St. Mary Magdalene

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  The Scripture it references is John 20:1-18.

I found myself a bit uncomfortable, even reluctant, as I came to prepare this morning’s sermon.  It took me a while to realise why; but it was because I’m conscious that what we know about Mary Magdalene is very much at a remove.  Stories about her were told and retold and eventually written down in the early Christian community; and no doubt, told and retold and written down in ways which served the purposes of those doing the telling and the writing.  But Mary herself – how she would have told her story, how she felt during the events others remembered, what it all meant for her – is blurred behind the veil of those stories.  And there’s a part of me that’s reluctant to add another layer of telling and interpretation.

Perhaps, if I acknowledge that up front, it might help us as we consider the part of her story John gave us in our gospel reading today.

Because the portion of the gospel that we heard today is the high point of Mary’s story, at least as the gospels give it to us.  It’s Mary’s actions that give the unfolding events impetus and direction.  It’s her emotions that we’re invited to identify with.  And where the other two disciples slip away to their homes, it’s Mary who has the final word: “I have seen the Lord.”

The story begins in darkness, early in the morning.  In John’s gospel, Jesus is the light of the world, and to be without him is to experience real darkness; so we’re reminded that this isn’t just the physical darkness of night time, but the spiritual darkness of Jesus’ absence.

Over the course of eighteen verses, Mary moves from confusion to revelation.  She goes to the tomb and finds it empty; but after sharing the distressing news that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she comes back.  Not content with half answers or empty riddles she perseveres in seeking the truth of what has happened (unlike the two men who return to their homes).  And – at the end – her persistence is rewarded.

And she weeps.  Not at all a sign of weakness, but of responding the way a true disciple would in that situation.  Just a couple of chapters earlier, Jesus had told the disciples gathered for the last supper that “a little while, and you will no longer see me… you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice.”  The world might be rejoicing at being rid of Jesus, but Mary, here an exemplary disciple, weeps and mourns.

Then, when she finally meets the risen Jesus, she doesn’t recognise him until he calls her by name.  John has already told us earlier that Jesus is the good shepherd; the shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, and they follow him.  In response to being called by name, Mary is able to recognise Jesus as her teacher, and herself as one of his own.

So with all of these carefully layered details – and others, such as all the echoes of the scene when Lazarus was raised – John carefully shows us a Mary Magdalene to be admired and emulated.  She is the persistent follower who does not stop seeking until she finds the Lord.  She is the lover of light who weeps at the darkness, while the corrupt world rejoices.  She is the faithful disciple who knows her teacher and responds to his voice.

All of this is well and good.  We too should seek with persistence.  We too should love the light and weep at the darkness.  We too should know our teacher and respond to his voice.  As an example in the Christian life, John’s sketch of Mary works just fine.

But wait; there’s more to the story.  The way John shows us the primary witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, there are three key people involved.  One is Mary Magdalene, as we’ve seen.  Another is Simon Peter, who goes on to have an intimate chat with Jesus over breakfast, after a hard night’s fishing; and to be commissioned to “feed my sheep.”  And there is the beloved disciple, identified as the author of the gospel himself.

Each of them presents, if you like, a different style of witness to the risen Jesus.  Mary’s is a deeply personal encounter; nobody else can test her claim to having seen the Lord, but we have to take it on trust and decide to believe her.  She represents the personal prophetic and visionary witness.  Simon Peter has a different experience altogether; he is commissioned to take up a leadership role in the community; to “feed my sheep.”  He represents continuity of leadership and pastoral oversight.  And John – the beloved disciple – faithfully records it all so that the Church might come to have a written reference, the beginnings of a Scriptural account.

The relevance of this is that all three are given their place.  Peter’s commissioning doesn’t invalidate Mary’s personal encounter.  Mary’s prophetic voice doesn’t override the written word.  And the written word doesn’t bind those who lead the community.  At a time when the church was coming to define itself and structure its life together, John carefully shapes his account to make sure that he shows us the beginnings of a church where leadership is diverse and shared by people with different gifts, different roles, and – let us not fail to note – of different sexes.

Not that I think Mary Magdalene’s being a woman is his primary point here.  John’s portrait of women in general is fairly open and positive and we can imagine that his community took a similar approach.  Though having a woman as the “apostle to the apostles” does allow women to claim the very earliest precedent for leadership and teaching roles.

