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Bible Readings: Job 28:1-28 & Isaiah 43:16-21
Our Spiritual Heritage
This evening I would like to illustrate the sermon with two visual aids. The first visual aid is a miners lamp. You could say this miners lamp represents the spiritual heritage of this church and this parish. Our heritage can be traced back to the founding of a Cistercian monastery at Newbattle Abbey, just across the road. It Abbey was founded in 1140 by monks from Melrose Abbey under the patronage of King David I of Scotland The Abbey had a very eventful history. The Abbey Church was dedicated in 1234, and the Abbey was burned by forces loyal to the English crown in 1385 and once more in 1544.
As I mentioned a moment ago the monks of Newbattle Abbey were Cistercian's. The Cistercians were a more austere order when compared to say the Benedictines. There was a clear emphasis on silence, manual labour and self sufficiency. Over the years the Abbey became very wealthy. It even owned salt pans at Prestonpans. But most interesting of all the monks were also miners. It is thought they were first coal miners in this part of Scotland and they were originators of mining industry which until relatively recently dominated the local economy.
In fact the entrance to the old Abbey mine workings are still visible to this day. The are located just a few hundred yards from this church in south bank of the River Esk, although they are covered with a metal grating to prevent access. I did speak to one person who has explored the mine workings and he advised me that a few yards into the working the passage opens into a large area where a group of people would have room to stand up. I do wonder if this cavern was used by the monks for their regular offices of prayer when mining underground. Its an interesting thought? There is a popular image of monks as working in the scriptorium designing beautiful illuminated manuscripts. I still wrestle with the image of a monk as a coal miner with his pick and shovel and basket for collecting the lumps of coal!
A couple of weeks ago there was a report in the press about a disused mine in north Derbyshire that has been turned into a tourist attraction. It is known as the Blue John cavern. Blue John a semi precious mineral, It is fact Fluorspar which has reacted with other chemicals to give it unique colour. It is mined in north Derbyshire and is used to make ornaments and jewellery. Because of its rarity only a small amount of the semi-precious mineral can be mined each year.
However, the report in the news told the story of a miner who in 1945 found a new vein of Blue John in the cavern. Unfortunately before he could show the people who took over the running of the mine, the Harrison family, where the seam was, he fell ill and passed away. Many thought that the find was an old miner’s tale including some of the Harrison family. But Peter Harrison who was only 19 when the discovery was made kept searching for the deposit. He lost count of the number of hours he spent searching in the cave. Then last month finally the lost vein of Blue John was rediscovered after Peter’s grandson John Turner took up the quest.
Standing at the bottom of a ladder leading up into another vein of Blue John he noticed something unusual on the floor at the bottom of the ladder. "After an hour of digging through muddy deposits he was amazed to come across an old piece of carpet supported by some wooden batons. He couldn't believe his eyes when they pulled away the old carpet and there was this most amazing deposit of Blue John." And it is indeed a sizeable deposit with enough Blue John stone to keep the family busy for the next decade at least."
That lovely story of how the knowledge of the existence of a vein of mineral was passed down the generations reflects how the Christian faith was has also been passed down the generations. For us here in Newbattle we have a long spiritual heritage that goes right back to mining monks, to the reformation and the enlightenment to the present day. Faith passed down the generations like knowledge of a rich vein of mineral. In the same way in the Lady Victoria Colliery until it closed in 1981, generations of the same family worked together, with knowledge being passed down from father to son and so on. But now the cycle is broken. Now the mines are closed and faith is no longer passed down the generations. I remember years ago being told we should not worry about children who left Sunday School or Bible Class or Youth Fellowship as they would one day return. But to the best of my knowledge this seldom ever happens.
What this mean is that the cycle of faith being passed from one generation to the next generation is now broken. It means that our spiritual heritage, however quirky and interesting is of limited value. Unless our spiritual heritage is a living spiritual heritage it will not serve us in the present day. Of course the challenges that face this parish are very similar to the challenges that face every other parish. How do we make church relevant? How do we proclaim the Gospel in a secular sceptical age? How is spiritual decline to become transformed into spiritual renewal. There are no instant solutions or easy answers.
However, I think one useful insight is to be found in our reading from Job. What is needed is wisdom - deep wisdom. The situation we face today is unlike anything we have faced before. At university I studied the history of the church from the apostles to Constantine to the dark ages to the middle ages to the reformation to the enlightenment and to the modern world. What we face today is unparalleled in the history of the church. In my view lessons and insights from past generations are of limited use in the present age. So what is required today is wisdom, deep wisdom. Like tracing a thin twisting vein of precious mineral, or following a seem of coal deep underground, what is required today is deep wisdom. What is required is wisdom that can only be found from the Lord.
There is another verse Bible which I believe is significant for this time. Isaiah 43: 18-19.
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!
Those words were most likely spoken in the 6th century BC, which of course for ancient Israel was a time of Exile. A time in which they were aliens in a foreign land. A time in which they were driven from their homes, separated from all that was familiar, and taken into captivity in Babylon. The end result being the complete dislocation of personal, community and national life. And I suspect that when the people first heard those words they had little knowledge or understanding of these words meant. They had no idea of what God was going to do. We too are living in a time of great change, where much is uncertain and unfamiliar. And this is a time of great change for the church. We have seen 40 years of non stop decline and the resulting dislocation of congregational life. And like the people of ancient Israel I'm not convinced that we fully recognise or fully understanding exactly what it is that God is doing at this present time.
The second visual aid I'd like use is a pair of jump leads - these are very useful if your car has a flat battery. I am reminded of a story about a man on holiday who went to an exclusive restaurant looking for dinner. On arriving at the restaurant he was refused admission due to a strict dress code. A very officious head waiter told him that he must wear a tie, but the man explained that he was on holiday and didn't have a tie. To make matters worse every other eating place nearby was closed. The man pleaded with the head waiter to let him in. So the head waiter relented and told him that if he put something that looked like a tie, he would be allowed into the restaurant. With his tummy rumbling, the man hurried back to his car and began a frenzied search. After 15 minutes of fruitless searching all he could find was a pair of jump leads. So placing the jump leads around his neck, he returned to the restaurant. The head waiter looked at him, sighed and granted him entrance on one condition: that he wouldn't start anything!
Mike today we welcome you as a new member of the ministry team at Newbattle as you are ordained a minister of word and sacrament. We believe that God has started doing a new thing in this parish as he is doing a new thing in many other parishes. You come at a time of great change. There is much that we do not know or understand. But God is at work. A new church is emerging. Right under our very noses God is working - he is shaping and renewing - creating new opportunities for faith to take root. And the invitation to you is to become part of what God has started and what God is doing.
Rev Sean Swindells.