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.

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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?

To be blessed

This is a sermon for the feast of All Saints.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 5:1-12.

I must admit, I have a terrible mental image to go with our gospel reading today.  In my head, I can see Jesus – a sort of 1970s, anachronistically hippie version drawn from movies that were on TV when I was very little – addressing the crowd in a way that suggests he’s slightly spaced out and that what they see is a guru of transcendental spirituality.  Only become poor in spirit, meek, and merciful – this mental image seems to suggest – and you too can know karmic bliss.

I’m sure you know the kind of version of Jesus that I’m talking about.

The trouble is that that image has very little to do with what Jesus was on about when he said these words.  So despite their familiarity, we might have to work hard to get past our own assumptions, to let them speak to us on their own terms.

And today I want to try to do that by starting here: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus says this twice in this passage; blessed are the poor in spirit, and blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Those statements almost bookend his teaching, and so say something important about all of the people he is describing here as “blessed.”

Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  But what does that mean?

Here are some things that it doesn’t mean:

  • It doesn’t mean they get to go to heaven when they die. (I mean, they might, but that’s not the point being made here).
  • It doesn’t mean they experience heaven as a kind of internal spiritual state. (This is not about personal subjective and emotional experience).
  • And it doesn’t mean that they’re morally superior, or holier, than those around them. (Again, they might be, but that’s not the point).

What it means is that they have a radical understanding of the reign of God, and their own relationship to God as ruler over everything that exists.  They are conscious citizens of heaven, who acknowledge no authority, no power, no claim on them, more important or more enduring than that of God.

This vision of the reign of God rests on three key truths.

First, the truth that God is creator.  When you know that God has the imagination, the creativity and the wisdom to envision all that exists, and the power, the awesome force and intensity of desire to cause matter and energy to exist and interact by sheer will; and when you know that everything that exists, only continues to exist moment-by-moment, only continues to operate according to laws of nature, because God wills it; when you know that your life is sustained from one breath to another only because God allows it; when you really get that, then anything which might try to make a competing claim on you is seen for the pale imitation that it is.

Second, the truth that God is active in the world today.  Even though Jesus said this before the resurrection, when most people didn’t know who he was, his disciples were beginning to grasp this.  In a world of evil, of darkness, oppression, suffering, and so on, God is not absent, uninvolved or uncaring, but at work.  This is the point of the miracles and exorcisms of Jesus’ ministry; this is the point of the incarnation, with God coming to live as one of us.  When you know that God hasn’t abandoned us but is at work in your life and in the world around you, then you know that you can participate in what God is up to, and experience God’s rule directly in your own life.

Third, the truth that this current reality will end.  There will be a last day; there will be a judgement, there will be an end to evil and a renewal of all that is good.  There will be a time when the reign of God will not be obscured or marred by anything which would seek to contradict it.  When you really know that, you can walk forward into the future with confidence and hope and joy, knowing that what is coming is going to be so much better than what has been before.

These three truths – that God is creator, that God is active in creation now, and that there will be a time of new and perfect beginning – are the keys which let us understand God’s total and absolute reign, and give ourselves to it.

That’s why the poor in spirit are blessed; they know that despite their own limitations, they belong utterly to, and are able to participate in the work of, a God who holds together everything that is and will be.

That’s why those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed; in their righteousness they know and experience more of God than those who are persecuting them ever will.

And this is the kingdom of heaven which has gripped all the saints through the ages.  The martyrs died for it, the missionaries and pastors laboured for it, the apostles and bishops and theologians helped us put words to it, the prophets proclaimed it and the monastics prayed for it; but all of them knew, deep in their very being, that these key truths of the reign of God define our existence more deeply than anything else.

It’s no coincidence that it’s just a bit further along in this sermon that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come.”  Not because God isn’t ruling now, but because as we understand the reign of God, we place ourselves within it, and our whole being becomes aligned with the will of God.  We become people who labour to see the world be what God would have it be; who find the words to tell those who don’t yet know, who don’t yet understand, how all of creation is held in the hands of a loving God.

The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who do God’s will.  Or perhaps, it’s more accurate to say that those who do God’s will, belong to the kingdom of heaven.  It’s really that simple.

We are called to do God’s will because we are part of creation; called into being for relationship with God.  We are called to do God’s will because in this world’s suffering, darkness and despair, God is at work, bringing healing, light and hope.  We are called to do God’s will because we know that God holds in trust a perfect future, and invites us to be part of that future by our own choice and commitment.

That’s what it means to belong to the kingdom of heaven.  That’s what it means to be a saint, in the truest sense of the word.  As we celebrate today all the rich variety of saints who have gone before us, let’s not miss the choice that always stands in front of us: to do God’s will.  To claim the kingdom of heaven for our own.  To place ourselves amongst that great cloud of witnesses to it.

To be truly blessed.

Let’s build a megaphone

This is a sermon for the feast of Michael and All Angels.  The Scripture it references is Revelation 12:7-12.

