When is the Church not the Church?? A sermon

Sermon for Sunday 27th September 2015

Numbers 11 in the background?
James 5:13-end
Mark 9:38-end

When is the Church not the Church?

‘We’re not inviting people to join us for a game of Scrabble, but for a journey to Mordor’
Bishop Justin Duckworth

This has not been an easy week – firstly and perhaps necessarily, I haven’t been well. I say necessarily because when you’re not well, you are not caught up in the business of your normal occupation. You have time to think and reflect – and more time than usual to wrestle with the words of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And that is the more significant reason why it has been a hard week – leaving me to ask some very tough questions, questions to which I haven’t as yet got ANY answers. Questions which come from what is most important to me – that which I live for, that which I sense my life is about. It is a commonplace to call such things ‘Passions’, but as I said to a chapel surface at St Hilda’s in a week when they’d been ‘celebrating their ‘passions’’ the word ‘Passion’ has lost its deeper meaning – which is ‘that for which one suffers. And my Passion is The Church of Jesus Christ – a burning desire that she might be all that she is meant to be – that is a body brought into a perfect conformation to the Life of her Lord, Jesus Christ. As St Paul puts it in Colossians and Ephesians – ‘holy and blameless in His sight . . . without spot or wrinkle’ Which has lead me this week to questions such as ‘do my priestly orders actually do more harm than good to the life of the Church?’ Put another way – is my life as a priest actively supporting an understanding of Church which is not in conformity to Her Lord, but actually in radical conflict? For it is hard if not impossible to make a connection between the life of the Church as we know it, and the words of Jesus in and through the Gospels, perhaps no more or less so than today’s.

Last Saturday I sat through the committee stage of Statute 3 at our Diocesan Synod. Of course, Jesus didn’t get a mention there. Statute 3 – the former parish statute – now the parish, regional deanery and local church statute is about ‘ordering our common life as the church’. Two things came to mind. Firstly the words of Joseph Tainter, a social historian – who said, and I paraphrase ‘Civilisations in a state of terminal collapse are marked by ever increasing attempts at bureaucratic control, leading to ever diminishing returns’ In other words Statute 3 and its revision is the symptom of an institution in its death throes.

But that wasn’t my main problem – I’ve long said that considering the fragility of the church in this Diocese, our structures insofar as people cannot let goof them should be so light and maneuverable as to be ephemeral. No, my big problem was as it always is for all of us, the words of Jesus.
One of the neatest and thus most dangerous ways of getting around the words of Jesus is to work with the assumption that Jesus is addressing us as individuals. This is so common that I guess those who do attempt to speak on the gospel today may well do this without recognising that they are avoiding Jesus in so doing. So wealthy are we to have our own bibles that we are trained to read the Word as if it were primarily addressed to ‘me personally’, rather than what it is the Living Word of the Living God to the community of those who ‘bear the name of Christ’. And here is the real problem – the problem that has me wondering about my orders as a priest, and wrestling with God. Because on the One hand we have Jesus’ words to the Church – and on the Other we have the Church and it seems, to quote Father Abraham ‘between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ Put another way – I cannot find a connection between the words of Jesus to the Church and the reality of the Church which we know and are so familiar with. And for someone who has a Passion for the Church of Jesus Christ – that is no small problem . . .

I could take the easy way out, renounce the church as so many have done and taken off on some self centered fantasy to do with ‘Churchless Christianity’. Or take another familiar way out – or more truthfully a familiar ‘deceit’ and say – well the Church needs to change her language – we need to get rid of words like ‘Hell’ and ‘Sin’ and ‘Demons’ – we need a different language to the words of Jesus. Indeed avoid any mention of Jesus at all! A practice which is so commonplace to us in the Western Church that even the Pope does it, managing to speak to the US Congress earlier in the week without a mention of Jesus. And hardly anyone noticed . . . the speech being met with wild acclaim from almost all quarters. (Interestingly also, the only passage to be cut from his speech when he delivered it concluded ‘If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance’ . . .) – yet an earlier bishop of Rome may well rebuke us saying – but Christ has the words of eternal life . . . How can we speak to power as Christians except with Reference to the Only Life we have, Jesus Christ. To think we have better words than Jesus is to renounce Jesus. ‘Whoever is ashamed of me and my words . . .’ I can neither renounce the church nor the Word of Life which was from the beginning. My Baptism irrevocably connects me to Jesus, the words of Jesus, and therefore also to the people of Jesus, and therein is an at times almost unbearable tension, not least as I look at my own life and my own place in the Church.

