Rev. Andrew Cunnington
3rd September 2017
God In Close Up

In my view there is no finer stretch of railway in the whole of the United Kingdom than that which links Settle to Carlisle.

And there is no more wonderful part of that journey than when the train crosses the famous Ribblehead Viaduct. It is a magnificent structure set to the backdrop of breath taking countryside.

So on our recent holiday to that part of the world we duly made pilgrimage out to Ribblehead, not to travel on the train, but watch the trains go over the viaduct.

On arrival we were amazed at the number of people gathered at a distance staring up at the Viaduct from maybe half a mile away across an open field. Camper vans and mini buses, families having picnics, old men in deck chairs, photographers with huge zoom lenses. Crowds of people out there, waiting and watching.

There is a lovely way side station just before the viaduct – Ribbblehead Halt, and we made our way up to the station expecting it to be overflowing with people too. But it was pretty well deserted save for the old station master in a hi-vis jacket and a lady in the tea room.

Then we saw the sign on the waiting room door. Flying Scotsman up 12.51. Flying Scotsman down 4.25pm.

“is it really coming” I asked the old station master “The flying scotsman here today”

“Yes in about twenty minutes” he said consulting his pocket watch

“And can we stay here to watch it go by” I asked

“ Course you can Son, and you can have a cup of tea while you wait, you’ll have the best seat in the house”

“I can’t understand why it’s so quiet up here at the station and so many people are down in the field”

“Nor can I really,” said the old station master sadly “ I guess people just like to view the train from a distance and not get too close up”

Maybe there were ten of us on the platform when the Flying Scotsman came roaring by. The smell and the sound of it. The privilege of being within touching distance of it. It’s smoke in my eyes the smuts of coal in my hair. The ground rocking beneath my feet. The rush of the carriages thundering by.

But most of the people hadn’t come for that close up experience. They wanted the beautiful view from a distance of the train crossing the viaduct, some half a mile away.

But I thought that old station, that lovely old station master, the cup of tea and the Flying Scotsman right up close was just brilliant.

What is it you really want from God? The beautiful view from a distance or the close up experience.

Just before the gospel reading the disciples were part of the crowd gazing up at the glory of God from a distance.

Jesus had gone into a lonely place with those who wanted to follow him and they stood at a distance as he told his stories and then at the end of the day made five loaves and two fishes enough food to feed five thousand people. Jesus was drawing the crowds as people latched on to his glory. Come and see this man from Nazareth. You don’t need to get too close, he’s transforming everything. Just stand in the crowd and look.

But now Jesus is leading those who want to continue on that journey with him, he beckons them to come up closer to Him. The people knit tightly around him expecting more stories and more holy food. But up close things he has something to whisper in their ears…

If you want to be a follower of mine you will have to take up your cross and walk with me as I carry mine!

If you are going to be a follower of mine, up close, there are going to be suffering times for me, and you will witness it all, it will touch you all.

And Peter voices the concern of them all as he cries out “God forbid that this should happen to you Lord” and in their hearts they are thinking “God forbid that this should happen to us.”

God from a distance is miracles and stories and you get to share in the beautiful view.

Come to the Crib Service. Pop along to Harvest Thanksgiving. Enjoy fun and games on Mothering Sunday.

God up close is passion and suffering and brokenness, and you get to share in that if you come much closer.

I took a turn out with the Street Pastors a few weeks ago and because I am not a fully trained and commissioned Pastor – I, quite rightly, have to wear a luminous yellow jacket with the word “Observer” written large on the back. It mildly embarrasses me actually. It challenges me to come out of my comfort zone, You can’t follow me and be an observer, not for ever. You have to draw close. You have to sign up. You have to, if you like, put your money where your mouth is.

But in these days where things have to be packaged nicely, we can often portray faith as a fluffy, easy optional extra to day to day living.

We have even made this taking up of the cross and following Jesus into some sort of romantic imagery. We forget that what it means is carrying your death sentence on your back. Carrying your sense of being cursed and rejected by the world, for all to see. Making an exhibition of yourself. Singled out and found wanting. Not a pretty sight.

Some years ago in the Diocese of Chichester when new Priests were to be ordained, each one was asked in the week before their ordination to construct a cross which reflected their desire to serve, and their journey of faith so far, and in the ordination service each candidate carried their own cross in the opening procession and stood with it at the front.

Imagine being asked to do that. Imagine If I said, next Sunday you can’t come in here unless you bring your cross on your back, you can’t come in here unless we can see how your life is close up and bound up with the life of Christ. I wonder if you would come back to St Matthew’s ever again, and if you did I wonder how the cross you might construct might reflect your struggle to be a disciple.

This practice did not last long in Chichester Diocese, because all the candidates tried to out do one another with the giant size of their cross and the clever ways of projecting the struggles of following.

It became one more packaged thing.

But we live in a world where if people believe in God at all, they want the beautiful view from distance.

And then when you talk to people about believing – they may say – I find it so hard to believe God is there at all , with all that’s going on in the world. How can there be a God who allows all this to happen. That’s understandable if your view of God is built upon the view from a distance.

Thousands to witness the miracle with loaves and fishes – at the foot of the cross, just two. Two only, with a little group watching at a distance.

Have you ever thought what a dangerous part of the service “The Peace” is? When I stand before you and say “We are the body of Christ” and we greet each other in his name.

Which body of Christ do we think we are? The God at a distance – a beautiful view of the miracle, down in the field, watching the train cross the viaduct?

The God up close – take up your cross and follow me, smoke in your face, smuts in your eyes, a man on a cross and me and you not far behind him.

We follow Christ to become like him, for in him we see God close up and he yearns for us to become close up with him and we can’t do that unless we open ourselves up to him and we do that by bearing our cross.

We bear that cross to our Golgotha place and we stake it in the ground right next to his and that’s how in the end, he seizes hold of us as we are and makes us ready for Easter.