Sunday, April 29, 2012

Address to West Mersea APCM 2012

I hope you are sitting comfortably. On Easter Sunday this year I had the great privilege of presiding at a service of Holy Communion at the Methodist Church here on the Island. I came away with two somewhat contradictory feelings – the first was that our differences are really very trivial, the second was: I quite like our differences! And that's OK. Yes, it is a scandal that there are different churches and different denominations all proclaiming that they love the Lord in their own unique and special way – and yes this does very much cut across Jesus' own intentions I am sure – but actually, I'm not sure that this is a scandal that matters all that much in the end, not compared to so many other things that go wrong. What I mean is that – as I discovered through being chair of Churches Together In Mersea for four years – our capacity for working together and simply getting along does not depend upon the doctrinal discussions and debates that take place in the stratosphere – it simply means recognising our common faith in Christ alone, and then slowly, and patiently, working together wherever we can.

Another way of saying this is to say that our unity isn't something that we can achieve with our own efforts. Rather, our unity is already present – it is a unity which stems from our common baptism and our common confession in Christ alone – and our spiritual path is less to achieve unity than simply to recognise that it is already there – we don't have to try quite so hard; our strivings can cease.

I have become very fond of a cartoonist who calls himself the naked pastor, and some of his cartoons can be found in the Benefice Bulletin each month. One of his great passions is denouncing “vision”, and I am persuaded that, in the sense he criticises, vision is indeed a deeply damaging thing for a church to pursue. The naked pastor is drawing on some insights that were well articulated by one of my heroes, the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book 'Life Together' – which does exactly what it says on the tin, in that it is all about what it means for Christians to live together. Listen to this:

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily.

And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day?

Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus? Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together--the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship...”

I think that one of the reasons why this resonates so deeply with me is that I am a man prone to visions, of trying to fix things and put things right. What Bonhoeffer is articulating does not, I believe, preclude any attempt at seeking to reform or improve our common Christian life. Rather, what I believe is being described is the right spirit in which to proceed. That is, the right spirit for seeking to develop our common life has to begin by acknowledging the gift of God's grace in Christ alone – and that, as a result, we begin by responding and co-operating with what God is already doing. We do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease.

I'd like to share another quotation with you that I have found valuable – this one much shorter! One of my favourite authors is the American writer Eugene Peterson – many of you will be familiar with 'The Message' which is his translation of the Bible, but most of his writings are about what it means to be a pastor, and I have found him tremendously insightful and helpful as I work out what it means to be a priest in the Church of England today. He is very fond of a quotation from the American novel Moby Dick. Now I should say that I have never read Moby Dick – it's been on my shelf asking to be read for many years – but I know it is about Captain Ahab chasing a great whale. The quotation which Peterson likes – and which he takes as teaching us something absolutely essential for what it means to be a Christian today – is this: “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from toil.” In other words, if we are truly to carry out the will of God, we have to be rooted in quiet prayer and contemplation, in blessed assurance. We shall not find the will of God by striving through earthquake, wind and fire. Only when we hear the still small voice will we be able to know what it is that God is calling us to do. It is only then that we will be enabled to spend our labour on what actually does satisfy.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus tells us “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I am starting to believe that when we find ourselves in a state of perpetual weariness, it is a sign that we may be trying too hard spiritually, and we need to remember to ourselves that we love a God of mercy and Sabbath; that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us any more than He already does – or, indeed, any less than He already does. One of the implications of what Bonhoeffer is describing – of accepting our fellow Christians as a gift to us, of realising that we don't need to achieve a unity but simply recognise the unity that already exists through our common baptism – is that it opens up a space for real and genuine love to emerge. That is, it helps us to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Over the last several years I have taken lots of weddings, and conducted lots of wedding preparation classes, and seen some marriages work, and some marriages fail. One thing that has really been brought home to me from seeing all this is that it is always a mistake to try and change your partner – that is, to try and force a different pattern of behaviour on them. The root problem, I believe, is one of a lack of respect. To seek to force a change in someone is no longer to treat them as a person; rather, they become a means to an end, whatever end that might be. I don't believe that it is wrong to seek change – but I believe that the way to see that change come about is first to pray, and second, to be the change that you wish to see – to model it, and show what it looks like.

I believe that the same thing applies in our common Christian life together. If we take our baptism seriously then we are yoked to each other in just the way that a married couple is yoked to each other – we are here for the duration. And no doubt it is true that just as within a married couple there are all sorts of ways in which the one spouse infuriates the other, so too there are ways in which we as Christians infuriate each other – and that has led over the centuries to the many different churches. Yet when our common baptism is respected – when the marriage vows are followed – then a wholly different quality of relationship becomes possible. Suddenly there is a safe place within which to grow as a human being – safe, because here there is at least the rumour of unconditional love. A love which isn't earned as a reward for good behaviour, but simply a gift, a grace. In other words, when we recognise our common baptism, and what it means, then we do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease.

The implication of this, I believe, is that the fundamental Christian category is not whether you are a member of a church, good though that is; it is not whether you are a disciple of Jesus, good though that is; it is not even whether you are a believer, good though that is. I believe that the most fundamental category is the one set out by Jesus as recorded in John's gospel – which is that of being a friend. I believe that friendship is the most fundamental Christian understanding – a friendship which seeks what is best for the other simply because it is the best for the other. There is no ulterior motive. There is no working out of issues. There is simply a solidarity – a solidarity in suffering, a solidarity in celebration, a simple being alongside one another in sorrow and in joy.

