If you were in St Mary’s Fordingbridge for Christmas Eve midnight mass you heard me ask this question – so why are you here? Why are any of us here? Why are we not out there enjoying the third of a four day bank holiday weekend with friends and family maybe walking, or having a lazy morning in bed with Easter Eggs or maybe on holiday somewhere? I don’t know about you but this is my 10th visit to church in the last 8 days and I’ve missed at least 3 opportunities, – so what?
Last Saturday I was at Diocesan Synod, so I suppose I could add that to my tally. I listened to Bishop Graham Cray, the former Bishop of Maidstone who said among many other gems: “we join with Jesus as he worships the Father” and “we join with Jesus as he reaches out to the world”, “we join with Jesus as he worships the Father and we join with Jesus as he reaches out to the world”.
Well I for one and no doubt many of you have joined with Jesus to worship the Father, so I can tick that box but what about the second one – have I reached out with Jesus to the world?
Richard Rohr is a contemporary theologian and quite a few of the ministry team read his daily reflections that wing their way to us by email. Rohr has a theory that, first in Judaism, and then in Jesus, and following on from Jesus we have what he calls “a bias to the bottom”.
In her 90th year it would seem that we are going to celebrate the Queen endlessly. I should say at this time I am not against the royal family, I think on balance they have been an asset to this country, but I see posters “clear up for the Queen” and the Church of England , especially the Diocese of Winchester seems to be getting very excited about celebrating her birthday – and for that matter – why not, good on her, she should have had at least 20 year of doing exactly what she wants to do by now instead of continually having to open things and visit places she probably has no interest in whatsoever. And I suppose there is something much more symbolic about this “clean up” but here’s the thing – what does it mean to us – to you and to me – what will we gain from it, how will we end up better people from it?
If you think I have forgotten it is Easter Day please bear with me for a little longer.
What does “bias to the bottom” mean? Let’s take a trip back to Moses, a shepherd looking after his uncle’s sheep. Moses encountered God in a burning bush and God told him he had to look after the people of Israel. Moses was at the bottom, from the bottom, he was no king. King David too was also a shepherd and something of a waster in his youth, we might have seen him as a troublemaker in a hoodie.
And Jesus – well he was born to a poor woman and a poor man, he lived as a carpenter in a small dwelling amongst others whose one aim was to put bread on the table.
I want to take you to Ireland now, it’s 1845 and there is a famine which lasts for 3 years, 1845, 1846, 1847. The people are starving and the absentee government from across the water doesn’t care. – The result, a new movement to try to rid the Irish of the English which at Easter 1916 rose up for one week from Easter Monday, 24th April during which 500 people died, 2600 were wounded and 1800 ended up in British internment camps – from then on until 2005 there was armed struggle in Ireland – the bottom had spoken. The problem was that the bottom had not been recognised as needing help many, many years before, long before the masses became political, for in 1845 they were simply hungry, or more to the point starving. What they needed was a Moses or a David or a Jesus. What they got was war.
So here are we in 2016, 100 years after that rising in Ireland and what surrounds us – refugees – well actually they don’t because we have been keeping them out using the same small strip of water that saved us twice in the last century, as a barrier, and we are not alone – barriers, physical ones have gone up all over Europe. We might argue it is necessary to stop us being flooded with people who seem to think that Britain, more than anywhere else in the world is the Promised Land. We might argue that we already have too many Poles, Estonians, Latvians and others from the EU. But who are we to claim that this is ours just through an accident of our birth?
Which, you will be pleased to learn brings me back to today, Easter Day. Today we are right to celebrate, for today sin is overcome, today liberty is proclaimed, the bitterness of two days ago is gone replaced by hope and joy, made all the better by chocolate.
But – there – you knew I couldn’t leave it alone for more than two lines didn’t you – but it has to mean something in practical terms. Let me quote you a verse or two I often quote from a gem of a little book in the bible, almost at the end, the book of James. We can’t tie down who exactly James was but he has been called over many years “James the Just”. Chapter 2 and verse 14 “My brothers, what good is it for someone to say that he has faith if his actions do not prove it? Can that faith save him? Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in you saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!” – if you don’t give them the necessities of life? So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.”
