Gain a wise heart

This is a sermon for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 90.

Thirty thousand and ninety-four days.  That’s the average life expectancy in Australia (it works out to a touch over 82 years).  Put like that, though – thirty thousand and ninety-four days – it sounds like a lot.  It sounds like maybe I have all the time in the world for all the things I want to accomplish, to experience, to relish.

That’s not how life is, though.  I don’t have to labour that point; you’ve all lost loved ones.  No matter when life ends, there’s always more that person could have been, done, or loved.  We often like to pretend to ourselves that our potential is infinitely open-ended, but death is the final, immovable human limitation.

It’s not really a cheerful thing to think about, though.  But the psalmist today did want us to pay attention to it, just for a moment, when he wrote “teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.”  Teach us to count our days; teach us to remember that they have a number, and after that, we die.

But not just for the sake of being morbid; the point of remembering, the psalmist says, is “that we may gain a wise heart.”  So how does remembering our mortality and limitations help us to become wise?

There are two key aspects to this.  The first is remembering who and what we are.

Here’s what I mean.  I said before that we like to pretend that our potential is infinitely open-ended, but that that is an illusion.  The problem is that because we like that illusion, we deny our own nature.  We forget that we are creatures made of dust, who have borrowed the breath of life for a short time, but who have no power to sustain ourselves.  And, because we forget that, and deny our own nature, we also deny God’s nature.  You see, if we refuse to acknowledge our utter dependence on God for every breath of our existence… then we distort the relationship between us and God.  By repressing the truth of our creatureliness, we also repress the truth that only God is God.  And we often fail to let God be God.

Isaiah said the same thing when he pronounced:

“You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
‘He did not make me’;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
‘He has no understanding’?”

In failing to let God be God, we grasp for control over things we can never really control; and we harm ourselves and one another in the process.  In failing to let God be God, we use all our ingenuity and creativity for destruction and oppression rather than for human flourishing.  In failing to let God be God, we fail to acknowledge the brokenness of human life, and turn away from the possibility of finding healing.

Here’s an example of what I mean: for messy church this afternoon, we’re going to explore the concept of slavery.  I realised that I couldn’t really explain the gospel passage I wanted to, with the kids, unless they first had some idea of what slavery is about, so I thought I’d better lay that foundation first.  And as part of my background reading on how to teach children about something which is actually fairly intense to get your head around, I came across this little online calculator designed to help people in first world countries estimate how many slaves are involved in the production of the things we consume.*

Now of course it’s an estimate.  But based on the demographic data I gave it, and the details about things I have – like how much technology, how many pieces of jewellery, and so forth – it suggested that perhaps 46 people were involved in slavery in my consumer chain.

46 people being compelled to supply their labour, for the commercial gain of others, who keep me in the lifestyle to which I rather enjoy having become accustomed.  Of course I knew modern slavery existed and is an atrocious evil, but when it becomes personal like that, it seems much more real.

But my point in using that example is that slavery is a good example of our refusing to let God be God.  Our grasping for control over and exploitation of one another, as human beings.  Our failure to honour God’s creation and allow others the dignity and full personhood they were created to have.  And so on.  I won’t labour the point, but it has reminded me of how much the price difference between fair trade chocolate and the other variety isn’t just about what I pay, but about the human price paid in its production.

So when we fail to let God be God, we try to take his place… and end up doing a very thorough job of messing it up.  So that’s one way that learning to count our days helps us to increase in wisdom.

The other side of it, too, is that counting our days reminds us that we need to make choices.  If I only have so many days to live, and I can’t do everything, what am I going to spend my time on?

In a way, that’s part of why I got ordained; the prospect of spending decades in big business making money for shareholders was enough to make me run screaming to the church.  (And that’s saying something!)

But seriously, it is a case of, “We can’t do everything.”  Learning to count our days means we need to choose.  And if we think about our choices, and remember that God is God, and have some sort of measure for our priorities that puts us in line with God’s priorities… then we’re living wisely; in that Biblical sense of wisdom which is all about knowing what God wants and being willing to do it.

I’m told that in some monasteries, there’s a custom of always having a fresh dug, open grave; so that as the brothers walk past they’ll be reminded of the prospect of their own death.  I’m not sure that we need to go that far.  But it is good, sometimes to pause and be reminded of the aspects of life that we’d rather forget; because that helps us to keep ourselves, and our lives, in perspective; and it helps us to focus on making wise choices about how we steward our days.

If we’re paying attention to these reminders; in the psalms, and in our lives; that will help us to truly gain a wise heart.

*http://slaveryfootprint.org/survey/#where_do_you_live

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The mixed bag of parenting

This is a sermon for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18.  During this service, we also incorporated a “thanksgiving for a child.”

In a few minutes, we’re going to do something really special, as two new parents share with us a time of giving thanks for the birth of their son.  And it struck me that one of the prayers in the book for an occasion like this, asks God to give parents wisdom, love and patience as they work together to raise their child.

And it struck me because I think we assume that parents’ love for their children is a given.  It’s an instinctive, even a bodily thing; all that oxytocin and the hormones of bonding that are so much a part of the biology of having children, all the survival instincts which have kept us alive as a species, all of that.  It’d be quite unnatural to not love our children, wouldn’t it?  So why would we need to pray that God would give us that love, if it’s already built into who we are?

And yet it’s not just in the prayer book; in the reading we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, he also starts by acknowledging their love for one another, and then goes on to urge them to love “more and more.”  It seems both Paul and the compilers of the prayer book think that human love – even in the most intense and intimate relationships – isn’t a given.

From a Christian point of view, we are created in the image of a God who is love.  We are created to love; created for relationships which are mutual, joyful, and hopeful.  Created to extend those relationships in networks of social relationships, including parenting.  All of this is part of what God made us to be, and what God called good.

But we also know that families, even the very best of them, have their problems.  Call it dysfunction, call it neurosis, call it sin, even; but none of us get to adulthood completely unscathed from the moments when our families failed to be what they should have.  While I definitely don’t hold to any notions of original sin as a kind of stain on someone’s soul, or anything like that, it perhaps does make sense to realise that each of us is born into a web of relationships which is already less than it should be, and we are shaped by that network of relationships as we grow.  Its shortcomings affect our own ability to reach our potential, and, in turn, the relationships we form as adults.

And so each of us approaches parenting with a very mixed bag, as it were.  Our deep love for our children, and also our desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past, perhaps to do better, in some ways, as parents than our own parents did.  Hopes for our children that they will grow and thrive and embrace their world with curiosity and strength of personality, and fears about all the things that can get in the way of that.  It’s a mixed bag that can leave us feeling overwhelmed and more than a bit vulnerable, too.

And in the middle of all of that, someone like St. Paul – who apparently never even had any children – telling us to love “more and more.”  So helpful of him.

But this is, I think, the point Paul is trying to make.  Even as we carry around our mixed bag of emotions and hopes and fears, we’re not alone with it.  We surrounded by layers of support; our own families, with all of their combined wisdom and experience.  By our wider community, including the church community, where there are always people to offer practical support and reflect with you on what you’re going through.  And ultimately, by God; the same God who created this baby boy to be the incredible unique person he is and will be, and who is so on your side in this parenting journey; wanting this to go as well as it possibly can, and always offering you what you need in any given moment.

I don’t want to sound like I’m sugar-coating the tough times.  My daughter is five, and we have had some days where I’ve fantasised about being single and living on my own.  In blissful silence and with enough sleep.  So I’m really not wanting to pretend that somehow, with God, it all becomes rainbows and unicorns, because we all know that that’s not how it is.  But the God who created each of us in love, and to love, gave each of us the capacity to love more deeply than we currently know how, and is always willing to help us discover that deeper capacity.

So I think that’s why we pray that God will give us love, even though we know that love is there already.  It’s about deepening and strengthening our capacity to love, and about letting love be the engine room of the creativity and hope that will push through anything unhelpful that we’re carrying.

And even though many of you gathered here today are well past the life stage of raising small children, (if you were ever in it), I don’t think it hurts the wider church community to think about these things.  To think about how we support our family members, and the people around us in church who are in the intense stage of early parenting.  One of the great strengths of the church is that we are truly multi-generational, with people here in their nineties as well as toddlers; and we have the capacity to be a support network quite unlike anything else most parents will have access to.  How we do that – not just one on one, but also how we deliberately plan and work together to do that – is something it would be good for us to think about.  Are we doing the best we possibly can for our youngest members?  And for their parents?  And if not, what would doing better look like?

Paul finishes the instructions that we heard this morning by telling his hearers to “encourage one another.”  I hope that for all of you, being able to be here today and share this time with us is an encouragement.  But I also hope we can take to heart the need to be intentional about encouraging one another through big life transitions – like becoming parents – because we all need that extended network at its best.