But that aside, I think John is doing something more subtle.  He is saying that diversity is a gift. Authority is multi-vocal and complex.  Not just Scripture, not just tradition, not just personal experience, but all of these things are important for a healthy believing community.  More than that, all of these things are important ways that people today continue to experience the presence of the risen Jesus!

So we see that John tells the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in such a way as to position her as a community leader and a voice of authority; not exclusively, but in a collegial way, which enshrines diversity as normative and important for the ongoing life of the church.

By bringing Mary forward to stand beside Peter and John as the earliest witnesses to the resurrection, John himself shows us more than just an exemplary disciple, but something of a pattern of healthy church life.

That’s John’s version, anyway.  But there’s a good deal of wisdom in it, to hold on to.

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Heritage and renovation

This is the sermon for the “feast of consecration” – the anniversary of the dedication – of the parish where I am the vicar.  This week marks sixty years since the completion of the building, and forty years since the loan was paid off and the building consecrated.  Therefore we were celebrating some significant milestones in the life of this community.

I was so intrigued to see the interview in the Women’s Weekly when this building was opened, where young parishioners described the building as “really cool.”  I don’t know what it would take to have a church building described as “really cool” today, but I’m pretty sure no matter what, it wouldn’t be in the Women’s Weekly.  How times have changed!

But the people of the parish then decided to build a “really cool” church for a reason.  I suspect that it was partly to demonstrate that in a new era of society and Australian culture, the church could still be relevant, and focussed, and part of the progressive momentum which inspired such a vision of a better future.

Rather than this building representing the dead weight of conservative forces, it could be an icon of hope to the people around it.

This is a model of mission that’s sometimes called “institutional renovation;” you take something fundamental to Christianity – in this instance, the concept of a “parish church” – that’s declining in significance, or being increasingly neglected, and you present it in a way which is fresh and invites people to make new connections and discover new meaning (or, perhaps more accurately, rediscover old meaning).

This isn’t a new idea, of course.  Think of St. Francis and his sense of call to “build my church.”  Francis started out by literally renovating a neglected church building, but eventually working out that what God wanted him to do was start a movement of people who lived out being Christian in a fresh way, one which drew in people who had been indifferent and apathetic.

Or if you want a Biblical example, you can think of Nehemiah and his project to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; and with them, to rebuild the people of Israel’s sense of identity as the people specially called by God.

It’s not the only model of mission, of course, and for us right now, I think it’s probably not even our strongest.  This parish’s long focus on social justice issues, for example, probably impels us to different ways of being church than just this kind of renovation work.  We probably want to respond to the needs of the world out there, as much as we want to renovate the church as an institution.

But those aren’t entirely unrelated things, actually.  The more we can position ourselves to build points of connection between us and the wider community, the more we’ll be well placed to respond to the needs of that community out of an absolute treasury of authentically Christian spirituality and wisdom.

In order to do that, we need to know what’s in our treasury, and how it might speak to people in our contemporary culture; which is, again, a kind of renovating, or updating, or translating, even, of old treasures into a style that fits where we are now.

Think of it like this, maybe; if I ever inherit my mother’s engagement ring – and God grant that it might be a very long time before I do! – I’ll probably have it remade.  Not only are mum’s hands tiny compared to mine, but dad’s taste when he bought it was – ah – well, not really my taste.  For it to be something I could wear comfortably, it’d need to be remade.

And so it is with how we express ourselves as church.  Not that the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian, to love God and our neighbour, change; think of that as the diamonds, maybe; but that what that looks like and sounds like and feels like, how we set those diamonds into something people will want to wear, changes as our neighbours change.

And so it’s helpful to recognise that that’s what was happening, in the decision to build such a radical and different building, and to see that this kind of renovating approach is part of who we have been; part of our DNA as a parish, as it were.

In a way, the conversation that parish council has begun to have – and that parishioners are being invited to join – on the identity and future intentions of this parish is a similar sort of exercise.  We might know, intuitively, who we are as a parish, and what we value; but getting to the point of being able to articulate that, to communicate it clearly and effectively to the people around us; and to be able to thus communicate our relevance to the people around us; that kind of – for want of a better word – rebranding exercise is also a kind of renovation and, crucially, an invitation to new relationships.