This picture* looks a bit like something out of Tolkien, doesn’t it?  If, like me, you grew up reading The Hobbit long before you ever read the book of Revelation, you could be mistaken for thinking that this sort of imagery belongs to the world of fantasy, not of faith.

Dragons, cosmic war, mythic signs… what are we to make of all of that?

I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world.  And – if we’re honest – it often doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much by choice.  But on a day when we stop to think about the reality of angels, and what role they might play in the life of faith, to read from Revelation is actually very fitting.

You see, it is completely okay if you’ve never felt that Revelation made much sense.  There is a very good reason for that; Revelation, unlike most of the Bible, is a type of writing which is pretty much a dead art form.  But the key to making sense of it is in the name – “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this genre of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is not the whole truth about reality.  A parish like this one has something of a head start, perhaps, in being able to come to grips with this; and that’s because apocalyptic writing, in its use of symbols and images to convey deeper truth, is a lot like the language of liturgy. Just as, behind the symbol of shared bread, is the deeper truth of our belonging to one another in the church, just as behind the symbol of lit candles is the truth of the light that Christ brings into our lives, and so on – I could go on for ages – behind all of life, says apocalyptic writing, is deeper truth and deeper meaning.

And if we are unveiling layers of meaning, that implies that things are not entirely as they might seem.  So let’s take a few minutes to look at what John says is really going on behind the veil of everyday life.

So this morning’s reading begins with “And war broke out in heaven…”  This war is timeless.  It began before the creation of the cosmos, and it continues to be one of the deepest truths of our reality, which shapes everything we experience.

Let me pause here and say that I know some of you won’t believe in a literal devil and demons.  That some people see those as powerful imaginative ways to represent our experiences of evil and darkness.  But certainly the New Testament authors did believe in those powers as being wielded by actual evil personalities; and whether we see them as personal or impersonal, we all know that human life is marred with that reality of genuine evil.

Anyway.  So there’s a war; and we’re all caught up in it.  The forces of good vs. the forces of evil; and what we’re given a glimpse of here is that evil is losing.  In fact, evil has lost, and all that remains is something of a cosmic mopping-up operation.

This text, strange as it is, is telling us to hope.  Yes, we experience bad things; evil wreaks havoc; there is oppression and abuse; human beings are hypocrites; and so on.  But what John’s vision showed him is that that’s just the mess that needs cleaning up after the battle’s been won.  It’s not the last word.  It’s not forever.  It’s purely temporary, and the powers of God – here represented by the angels – will throw down what evil remains and creation will be renewed.  Our reading today finishes with “the time is short.”  The time is short!  This soon shall pass!  We might be suffering right now, but we’re on the winning side.

You might have heard some more Pentecostal types of Christians talk about spiritual warfare; and while that can sound quite intimidating, really all that means is recognising the reality of this cosmic war, and deliberately aligning ourselves with the winning side.  In that sense we engage in spiritual warfare every time we meet for worship.  Every time we pray “your kingdom come.”  Every time we choose hope over despair.  We are saying that we recognise the deeper reality of good and evil, and we choose good.

But there’s something else we’re called to do in this mopping-up operation, and it’s hinted at in this reading too.  John heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming… but he didn’t tell us whose voice it was.  Remember that for John, heaven and earth are two interwoven dimensions of the same reality.  What he sees in his vision tells us the deep truths of our lived reality.  So when he says there’s a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, he’s also saying something about the very real fabric of our lives.

Proclaiming is our job.  We’re given this vision, this insight; this peek behind the veil; not just so that we can know what’s going on, but so that we can share that knowledge with others.  We’re given a message of hope, and we’re supposed to make that hope known to everyone who hasn’t heard it yet.  It’s not just one voice in heaven; or more accurately, it’s one voice made up of the many voices who have seen the victory and who cry out to tell all creation that the forces of evil have been thrown down.  That the power of God has won.  That it’s time to rejoice!

It’s grand final weekend.  The secular world has just shown us something of the rejoicing of those who win.  And we’re called to lead the way in that rejoicing, on a cosmic scale!  Michael the archangel might have led the fight; we get to kick off the party.

And this is the thing, really; an angel is, more than anything else, a messenger.  This day where we remember angels, reminds us that actually, we’re all supposed to be messengers.  We’re all supposed to carry with us wherever we go, a message of hope and joy and faith.  Ours is the loud voice resounding through heaven and earth.

Is your megaphone at the ready?

Is that an intimidating question?  If you’re unsure about being that loud voice, remember that you don’t do it alone.  We need to find ways, together, to be messengers of hope and joy and faith.  We need to find ways to make sure that our voice resounds, beyond our doors, down the street, and to all the surrounding area.  That we announce whatever brings hope; whatever lets people know that they can trust that in the end, God wins;  whatever lets people in on the infectious joy of knowing that the time of suffering is short; that’s our job.

So let’s build a megaphone.

*

 

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.

On healthy conflict

This is a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 18:10-20.

“Love one another.”  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  It sounds as if it should be pretty easy to work out what it means.  We don’t always feel very loving towards one another, but I think most of the time, we think we know what it would look like if we were loving.