Living in the gap

This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Micah 3:5-12.

When I was accepted as a candidate for ordination, the diocese supplied me – amongst other reams of paperwork – with a document headed “Indicators of Readiness for Ordained Ministry.”  It ran to eight pages of dot points, including such gems as “I understand how people outside the church think,” and “I know how to send and receive emails.”  I’m not sure I found it entirely useful.  But there was one dot point in particular which I’ve often found myself reflecting on.

It said, “I have learned something of my own reactions to living in the gap between vision and reality.”

This is such an important aspect of our experience as Christians, and yet we seldom talk about it.  We live in the gap between vision and reality.  And that’s often not a very comfortable place to live, at all.

I mean, on the one hand, there’s the vision.  The ideal; the ideal for our society, of justice and peace and reconciliation.  The ideal for our church, of holy worship and loving service.  The ideal for our families, of safety and faithfulness and joy.

And then, on the other hand, there’s the gritty side of reality.  Of a society plagued by injustice and a propensity to hatred of the other.  Of a church which is corrupt and a theatre for the egos of the powerful.  Of families in which abuse and selfishness and despair are all too common.

Not every family, of course.  Not every moment in church, or every government decision, either.  But more than enough to make us painfully conscious of the gap between the vision, and the reality.

And the question then becomes, what is our reaction to living in that gap?

We can look at the Scriptures as offering us some models.  People who have gone before us, who have caught the vision that God offered them, but have been painfully conscious of their own lived reality, have reacted by producing documents which attempted to address that gap, and which the Church has come to recognise as Scripture.

And in particular, this morning, our reading from Micah speaks powerfully into that gap.  Micah lived in a time when his nation’s rulers were weak – politically and personally – and his society was corrupt and oppressive.  The gap between vision and reality was stark.  And Micah described it:

5 Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry ‘Peace’
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths…

and so on.

If we take Micah, then, as an example we can follow, here’s what I take from this passage:

  • Living in the gap between vision and reality doesn’t mean passively accepting that gap. It means pointing it out; constantly proclaiming the vision back into the reality, and stretching reality towards the vision.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means choosing leaders who recognise that gap and are committed to narrowing it; and holding them accountable to their responsibilities.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means paying attention to the experience of the most vulnerable and the most powerless, and making any injustice towards them a priority for change.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means taking up the roles of prophet and teacher, defining the work that needs to be done, and equipping our community to do that work.

A Church that isn’t filled with the Spirit of God, that isn’t bold enough to talk about justice and sin, that is unwilling to walk and weep with those who are broken, that loves its own power and status more than it loves the God it professes to worship; that’s a church that’s denying the gap, and in the end, denying the vision altogether.

Many people have told me, since I’ve been here, that this parish is a social justice focussed church.  But it’s startling to me, then, that as a church, we don’t do much about social justice.  I mean, individual people here do significant work, but we don’t take up the challenge or get involved together.  It’s almost as if, somehow, we’ve forgotten how.

We need to rediscover how.  We need to look around and ask ourselves what issues of justice are urgent and compelling around us.  We need to work out how we can be effectively involved in those issues; how we can bring our own vision of God’s justice back to shape our reality.

And we need to do it, not just because it’s who we are as a people gripped by a vision of God’s reign, but because if we want people to be attracted to us – if we want people to want to be part of our community – we need to give them a reason.  There is a whole generation of people coming into their prime now who don’t particularly care about institutions, but do care about making a difference; and who might well put up with the baggage of institutional church, if we give them a significant enough opportunity to be part of a community that makes a difference.  But why would they want to be here, if they see us as part of the problem, instead of part of the solution?

We do live in the gap between vision and reality.  What we need to do is get beyond just reacting to that, and start responding to it.  We know that, in the end, our efforts won’t fail.  We know that the story of humanity ends with evil judged and humanity restored.  What we have is an opportunity to bring that just a little bit closer to our lived experience today.

Micah’s voice cries out over the centuries, recalling his vision of justice and peace and prosperity, and calling us to participate in it.  So how shall we respond?

Impulse towards the Infinite

This is a sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 22:15-33.
We had a couple renewing their vows on their golden wedding anniversary this morning, so the sermon is written with that in mind.

“In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

What do you reckon?  Are you looking forward to your wings and halo?  And would that somehow compensate for being single?