So I come back to where I began, and the very good Bishop Cray – we accompany Jesus and join with him to worship the father, tick in the box, and we join with Jesus as he reaches out to the world? – really, honestly and truthfully, tick in the box – maybe not? Remember those verses from James the Just – So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.”
Do we have Jesus “bias to the bottom”? I’m tempted to say “no”. Yes we put a few items in the box at the back for the foodbank, and thank you for that, yes we put money in the Christian Aid envelope and no doubt we support other charities that support the poor amongst us – but, have we lost that connection – the real connection with the bottom, or maybe we have never been connected, or perhaps we have escaped it and never want to go there again.
Well – you might say – Mark you are a woolly liberal, let’s do as you suggest, let’s let them all in and wreck the health service and see crime rise and racial tensions, and people doing things that their culture accepts but ours doesn’t. Let’s risk our safety and downgrade our community, let’s see thousands wiped off our property values, and then we can come and say to you – “where did that get us?”
Well if all we do is let them in then I agree with you, it will get us nowhere – for the point is this – we have to join with Jesus and reach out to the world. Today is the perfect day for us to decide to do that. We of course have to decide what we will do but “James the Just” tells us that we have to take action – ah well he wrote that a long time ago – so what? – so what, it is in our bible and the people who are at the bottom still exist, that’s so what.
“Fine words” – I hear you say, but what can we do? We are just ordinary Joes and Josephines. Well I have news for you, so was Abraham, so was Jacob, so was David, Mary, Rahab the prostitute, Moses. Until Jesus came along and since he was taken from us it has been ordinary people who have led the charge, not kings or queens.
Let me tell you a story and let’s see who can guess who this person is:
He was born on 17 December 1936 in Buenos Aires. He was the eldest of five children born to an Italian immigrant accountant born in in Italy’s Piedmont region; and an Argentinian mother. His father’s family left Italy in 1929, to escape the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini. Before joining the Jesuits he worked as a bar bouncer and as a janitor sweeping floors. In the only known health crisis of his youth, at the age of 21 he suffered from life-threatening pneumonia and three cysts. He had part of a lung excised shortly afterwards.
Are you with me yet – yes the night-club bouncer is now the most holy pontiff of the Catholic faith – Pope Francis. As I have said before – a man who when he learned he was pope made sure he sent his friend the money he owed him for his newspaper bill, refused to move into the palatial apartment assigned to the Pope, refused the red silk shoes, and who drove around in America in a Fiat 500. But he has done much more than this, he has kissed the feet of prisoners, he sold his Harley Davidson to raise money to start a soup kitchen in Rome, he regularly leaves the Vatican to be with the poor, and personally rang and spoke to a rape victim, and a small boy who evaded the security during a huge mass, he put on his throne and invited him to stay there for the rest of the mass. He doesn’t need to do any of this but he shows us what it is to give “the necessities of life” as “James the Just” said. All the things the Pope has done we can do, none of them are extra-ordinary in themselves.
So here is our chance today – we have been freed from our sin, we have been given a new chance, our slate was wiped clean on Friday but it will start to gain a negative list on it again if all we do is carry on as we have before. Will you do something? I have one real question for you today and it’s one I am going to come back to throughout the year so you won’t escape as you walk out the door today– what will you do this year to join Jesus as he reaches out to the world? For if you don’t, if I don’t, then there is absolutely no point in coming here. I don’t want to end on a negative, so I wish you all a very Happy Easter and when you leave please take with you a small box of Lindt chocolates from my friends at Lindt who very kindly donated some after dinner chocolates to an event I was running and someone couldn’t count. And if you think that you are taking chocolate from those who the foodbank serves, panic not, they sent us 35 pallets of chocolate this week, so there is plenty for all. Amen.
Some believe he planned to overthrow Caesar. Others say he was the Messiah, sent to liberate the world from the powers of darkness.
His followers claim he came back to life after his brutal execution, and walked among them. His enemies say his body was stolen and remains hidden.
2000 years on, it’s time to reopen the case on Jesus Christ.
Click here to think about the Question: Where do you Stand?
