Monday, June 11, 2007

Revival

This is a substantially expanded and amended version of my sermon yesterday, based on Luke 7.11-17 & Galatians 1.11-end (in particular, West Mersea worshippers will find it of interest). Click 'full post' for text.

The story of the widow of Nain has great human impact: a sorrowing widow; a son that dies; and then - revival.

One of the first things to bear in mind about this story is the social and economic context - that is, unless there was an economically productive male around, you were incredibly vulnerable. So a widow is vulnerable without her husband, but even more than that, a widow losing her son is doubly vulnerable, not simply in economic terms but because the son was her link to the future, a source of meaning as well as means. It is precisely this concern for the vulnerable that is the Spirit behind the prophetic teaching, calling the faithful to provide for the widows and orphans. And here Jesus' compassion and prophetic stance is clear - "his heart went out to her" - and just like Elijah with the widow of Zarephath the man of God revives the son from the dead, and gives him back to his mother. The family is reunited, means and meaning are revived.

There are a number of aspects to this story to explore. A first is simply to wonder: does Jesus experience a premonition of what is to come as he takes part in this tale? Does he consider that before too long his own mother will be outside the city wall, grieving for her dead son?

But going a little deeper than that, is there something here about our faith, about what it is to pursue that faith within a church community - and perhaps, is there a message here specifically for this church in West Mersea?

To explain what I mean by that, I'd like to talk about St Paul's conversion experience, on the road to Damascus, and in particular how he describes it in this passage from Galatians - where he describes the sort of person that he was before he met the risen Lord, and the sort of person he became after, which allowed the good news to spread. Paul says that in his former life he was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers - but then he began to disbelieve in them. In other words, meeting with Christ began to generate disbelief in him, a disbelief in what had gone before.

The thing is, being human, we surround ourselves with customs and habits and traditions - they are useful in helping us to negotiate our way through life. And they come up in all areas of life - think of how you make a cup of tea, for example. Yet when these habits and traditions enter into our ways of worship we call them 'sacred', and these form our religions. It seems to me that part of what being a Christian means - part of what coming to know the living Christ involves - is precisely that we become less concerned about the sacred, less concerned about being religious, just in order that we might concentrate on something which is even more important - the new life offered in Christ, which relativises all of our religious traditions and sacred arts. This is the process of redemption - the light of Christ entering into all the darkest corners of our own hearts as we slowly attain to the full stature of the risen Christ.

The thing is, in so many ways, Christianity is still a very young faith. We may have been going for some two thousand years, but we are really only just beginning to get to grips with what it means to say that this man Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God incarnate upon earth. We still have so far to go on our pilgrimage; we are still discovering the depths of faith. You could say that the faith is this young man outside the walls of a town.

Do I mean that the faith is dead? Hardly that. But I do wonder how far the church is in the position of the widow - disconnected from the future - and beginning to despair.

"Young man I say to you get up." It is through being addressed by the word of the living Word that the dead come to life, that the dead are revived.

A few years ago I was told a story about one of my predecessors as Rector of Mersea, Reg East, who was a rather Charismatic individual. He had a dream, or a vision, of the island of Mersea catching fire, and the fire spreading, which he understood to be a promise of revival. I have pondered this a lot, along with a comment from a colleague that an upsurge in musical creativity is often associated with a revival - and that we are presently experiencing just such an upsurge.

Is a revival coming? I really don't know. I do know that a revival is not something that is in our control; it's not something that we can achieve. We are not called to produce a revival; we are called to be faithful. In other words, to give right glory to God, the Son who is raised from the dead. That's what being orthodox literally means - right glory. That is our task, that is our witness and that is the only true revival we can seek - to praise the God who gives life to the dead. We must worship the risen Christ, and always be aware of the danger of being caught up in our religion instead.

I do believe that, as I said in my first ever sermon in this place, the tide of unbelief has turned, that the Spirit is abroad in this country, and that we will see a resurgence of belief. I interpret the renewed squeals on the part of the atheists as being an acknowledgment, deep from their bowels, that their argument has been lost. For so long it seemed unarguable that as you matured as a person, so you left behind the childish blandishments of sentimental faith. That lie has been nailed, and we are seeing the consequences rippling down into the wider culture.

But more than this: I am certain that God is doing something special in this place: here, in West Mersea. I reflect upon the remarkable gathering of strength that is occurring here - the associate priests, the retired clergy (with some more on the way), the musical team, the way in which vocations are prospering as with pastoral assistants and lay evangelists being called forward from our midst, the lay leadership in all its forms. I reflect on the fact that, according to Bob Jackson, we are one of the fastest growing churches in the country. We do have a remarkable story to tell in that regard.

I also reflect on Saturday morning when the PCC gave a unanimous endorsement of my proposals to rearrange the sanctuary. I wasn't expecting this - I had thought that the PCC would be split, and although I thought it would be in favour, I was expecting that the majority would be insufficient to carry the proposals through - for this sort of change, it is not enough for there to be a bare majority, there needs to be a much stronger sense of widespread consent. In the end there was unanimity - even amongst those members of the PCC who couldn't be present, four expressed a preference, and all four were in favour.

This was strangely humbling. I think in part it was humbling because there has been pain associated with the change, and undoubtedly - related to this and to other emphases that I have brought to my ministry here - some cannot participate in the process, and they choose to leave.
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me."

I am still digesting everything that happened on Saturday morning. It is as if there was an endorsement not simply from the PCC but from the Spirit also, saying not just 'keep going' but 'go further, do more!' There is a cost to this; the challenge I face is how to ensure that the old testament heart remains a heart of flesh and doesn't become a heart of stone.

And yet; the Lord is with me. I have felt very close to Him these past couple of months - to the extent that colleagues have remarked upon it. And He has given me the ability to see farther than most. This doesn't make me infallible (hardly that!!), it doesn't mean I won't get some things completely wrong, especially with regard to details. But I have this vision of what is possible. And I must pursue it. It's been creeping up on me slowly, and it isn't something I fully understand, or can even describe. I feel frightened, and nervous, and excited all at the same time. What I am convinced of is that something remarkable is happening here in West Mersea. My task, my prayer, is that I can work out what God is doing - and then get out of the way.

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things.
His right hand and his holy arm have gained him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
(Psalm 98)

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