We want to proclaim the good news in ways which genuinely answers the needs of people around us; well, just like the people who built a “really cool” place to encounter God, we need to make sure that the people who receive our message are hearing what we are trying to say.

So just like the architects who avoided the clichés of generations past in making choices about shape and style and materials for this building, we might follow their example by making sure all our communications avoid Christian jargon, or theological terms which mean little to people with no theological grounding.

Or rather than focussing on the fact that we no longer have a Sunday school with hundreds in it, we might realise that helping to foster Christian maturity might need totally new patterns of teaching and nurture; or we might even find that much older patterns of teaching and nurture, ones much more embedded in community and much less dependent on being “in church” at a given time, can be updated for our current context.  It might take some digging into the treasury to explore that.

Those are just examples, but I think you take my point.

Even as we’re engaged in building a picture, a vision of the future we want to aim towards, we can think of the past, and what we’ve inherited from the past, as the frame through which we look at that picture of the future; what we’ve done, why we’ve done it, and how we’ve done it, will set some parameters about what will make sense in our picture of the future.

Just as you wouldn’t – I don’t really know much about art – but just as you wouldn’t put an incredibly modern abstract piece of art in a heavy antique baroque gold frame, and expect them to “go” together, we can’t build a future that’s out of keeping with who we have been.  So getting beyond the surface of “they built a really cool building” to see what’s behind that – an attempt to renovate the concept of “parish church” to be relevant to a new age – helps us see what will be in keeping with that legacy, as we keep working to renovate and re-present the treasures we have, to meet the needs of the world around us.

It’s an exciting approach.  It invites us to be creative, and innovative.  To listen to our neighbours and one another and dream about how things could be different.  To try to anticipate what the needs of the next sixty years might be, and how we might answer them with the resources we already have.  And to see that, not as new and a scary challenge, for which we’re ill equipped, but as something we’ve been doing since the first conversation about the possibilities for a new building here.

And long may it continue!

Seeds and life cycles

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 4:26-34.

“Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and what arrived was the church.”

That’s a famous comment by a French priest of the 19th century, and I think he meant it to express both his hope that in the church, he might find something of the kingdom; and at the same time, his ironic disappointment that so often, we find so very little of the kingdom.

And I wanted to start with that distinction today because we’ve often been conditioned to assume that the kingdom and the church are the same thing; or at least, that we can speak about them as if they are the same thing.  Or that we can read parables about the kingdom, and mentally substitute “church” without doing any damage to their meaning…

But that’s not really the case.  And I want to think about that a little bit this morning, in light of the parable of the mustard seed, which we just heard.

The kingdom of God is like the smallest seed, which grows up to become the greatest of all shrubs with large branches, so that other creatures are sheltered by it.

It’s a great image. To a tiny, persecuted, first-century community of believers – the first people to read and hear Mark’s gospel – it would have been an encouragement.  Hang in there; we might not amount to much now, but just wait till you see what God’s going to do with us!  For them, seeing the kingdom and the church as more or less the same thing made sense.

But we stand at the other end of an enormous span of time.  The church did grow from those tiny, persecuted beginnings; it spread all over the world, allied itself with powerful states, and birthed institutions and movements which shaped whole cultures and societies.

And now, in the west, at least, it seems to be shrinking in terms of commitment of people to it, it’s more and more at odds with the states within which it operates, and many of its institutions are tottering, if not gone.

What happened to the greatest of all shrubs, and all of that?

The way to make sense of this is to realise that the kingdom might be always growing until Christ’s return, but the communities through which the kingdom is expressed go through life cycles.

That’s really important, so let me emphasise that: the kingdom, the unseen reality which is the reign of God, which brings wholeness, justice, peace and so on… that’s always growing.  But the communities – including the churches – which are the expression and the vehicle of the kingdom go through life cycles.

They have small beginnings, they grow and are innovative and pioneering, they become settled and plateau, and then they decline… that is the life cycle of a church or organisation, or a parish, and all organised groups of people go through it.

We’re in the decline phase of that cycle right now.  Betty [a 95-year-old parishioner], whose funeral is tomorrow, when I used to visit her, used to reminisce about the days when you had to tell people to “shove over” so you could get a seat in a pew at a service here; now frankly you could stretch out and sleep on a pew and still not put anyone out.  (Just not during the sermons, please!)

The question is – what comes after decline?

Death and resurrection.