You may need to read the following scripture alongside this sermon (Genesis 28: 10-19a and John 1: 35-51) Also when I say “this” at the beginning I refer to the church building!
Is Jacob responsible for all this? Would we have avoided English Heritage without him setting up the stone that had been under his head as a memorial that God was in that place? Has Jacob confined us all in these buildings and tied his stone as a mill-stone around our necks?
No, it wasn’t Jacob because he realised God was everywhere and more importantly inside all of us – we are his temple and as is everything around us and he suddenly realised that this life was the key to heaven. When he said that where he woke up was a terrifying place he meant awesome not terrible and frightening and I suspect he was somewhat panic stricken at his own lack of perception to this point.
So why have we locked him in all these places which take up so much of our cash and our time? Well before I get too much on my hobby-horse, what is the most identifiable thing that alerts people to Christendom, these amazing buildings in almost every village, town and city across the Christian world, so it’s not all bad is it. Of course the church – the building can be an amazing thing if it isn’t just seen as a pile of old stones rooted deep in the past. What I’m going to say next is ONLY my opinion and it’s entirely ok for you to think I’m wrong, and I might be. Oh how I wish when we had the new window above the heating vent that we had looked forward to the future and not back to the past, exactly 100 years before the turn of the year we were actually celebrating in 2000. In 500 years we will give the impression we were Victorians, not Elizabethans. And to my mind that’s our problem – we treat these places as shrines to the past and the net result has been English Heritage and their rules. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a historian, I like old buildings but for me, history is about the evolution of our society and everything changes, it doesn’t sit in aspic and neither should this place and others like it.
Our other reading sees Jesus meeting some of his new chums one of whom is taking shelter under a fig tree. This morning we also came across a fig tree in a parable Jesus told which I’m sure you know but as a reminder goes like this – A man owned a vineyard and in the vineyard was also a fig tree but at three years old it had yet to fruit. The owner thought it was a waste of space but the gardener suggested it could have just one more chance. He would dig around it to loosen the soil and then he would put some nutrient around it to see if that would encourage it to grow and he told the owner that if next year it hadn’t grown then the owner could, if he wished, remove it. Now the point was that the gardener knew the fig tree was likely to fruit in its fourth year because it usually takes 4 years for most varieties to fruit so would it have fruited anyway, was the gardener simply helping the owner to have some faith rather than just nurturing the tree? Well we assume that had the story continued, the tree would have produced figs for the following year and many to come. Nathaniel was sheltering under a fig tree when he met Jesus and Jesus told him that meeting him was far from spectacular and that he would see angels going up and down in heaven, making truth of Jacob’s dream.
The fig tree took time to grow and then it produced fruit. It started out as a small sapling and over time it grew and the one Nathaniel sheltered beneath had grown tall enough to protect him from the sun and I guess produced a good crop year on year. That tree changed over time and the more it changed the more bountiful it became. In my view – and again you are free to disagree, this is our fig tree. It isn’t as spectacular as what we will see in heaven but it is capable of growing and producing new fruit year on year, but only if we accept that its shape will change, that at times it may need a prune to cut out disease and to re-invigorate it for the future. From time to time its old fruit will drop off and be replaced with new fruit. It will change but it will still be the same tree but it won’t look like it did the day it was planted. And if it does change then it can be the gateway to heaven not just for the 20 or so here this evening but to many, many more for God is here and God is here (inside us). We too change, we too must move forward. Sometimes that’s a pain until we learn to cope with the change, but now I can watch a programme I would have missed 30 years ago just by pressing a few buttons on my TV, watching it whenever it suits me. I can also watch it on the train on my I-pad and even on my phone, and I can use my phone as a wallet on the underground and as a watch, an alarm clock, a means of seeing my grandchildren 200 miles away and talking to them as well. If all this changes then why not the very place of God who has created everything including my Samsung Galaxy mini and my Ipad. Nathaniel was amazed and Jesus told him that was nothing compared to what was to come.