At first blush, this reading might look as if it has quite a low view of marriage; as if it’s fine for something for us to do, you know, to pass the time in this life; but that when this life is over and we go to glory, it won’t really matter any more.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying, exactly, although that might take some unpacking.

The first thing to note is that this discussion really isn’t about marriage at all.  The issue here is about what happens after we die, and whether resurrection is really a possibility.  The Sadducees argue that it is not; and they make that argument because, if we see resurrection simply as picking up where we left off, a kind of continuation of this life, there are significant logical problems with that.  So, seeing the logical absurdity of having to choose between several spouses, or other problems of a resurrected life that is just “more of the same,” they reject the possibility.

Jesus’ response is to challenge their limited imagination.  Resurrection – he tells them – isn’t “more of the same,” it’s a radical transformation of our very nature.  Paul put more words around the same idea when he wrote about the resurrected body: “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

I guess what Paul talks about as a “spiritual body” is his way of describing what Jesus means when he says we’ll be like the angels in heaven.

But what does that mean?  To be honest, I don’t know the details; and I suspect it’s something we can’t really understand from this part of our existence.  But it follows that if our bodies undergo radical change, that so will our human relationships.  The cycle of life, with the particular demands of growing and aging, of pair-bonding and parenting, and all of that, will clearly not function in the same way.  I don’t think that means we will lose the potential for meaningful relationships, but trying to describe them in terms of what we know now clearly isn’t going to work.

But – and this is the thing I really want to focus on today – that doesn’t rob our family relationships, or specifically our marriages, of eternal significance.  Human relationships are the context in which we learn, change and grow; and marriages, as the most intimate and enduring (at least ideally) of those relationships give us a particularly intensified opportunity for that change and growth.  They can be a crucible for holiness.

Marriage is an all-embracing experience.  We bring to it all that we are, in giving ourselves to each other, and in turn it is the foundation on which all of our later life experiences are built.

And being married is not, and never has been, a fixed state of happy-ever-after (after 50 years how well I’m sure you know that!).  There are troubled times, times when you’re divided, or there are power struggles, or it seems like you don’t know the way forward.  It’s in facing up to those struggles and learning from them that our own personal growth comes (as well as increasing depth and intimacy in the marriage).

This growth comes about because in all the ups and downs of a marriage, we find ourselves at our best and worst, our most loving and joyful and generous, and our most fearful, vicious and selfish.  If we’re paying attention, the way we treat our spouse and our family holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and sins, and shows us where we still need grace.

I can remember, for example, when my daughter was a newborn, and we were having a rough night, and were up for what felt like the umpteenth time, and she was screaming and I was in tears and nothing was going right, and my poor husband looked at me in lost bewilderment and said, “I didn’t think it would be like this!”  And it took all my strength not to throw something at him – he was lucky I was holding the baby! – and yell, “Well, what did you think it would be like?!”

Love is patient, apparently, and it seems marriage is designed to gradually teach me that!

But even this sort of personal growth, too, while good and healthy, is not an end in itself.  As marriage helps us grow and mature, it also helps become able to form generous and open-hearted relationships with others, beyond the marriage.  This is part of what having children is about, but even for people who never have children, growth in personal maturity turns us outward towards community, secure in ourselves and able to support others without anxiety or feeling threatened.  When two adults commit themselves to life and growth together, their relationship reaches far beyond them to transform and create other relationships; what I’ve seen described as “an energy to embrace newness.”

Ultimately, I’d describe that “energy to embrace newness” as hope.  If faith is “the assurance of things hoped for,” as the writer of the Hebrews put it, then having the energy to imagine that things might be different, to welcome and even collaborate in that newness, and to be assured that God is at work in that, bringing about what is good and true and just… is one possible end result of being attentive to what marriage can work in us.

Of course all of this takes work.  It takes commitment.  It takes time and making the relationship between the two of you actually a priority.  This is easier in some phases of life than others; and maybe easier after the children have moved out, than when they are little.  The golden years, rather than being about fading or declining (which some people might fear) can be a time of deepening and enrichment, if you’re clear that that’s what you want them to be.

Or, to put that the way Pope Paul VI put it, married love is an impulse towards the Infinite.