When Jesus’ words make no sense to us, it is for one reason and one only, that we have strayed far far from Him, and thus from the Reality of the Church. The Identification of Jesus with His Church is so total, that when we do not understand his words, do not hear them, do not live out of them, in truth we are not the Church.
Look at the Church Jesus addresses John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. Whoever gives YOU a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ . . . Don’t try and push those away who are engaging in Kingdom work – YOU are going to need every friend you can get. If they’re not persecuting you, count them as on your side! As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ If you are following me, you are going to find yourself without a home . . .

It is perhaps no surprise at all that the most frequent lament heard in the circles of those who care about the Church is ‘but where are the disciples?’ when the life of a disciple of Jesus bears so little relation to the experience of any of us of what it means to be part of the church. For as Jesus addresses the infant church in the community of this motley band of disciples – he is speaking to those who have left everything to follow him and so find themselves marginal and poor – seeking as their Lord, hospitality in an often harsh world – grateful when they are not persecuted, Rejoicing to receive ‘even a cup of water’

And so it is as the marginal and impoverished – the Church is not welcomed by the powers that be, but rather dragged before them, their to bear witness to Jesus . . . I wonder how the news media would have covered the confrontation of Jesus Christ with the US Congress, or the apostle Paul – or Peter – all of whom face the powers that be in chains . . . a people bound to Jesus Christ – finding their Only Life in Him – utterly dependent on him and thus utterly dependent on one another.
Their Life in Jesus a Life Together – to be cut off from one another – to be cut off from Jesus . . . no life outside of the community of those who ‘bear the name of Christ’. It is in THIS context that the words of Jesus about Sin – about stumbling blocks – about Hell – make perfect Sense. Finding themselves on the margins of society, the disciple community is utterly dependent upon one another – for few outside will welcome or feed them or give them a bed for the night – some, yes, and for these they give thanks, even for a glass of water – but not many – therefore Anything that causes Offense within the community MUST be cut off! Their Life is so tenuous, nothing must threaten their Life Together, and those who seek to must be cut off. Jesus here uses the same body language as Paul employs. Here he is not speaking of a ‘personal morality’, rather of that which threatens the Life of the community. Those who scandalise (the literal meaning of ‘set a stumbling block’) these the little ones (in their vulnerability the disciples are like children living on the streets) – their Offense is so great that it is better were they never born than face the consequences of this action – of acting is such a way that someone left the fellowship of the Church. Jesus here uses a figure of speech he does when he speaks of Judas’ betrayal of him. It is because they are a community on the edge – utterly dependent on the mercy of others, utterly dependent upon Jesus Christ, that they have no choice but to radically confront anything which gets in the way of this their very Life blood

So so much of the words of Jesus, and indeed the rest of the New Testament makes obvious sense when we view the Church as a community living on the margins of society . .  as it did for the first three hundred years of its existence, until Constantine – when all of a sudden to be Christian was no longer to be marginal, but central – was no longer to be utterly dependent on Christ, but to wield the levers of power . . . and power is what it is all about. For those early Christians were powerless – apart from the LIfe of Christ amongst them, in the Holy Spirit. But we then became those who set about ruling – dispensing to the poor, rather than being largely the recipients of acts of mercy. In the community of the marginal – those with much were faced with a stark choice – to give up what they had for those amongst them who were hungry. They were brothers and sisters – Christendom effectively raised the Church from the gutter, and placed it on the throne, and so it found itself more or less welcome in the courts of Kings Princes and indeed Presidents. That is why for so many the idea that our shared fellowship in Jesus is more significant than for example our blood family ties is so odd . . . And it is not only this language of kinship which is odd

Thus also, as James reminds us, Confession . . . in a community on the margins, knowing life only in each other and thus in Jesus – unable to separate out being those ‘who bear the name of Christ’ from the community of those who ‘bear the name of Christ’ – mutual confession was not just a nice idea, but a day by day necessity . . .Christendom in elevating Christians to positions where they could begin to get along perfectly well without other Christians relegated Confession first to the Religious sphere of life – namely you confessed to a Priest – and then finally when the Individualism latent in Protestantism combined with a critique of the Church as waning powerful institution turned people away from Priests, one confessed ‘privately’ and to quote the Beetles ‘No one was saved’.

