Bye bye shadow lands

Bye bye shadow lands
The term is over
And the holidays have begun.

That’s the beginning of a song by The Waterboys from 1984 called Church not Made with Hands, written by Mike Scott, their leader, whose voice we heard singing.  Only, as we’ll learn later, he borrowed these opening words from a rather more famous source.

There’s an aptness to the song today. The term – the Candlemas semester – is over, and the holidays have begun, at least for undergraduates.  But shadow lands?  Is term-time shadowy?  Somehow unreal?  I’ve heard it said that being in St Andrews is somehow unreal, that it’s an escape from reality, it’s a fake or fabulous place and time, which is cut off from the real world.  That we are sheltered from the grimy stuff of ordinary life, work, effort, money, politics, society, conflict and war.  And, as I chatted to students in black tie and ballgowns going into the Union for the Sports Ball last night it was hard not to agree. The shorthand in St Andrews for this detachment is not shadow lands, but the Bubble. Perhaps then, on this final Sunday of the semester, it is time to say Bye bye Bubble, the term is over, it’s time to leave this sheltered spot behind, and plunge into reality.

All semester, my sermons have explored the architecture, decoration and imagery of this building, St Salvator’s Chapel. And perhaps this church and these services belong to this unreality.  There is more than a hint of the theatrical in the mace and procession, the gowns and the ushers, the height and the colour, this pulpit and the gallery, the music sublime, the choir angelic.  Is it possible that this chapel fosters a fellowship with God which is too fragile for the real world, which will burn up in the light of the summer, or the world of work, of family, of society?  As we heard Paul say to the people of Athens in one of today’s readings, we should not think of God as an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  Is that what we do in worshipping here?  A shadow within the shadow lands, a bubble within the Bubble?

Let’s explore a little further Paul’s encounter with the Athenians. Athens was a city of education, with its philosophical schools, its early scientists.  Paul saw a religious spirit, found in temples and shrines.  They are still there to be seen, of course, the Parthenon, the Temples of Poseidon, of Athena Nike, of Hephaestus, this last just a few minutes walk from where Paul preached.  Paul encouraged the Athenians to look elsewhere, to look within themselves, to see these shrines as pointing to God, but not a god made with human hands.  It was reading this passage from Acts which put the Waterboys song in my head.  Paul says, God… does not live in shrines made by human hands. And the song speaks of a She

who moves among men…
she is in the shadows
Ocean and the sand
She is everyplace and noplace
Her church not made with hands
Not contained by man.

There is a word here for all who are leaving St Andrews, final year students who have finished their exams, postgraduates whose dissertations and theses will soon be submitted, others who are moving on. In leaving we may recognise the beauty and shelter of the Bubble, that this town, University, community and faith have had a uniqueness, and particular quality of closeness.  Yet I would resist the sense that life here is not real.  The students and others who share with me the troubles they face experience real worry about their deadlines, real pain over broken relationships, real loss in the death of someone close, and real faith in Creator and Redeemer.  But it is true that God is not found in our world only in temples such as this.  In some ways, God is more closely experienced in utterly real life, in getting up at some ungodly hour for the commute across town for the graduate job; in facing a class of thirty teenagers on a Teach First baptism by fire; in moving in with the one you love to discover what sharing life really means; in committing to a drab church with three people under sixty there – on a good day.  Different realities, and different contexts for a deepening faith.

Leave-taking is the theme of the gospel reading today as well. This Thursday is Ascension Day, and the lesson from John’s gospel is in some ways a preparation for it.  It comes from what are known as the Farewell Discourses, which John presents Jesus as saying to his disciples on the night of his arrest, the night before he died. I will not leave you orphaned, he says.  But that promise contains the hard reality that he will be leaving them.  He will be arrested, tried, and crucified.  He will die.  And although he appears to them over a period of forty days, in resurrection life, those appearances too will come to an end, and he will leave.  As the angel says to the disciples on Ascension Day, Jesus has been taken up from you into heaven.

But he will not leave them orphaned. And indeed, Jesus means that although they will not see him with their eyes, that physical reality will be enlarged into a deeper reality.  The Spirit will come, to be with them for ever.  The Spirit will abide in them, and so they will live, truly live, and God will make his home with them.  It is as if Jesus’ earthly presence with men and women is a shadowy half-reality compared to the fuller reality of life in the Spirit.  This farewell discourse is a farewell to the shadowlands of Jesus’ earthly life, and a welcome to the deeper, fuller reality of God’s life in us.  Which is, of course, our experience today.

To recap: for all that St Andrews may seem a shadowlands, unreal, it is real while we are here – but life beyond our leavetaking may be fuller and richer, with God’s Spirit with us.

This brings us back to the beginning of the song, and its source. On the very last page of the last chapter of The Last Battle, the last book in the tales of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, many of the characters find themselves in the presence of Aslan overlooking the whole of the world, and of Narnia.  And we read:

Then Aslan turned to them and said;
“You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.”
Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”
“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”
Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead.  The term is over: the holidays have begun.  The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

Another sermon might explore the conviction here that death, though profoundly serious and sad, is not the ultimate reality. But I think the point for today, and perhaps the inspiration for Mike Scott of the Waterboys, is that sense that human life, in earthly life, death and beyond, is a journey which goes farther up, farther in, in which what seem to be endings are beginnings, closed doors are open, the sorrowful is healed, and our experience of joy is continually enlarged, and enriched.  The final chapter from which these words come is called Farewell to Shadowlands.  Our experience of God in any place can be real, but it is a reality which can always deepen.

All life in a way is provisional: no future has happened yet. And for those who are leaving St Andrews, you are leaving a place which has been full of the real but always provisionally.  The next chapter beyond these shadow lands may be very different, involving career, travel, family, commitment or perhaps a drifting, a rootlessness, a time unsettled.  Faith too is always provisional, a searching, a finding, a repenting, an assurance, and a doubting again.  God will not remain in this church made with hands while we leave.  God is not far from each one of us, wherever we go.

Most college chapels open out only to the college, to the cloister and quadrangle. That’s true of Aberdeen for example.  But here in St Andrews, St Salvator’s Chapel’s main door, its South Door, opens out to North Street, to the town and the world.  Town is welcome to share the worship of God here with Gown.  But the door to the street also means that we leave from here, not only back into college life, but out into society.  Worship belongs in Chapel and society; the word we hear preached in University we share in community; our education in St Andrews is for the world in which we will live.  Today then, as we leave St Salvator’s Chapel, we will leave by the South Door out into the world.

And as we leave, we may be echoing in our hearts these words, of hope:
Farewell to Shadowlands.
The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.
Have a wonderful morning.