Sermon at Solemn Evensong St Thomas' New York


Archbishop Stephen preached during Solemn Evensong at St Thomas' Church in Fifth Avenue, New York. The service also included the unveiling of the ledger stone given by York Minster to mark the centenary of partnership between the two cities. The sermon follows in full. 


“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’
“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!… to the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.’ ” 

-    Revelation 21. 3- 4; 5a & 6b

Sisters and brothers, it is a great joy to be with you on this happy and historic day. And I need to warn you in this sermon there may be singing, and there may be audience participation. We shall see.

Some years ago a colleague of mine commented that vision statements and mission statements, the sort of thing much beloved by organisations large and small, be they multinational blue chip companies with real estate in Manhattan or small rural English churches, their vision and mission statements,  should never be longer than two words. Roosevelt famously had a New Deal, David Cameron, a Big Society. In Russia, Glasnost and Perestroika.

Warming to his theme, my friend, he offered examples.

This was the 1990s. His two favourites were Girl Power, a two word statement of intent from the Spice Girls, which breathed youthful energy into feminism, and New Labour. Tony Blair had very successfully re-launched, rebranded and rebuilt the British Labour party, thus liberating it from a somewhat toxic past and a catastrophic series of election defeats, by the simple addition of one word which said so much about what was fresh, promised hope and change, and at the same time didn’t ditch tradition. 

It was still Labour.  But it was new.

He won a landslide victory. 

What goes around, comes around. In the UK, we are again in an election year and the current Labour leader is facing a similar challenge. The electorate seem to be warming to him.

But we don’t as yet have a two word mission statement. 

I’m no politician, but I think I’m right in saying that, here in the US,  you also are in an election year. You too may yearn for something which speaks of tradition, but is also new. 

And, where shall we turn to find vision? Something which speaks of the continuity we cherish and the hopeful transformation we know we need? And most of all, something that will at last bring us together, not just as citizens of the UK or the US, important though that is, but as one humanity, inhabiting one world, knowing that our well-being is - whether we like it or not - tied up with the well-being of our neighbour: our neighbour next door, and our neighbour on the other side of the world. Our whole world urgently needs such a narrative of confident hopefulness that will bring us together in ways that can help us address the huge common challenges we face.

The word ‘new’ appears, I looked this up on google so if it’s wrong you will have to count this yourself later,  314 times in scripture. It is a hugely significant word. Both in the Hebrew Scriptures, where we be consistently hear the people of God crying out for God to do something new and to sing a new song, and in… well, there’s a clue in the title, the New Testament.

Now there’s a two word mission statement that has had quite an impact. Still a testament, still a covenant with a faithful God, but in Jesus Christ, God is doing something new.

The promise that was made to one people, a promise of reconciliation, of barriers broken down, of peace on earth, is through that same people, made new and made available to everyone. 

And this is very good news. Out of the scattered and divided races, tribes and languages of the world, God has created one new humanity. 

What this means is that God loves variety. And God calls us to unity. And wherever, to quote Bishop Andrew Rumsey we, “dear, diverse and doolalley” humanity reach out to be our very best selves, holding onto what is good, stretching to what is new, sharing narratives of hope, and, creating within the mess and muddle of human life, communities of courageous expectation which count people in and reflect the glorious beautiful hospitality of God, there is, to quote scripture again, a new song on our lips: a song which is itself an echo of the great biblical vision which speaks, yes that word again, of a new heaven and a new earth. A new Jerusalem.

Not the old obliterated, discarded or swept away, but re-created. Made new.

Start spreading the news,
I’m leaving today.
I want to be a part of it…

These vagabond shoes.
Are longing to stray.
Right through the very heart of it...

I want to wake up 
in a city that never sleeps,
And I’m king of the Hill,
Top of the heap. 

These little town blues 
are melting away.
I’ll make a brand-new start of it. 

But here is the point, what Sinatra very famously sang about New York, New York, we sing today about the good news of Jesus Christ; that we want to be a part of it and that we want to share it with others. It is news worth spreading. Because, we know that we live in a tired, and a hungry, and a confused world. We know that what our world needs is narratives of hope, communities of courageous expectation and we have seen that, found that, glimpsed it and tasted it through knowing Jesus Christ. It is a news worth sharing.

And what you have achieved in this colourful, inclusive, bringing together the scattered masses of the world, New York City, does not supersede or overlook the also amazing city of old York. 

We therefore urgently need a ‘new old York’ and a ‘new New York ‘– a ‘brand new start of it’ and therefore ask ourselves, what is the ‘new’ that God is calling us to? The new for ourselves and for our families and the new for our two cities and our nations. For the ledger stone we dedicate today speaks of friendship and goodwill, as did the one that was given to York a century ago.

And I’m afraid I can’t quite get it into two words. But it is not make the UK, or make US, or make York, or make New York great again. I want to make our cities and our nations humble again, gracious again, generous again. This is what our world needs. This is what I have found in Jesus Christ, the one who can make all things new.

This is what the LORD says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
    I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
    to be a covenant for the people…
See, the former things have taken place…
Behold I make all things new.

Two plaques with writing, one from 1924, the other from 2024
6 min read