But this morning, as we gather here as a parish family, I want to challenge some of our assumptions about what it means to love one another, just a little bit.

One of the things that tends to happen in small churches like this one, is that we base a lot of our decision making, not on being in line with a particular vision of who we are called to be in God, but on keeping everyone happy.  Because we are a small community, and we know one another well, and the cost of someone being unhappy is usually very high – impaired relationships, broken friendships, open conflict and so forth – we tend to value keeping people happy above almost everything else.  And we often tell ourselves that this is what it means to love one another.

But imagine if this was how Jesus and his group of disciples had functioned.  Jesus would have given up on the journey to the cross, and instead pursued political glory, to keep Peter happy.  I don’t know what they’d have spent money on, but some of the memorable stories of the gospel wouldn’t have happened, as the money would have been managed in such a way as to keep the pinch-purse Judas happy.  And no doubt endless time and energy would have gone into managing travel arrangements and meal planning and what not in such a way that nobody would get into a snit about anything; but I’m not sure how much would have got done in the way of miracles and teaching.

They’d have been totally ineffective as a group of people serving the reign of God… but they might have been happier with each other.

The temptation for us – and for lots of churches like us, it’s certainly not unique to here – is to buy into that sort of approach, though.  To spend so much time and energy, to make so many decisions based on not upsetting this person or that one, that we end up becoming a little group completely inward focussed, paying attention to our relationships with one another, but totally ineffective at relating to the world beyond that little web of relationships.  Sweeping conflict under the carpet rather than dealing with it, and even getting to the point of seeing people outside that group almost as irrelevant or a threat to what’s really important to us here, which is how well we can get on together.

And here’s where I’m going to get challenging.  That’s not loving one another; not really.  That’s loving our comfort in one another’s company, for sure.  It’s loving that we have a place where we can feel assured that people aren’t going to challenge us too much, because we have an unspoken agreement that we don’t do that here.

But it’s not the kind of love Jesus taught his disciples, or the kind of love he encourages us to take up in this morning’s gospel reading.  No; the love we heard about this morning says that if somebody sins against you, you go and point out the fault.  You don’t sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen; you deal with it, because the relationship between the two of you is too important to be allowed to disintegrate under the weight of unaddressed issues.

In this part of Matthew’s gospel, there’s a whole section of Jesus teaching his disciples how to live together as the fledgling church.  By the time Matthew came to write this down, his community were already testing those teachings and learning how to survive in a hostile world.  The instruction that Jesus gives them, to prepare them for that survival, isn’t about being comfortable or mutually nice; it’s about uncompromising commitment to a big vision of what God is doing, and doing all that we can, both to play our part in that, and to encourage others to find and play their part in it.  And we know that as he presented this big vision to his disciples they struggled with it!  He had to call Peter Satan; he had to intervene in arguments about who was the greatest; he had to disillusion disciples who thought they were going to reign at his right hand, and remind them that his way led first to the cross, and only after that to any glory.

Why do I remind you of all of this now?  We find ourselves at a point of new beginnings.  Over the next little while, the incoming parish council will have decisions to make about our priorities in mission; what’s going to be most important for us to work at together over the foreseeable future.  Making decisions about priorities and plans can be a difficult process; it’s not unusual or even bad or wrong for there to be disagreements and conflict to be worked through, and because we’re human, we can easily be hurt in that.

And I am reminding you today that as you work through all of that, loving one another doesn’t just mean keeping everybody happy.  If you prioritise keeping everybody happy, what you will end up with is a series of insipid decisions, likely held hostage to the emotional state of whomever is most fragile on the day the conversation is had.

I am encouraging you each to participate in that process seeking to do what Jesus did; loving the members of your parish family by seeking the big vision of God for this place, and seeking to encourage one another to find your place within it.  Dream big, seek inspiration, be radical, if that’s what God stirs within you.  Don’t be afraid to put what’s on your heart on the table; if there’s disagreement and conflict, don’t shy away from it but work through it; and if you need help to reconcile after an argument, don’t be ashamed to seek that help.  Even the disciples, after the resurrection, needed a series of encounters with Jesus to work through the issues raised by their behaviour and attitudes.

This parish will need the best of all of you, if it is to be an effective expression of the reign of God.  What Jesus promises us, in this morning’s gospel, is that as we work at that process, he will be with us in it.  Where two or three are gathered in his name – even if they disagree or have hurt one another – he will be at work with us, and helping us to grow in love and grace towards one another.

It isn’t easy, this business of facing conflict head on instead of avoiding it.  It takes a good deal of courage, and sometimes a steely determination that I’m going to love that other person, whether they like it or not!  That being part of the church means refusing to give up on one another, even when we really would rather just withdraw, put our heads down, avoid problems or pretend they aren’t there.

But we worship a God who is bigger than our poor behaviour and our bad treatment of one another; who’s bigger than our disagreements about what to do next; who’s bigger than our fears and vulnerabilities.  And that God calls us to a bold vision of community, and promises that as we seek to build that kind of bold community, he will be with us in it; and in that way we will be – as Paul put it – the fullness of him who fills all in all.

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.