Now, I do want to add a disclaimer.  Not everyone is able to marry, not even all those who wish to; and in talking about the potential of marriage in this way, I don’t want to suggest that this crucible of holiness that we find in relationships, isn’t available to single people in different ways.  Intentional and intimate relationships of all kinds can afford us the same opportunities.  But marriage is, for most of us, our most committed, most enduring and most intimate relationship, so it’s worth stopping to reflect on it specifically on an occasion like this.

So if I’d dare to offer you any suggestions, on this special day, it would be to be open to the potential of your marriage; to help each of you continue to grow; to support each of you to be your best selves in the world; and to be a relationship which cultivates hope and openness to what God might be up to.  And may God continue to bless you richly.

Striving

This is a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  In our parish today it is “Stewardship Sunday,” the day that people return their giving pledges and there is a focus on the needs of the Church; and as such the sermon is focussed on that, with reference to Philippians 1.

I read a story this week about a wealthy young man who had donated one and a half million dollars to a local youth centre.  The youth centre was fantastic; giving young people without many opportunities, skills and tools and – most importantly – hope, that transformed their lives.

Now, the young man who gave this gift was also a very committed and active Christian. In church every Sunday, involved in various activities, and so forth.  But when he was asked whether he would consider giving a gift the size of the one a half million he had just given to a secular cause, to the church, his answer was “Lord, no, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

An extraordinarily generous gift to the youth centre changed lives.  The same gift given to his church – he was afraid – would be met with incompetence and a lack of vision.  So he didn’t give anything like that to his church.

And – to the extent that his assessment of his church was correct – I’d say he was right in his decision.  Money given to the church is supposed to be about fulfilling our mission – about changing lives by bringing people into encounter with God – and if we don’t have a vision for doing that, or if we’re not good at doing it, why on earth would anyone want to give us money?  Or how could I justify standing here and telling you that it’s good and God wants you to give?  Giving has to be matched with results.

Here’s the thing.  It’s not that God wants you to give, as if the church existed so that the vicar could have a comfortable house and we could turn the heaters on.  (Although the vicar is glad to have a comfortable house and that we can turn the heaters on).

It’s much more than that.  It’s that God wants us all to participate in the church as a community which makes a difference.  A church which changes lives.  A church which proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ, which teaches and nurtures people in living relationships with God, a church which responds to human needs with loving service.  And that takes our time and our skills, and yes, also our money.

We don’t give to keep the doors open.  We give so that, by keeping the doors open, we can change lives.

This is what Paul means when he writes to the Philippians and praises their “sharing in the gospel,” and implores them to strive side-by-side with him.  He doesn’t just mean that they had come to a point of personal conviction, or even that they came along to worship once a week, but that they had decided that they were going to dedicate their lives to achieving God’s purposes in the world.

That’s what it means to be a Christian.  To strive side by side with one another in God’s mission of transforming the world.

It’s good to give money to that end.  My pledge to you, on receiving these financial pledges, is that that will be our priority in what we do.  That our planning is going to prioritise projects and activities which make a difference.  That if something doesn’t contribute to the mission of God, we’re not going to waste your time and energy and money on it.

More than that, I also pledge to you that we’re going to seek to be as effective as possible in doing so.  There are a number of areas where, frankly, we need to improve how we do things, so that what we invest of ourselves can have maximum impact.  This is why, by the way, in my email message from the vicar last week, I asked for a volunteer who might be willing to create and maintain a parish Facebook page.  In this day and age, if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist; and if even the like-minded people who live within easy walking distance of us don’t know that we exist, how can we build relationships with them which will further the mission of God?

That’s something of an aside but it illustrates an important principle; we need to be very intentional in how we do things, to maximise the difference we can make.  We have to put the days of just doing what we’ve always done behind us, and instead commit ourselves to doing the best we can in a constantly changing environment.  That may well involve drawing on expertise we don’t currently have, and developing skills we haven’t needed before.  And seeing that as an invigorating challenge rather than a heavy burden.

We are positioned to make a unique contribution to our local community.  There are other people who teach, nurture, care, and strive to establish justice.  Those secular endeavours are good and I’m not knocking them.  There are other churches who each offer the particular strengths of their own tradition.  Their efforts, too, are good, and I’m not knocking them either.  But as each of us have benefitted from a Christian tradition which is open, liberal and progressive in its outlook, as well as deeply rooted in Scripture and the prayers and insights of millennia of the saints, we too should offer that to our community as a treasury of resources.  Our society is crying out for real relationship with its creator, and we are poised to make the introductions… if we’ll only step out and do it.