In a culture of radical individualism such as we inhabit – where we fail to see how dependent we are on myriad others, where we live with the deceit that our lives are our own – and that in the realm of the ‘spiritual’ we are all on our own personal journey – the idea of confessing our sins one to another, if not the very idea of sin itself has pretty much evaporated. The idea, as James seems to suggest that it is both necessary and radically connected to Sin and Sickness, Forgiveness and healing – seems absurd when our lives are so remote from one another. And in such a culture – bound together by little more than Statutes and shifting social convention, things fall apart. I am only too aware of how a church community bound together only by social politeness and a shared religiosity cannot stand even the smallest conflict – the idea of a shared mutually disciplined life where one watches over the soul of another in the terms James speaks of seems utterly alien. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

We have on the one hand the reality of the Church which Jesus addresses – and on the other the reality of Church as we have experienced it. I found this partly and powerfully expressed recently by the words of Bishop Justin Duckworth when speaking to a group of young Anglicans about mission. He said ‘We’re not inviting people to join us for a game of Scrabble, we’re inviting them onto a journey to Mordor’ It is that Gulf which I live with – I trust I’m not the only one, and I hope that more and more of us might come to live with it too – and to face it.

As we consider the future of the Church, as the Christendom church wrestles with Statute 3, struggling for breath at the end of its days – we are left with the age old joke – How do we get from where we are to where we should be? Or more precisely back to Jesus as Our Life? The chasm – the gulf between the Church Jesus addresses and our own context seems so wide that the answer at present can only be as the joke says, ‘I don’t know, but I wouldn’t start from here . . .’ but we are starting from here . . . and I as a priest can only say – well we have Jesus present to us in Word and in Sacrament, if we can allow that to be our all, to be enough, then perhaps we might make this journey together.

Sermon on Stewardship

Sermon for Sunday 13th September 2015

James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

‘ . . .as those who will give an account’
Dangerous Faith

Anglicanism has more than its fair share of peculiarities, hardly surprising for a church which had its genesis in the determination of a King to marry whomsoever he wanted at a time of religious upheaval in the 16th Century.
But for the purposes of today, when we are considering Stewardship, I want to think about our Anglican posture of prayer. Not because I want everyone to pray that more money will come in – but because our posture in prayer says something about how we relate to God, and not only in theory. We are embodied, and what we do with our bodies affects our faith as much as our faith affects what we do with our bodies. You may like to spend time praying adopting different positions – pay attention to how it changes the disposition of your heart and mind . . .

So how does being Anglican affect our posture in prayer? Well, the fact is that by and large our way of praying is rather odd –  for historically and indeed until recently, pretty uniformly, Anglicans kneel to pray. OK so some more modern types sit – itself unusual historically, after all, only the relatively wealthy could afford to put seats into their churches – or adopt the shampoo position, which is sort of half way between sitting and kneeling whilst massaging your follicles, but as the prayer book repeatedly says – ‘the people all kneeling . . .’.

Whereas the way to pray most commonly observed and practised, and that of our Jewish forebears also, is that we pray Standing up! I’ll come to standing up in a minute, but why are Anglicans different? Well as far as we can tell it was because in the feudal times out of which the Church of England grew – one knelt before one’s lord and master, and so transferring that practise it seemed right and proper to kneel before God – but I suggest that that is not helpful. Not least because it leaves us entirely with a sense that we are supplicants in prayer, which is only a very small part of the story.
Our primary relationship to God is not one of begging. And certainly if we consider what it is to be a Steward, then begging isn’t primarily what we are about. For God in Christ has so dignified his people that he calls them to be Stewards of all that He has created, and in that dignity to Stand before him.

In the book of Job – after Job has poured out all his complaints, the LORD confronts Job with the words – ‘gird up your loins like a man and I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’ For 35 chapters Job has sat in the dust and pondered his plight, and now the LORD appears with the command – get up from the dust – face me like a man! Gird up your loins is a way of saying – get ready for hard labour – get ready for battle! ‘I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’ God invites Job to debate face to face. Astonishingly, God treats the human as in a sense an equal – and expects us not to cower but to Stand before Him. So we learn to speak with God as it were ‘Face to Face’ Standing. If you wish to enter into a deeper apprehension of your life before God, Standing to pray makes a huge difference – After all – is not God Present??!

Now at this point you may be asking – WHAT has this got to do with Stewardship??? Surely you need to be talking about how we need to be giving more etc. etc. etc. Or give us guidelines – or something.
Well I’m not . . . The Christian Life is not one in which we are spoon fed. God in Christ has forgiven us our sins and set us free from Sin. We don’t have to sin. God in Christ through the gift of the Spirit has taken us up from the dust and set us on our feet – he offers his Life to us that we might obey his commandments and do them – to love our neighbour as ourself, to love God with all we have and all we are. God treats us like responsible adults. ‘This is the way, walk in it . . .’

