i Kings 19.9b–12; Mark 6.30–34
a sermon at the 60th anniversary celebrations of Shepherd’s Dene
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
To say Elijah was depressed is putting it mildly. In what we now see as a regular pattern, he had a huge and dramatic success followed by a total collapse. He had seen off the prophets of Baal, had called down fire from heaven, and had successfully prayed for rain after years of drought. You’d have thought he’d be on top of the world. And then a single message from Jezebel, saying basically ‘We’re coming to get you,’ finishes him off. Declaring that he might as well die, he runs away to hand back his commission. ‘I’ve done the business; I have been exceedingly zealous for YHWH; and all I get is death threats.’ The writer of 1 Kings seems to know at least as much about psychology as we do today.
I suspect the key passage for our purposes today comes a verse or two before where we began. What happens when Elijah runs away is that he goes for a day, and lies down under a broom tree and sleeps. Then an angel wakes him up and gives him food and water. Then he goes back to sleep. Then the angel wakes him up again and gives him more food and water. Then, and only then, he is ready to go the forty days and forty nights, echoing his great predecessor Moses and re-enacting the forty years of Israel in the wilderness, to Horeb, to Sinai, to the mountain of God. And, though God obviously knows the answer to his own question, he asks it just the same (picking up the passage where we joined it): What are you doing here, Elijah? Elijah needs to blurt it out, to speak before his Master the puzzlement, the frustration, the shattering sense of failure that has followed so swiftly upon the heady sense of success.
Only then can he hear the word which is both reassuring and humbling. God’s purposes are going forward. You’re not quite as alone as you think – indeed, thinking you’re alone probably shows that you’ve been seeing yourself as a bit too much of the conquering hero. God doesn’t say ‘there, there, poor old you, been having a bit of a bad time?’; nor does he say ‘you’re right; you’re a failure; you might indeed just as well die’. He says, ‘Off you go; anoint new kings for Syria and Israel (that’s fascinating, by the way; what is an Israelite prophet doing anointing a king for one of the principal enemies?); and anoint Elisha to take your place.’ The sleep; the food and drink; the fresh, scary and humbling meeting with God: and Elijah’s depression is reduced to manageable proportions, just as his ego has been reduced to manageable proportions. D’you know what this scene reminds me of? It reminds me of Jesus questioning Peter by the lakeshore in John 21. In both cases, a wonderfully simple scene, with wonderfully simple words spoken; in both cases, pastoral, practical and psychological wisdom far surpassing anything in Freud or Jung, or even in Shakespeare.
Shepherd’s Dene is what it is – and I suspect all of us here today are here precisely because we know this – because we desperately need places in which encounters like this can take place. We need to get away, perhaps even to run away. We need to sleep deeply; to get up and find food and drink and be able to sleep a whole lot more, and then eat and drink again. We need the sheer physical restoration, away from the throb and thrust of our grossly over-busy world, that will put us in the place where we can stand before our loving (but not cosy) God and enable us to blurt out to him that which lies deepest upon our hearts. We need the space to speak out our boast and our despair, both of them too big to come to speech when there are deadlines to meet, services to take, meals to cook, journeys to take. It isn’t that Shepherd’s Dene is like Mount Sinai in the story. That would be a bit too scary. It is like the broom tree in the desert where Elijah slept and where the angel fed him, so that he had the strength to go not only the forty days’ journey in the desert but the much harder forty days’ journey to the place deep within himself where he could speak his pride and his pain, and could hear from God the word which both humbles and heals and recommissions.
Now of course God can deal with people wherever they are and whatever their circumstances – just as God can and does speak to people without the church or the clergy or the Bible or the sacraments. But from the beginning the church has found that the community of God’s people, and those who are set aside as pastors and teachers, and above all the word which they must both hear and speak and the food and drink which sustain them – that all these things create and sustain contexts within which God’s gracious and multi-faceted dealing with people can and does happen. In the same way, it is part of that mysterious thing called a ‘theology of place’ that, when people regularly meet in a particular place or building, to be still before God, to rest and be refreshed, to pray and ponder, to study scripture and to be woken by the angel with the food and drink that are the life of Jesus himself, then that place itself carries both the memory of mystery past and the possibility of mystery yet to come. I have come to see this as part of the fact, ignored by so many Christians in the west for many centuries but now being recovered, that in Christ and by the Spirit the creator God is claiming the entire cosmos as his own, and that places like this are advance signs of that greater reality when the whole world shall be full of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
I suspect that there are many people who couldn’t articulate the underlying theology which makes sense of this reality but who know in their bones that it is true – and that Shepherd’s Dene is a place like that: as Eliot said, a place where prayer has been valid. You come here, and you ‘put on’ the place as you would put on familiar and comfortable clothes. And you know that here, whether for an hour or a week, you are at home, and more importantly that you are at home with the living God. And what you say to him, and what he says to you, are made possible by the fact of what this place has become, and simultaneously become part of what this place is becoming for those who come after.
