One body sharing one bread…

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Sermon for Corpus Christi – St Mary’s Whitkirk

“The family that eats together stays together”

There’s something about the sharing of a meal…something that speaks of togetherness, of unity.

Apparently a key moment in establishing Christianity on the island of Tahiti came with a meal. Warriors loyal to the Christian king fought with those who opposed him. The defeated pagan army fled for the hills. They emerged the next day – expecting their women and children to be dead and mutilated, as tradition demanded – but found them instead with the victors, sharing a picnic.

The Christian King wanted to unite his nation in peace…sharing food with former enemies proved a powerful symbol that unity was possible.

“The family that eats together stays together”

I think that familiar saying hides a deep truth about unity; a truth that is the essence of the Eucharist.

At the heart of who we are as Christians is the sharing of a meal – a meal given to us by Christ. And our Eucharist service reminds us again and again of what this says about unity.

Before we even approach the table we share the peace. We turn to our neighbours and wish that they will always know God’s peace. Our neighbours…anyone sitting near…not just our friends. We’re saying – we may disagree about sport, politics, marmite…but we are one in Christ. We acknowledge how hard it is to be properly reconciled to God if we’re not at peace with our neighbours.

But we also come to God’s table knowing that as humans we’re rubbish at unity. Our idea of unity so easily slips into being ‘us’ by excluding ‘them’. Time and again we find our identity by uniting against a common enemy…

We’re never going to manage unity through our efforts alone…that’s why we need the Eucharist so badly. In this meal we are united because we share an experience of the living God.

This meal, this Holy Communion, is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all will sit and eat together, where there will be no division, no ‘us’ and ‘them’.

As the Eucharistic prayer expresses it…”in the unity of the Holy Spirit, with all who stand before you in earth and heaven, we worship you Father Almighty”.

It’s a glimpse of the world as it should be, as it will be, made new and whole. It’s a glimpse of the reconciling power of Jesus.

Then we break the large wafer – a sign that “we are all one body because we all share in one bread.” Becoming, somehow, mysteriously, one with Christ, helps us come together.

We don’t share communion to show that we are one…we become one when we share communion.

And if that unity is genuine, it’s also tremendously attractive.

Bishop Michael Curry (of royal wedding fame) tells of the transforming power it had on his Father. A black American, in the era of separate schools, hospitals, cafes…he watched his black wife drink from the same chalice as white Christians. He reckoned something with such uniting power was worth having.

In the Eucharist though, we are offered communion with Jesus who refused every division into ‘them’ and ‘us’, even though this led to his death. This meal recalls not just the last supper – but the anguish of the garden, and the agony of the cross.

So this precious gift challenges us – not just to become one around this table, but to put ourselves into that place of reconciliation inhabited by Jesus. As the King of Tahiti understood – Christians are called into the risky place of sitting and eating with enemies.

We do that when we pray for reconciliation in the world’s conflicts – but the challenge is to let it spill out into our lives.

Who would we struggle to share a table with? Who irritates, annoys, upsets us? Who do we feel we have a right to be angry with? Are we not sent out from this meal to seek unity with them?

I once had a vicar who ended communion services with “become what you are – the body of Christ”…Christ whose greatest command was that we love one another…love our neighbours as ourselves…love our enemies.

 

Do we have a dream today?

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A sermon for Pentecost – St Mary’s Whitkirk

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.”

Martin Luther King – August 28 1963.

“God declares, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams.”

Peter – the first Pentecost.

Pentecost then, a time for dreams…do we have a dream today?

The Church of England 2018 doesn’t always seem like a place for visionary dreams. Membership is falling, there are few young people in church; churches struggle to pay their parish share; lack of money and clergy means joining parishes together, or closing churches. Even at St Mary’s we can’t always find the volunteers we need.

The prevailing culture values success, youth, money, individuality. Many have not heard of Jesus Christ, many more see no need for him in their lives…

Can we have a dream today?

This week some of us have been in local schools talking about Pentecost. We had 12 volunteers at the front as the disciples, waiting for the coming Spirit. 12 ordinary, embarrassed, nervous individuals. We remembered how the whole future of Christianity rested on that tiny gathering.

Artistic license on the numbers may be – but look around you this morning and imagine – the whole future of the church resting on us – in a culture not of indifference but persecution. Today there are over 2 billion Christians.

Consider Martin Luther King – the opposition he faced led to his assassination. But by then his dream echoed around the world. It hadn’t been fully realised – it still hasn’t – but it had taken root in the hearts of millions – black and white.

