Patronal Service of St Vedast-alias-Foster

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Alderman Robert Hughes-Penney's Address at the Patronal Service of St Vedast on 7th February 2022

This evening we gather for the Patronal service of St Vedast, the saint after whom this wonderful church is named.

St Vedast’s Feastday is 6th February and he was born in 453 AD and died 87 years later in 540 AD. He was the Bishop of Arras in Northern Gaul. He is remembered for his charity, meekness and patience.

And significantly for us today his story is one of restoration. He helped restore the faith of his people, the community and Christian churches in the region after decades of destruction by invading tribes led by Atilla that had resulted in a return to paganism in the region.

His is a story and message of restoration – which is also the message of the whole Bible, true today as it was 1500 years ago in St Vedast’s when he lived it out. It is Jesus’s message to each of us personally and as a community and a City. The message of restoration gives us spiritual hope and it also gives us hope for a future beyond covid.

This building too, in which we sit this evening has its own story of restoration. First constructed in the 12th or 13th Century, it is thought to have been restored in the 16th Century and was described in 1603 by Stow in his Survey of London as “a fair church, lately rebuilt”. Later, following the great Fire of London there was another restoration and the most recent restoration took place in the early 1950s following the Blitz, which included a generous donation of gold leaf and aluminium for the ceiling from the Goldsmiths’ Co.

So, in much the same way as the wonders of creation speak of God’s glory the stories of restoration embodied in this building remind us of that verse from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians where it says in chapter 5 verse 17 “if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come!”

The Lectionary readings for today speak clearly to this message of restoration, don’t they?

The Valley of dry bones passage from the Prophet Ezekiel is profound and vivid in its imagery.

It’s often tempting to dismiss the OT as myth or fairy tale, but the book of Ezekiel is anything but, it contains more dates than any other OT prophetic book. Its prophecies can be dated with considerable precision – where previous generations might have been prepared to accept the Word handed down from previous generations the post-Enlightenment scepticism of recent generations demanding scientific proof has challenged this. But modern scholarship aided by scientific computer analysis of the archaeological records, cuneiform tablets and astronomy actually confirms the prophecies.

Ezekiel lived during a time of international upheaval; the Assyrian empire that had once conquered the Syro-Palestine area and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel began to crumble under the blows of resurgent Babylon, with the great city of Ninevah falling in 612bc. The Egyptian Pharoah Neco II advanced to reassert their historic influence over the region three years later only to be overwhelmed by the Babylonians in 605 and Nebuchadnezzar was elevated to the Babylonian throne and went on to subdue Jerusalem in 597bc. Ezekiel was exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 and when there emerged as a prophet – a distinguished man of great intellect and knowledge, not only in his own national traditions but also international affairs, history and culture. Following the fall of Jerusalem Ezekiel’s message turned to the Lord’s consoling hope for his people that they would experience restoration

Ezekiel here receives and prophecies a message of hope, of the body being reformed, restored and made whole where previously there was judgement and destruction. This too is an echo of the Gospel message of the whole Bible story; being under judgement in the law of the OT and that being superseded by the hope we have as believers in Jesus Christ, of forgiveness, restoration and eternal life.

If you are anything like me, and sometimes I need to be told things more than once, especially if its instructions from my lovely wife, Elspeth, God reminds us in the NT passage from 1 Corinthians that there wasn’t just one resurrection appearance, but six listed in this passage alone – that’s a message, in capitals, in bold and highlighted. And then there are many more reports of resurrection appearances in the Gospels.

Resurrection is the ultimate story of regeneration and restoration isn’t it. Regeneration is defined by the theologian Wayne Grudem “as the act of God awakening spiritual life in us, bringing us from spiritual death to spiritual life that gives us the spiritual ability to respond to God in faith.”

The last two years have been tough haven’t they; many of us will have had covid, all of us will have known friends and family who have had covid, and some of us will have suffered the pain of loss of loved ones. When you stop and think about it our lives have been stripped back to the bone; through lockdown all our usual relationships, contacts and activities were removed. Our workplaces were hollowed out, with only skeleton staff. I remember in October 2020 standing at the end of Cheapside just here, at lunchtime, looking towards the Bank with not a soul in sight; a modern image of the valley of dry bones.

It has not been easy though has it. In addition to the physical and financial toll of the pandemic we are also conscious of the toll on mental health. I like many others, and maybe you also, have at times struggled with the isolation. The reality is we need each other. At the very beginning of time, in Genesis, God says it is not good to be alone; God made us as social beings. Community, relationship is central to what we are. It is lovely to be here again, to be united with friends and neighbours. That is what God made us to be.

He, Almighty God, also cares for each one of us, and he is there for each of us, even in the darkest of times, even when we feel most alone and perhaps even have no sense of Him. That is what the poem Footprints that we heard also illustrates so vividly; He says to us “My precious child, I love you…when you only saw one set of footprints…that is when I carried you”. The prophet Ezekiel saying in v 3 “Sovereign Lord, you alone know”.

And so as we begin to emerge from the pandemic let us thank God that we are now beginning to see some recovery, regeneration and restoration of society and the community, particularly in this church community, the Ward of Cheap and the City of London. Let us encourage one another as the Bible says, and as we have this evening, with words, deeds and spiritual psalms.

And as we step into this new chapter let us also recognise that restoration, or re-creation, is like creation itself; a two-step process; first we were formed from the dust and then secondly, we received the breath of life. In Ezekiel this is echoed, first “hear the word of the Lord” and then “I will cause breath and spirit to enter you”. In the City, first lockdown is ended and secondly, we return. In our own lives and hearts, Jesus the Son of God, came down to earth and then we believe.

If you believe in Jesus you may want to recognise in your heart the restoration that has occurred in you and if you do not yet believe in Jesus can I invite you to believe in Him and receive that restoration.

The Lord restores, redeems and renews. It was true 1500 years ago in St Vedast’s day and it is true now. Alleluia.