That is why we come, and why we go on coming, and (by the way) why it’s important for us to work and pray to develop this place to serve future generations. But there is a danger with holy places, namely that they become idols. We clutch at them too tightly and, like the children deliberately getting into the wardrobe to test it out, we find, not Narnia, but old coats and mothballs. We need to hear the irony in our gospel reading, where Jesus, faced with the shattering news that his cousin and commissioner John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod – which means that Jesus, like Elijah, knows that his own head now has a price on it – invites the disciples to come away to a lonely place for a rest. And of course the crowds get to hear of it, and hurry round the lake to where the boats are going, and instead of a quiet rest Jesus is confronted with yet more people. And there is a powerful lesson for us in how he reacts. He doesn’t say (as, interestingly, the Jesus-character does in Jesus Christ Superstar), Leave me alone, give me some peace! He has compassion on them, and heals the sick.
But there is a deeper irony about this house in particular, and I want in closing to ponder it for a moment with you, as part of our concern that, just as this place is a God-given refuge where, like Elijah, we can rest and be refreshed and have the strength to stand before the living God, so it should never become merely self-indulgent or introspective, as though Christian spirituality were only ever about self-discovery, as the current fad for modern forms of gnosticism might suggest. Over the fireplace in the entrance hall are the words, DEUS NOBIS HAEC OTIA FECIT, ‘God has given us this peace’: a quotation from the first Eclogue of Virgil, which is a dialogue between Tityrus, who is enjoying the peace and tranquillity of the countryside, and his jealous friend Meliboeus, who has to go off on the business of the empire.
‘Who is the God who has given you this place?’ asks Meliboeus.
‘Rome,’ replies Tityrus: the God who has given Tityrus this place of peace and rest is the goddess Roma, the deified city of Rome, which spreads its imperial rule north, south, east and west, and gives favours (including peaceful country dwellings) to some, and hard service and likely death to others. I don’t know whether Dudley Marjoribanks was aware of the irony of that quotation in relation to his own building of this house. But if ever a man was rewarded by empire, he was: he worked for Armstrongs, who by a further irony of name were of course one of the leading manufacturers of arms in the country. Arms manufacturers do well out of empire, and some of their servants, like Virgil’s Tityrus, are given tranquil country peace as a reward. But once the wars are over things don’t go so well, which was presumably why, in the early 1920s, the coming of world peace meant the loss of elegant private peace – this place – for the Marjoribanks family as the house was sold.
But what has happened since has been redemptive, and you can feel that redemption in the walls and the grounds and the rooms and around that fireplace itself. The living God, whom Rome in the first century and Britain in the nineteenth so easily parodied in the interests of their own imperial dreams, can take even the pagan misnamings of himself and translate them into devotion. It is a painful process, but it’s happened here. And that provides us with two urgent lessons for today, for all who continue to come here seeking refreshment and seeking God.
First, this house is a sign that God can take us as we are and where we are – muddled, misguided, messy – and redeem and transform us in ways we couldn’t have imagined. No wonder we find this a redemptive place. But second, the very redemption we find here must awaken us, as God had to awaken Elijah, to the larger purposes for which we are redeemed. We are not given rest, refreshment and the opportunity to stand face to face with the living God in order that we can go back to a life which is all about me and my spirituality. My spirituality itself must be placed in the service of the God who challenges the empires of today, as he did those of yesterday, with the good news that his son Jesus is enthroned as Lord of the whole world. As we stand today poised between Ascension and Pentecost, and celebrate this lovely place as a sign of God’s goodness and healing power, may we find ourselves, like Elijah, recommissioned to go and work for God’s kingdom, for the saving and healing lordship of Jesus, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.