Part of a larger story…

Temple Newsam

Words for the Annual Eucharist to commemorate the acquisition of Temple Newsam by the City of Leeds…

It felt like a long journey – especially for three children squashed in the back of the car. Eventually, though, the car would stop and we would tumble out. There was the race to the Amphitheatre to fling ourselves at our grandparents who had inevitably beaten us to it. There was Granny’s picnic to share…and then the trees. That’s my main memory…fallen trees and living trees to climb, autumn leaves and conkers to collect.

As a child I had no idea where Temple Newsam was – to me it was a magical place – a bit like platform 9 ¾, or the wardrobe entrance to Narnia. Half way between our Middlesbrough and Derbyshire homes, it was where we met our grandparents who then took one lucky child back for a week of adventures – of being the only one for once. It has a special place in my childhood story…with a selfish edge of joy when it was my turn, and resentment when it wasn’t.

So at 22, starting my teaching career in Leeds, I was almost surprised to find Temple Newsam actually existed…all the time, and within walking distance.

Since then it’s had a wider, more generous role in my story…autumn walks with Pete before we were married…taking one, then two young children round the farm…bringing our excited 5 year old son to watch the steam driven threshing machine…being brought by our cultured 22 year old son to a Grayson Perry exhibition…walks with beaver scouts…meeting friends…

You could say Temple Newsam has witnessed my maturing; my discovery of how my story is enriched and enlarged by contact with the stories of others.

In a way this is true of the Temple Newsam estate itself. For a few hundred years, everything in this house and grounds revolved around the lives of the family who owned it. They may have been excellent employers, but they still belonged to a time when the story of one family was seen as far more important than all the surrounding ones.

In 1922 however, the estate was sold to the City of Leeds by the Honourable Edward Wood. In the terms of this sale, he ensured the preservation of house and grounds for future generations to enjoy. For almost a century it’s been a place of refreshment and leisure not for one family, but for all…a place where individual stories can flourish by joining with others.

Here you find extended families having picnics…school children engaging with their heritage…people encouraging each other to get fit at Park run…Shakespeare being introduced to new generations.

In May, ‘Go Ape’ opened. I have to admit I didn’t like the idea. I worried about traffic…but perhaps I really just wanted to keep Temple Newsam as it was, worried that sharing it would detract from my story. I was wrong of course…how great to hear families, friends, school groups encouraging one another as new stories are lived out.

Of course not all the stories here are happy. Some memorial benches speak of tragedy, of difficult times. But their plaques carry messages from those who shared the sadness; and their presence in this public place reminds us that our stories are enlarged and enriched by being part of the wider story of the community.

One of the 1922 conditions of sale was that a service of Holy Communion be held here each year. That tradition recognises how the stories linked by this place are part of an even wider story, the story of God’s love for us all.

We see this love supremely in the story of Jesus. In Jesus, God joins in our human stories…so they’re never just our stories. We know that joyful times with family and friends are something Jesus shared. We also know, when we come in despair to sit on a bench and mourn, Jesus is part of that story, because he too experienced pain and loss. Our stories matter to God.

In Jesus’ human life we see our story as it should be. How it can be if we let go of our private stories where we’re always the centre, and let ourselves be enriched by the stories of others. Jesus’ life and death show us what our earthly stories should look like.

But Jesus doesn’t just bring God into our stories, he allows us to become part of God’s story. He opens us up to all the possibilities of a life lived with God. Not a life where we’re always in competition with one another. Not a life closed down by fear that the flourishing of others comes at our expense, but lives opened up by the outrageous love that led Jesus to the cross.

Christ’s death shows there is no human situation outside of God’s story. Christ’s resurrection says that death is not where our stories end, but the point where they will be enlarged and enriched by the infinite love of God.

But our part in God’s story is not just hope for the next life. In the feast we are about to share, mysteriously, miraculously, our stories and God’s stories are joined. Here and now we have a foretaste of the banquet we will share in heaven. Here our stories join with those of Christians through the ages.

Here our stories are enlarged and enriched as we are fed by Christ’s body and blood. Here we are assured of his presence with us.

Here we share one bread and one cup – and become one body in Christ. Here we are challenged to let our stories grow by embracing the stories of others.

So as we come to Christ’s table, let’s give thanks for this special place. Let’s give thanks for the vision and dedication that continue to give Temple Newsam a place in thousands of stories.

And let’s pray for this special place to be a reminder that our stories are larger, wider and more wonderful when they join together and are opened up to God.

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