Like those first disciples, I guess King would have said he was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Which is why Pentecost is absolutely the time for dreams. That small number of ordinary, nervous people gathered together were not people without faith. They were the same people who, after seeing Jesus carried up to heaven on Ascension Day, “worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God.”

They knew Jesus as Lord and king; they understood that somehow through his life, death and resurrection they were reconciled to God…but they didn’t yet know what to do with that message. They waited, and as Jesus promised, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Their message became a dream…a dream that other people could know God’s love and forgiveness by the sharing of that message.

Can we have a dream today? Well that same Holy Spirit is available to us, the help us turn our personal faith into a dream of God’s Kingdom coming. And anyway, this is a great time to be an Anglican in Leeds.

Our diocese, like many others, is investing in training and encouraging lay people to share in the leadership of the church. Not as crisis management, but because the Holy Spirit is given to all. Clergy have specific and distinctive roles, but the spreading of the kingdom needs us all to work together to share the good news.

On June 9th four delegates…(names)…from our parish will join hundreds from around the diocese at the Lay Conference. They will hear inspiring speakers, take part in workshops, and come back “with renewed energy and motivation”, to look at what can be done in our daily lives and our churches to spread the good news.

Talk to them about the workshops they’ve chosen, discuss what you think they need to find out. But note – they are delegates – the dream belongs to us all.

So what is our dream today?

I guess the hall redevelopment must be part of it. Those who’ve worked so hard at fundraising, consulting, planning, have done so because they see the hall as part of Christ’s mission in this place; a way of showing God’s overflowing love to this community; a place where community needs are met; our legacy to the Christians who follow, making worship and witness in this place more effective.

So when the hall committee ask us to help with one last fundraising push; when we are coping with the inconvenience of not having the hall for a while – let’s remember…we have a dream today.

According to our notice board, St Mary’s is ‘a vibrant community of faith where all find a welcome and are nurtured in their journey with Christ.’ In many ways we are, but I don’t think it’s something we achieve and tick off – it’s also a dream, something never completely realised, something to strive for.

So we must keep exploring how we can deepen our faith, how we can be more welcoming, how we can enable others to encounter Jesus who gives meaning to our lives.

We can have a dream today.

But it needs all of us. It needs those of you with time and space, to pray daily for the Holy Spirit to help our dream become reality. It needs those with skills and energy, to offer those to God. It needs those who aren’t sure they have the skills, to offer them anyway and trust the power of the Holy Spirit.

So on this day of Pentecost let’s dare to dream. Let’s remember that tiny number of Christians, who having caught the dream that first Pentecost, went out and began to make it a reality. Let’s remember Martin Luther King, who dared to dream the impossible, and started work that continues today.

And so I pray…Lord God, we offer you our dreams today, inspire us with your Holy Spirit, make our dreams one with your vision for this place. Amen

 

When the truth condemns…

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A sermon for evensong – Easter 6 –  St Mary’s Whitkirk

‘Lukewarm’

On a cold day we welcome a hot cup of tea, on a hot day – perhaps an iced gin and tonic…I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “I just fancy something lukewarm”!

I looked it up in the dictionary…one entry began…“Mainly disapproving”…another “moderately warm liquid or food that should be hot.”

Read about Laodicea in the 1st century and you’ll find all sorts of contextual details to help explain the metaphor…but the gist is that a ‘lukewarm’ church was a church not fit for purpose. Not, as we might think, just a bit wishy-washy…“I’m about to spit you out of my mouth”, they’re told!

Not a great advert for the church in Laodicea – but what does it say to us?

Well, we can just be very glad we’re part of St Mary’s Whitkirk instead. As Matthew said at our Annual Meeting last week – there are lots of things that say this is a healthy church. I certainly wouldn’t disagree – I still reckon I’m the luckiest curate in Leeds…but…

…but. So often with Jesus there’s a ‘but’. His stories, his teaching, on the surface about someone else, but how many times, if we really listen, do we recognise something of ourselves? How often do we hear the truth and feel it condemning us.

Because, it seems, the biggest problem with the people of Laodicea was that they thought everything was ok, they reckoned they were a healthy church…

Laodicea was rich, a centre of banking with a gold exchange; it had a thriving textile industry famous for it’s glossy black woollen garments; it was a centre of medical excellence – particularly noted for its eye ointment. It was ok thank you very much – and that went for the church too.

But it’s exactly through these sources of pride that they are condemned…they are told: “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” Not just lacking a bit of oomph!

And then they’re offered the very things they are so proud to have…

They’re told to buy from Jesus gold refined by fire – so they can be truly rich; white robes, to cover their nakedness; salve for their eyes so they can see.