Here’s what I mean.  The kingdom is always growing.  The kingdom is always breaking through into our messy, chaotic, sinful lives in grace-filled ways.  The kingdom will always do that through whatever people offer themselves to the work.

So after a group – or let’s say a parish – goes through decline, the kingdom isn’t necessarily going to let go of what was done there.  Even when a parish closes, the people who leave there and worship elsewhere, and their ongoing influence in the world, continue to be part of the dynamism of the kingdom.  New life breaks out in surprising and unpredictable ways.

But even when a parish doesn’t close, there still is death and resurrection.  Because for a parish to go from decline, back into the growth part of the curve, old things have to die, and new things have to start.  New people have to be involved in new ways.  What was settled has to be shaken up, as the community returns to the open, experimental, innovative and creative attitudes and culture that allow for growth.

I’m not saying there’s no continuity between what went before the decline, and what comes after.  If there were no continuity it wouldn’t be resurrection, it’d be a whole new creation.

But while there might be continuity of ethos, continuity – in some sense – of the fundamental identity of a parish, that ethos and identity are expressed very differently in a growth phase, than they are in a phase of decline.

A growth phase is a time of dreaming big dreams. It’s a phase of asking ourselves what we stand for, and then setting bold goals in line with that.  It’s a time of being excited about what we can accomplish, an excitement that’s infectious and invites people to commit themselves freely to be part of achieving something worthwhile. It’s a time where the focus is on a vision of God’s kingdom made real and tangible in this time and place, in this community of people.

A decline phase is the opposite; It’s a time of not knowing where we’re going, or what we might have achieved when we get there.  It’s a time of managing administrative details as a matter of routine, rather than with a sense of a larger goal.  It’s a time of turning inward, and where the focus often shifts to doing what we like, and keeping people happy.

I am, of course, talking about trends, not describing what’s in every person’s heart.

But if we want to shift from decline to growth – and I certainly do! – if we want to know the resurrection and growth of our community again, if we want to be a dynamic expression of the kingdom of God… that tells us something of what needs to happen.

It’s time to start dreaming together.  What would you like to look back on, in ten years’ time, and marvel that we’ve accomplished?  What would you like to take a stand on, and see our parish actually make an impact?  What aspect of the kingdom of God can we give ourselves to living out together?

These aren’t trivial questions.  These questions are key to shifting from decline to growth, from death to life.  Nobody wants to join a dying church, but they want to join a church that’s going to make a difference for the kingdom.

Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and part of what arrived was this parish.  How will we relate to the reign of God, that organic growth of wholeness, justice and peace, in the next phase of our life together?

Growing edges of welcome

This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:5.

Long distance relationships are difficult.  These days, with the internet and skype and all of that, it’s not quite so bad; but I can remember when I was little, and writing a letter to family members in another country meant it would take weeks to arrive; and that was if you had a “by air mail” sticker on it!  I know some of you have had similar experiences.

Ministry – like any other relationship – is difficult at long distance, too.  In the last parish where I worked, there was one vicar for two parishes; and this meant his effective absence from a lot that was important in the lives of each of those communities; and that was keenly felt as a problem.

How much harder then for St. Paul!  Absent for years on end from congregations he’d started, communicating by letter – in the days before any sort of postal service, when you had to try to convince someone going in the right direction to carry it for you, and then hope and pray that your letter would eventually get there – it’s not surprising that sometimes his relationships with these churches became a bit strained.

That seems to be one of the live issues in his second letter to the Corinthians, which we read part of today.  Paul’s been away for some time, other teachers have been involved with the Christian community in Corinth, and the relationship with Paul is being tested.  The bit of the letter that we’ve read this morning seems to be part of a lengthy defence of what he taught and the way he’s acted.

That’s helpful to bear in mind because otherwise it can be hard to understand why he makes the arguments he does.  And the bit that this morning’s reading hangs on is this sentence: “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

It’s not about me, Paul’s saying. I didn’t do and say what I did for my sake, because of ego or the desire for power or what have you.  But everything in my ministry has been for your sake.  And, through you, for the sake of all the people to whom you’re going to proclaim the gospel, and whom you are going to introduce into relationship with God.

That’s what matters.  That’s where Paul’s focus is; not on the leadership squabbles or whatever else was going on in Corinth, but on the big picture of the church’s mission.  Jesus Christ – or at least this is the way Paul presents it – has opened the doors of grace to everyone, so that grace should extend to more and more people.