In my letter which went out with the stewardship materials, I described stewardship as “the inspired and hopeful use of God’s gifts” to us.  I chose those words very deliberately.  I talked about our giving as inspired because it ought to be the result of our catching a glimpse of what is possible.  And I talked about it as hopeful because it ought to be done with the intention of making real and concrete what is, right now, only in the realm of possibility.

I also said that our giving was a response of love, not obligation.  I know that talking about giving and money in church can often be uncomfortable; that some people are under significant financial strain, and that money in general is a focus for enormous stress and worry.  Please don’t hear anything I’ve said this morning as aimed at contributing to that strain or stress, or as intended to manipulate you into giving more than you would freely choose.  I believe – and Scripture teaches and the church throughout the ages has insisted – that giving financially is a non-negotiable part of the Christian life.  But the level of that needs to be your free choice, chosen because you believe that what we’re going to do together with that money is actually worthwhile and something you want to be part of.

So thank you, all of you, for what you have pledged.  It matters, and what we’re going to do with it matters.  Thank you for taking up the challenge of striving side by side together to make a difference.  I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together over the coming year and beyond.

Belonging

This is a sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Romans 12:9-21.

You will have noticed that Daniel, while he’s here today and helping out on the organ, isn’t here every week; in fact he belongs to another church and contributes his gifts and talents to a great degree there.  This is, however, not something everyone has found it easy to get their heads around.  The Sunday after Daniel and I got back from our honeymoon, we each went to our different churches.  And as I was leaving after the service, the vicar of my church bailed me up at the door and said, “I know we might lose you, but now that you’re married, you need to worship under your husband’s headship.”

They did indeed lose me; to a parish which was more interested in nurturing me as a human person in my own right, and less interested in my submission.

But I tell that story today because, following on from last week’s reflection on the church community as one body, our reading from Romans today spells out some of the detail of what that looks like.  Loving one another with mutual affection, outdoing one another in showing honour, contributing to the needs of the saints, extending hospitality to strangers, and so on.  And the story of my church’s inability to respect the way I did things (or the fact that there might be good reasons for it) is a neat way of illustrating how we – as the church – so often struggle with this.

Paul calls us to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers; but so often we subconsciously build a culture of barriers rather than belonging.

So today I want to think a bit about belonging, and how we create a culture of belonging.

Some of the literature on belonging in churches suggests that it might usefully be considered in five aspects: personal friendship, community life, Christian nurture, pastoral care, and Christian service.  So let’s begin to consider each of these dimensions.

One of the things which I see time and again in all sorts of parishes is that people think their community is very friendly, and it is… once you’re “one of them.”  People who’ve been going there for years or decades and know others there very well forget what it’s like to be new, to be nervous, unsure and isolated; and it can be hard for new people to make friends, even though the long-standing members are very busy being friendly with one another!  I’m not saying that’s a particular problem in this parish, but I’d be surprised if it never happened, because to some extent it’s human nature.  Helping people to belong by making friends means that we need to build a parish culture in which every one of us thinks we have a responsibility to relate to those new people.

Now – as an introvert myself – please don’t hear that as a call for all of us to be extroverted, in-your-face and pushy!  But it’s about cultivating the awareness of when there’s an unfamiliar face sitting by herself, or standing alone with his cup of tea, and being willing to strike up conversation; to ask that person’s name, to introduce them to someone else.  It’s not rocket science, but it can make a world of difference to helping people feel that they can belong.

Then there’s our community life, outside our worship services.  We have some good things in place here; the monthly barbecue is an easy way for people to belong.  The games afternoon and book club also.  But there’s always more scope to be creative and do different things, which will draw in different people.

And it’s essential to actually invite people to those events; extending hospitality starts with an invitation.  It’s important that these things be in the pew sheet, advertised in the hall, and communicated as well as we can, of course; but nothing will help people belong like somebody saying, “I’m going, why don’t you come with me?”

Being nurtured in your own faith journey is also a key part of belonging; feeling that I am actually growing through being here.  This is where opportunities for prayer, for teaching and study, quiet days and so forth all take their place.  Our services are the primary location for that, but most of us can benefit from more than something a bit less than an hour a week given to it; and that’s why I’m so glad to be starting some Bible study groups.  Other people have asked me about meditation groups and quiet days and they’re definitely on my radar for Advent or next year (I can’t do everything at once!)