Have these things – good in themselves – made them forget their need of Jesus, his grace and his love in their lives? Perhaps they’ve become too concerned with wealth for its own sake? Perhaps pride in the garments they sell has made them feel superior to others? Perhaps the place famed for its treatment of blindness has become blind to what Jesus wants them to see.

Then the letter goes on…“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door I will come in to you” It sounds wonderful until we realise that Jesus is knocking on the door of the church – presumably because he has been locked out!

If Jesus is outside – what’s inside the church? Perhaps something it is so easy to become…not evil people, just people who have become complacent, people who in celebrating what is good have almost forgotten their need of God. People who think they know what is good and forget to listen for the Spirit.

…one of our curate training sessions was with a retired bishop. He told us how in his first parish he had started lots of new groups, engaged with schools, the church was growing, and healthy, all was wonderful…when one day he realised he was in danger of thinking he had it all sorted, in danger of doing it all entirely without reference to God. He was almost in danger of locking Jesus out of his church.

So what of us? Maybe whilst we celebrate what is good in our church and in our lives, we should just have a careful look, not at where we know we fail – but at our ‘best bits’…

…does the wonderful ‘Whitkirk blanket’ of care for those in need spread to those on the edges, those less grateful, those who don’t quite fit?

…are our beautiful floral arrangements, our fantastic music, an expression of worship for God, a way to help others encounter Him, or important traditions we want to hold on to?

…does our pride in what we or our children have achieved make us less tolerant of those who struggle?

…are our social events a sign of God’s overflowing love, or just a sign of how much we enjoy each other’s company?

…does our sermon preparation include listening to what God might want to say?

I’m guessing the honest answer to most of those questions would be ‘sometimes’. That’s often how the bible works…showing us extremes to help illuminate what is wrong with our lives.

If on closer examination, you reckon the best bits really are signs of a healthy church – then this passage from Revelation can just be a warning to us to keep checking.

If however, you feel the truth has found us out, you worry that Jesus might find us ‘lukewarm’ – remember it’s not the failures of the church he is condemning so scathingly, but their inability to think that they might be failing.

Then take heart that he says to the church in Laodicea, which he wants to spit from his mouth, “I reprove and discipline those whom I love”.

I would like to end with a prayer from the daily office – which comforts me when I feel Jesus’ words exposing something wrong in my life….

        Most Holy God

                  When we come to you fearing that truth condemns us,

                  show us that truth is one with love

                  in your Word made flesh

                  our Saviour Jesus Christ.

                  Amen.

 

 

‘Never be too big to ask questions…

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Words for compline on the feast of St Philip…

‘Never be too big to ask questions, never know too much to learn something new.’

Today the church celebrates St Philip. One of Jesus’ apostles…but someone about whom, individually, we know very little.

He is mentioned by name three times in John’s gospel:

In John 1 he tells Nathaniel about Jesus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ asks Nathaniel…”Come and see” says Philip – opening the door for both their lives to be changed for ever.

In John 6, faced with a crowd of 5000 hungry people Jesus asks him “Where are we to buy bread for these people?”…”Six months wages wouldn’t buy enough bread,” says Philip – opening the door for Jesus to show just what God’s generosity looks like.

In John 14, as Jesus tries to explain what his death will mean, Jesus says, “If you know me you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

“Lord show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” says Philip – opening the door for Jesus to despair over Philip’s unbelief, but also for Jesus’ farewell discourse to the disciples – four rich chapters of revelation.

Not a very glorious record…but in some ways infinitely important. Philip – a disciple not afraid to say what others were thinking. Not afraid to ask the questions that prompted actions and teaching that 2000 years later are still enabling encounters with God, still revealing the truth.

‘Never be too big to ask questions, never know too much to learn something new.’

We’re not always very good at this. If we’re new in a situation, we worry that everyone else knows the answer, that to ask will make us look silly, will reveal our ignorance.

If we’ve been around for years, we wish we’d asked the question when we first came, when we were new, to ask it now is to admit we’ve been ignorant for years.

Sometimes we feel we know enough, more than those around us, we don’t need to learn something new.

So as we remember St Philip, we might also remember that questioning, wondering, admitting our ignorance…is a way of living a life where there is growth.

Because if we are aware that there is always more to learn, then our lives are open to be changed by God.

One of the many great things about working with Matthew is that he is always asking questions – so I’m going to end by stealing a quotation from a Richard Rohr book that Matthew put on twitter last week.

“Creative doubt keeps me with a perpetual ‘beginner’s mind’, which is a wonderful way to keep growing, keep humble and keep living in happy wonder.”