And it does so as we interact with them in a way which makes God’s hospitality and welcome real and concrete in each person’s lived experience.  Rowan Williams put it this way: “The one thing you know for certain about your tiresome, annoying, disobedient, disedifying fellow Christians is that God has welcomed them; that becomes your challenge.”  Paul welcomed the Corinthians into a community of belonging to God, and their challenge now – and it remains our challenge as well – is to extend that grace-filled welcome to more and more people.

What has happened in the events of Jesus’ death and rising is that the social barriers between us have been destroyed; people who were far off have turned up next door (or sometimes even closer).  We need to make our peace with that, each of us within our own heart, and then between ourselves, and looking outward, down the street and around the suburb, at all the people who don’t know it yet.

Now here’s something uncomfortable that I’ve observed.  We as Christians like this as a big idea, but we are not always so comfortable with it in practice.  The idea of a big inclusive community is a great thing – because all of us want to belong – but when we need to extend that to people we find difficult, we struggle.  I notice this particularly with some kinds of mental illness, actually.  I’m not sure why; is it that we lack confidence in dealing with people we find volatile or whose sense of reality is at odds with ours?  But whatever it is, we need to identify it and get over it.  In a country where one in five people have experienced mental illness in the last year, we can’t afford to overlook their need to belong, and our responsibility to provide a community where they can truly belong.

Let me give you some examples.  It’s very common for people with mental illness to be told that their mental illness either means they’re not really a Christian, or that they’re not a good Christian.  That is false.  Our job as a church is to surround people with mental illness with love, warmth, understanding, acceptance and friendship; for who they are right now, without any expectation that this will somehow “fix” them.  We should neither criticise nor judge for the things they find difficult, even if they’re things that we ourselves take for granted.

More than that, I remember a friend of mine who goes through bouts of depression, saying to me once that when someone in the church is physically sick, people turn up with casseroles; but that when she’s bed-bound with depression, nobody brings her a casserole.  She was trying to point out to me that we tend not to do a good job of caring for people with these kinds of struggles.

Caring here starts with understanding.  How much do we have a good working understanding of anxiety disorders, of depression, of substance use disorders?  Do we know how to care for people coping with these things?  Do we have a plan for support that we can put into action as it’s needed?  Is our theology of illness and the way we relate our wellbeing and our faith one which supports or undermines people with mental illness?  Do we even know the difference?

I’ve made an extended example of mental illness because it seems to me to be one of the most consistent existing social barriers in our community.  I do want us, as a parish, to think about whether someone with anxiety or depression would find it easy to belong here.  But it’s an illustration of a bigger principle, the one Paul was on about in his letter to the Corinthians: grace is supposed to extend to more and more people.  And that commits us to relationship with more and more people.  We mush each look out for one another.  We can’t do effective Christian community at long-distance, or indeed at arm’s-length.

And when we really get that, when we really live it, then we’ll be the kind of church that Paul was trying to help the Corinthians be, where more and more people know grace and are able to give thanks to God.

Trinity

This is a sermon for Trinity Sunday.  The Scripture quote it begins with comes from Romans 8:12-17.

Paul wrote: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Did you catch it?  In that short quote we heard references to all three persons of the Trinity; the Father – Abba – the Son – Christ – and God’s very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit.

And yet it took another four centuries or so for the church to begin to feel that we had a satisfactory way of talking about God as Trinity, which took into account what the Bible has to say, as well as the lived experience of believers.

And I want to emphasise that lived experience as important.  For example, it was because Christians worshipped the Spirit, sang songs in praise of the Spirit, and prayed to the Spirit; because they recognised the Spirit as present and active in the church’s life, that they found they needed a way of speaking which recognised the Spirit as God, as much as the Father and the Son.

So we talk about God as Trinity.  And I think it’s an important and valid question then to ask, “So What?”

I’d like to begin to scope out an answer to that question.

What is it that leads us to talk about God as Father?  Isn’t it that we celebrate the dignity, the value, and the wonder of each human being around us – and remember that these human beings are made in the image of God?  Isn’t it that we look at the heavens and the earth – everything from the vastness of space to the intricacy of a single living cell – and worship in awe at the wisdom which could conceive of this, and the might that could bring it into existence?  Isn’t it also that we are aware that in what we know, we are just playing in the waves on the edges of a vast ocean, and that we can only guess at the depth and breadth of the mysteries which are just too vast for us to grasp?

