Sunday, 28 September 2008

Back to Church Sunday - 19th Sunday after Trinity

Homily for the Eucharist

Sunday 28th September 2008

Preached by Martin Jackson, Vicar of St. Cuthbert's

Lectionary: Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

Perhaps the parts of your average Sunday service that make people feel most uncomfortable are the Sermon and the Collection - which brings to mind one of those stories that’s been around so long that I didn’t use it when it was suggested for this coming month’s Parish Magazine. So here it is now:

A little girl became restless as the preacher’s sermon dragged on and on. Finally, she leaned over to her mother and whispered, “Mummy, if we give him some money now, will he let us go?”

Well I’m sorry… but nobody is coming for your money at this point, so you’ll have to stay. And when we do get to the time of the collection, don’t be embarrassed if you are new to St. Cuthbert’s or are back for Back to Church Sunday and wonder what to do. People here do their giving in different ways: so they might be giving by Banker’s Order rather than using the plate; or they might just be here because it’s free; and anyway there’s no set rate, and nobody is watching to see what does or doesn’t go in.

But in preparing to preach this morning, I found myself a bit stuck… Who would be here? Would anyone come as a result of an invitation to come back to church? Would anyone just happen to be here for the first time? What assumptions would they bring? And what should I say?

My assumptions about how people look at the Church were changed some years ago when I was asked to take part in a survey being carried out by children from a local junior school. They were looking at how their Community worked - who did what, and what difference did it make? I was asked to fill in the relevant section of the survey. And this is where I got my surprise - the Church was included under the heading, “Leisure Activities.” There we were, jostling for position alongside football, tennis and bowls; music, dancing and clubbing; and cinema-going and shopping. Leisure activities are what you choose to do in your free time. It’s up to you. And if you conclude that church-going is a leisure activity, then you can just take it or leave it - and people generally reckon that it makes little difference.

There are so many other things we could do on a Sunday morning. So why are we here? Why do we choose to be here? Churches have finally on the whole been persuaded that it’s a good idea to attempt to keep their congregations warm - our failures here are entirely due to the limitations of the existing Victorian pipework, though the boilers and timer are state-of-the-art. We’re not so good about comfortable seating. Suggest you might do something about the pews and you enter the realm not just of financial constraints but also received ideas about how a church ought to look. Strangely, cinemas and theatres seem not to share our inhibitions when they try to attract their audience with comfy chairs - though at least we’re not going to say you have to pay £1.50 extra for premium seating (we’re just not going to offer it).

Churches so easily get trapped between nostalgia for something that was probably never quite the way it gets remembered and received notions that are generally more imaginary than real. What do people want? They’re right when they think that the Church is a good place to have a wedding. We’ve had two wonderful weddings here in the last two weeks - each quite different and reflecting the personalities of the people involved. But so often - not knowing quite what to say - a potential bride or groom will start off by saying to me, “We’d like to book the church…” I think I know what they mean, but the words imply that we’re just another venue that you can pay for and then turn up. That’s where I start my work with them - and try to show what the Church can really offer: to say that this isn’t just a service that we’re offering and you can buy; it’s a sacrament, something that’s central to the way you’ll live in a life-changing way; not just a few hundred pounds for the day (and well worth it for the show we put on!), but something that requires that you search your heart and recognise that the cost is the rest of your life… and that God is involved to make all the difference. It’s the same with Baptism. Quite often I get asked, how much do we charge? And the answer is that it’s free… but there is a cost: and that cost is a life given to God. He is the one who promises direction in the lives of those who are baptised. The question is, will we follow?

Leisure activities are something you can do, as and when you choose. You can give them up and no one is going to be too bothered - though if you give up on exercise activities you will notice the difference sooner or later for yourself. There are so many potentially good things that you can do that I quite understand how people find it difficult to fit in “Church.” So thank you everyone simply for making the effort to be here this morning. But now a couple of warnings…

The first is to regular members of the congregation. It’s very tempting to go up to someone you haven’t seen here before and say “Welcome to our church.” The “welcome” bit is fine. But it’s a mistake to think that this is just our church. It’s here for everyone - so “welcome to your church” would be better. Churches only have any point in existing if they exist for the sake of the community around them.

And then a gentle rebuke to people who generally excuse themselves from going to church because “it’s not the church I want.” I’ve been ordained for over 26 years and have “had my own parish” for over 20, but still I’m not able to say that I’ve got everything I want. If you want to be more than a church of one person, then you’ll have to make allowances for other people. But while it may not be the church you want, if you play your part it can become the church you help make it.

So, welcome to your church! But of course it’s fundamentally the church of Jesus Christ - his Church. It’s there in the Collect we’ve used today - one of the most traditional of Anglican prayers:

O God, forasmuch as without you,
We are not able to please you…

It takes the grace of God to enable us to do anything. And he’s not just an overbearing taskmaster trying to keep us up to the mark. He gives us the means - which Christians call grace:

Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ…

Being a member of the Church is admitting our need… and being ready to find it through God’s direction. God is not hanging over us to load burdens of guilt and obligation upon us. Remember the invitation which Jesus makes: “Come to me all you who are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest… my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

There’s a church I know of in San Francisco - which I’d love to visit - which has on its altar the inscription: “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Actually the inscription is in Greek, because this is how it was written in the New Testament when people realised how radically different Jesus was from the religious teachers of their day. But the colloquial translation - “the guy who eats with sinners” - is apt. Jesus is the man who is on our side, the man who is looking out for us… looking out for you / for me. It’s what our first reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is saying, that God comes to us in Jesus. That he doesn’t play God with our lives, but comes to us in a human life, lived to the full. The way of God in Jesus is the way of humility. The obedience of Jesus to his Father’s will and the extent of his love for his people is such that he gives his life - dying on a cross for our sake. Christ is the one who makes the difference: coming to us; meeting us where we are, and as we are. There’s no pretence required from us. We don’t need to pretend that we are better than we are. We don’t need to suck up to God. Because already God knows what we are. He feels it in Jesus - and there’s no pretence in him, who is one with God but shares our humanity.

“By what authority are you doing these things?” That’s the question asked of Jesus by his opponents. They see him as a threat to the established order. They’re living life the way they like it, they follow religion the way they like it. But then Jesus comes into the picture, and the result is quite unsettling. They can’t bring themselves to follow his way, but they know that what he says and does points the finger at them and shows just how hollow their way is. Outwardly their religion is about all the right things, but Jesus calls the people on beyond conformity. That’s how it is in the story which Jesus tells about the two sons, asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One of them says all the right things - he simply doesn’t put them into practice. The other says “No,” but is ready to have his mind - and his heart - changed.

Jesus asks, which of them does the will of his father? The people he asks give him an answer - but perhaps it’s odd that Jesus doesn’t say whether they get the answer right. I wonder what you think? Which son do you think gets it right? Which son do you identify with? But beyond our desire for the ready answer, Jesus simply keeps prodding us: what do you think? what answer are you ready to give me?

No comments: