Whitemoor high security prison, and a report from two weeks ago in the Cambridge Evening News this time which speaks for itself about the power of a Christian community to transform lives for the good: “Whitemoor Prison at March has seen a dramatic growth in its Christian community according to an annual report published by the church.

According to the Diocese of Ely’s annual report the last four years has seen an increase in the number of prisoners attending weekly services. At the end of last year the average attendance was 50 each week with around 70 men attending on a monthly basis.

Prison chaplains have worked at building meaningful relationships with the offenders, inviting them to Alpha and Kairos courses, over a period of time. These relationships have resulted in more men attending, and contributing to, services. In 2014, the offenders donated over £1,000 of food, which they bought themselves, to local food banks.”

Finally and thirdly, our churches are places where we can discover new purpose and promise for ourselves, and be sent out to make a difference for God and good in the world. Look around and see not just the stones but the living stones, who in any church of any age have left their mark for generation upon generation, memorials, lists of vicars and wardens, donors and benefactors; and consider, how are you leaving yours. In your coming in, perhaps contributing generously to the care of the stonework you have inherited. And in your going out, contributing equally generously to the difference that the living stones that are you and your colleagues are making in the wider world today.

How people are working together to make that difference, with the people of churches playing a central part in it, has been striking me this fortnight as the marquee entertainment season has been in full swing at Bishop’s House in Ely, and with me holding the fort there as Stephen is on study leave. (You’ll realise that I am making something of a career out of doing other people’s work and serving other people’s canapes…) All sorts of different groups have been invited from the Chain Gang to the Mothers’ Union, Safeguarding Officers to the Care Network, Lay Readers to Local Heroes – and of course there is a very considerable overlap between those coming with church hats on and those coming with community ones. Non-one has quite managed to make every party, but one person came close. And actually, how good it is to see such a strong overlap between church and civic circles of course since at their best our churches are just the places where we grow and learn together and find the strength and motivation to work together “with those of all faiths and none” for the common good. And just now, with extremists once again seeking to disrupt our society, it is time once again to heed Edmund Burke’s reminder that all that is necessary for those dangerous voices to prevail is for good men (and women) to do nothing. But for every deed of darkness a hundred acts of charity follow – and as they do their bit and you do yours, Love Wins.

Three parts to the encounter, and we need all three. If our nation like Jacob’s is to be a people of God and a people with a good future, to walk away from encounter with God risks walking towards an encounter with forces not of light but dark, with all the horror that brings.

To accept the encounter but just gaze on it as a treasure or keep it locked up in church is to choose God, yes, but to decline his commission, and leave the field of real life to those whose will is for death not life.

But to accept the encounter and be transformed and energised by it is build God’s good future for us all; and

a place like this, here and now, a historic church and a holy place of God, is one where we can remake that choice today.