I suggest that every time we are mindful of these things, they bring us back to recognising God as Father, and to a profound reverence and awe in our worship and our lives.

And then, what is it to talk about God the Son?  The defining story of Christianity – of the God who emptied himself; who, as Philippians says, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but laid it aside, became human, and became our servant, even to the point of death – shows us an aspect of the life of God which is distinct from that of the Father.

There is, I think, something important consider here.  And that is that in no way can we consider Father and Son to be divided or opposites.  Sometimes in the way we think and talk about what Jesus did for us, in dying for us and opening a way back into intimate relationship with God, it sounds as if the Father and the Son were pulling something of a cosmic good cop-bad cop routine.  The Father is presented as the “bad cop” who holds judgement and damnation over our heads, and the Son as the “good cop” who steps in, placates the “bad cop” and makes everything alright for us, if only we comply with what is being asked of us.

I have to tell you, that kind of thinking about God doesn’t wash.  There is no difference in attitude towards us between Father and Son.  Both the Father and the Son love us; both the Father and the Son care for us, and the Father and the Son collaborated together in the costly work of our redemption.  In this, as much as in creation or any other work of God, they are united in purpose and action.

Yet we still need to ask, what is it for us to recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Church, and to be able to talk about that?  Last week for Pentecost I talked about spiritual gifts, but more than that, the evidence of the Spirit’s work amongst us is there to be seen in other ways.  As long as we can recognise in ourselves (or, more often it is easier to see it in others) the growth of a person, becoming more loving, patient, kind, generous and gentle; more wise, faithful, joyful, and peaceful; and more self-controlled – we can recognise the work of the Spirit in bringing about good fruit in our lives.

All of this is as much to say, the idea of the Trinity isn’t an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It is an idea which comes out of the lived experience of every Christian believer.  It is the Church’s communal shout of praise for a God whose richness of being overflows, in ways which stretch our language almost to breaking point, but only so as to make room for us to grow in love and worship Him more fully.  It is as we realise the truth of God’s being, for us, that we find ourselves growing more fully into His likeness; that we find God’s kingdom growing and transforming the world in which we live; and that we find our language unable to contain the full meaning of truth which ultimately we have to experience to know.

I came across a line which I very much liked from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that in speaking of the Trinity, we try to find, not the most exact but the least silly things to say; that we try to find language which will share the exhilaration of being drawn into the life of God.  It’s just possible that I’m a lot sillier than Rowan Williams.  But I hope that if I can say anything which is of use at all about the Trinity, it will be something which speaks of that exhilaration.  Of the abundance of God the Father, poured out in creation; of the generosity and selflessness of God the Son, shown in his life, death and resurrection; of the power and energy of the Spirit, renewing us, pushing at the world as God’s kingdom comes and grows in our midst.  Who wouldn’t be exhilarated?  Who wouldn’t be encouraged to glimpse something of this?

All of us are here today because something about God has been deeply attractive to us.  The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us.  Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego is not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.

That is my answer to the question “So What?”  That is the least silly glimpse into the meaning of Trinity which I can offer you today.  And this is the vision in which I think Paul would encourage us to to join our hands and minds and voices in unity of purpose and direction.

On gifts

This is a sermon for the feast of Pentecost.  

Let me start today by telling you a parable.

After Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden of Eden, the animals could see that they couldn’t rely on these humans to take care of everything.  After all, they’d messed up spectacularly so far!

So the animals decided they’d better work on equipping themselves for survival, and they started a school. They wanted the best school possible, offering their students a well rounded curriculum of swimming, running, climbing and flying. In order to graduate, all the animals had to take all the courses.

Now, the duck was excellent at swimming. In fact, he was better than his instructor. But he was only making passing grades at climbing and was getting a very poor grade in running. The duck was so slow in running he had to stay after school every day to practice. There was only a little improvement, because his webbed feet got so badly worn. With such worn feet, he was only able to get an average grade in swimming, but average was quite acceptable to everyone, so no one worried much about it…except the duck.

The rabbit was at the top of her class in running. But after a while, she developed a twitch in her leg from all the time she spent in the water trying to improve her swimming. The squirrel was a peak performer in climbing, but was constantly frustrated in flying class. His body became so bruised from all the hard landings he had, he did not do too well in climbing and ended up being pretty poor in running.