From the various options being planned, I really encourage you to find something that can work for you; but more than that, I encourage you to think about who you might invite to come with you; and what we might do that might interest people who aren’t here yet.  How could we offer people opportunities to nurture their spirituality which they might not easily get anywhere else?

Another key part of belonging is knowing that you’ll be cared for when you need it.  I might have criticised my first parish for their attitudes about my marriage, but when I had a casual job and glandular fever meant I couldn’t work for months, grocery vouchers paid for from their offertory plate meant I could eat.  I never begrudged my money being put into that plate, even when I didn’t have much, because I knew that people in our congregation who needed help with electricity bills or school uniforms or whatever else, got what they needed from the care of the congregation.

It’s my impression that our congregations are less likely to need that kind of financial support routinely, but the support should be there when the need is.  And there are other needs; for support in times of illness or frailty (and practical things like transport for some of our members, because we miss them when they can’t drive!); for genuine human relationships and friendships.

The reality about this is that people often look to clergy to make that happen, but I simply can’t do it all by myself.  Especially not when I’m still very new and often don’t know people, or what’s happening in their lives, yet.  I rely on all of you to notice what’s happening with one another, to support one another as you can and to communicate needs so that care can be shared; and when all of that happens, we can be a community where everyone knows they truly belong.

There’s one other key aspect of belonging; and that’s having something to do.  All of us – as I said last week – have skills and gifts and talents to bring into the life of the church, and each of us truly belongs when we’re given permission and scope to use that for the good of all.  And in doing so, we develop a sense of belonging and ownership which really brings a community alive.

And this is not just about what happens in church on Sunday morning; in fact I’d say it’s less about that, and more about the things we do outside that time, engaging the wider community, building relationships and connections which expand our network of belonging beyond people who turn up for church services.  And working out how we do that together is definitely one of the important parts of working out how to live out our mission over the coming years.

There’s one thing I haven’t said yet, that’s very basic but possibly not obvious.

All of these things which build a culture of belonging – friendship, community life, nurturing faith, pastoral care, and being equipped to serve – they all take time.

Over the next few weeks letters to do with stewardship will go out to all of you and you’ll be encouraged to consider your giving and how you can support the life of this parish.

But honestly, far more important that how much money you give (although running a parish does take money) is the time you give.  And not necessarily in formal ways, but in informal ways too; the time to ask how someone’s going.  The time to pray for someone.  The time to invite someone to something.  The time to make a salad for the barbecue.  Small things that make a big difference.

It’s the gift of our time, given to one another generously and unbegrudgingly, which is the glue of belonging; which allows us to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers.  And in our busy lives, where we rush from one activity or commitment to the next, it’s the time it takes to really do community well which is often our greatest lack.

So after all the things I’ve talked about today, I’d challenge you to think about whether you can find half an hour, somewhere in your week, to do something which supports someone else in the parish in some way.  Imagine, if fifty of us did that, we would find 25 hours a week of belonging support; and what a difference that would make!

We all know the human longing to belong, to be accepted and cared for, to be involved and appreciated.  Being a community which provides that for one another is what it means to be the body of Christ, and for our love to be truly genuine.  Let’s make sure that we are.

Inflorescence

A mistress of novices went to see her abbess, to discuss her concerns about a novice who was struggling.

As they walked through the convent garden, talking, the abbess picked a flower bud and handed it to the other nun, asking her to open it.  The blossom fell apart in her hands.

“Why,” the abbess asked, “does the bud fall apart when you try to open it, but when God opens it, the flower is beautiful?”

After walking in silence for a time, the mistress of novices replied, “When God opens the flower, He opens it up from the inside.”

This short story carries profound insights about human beings and how we change and grow.  Attempts to make us conform – to shape us using external forces – seldom work at anything more than the most superficial level.  On the other hand, transformation – change from the inside – happens all the time, but is less easy to see or control.

This is, I think the lesson we the Church need to learn.  We cannot control people into being Christians or even good people.  Our power used directly in that way is worse than useless; it results in broken people.

On the other hand, we cannot transform people from the inside ourselves.  We can only invite, provide opportunities and resources, and support people as they go through their own processes of transformation.  (In terms of the parable of the flower, we can make sure the person is in good soil, has water and sunlight and air, is protected from predators and in a suitable climate… but we cannot make them grow, or indeed, flower).

This calls for careful discernment about our use of power.

Are we attempting to open the flower, or giving it what it needs to open itself (when it is ready)?