For example, as we have thought about over the last few weeks – when the wealthy young man comes to Jesus, Jesus tells him it like it is – he treats him as a responsible human being. This is the deal – sell your possessions give the money to the poor, then come follow me . . . over and over again Jesus says things that treat us not like infants, but adults. And sadly and too often, we seek to evade Jesus Word to us – the Word that gives Life . . .
So the parable to the talents, the man going on a journey  puts all his wealth in the hands of his servants . . . As the Psalmist says ‘The Earth is the LORD’s and everything in it’ Everything belongs to God – he puts it into the hands of the human. Let us make man in our own image, ‘according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’Each of the stewards is held responsible – it is the one who tries to squirm away, who seeks to evade his responsibilities who finds himself in the mire. As Jesus said – when the invitation to the Kingdom came, ‘one after another began to make his excuses . . .’ The call into the Kingdom is a fearful call for it is at once a call to our true dignity and therefore Responsibility as human beings – not by the deceitful standards of the World, but by the Command of the One who created the heavens and the Earth . . . our stewardship is not calculated to win us the admiration of society, but God’s Well Done, Good and faithful steward

When we are baptised into the Life of the Church – the time for excuses is over. Yes we may sin, and for that we confess our sins one to another that we might be healed – but no excuses now. God in Raising Christ from the dead has set us up on our feet – our Life, our very Existence is now Face to Face with the Living God, and thus as the Scriptures continually tell us – we must give an account . . . Baptism is not into some life where we are as it were held in cossetted existence, no it is a passage into Life before God, It is an awakening to the true reality of our lives and our Life Together – in all its Glory and all its Fear of the LORD.

Those who are called by the church to teach should know this accountability well, for we are called on me to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and no other gospel. Not to as it were to try and find easy ways around the words of Jesus, but to face up to them for ourselves and to declare them to God’s people. As St Paul says ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!’ It’s of course tempting to say – God help me if I don’t, but it is to God that the preacher is responsible!!! There is no other defence!!! As James puts it in his epistle we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Yet it is not only the ordained who are given the capacity for speech. Perhaps in no greater way does God give over Stewardship to man than in conferring upon him the terrifying power of speech?? As Paul says, Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And what terrifying responsibility – for as James tells us, the ongue is like the rudder of a ship – small but guiding and directing its course – our Speech creates worlds for Good or Ill – and it forms us also. As Jesus puts it I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’
It is no wonder that James exhorts us – ‘be slow to speak’ – for we will have to give an account of our stewardship of the Divine Gift of speech. And Peter is reminded of that in the most forceful of terms. Responding to the words of Jesus hastily he says the first thing that comes out of his mouth. And Jesus treats his words with full seriousness – ‘Get behind me Satan!!’ As I have said before, our Life in Christ is a matter of LIfe and Death, to dare to call oneself Christian is to take the responsibility for our Life that he places into our hands

Jesus summons to Life could not be more serious “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” To follow Christ – to die to oneself is to be set free in Radical Responsibility. It is to live with the Command of God as our only guide. No rules no regulations, certainly no careful calculations. One of the insights I had about myself on Sabbatical was a tendency to try and be calculating in my Life before God. The only response to the Life of God is Yes, or No. There are no %ages. It is all or nothing. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Simply all we have comes from God – and we are to use it for HIs Glory – the Glory of the One we Love – according to our unique abilities – to Love God with all we have and all we are, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
That is our Life – it is the meaning of our Existence. To be a steward of that which God has given us is to live with this Life giving Command before our eyes, day in and day out. It is to live knowing that we shall all have to give an account – it is to understand that nothing we have is ours, even our very lives, but everything belongs to our Father, as we ourselves are his Precious possession.

We are HIs precious possession – it is because we belong to Him in Jesus, that we have life; because we belong to Him in Jesus that we are set free to live in true Responsibility for our LIves. It is our sense of the reality or otherwise of our relationship before God in Jesus Christ which marks out how we respond to that. Whether, knowing Him and Loving Him we dare stand before Him, Rejoicing in Him and boldly stepping out in Life in His Name. Or, not knowing him, hearing words about giving an account with terror and fear