I think by now you are getting the point of the story. Each of the animals had a particular expertise. When they did what they were designed to do, they excelled. When they tried to operate outside their area of expertise, they were not nearly as effective.

Now take the same principles, but apply them to the church.  Many churches are full of the equivalent of running ducks or flying squirrels. People who are trying to do the best they can, but they are doing things they are not gifted to do; because that’s what was needed at the time, or because somehow they got the message that that’s what they “should” do.

What if we could get the ducks in the water, the squirrels in the trees and the birds in the air? What if each of us could actually focus on the things we’re particularly gifted for?

Here’s the thing; Paul tells us in a number of his letters that the Holy Spirit gives each Christian gifts which are meant to be used to serve the Church and further our mission.  But the key to the Church actually working well is each of us recognising what our gifts are, and where they can best be used.

One thing that worries me as the vicar here, is that often I ask people what they think their gifts are, and they can’t tell me. I’m not sure if that’s because you’ve never been encouraged to think that you each have gifts, and that we need all of them to be all that we can be as a community.  Or maybe it’s because people think it’s not humble to be confident about what your gifts are and how you use them (or want to use them).  But I think it’s important that we’re each able to know what our gifts are, and to think about how best to use them in contributing to the community of faith.  That’s part of what it means to be a Christian!

Now, back when I was in a more charismatic sort of parish, the thing to do was to fill out a survey with an awful lot of questions, and add up all your scores, and it’d tell you which gifts your answers suggested you were most likely to have.  That’s not a terrible thing to do, and there are lots of such surveys online if you’re interested, although these days I’d probably suggest taking them with a grain of salt as well.

(Of course I would, those surveys tell me my strongest gift is discernment.  But I digress…).

But if you don’t really want to do that, there are gentler ways of exploring what your gifts might be.  One more reflective approach suggests thinking about it this way:

  • Look up. Ask God to show you what your gifts are. Be prayerful as you consider your gifts, and flexible as you explore his leading.
  • Look at Scripture. Read through the passages where Paul talks about spiritual gifts. See if any of them seem like they fit you.
  • Look back. Think about the past. What have you enjoyed doing as a Christian? What have you found energizing? When have you heard other people mention you’re good at something, or are excited about something? When have you done something that had a positive impact in some way?
  • Look in. As you look into yourself, what do you feel passionate about? What really excites you? If you were guaranteed success, the resources and gifts to achieve it, what one thing would you most like to do for God?
  • Look out. Ask other people to suggest what they think your gifts are. Choose some people who know you well, and choose some who only know you a little. Be sure they are people who want the best for you. Encourage them to be honest and truthful.
  • Look around. As you consider the parish and the local community, what needs exist? What openings are there for exercising gifts? Do any of these opportunities interest/excite you even if you don’t feel qualified or skilled? If you could choose one area of involvement in your church, what would it be?
  • Look forward. What are the plans this community has for the future, and how might you fit into that?

 But really, what’s important is to take the idea that you have gifts, that the Holy Spirit gives us each different gifts, so that together we can be more than we could be, each of us on our own. It’s part of God’s gift to us in baptism, that we each have unique things to bring and a part to play, and it’s part of what we offer back to God in giving ourselves to him in baptism, that we should use those gifts as God intends.  I might even go so far as to say that we each have a duty, in the Christian life, to do so.

I’d like to think that if I asked each of you, in a week or so, “What do you think your gift might be?” everyone would be able to give me some sort of answer, even if the answer is, “Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m not sure, but maybe something along these sorts of lines?”

It’s okay to take time to figure it out; so long as we’re taking the question seriously.  Because taking our gifts seriously is an indispensable part of taking our faith seriously.

Joyful noise

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 98.

Well, you might remember that I told you last week, that I was going to preach this week about music and singing in worship.  After all, we just sang in the psalm that we should “send forth a joyful noise,” so what better reason to think about how and why we do that?

And yet, for all that it’s supposed to be a joyful noise, I’d have to observe that in just about every church I’ve been involved with, music has been in some way a source of tension and conflict; in one church I worked in for a few years, I actually had to be careful what shoes I wore, because if your shoes were too noisy on the floor, you faced the wrath of the director of music for disturbing the music!