In both our Ecclesiastes and Isaiah readings this morning there is mention of the joy that comes from simple fellowship: “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.” We are greatly blessed in the provisioning of food and drink in this church community, and I do want to pay particular tribute to our social and catering committee, for all their hard work and the wonderful results – some of which we'll be sampling in a little while. One of my favourite moments in church life is the breakfast on the first Sunday of the month, when people from very diverse services sit down and eat together. That, I believe, is a great blessing, and I see it as having tremendous importance in our common life. Which is why it is so wonderful to be able to say that, very soon, the Lord being our helper, we will have a new kitchen in the church hall and so that element of our fellowship will be reinforced and strengthened. I should add – if we get permission to do the work this summer – I anticipate that the first time that it will be properly used is when Bishop Stephen comes to visit us in September for our Harvest festival. Which is somehow very appropriate, don't you think?

Of course, the good news on the new kitchen is simply a part of the good news on the financial front generally. Last year, in January, I called together all the members of this church for a service wherein I explained our financial situation. We were running in the red, and had been for several years. The situation was not sustainable – and had become a cause of significant concern. So we did two things. We launched an internal appeal to try and raise our income, coupled with a real look at where we might save money. And we also launched an external appeal to the community to help raise funds towards help with the fabric, joined with the launch of the Friends. I am very happy to be able to tell you that those efforts have been blessed by God, blessed beyond our expectations. Last year – with a very slight rounding – we broke even on our household costs, thanks to the increase in giving from this congregation. We broke even not even including a significant legacy that we received, which has been parked in a separate fund for a rainy day. Thank you for your generosity in such trying economic circumstances – and please don't stop! I believe that we are now on a sustainable path and I would like especially to thank our financial committee led by Roland for all that they have done to sort out our situation.

More widely, as I am sure you are all fully aware, our appeal to the community has been moving forward – and we are roughly a third of the way towards our eventual target. I would like, in this context, to pay tribute to Kathy Bowman-Dines, who has worked so very hard to get the Friends up and running, with such success both in terms of the events themselves and, of course, in terms of raising money for our necessary fabric works. There are many people who have helped the Friends, with their time and money and effort, inside the church and outside, far too numerous to list, but you know who you are, and I hope you also know that you have done a great service to this church and helped move it towards a happier future.

To talk about moving towards a happier future is implicitly to acknowledge a less happy past. Our reading from Ecclesiastes, famously, says that there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven. I do believe that church life moves in seasons, and my impression is that in this church we have been through a season of winter, which is now passing. I am aware of so many people who have received serious knocks, often in terms of health but also psychologically and spiritually, and I see the financial problems of last year as simply one symptom of a common crisis which touched on all aspects of our life together. I know how much of a struggle it has been for so many people, but I do believe that, as with our finances, so too with our wider life, as a community we are moving into a new season – a season of Spring and new life. Perhaps it was divine promptings that shifted this Annual Meeting to the season of Spring and Easter, when we can shout Alleluia to each other as we share in celebrating the resurrection of Christ. I do think it would be good for us to keep meeting in this season each year. I believe it sends out a true message of where we are – united in our devotion to the risen Lord who has conquered death, and in whom we might rest and find peace; for whom we do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease. At the risk of breaking my own advice against visions, I do believe that we have a very great deal to look forward to, and that this church community can move forward not just with hope but with confident expectation of all that God is doing on our behalf, to bless each of us and to bless our common life together as a church. Rather like Moses I believe that I can see the promised land, and it isn't very far away. Yet, also rather like Moses, I do not believe that I will be able to get there with you.

After a lot of soul-searching, and having pondered and prayed for some time, I do believe that my time as your Rector is drawing to a close, and that you need a new Rector, a Joshua perhaps, to take you forward into a new season of your life together. I don't have anything established as yet – and it may well be some time before God actually shows me the place where he wants this slave to go – but I believe that my sharing this understanding with you now will help our on-going conversations and our common life. The truth is that I too am very tired – and as I've been saying, I think that this tiredness is a sign that I need to go home to God and find my rest in Him. I, too, need to cease my strivings, and find my rest in Christ alone. To go back to the Moby Dick reference, I do not know what sort of great whale God wishes me to pursue – or, indeed, if, rather than pursuing the whale like Captain Ahab, he instead wants me to be swallowed up by one and thrown up onto a beach somewhere – but I feel as if, in sharing this with you, I am recovering my spiritual balance. There is a modern Christian aphorism which I quite like – if you are going to learn to walk on water you need to get out of the boat. Well, I feel like I'm getting out of the boat, and I'm very nervous, but also excited to see what's going to happen.

I would like to return to where I began this morning, in talking about taking a service on Easter Sunday at the Methodist church; where the differences were so trivial. Our unity is something that is given to us in Christ alone, not in any effort or achievement on our part. When we can recognise this – and when we can recognise what it means for us simply to be friends in Christ – then we do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease. The ground of our unity is our baptism and so, in accordance with the most ancient church tradition, in this great season of Easter, I would like to invite you now, my friends, please to stand, and reaffirm our baptismal vows.

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