It’s not my place to tell anyone how much to give – or to what – but an obligation is placed on me to remind us that God in Jesus Christ has radically saved us and brought us into the kingdom of his Son, He has given us his life, breathing the Holy Spirit into each one of us, lifting us from the dust of death and setting us on our feet – facing Him moment by moment and day by day. Our Life is before God, and we will have to give an account to God of how we have used all he has put into our hands – so let us respond not with fear and excuses, with self serving calculation, but  – with cheerfulness – indeed as St Paul puts it in the Greek with Hilaritos – as Children of our Father bestowing gifts upon the righteous and the unrighteous – with Joy and Gladness in all of our Stewarding of the Good Gifts he has bestowed upon us.
For in truth all of us are accountable before God for what we have done with that which is his . . . Not taking responsibility before God for all he has placed into our hands is to deny the very Life he has given us – but let us not hide in the shadows of excuses and fear, but walk fully in the Light of the Life of Christ, so that on the last day when he shall come to judge the Earth, we may rejoice at his coming and Stand before Him, as we have learned to do. Rejoicing Always, Praying without Ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances – for this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.

What is an ‘I’??

One of the tragic ironies of our modern compulsion towards self definition, is that our lives have become at once more dependent upon others than at any time in history, whilst our Self proclaimed Independence is at an all time high. Everything tells us that we are the self authenticating authors of our own existence. Thus, perhaps more than ever, we live in the age of the primal sin against our neighbour, whose life has nothing to do with ours. [The late Oliver Sacks noted, the gift of aging and mortality was a necessary corrective to such a view, but we do all we can to deny either of these ‘neighbours’ . . .]

The first act of the human set free from obedience to the Author of Life is to kill his brother. It would not be too presumptuous to suggest that Cain’s questioning of Elohim, ‘am I my brothers keeper?’ is merely the voicing of the ‘thought’ which accompanied the slaying of Abel. For it is from the heart that things that defile come . . .

Whilst this condition is universal – modern existence seems to have refined its cruelty to a twisted art form – so much so that perversely we tell ourselves that we cannot love our neighbours as ourselves, ‘until we love ourselves’ [I respond to this Lie here]

The insight of the Church Fathers ‘My life is with my brother’, seems to have been all but expunged, which is a monstrous Delusion, and one which will not go un’rewarded’.

So, this morning, I rose from a bed I did not make, to put on clothes the provenance of which I have little or no idea, made by people for whom I have no thought. I sat down to bread baked by a local baker, but drink coffee grown on land and using water which may well be put to better use feeding those many who live nearby. If I use my car later in the day, I will have no idea of the detrimental impact its production made on the lives of probably hundreds if not thousands of others as Land was excavated, oil was burnt, and rivers were polluted.

We read that even in our post industrial societies people are dying in their thousands annually because of the pollution we cause. But we are of course post industrial societies. In the midst of our ‘Individuality’ driven consumption, most of the deaths are of those in China, India and other places to which we have exported our ‘Dark, Satanic mills’ with their accompanying choking smog. (And comfort ourselves with the decptive thought that ‘human ingenuity will find a solution’ – which I am sure must be a great comfort to the bereaved . . .) So we live with the myth of the Individual whilst our lives are inextricably linked with many many others whom we do not recognise as our brother

Yet here is the great irony – in the age of the myth of Self Independence,  we have been reduced to the state of almost total Dependency upon others.

The nursing homes and care wards of ‘advanced nations’, are but the revelation of what we have become. For were it not for the labour of others, if it were not for their economic servitude, we wouldn’t last five minutes. How many of us grow anything which we eat, let alone enough to feed ourselves and share with others? How few of us could? How many of us actually rely on others to chop our vegetables, or indeed cook our food for us? How few of us have made anything which we rely upon, or have the skills to do so? What moment of our very existence is not related to The Other?

How many of us are in truth no more Independent, than someone in an advanced state of dementia, the presenting symptom of this virtual age?

We proclaim our Independence, our Coming of Age as human beings, at a time when if anything our very existence has regressed to a level never before seen. As our neighbour has disappeared, ironically our capacity for life has all but vanished with him. Nihilism and Narcissism are of course but two sides of the same coin . . .

David Runcorn in one of his books relates the story of a time of retreat in an alpine hut. After a few days of solitude he found himself crying to God, ‘Who Are You?’ And in a moment of silent Apocalypse heard back the Interrogation ‘Who are you?’

This is the question Moses puts to the LORD at the burning bush, only to be replied to with the enigmatic and unhelpful reply ‘I AM’. Only God is self existent – indeed only God IS. We are at best ‘becomings’ and that only in enduring and suffering Love for God and neighbour. Not one of us can say ‘I AM’, but to this present age that seems to be nonsense, blasphemy indeed . . .

‘that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.’ 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4


Pray for me, a sinner also