Okay, so that was an extreme example.  But, when I think about all those arguments and fights about music, what music we should have, what instruments, how to support the congregation to sing, all of those things… I conclude that Christians argue about this so much because it matters.

It matters.  Music and singing as part of worship matter.  So what I really want to talk about a little bit is why it matters; and some of the principles we might use to navigate those conflicts which crop up from time to time.

And here’s the thing; our worship doesn’t exist, and can’t be captured, in a book, or on a page.  Worship – liturgy – is in its essence an experience.  It’s the lived interaction between the gathered people and our God; and what happens in and between us in that interaction. The books and papers (or even screens) are a prompt and an aid to what we do together with our bodies, minds and hearts.  We want to get to the point where rather than being focussed on the pages, the pages (if we need them at all) help us to focus on God.  And one way to do that is to sing our hearts out.

Shared music and singing is a way of building shared faith and identity. It’s something which allows us to participate to the full; with our bodies, our intellects and our emotions and memories.  And singing together creates community; we join our voices, listen to one another, keep the same tempo; the people with stronger voices support those less well practiced to do something worthwhile together (especially true when there are no instruments, as you might have noticed last week!)  Even when one person can’t sing (for whatever reason), they can be caught up in the swell of voices from behind and around and in front of them, making us all a part of something bigger than ourselves.

There aren’t many things that we do together the way we sing together; it’s a living expression of being one body.  We’re not a random crowd, not a group of people who just happen to be in the same space, but a community with a shared identity and purpose.  Bonhoeffer put it this way: “It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song.”

Now I realise, of course, that this gets tricky when hearing becomes a problem.  For people who are deaf or have hearing loss, music or singing can pass them by or be difficult, and that then requires more creativity on our part about how we do things together.  So I’m speaking here about what we might reasonably expect for most of us who can hear and do have a working voice; and for those people – which is the vast majority of us – the question is not, do you have a voice?  But, do we have a song?  The music and singing we share in worship isn’t supposed to be a professional production or a performance, but it can be a giving to God of our best, done with confidence and reverence.

And here’s some of why music adds so much to what we do together.  It creates connections in our brains, between our thoughts, our emotions and our memories; connections which don’t happen if we’re just hearing words spoken.  So by doing that, it helps us integrate ideas and experiences with our sense of self; it enriches our understanding.  And because when we sing something familiar, we remember where we’ve sung it before, and the emotions and meaning it had then, it connects our past with our present, and relates both of those things to our hopes for the future.

More than that, because music as an art form expresses beauty and order, in itself it says something about the character of God; that God is not chaotic or ugly.  Music isn’t just something that belongs to human culture on earth; in the book of Job God talks about how the heavenly beings sang before the beginning of creation, and the book of Revelation tells us of sung worship in heaven for eternity.  Our own music and singing, in our worship, give us an echo, a hint of those incredible realities, and allow us to participate in them just a little through the beauty, the order, and the goodness of music as an art form.

In that way, too, music gives dignity to what might otherwise not be very dignified at all.  It can give us a container for our grief, bring peace to our anxieties, and relieve our stresses.  None of which are an end in themselves, for us in church, but can help us put ourselves in the right frame of mind to really worship.

Music moves us, sometimes quite literally; hopefully, in worship, carrying us to a spiritually healthier place than we were in before we gathered.  When I say that it moves us, I mean it shapes our sense of identity, it gives us a sense of belonging, of commitment, of hope and joy, and so on.

And because of all of this, music and singing help us to connect our own personal life stories with the big Christian story; helping us to see who God is to and for us, and the meaning of our own ups and downs in the bigger picture.

Now we do need to be careful.  Music is supposed to support us in all of this, but it’s not supposed to be manipulative.  Ultimately, worship music – just like any of the arts involved in churches, like architecture or the visual arts or the poetry of prayer – any of these things done well invites us into a space where we can encounter God; but it can’t create that encounter, and it can’t substitute for it.  We do have to let God be God, and leave a little room for mystery.

But if we approach questions of music and singing in worship with the questions: how does what we’re doing together help us in the process of worship?  How does it enable every person present to truly participate?  How does it help us to be the sort of community we’re truly supposed to be?  And how does it, not just proclaim the good news, but give us a lived experience of what that good news means in our own lives?  Then I suggest we’ll be on the right track, and we’ll truly be making a joyful noise.