And as I said to the congregation in Breamore this morning with my tin hat on and my Kevlar vest hiding behind a state of the art riot shield, unless we take this church (us) outside this church (the building) once the current crop of figs has fallen off, we won’t see a new crop. There has just been another doom and gloom report about our falling numbers, but they ignore all those people at Puddle Ducks on a Thursday and those who come after school to Boost and those who come to Lent Lunches when they don’t usually come to church, but of course if we go out there with this church (us) and are willing to be opened up we can meet so many more. This morning’s first lesson was about God telling Israel that as his chosen they had to invite others in, and to do that they had to ask those people, and they had to go to where those people were to ask them along. This of course (building) makes it more difficult because we can’t see them and they can’t see us, so maybe we should say “to hell with English Heritage” we will have a nice glass window all along this wall so we can see out and others can see in”, but better still we can go out there. I did a project some years ago for a course I went on and I called the project “the step of terror” – it’s this step here, it’s the one where many of us leave our courage behind (not everyone) and where others can’t find enough courage to come in here and pass over it. Peter Murphy drew me a cartoon of it which I still have.
So go plant your rock in the pub, in the co-op, where you work, where you play, where you meet others, and then dig it up and take it somewhere else. It might get chipped, it might have a few edges knocked off, but so what, for it is not a memorial as Jacob’s was but a living thing that can bring others to God. And pray God we have the courage to do with this place what God needs us to do with it, to use it to his glory rather than to look after it as if we’d never been here. Amen
Today we are being asked to consider the relationship between Christians and the Community.
Socrates apparently once said: “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing”. Donald Rumsfeld, one time American Secretary of State for Defence took this a stage further and said:
“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”
I might go further and say the latter are impossible because we will never know what we don’t know.
If we look at the Isaiah passage God is explaining to people that they don’t know what they don’t know – “Why spend your wages and still be hungry” he says, the implication being, it’s not because you haven’t enough money to feed yourself, it’s that what you feed yourself on will never satisfy you however much you have of it, and also as a result you will never know what you are missing – you don’t know what you don’t know. You may be perfectly content in your ignorance but you will be missing out.
In case you think I sound like Sir Humphrey Appleby in “Yes Minister”, I will try to make more sense from now on! What is it they say about the British and the Americans – two great nations separated by one language?
But back to Isaiah, God says “come to me and I will really show you life, I will bless you.” But here’s the rub – he then says “Now you will summon foreign nations; and in our terminology in 2016 – you will summon those in your community who do not know me, God. He goes on to say that if you invite them they will come running.
So my question is – where are they, I don’t see them do you? So what conclusion might we draw – well one could be that we haven’t asked them? Have you asked them? God is quite clear, if Isaiah has heard properly, as he says next “I will make this happen”.
So let’s fast forward to Jesus and the parable of the unfruitful fig tree. My rudimentary knowledge of genus Ficas suggests to me that most figs do not fruit for at least four years. So the first thing to note is that the man who owned the vineyard was ignorant of the fruiting pattern of fig trees because his had only been in the ground for three years, so it was unlikely it would already have fruited. The gardener does have more knowledge though, I wonder who the gardener is, and he clearly has knowledge, could he be God? And what is the fig tree, is it the church? Does he already know the fig will in all likelihood fruit next year anyway, or does he do something to give the owner something tangible to hold on to, to help the owner believe? He says, “I tell you what I’ll do, I’ll feed the little tree with some goodness but before that I will loosen the soil around it a little and that will help the goodness to get in. But, if it doesn’t fruit next year then you can have it removed if you want to.”
So is that why we aren’t all squashed in here like sardines? Is the time about to come and we should be patient? If you read the research around current church attendance that seems unlikely as we are told that attendance continues to drop. But wait a minute – how are we being counted – on a Sunday, but many churches who are forward thinking meet at many times apart from Sunday. You only have to drive four miles down the road to Fordingbridge several times a month and you will find both toddlers and their parents and infant and primary school children and their parents doing church, but they aren’t in the numbers.
In Fordingbridge the people have dug around their fig tree – the church, and opened it up to some new goodness – that goodness happens outside the church, in the hall as well as inside the church and it happens on different days to Sunday. The people have opened up the church to new possibilities because they have moved away from just Sunday and the church is now fruiting. Fordingbridge is a very small example – there are many churches across this land that have moved away from their central stem – the church building and are flourishing because they as they have moved further out they have met the people who don’t know what they don’t know.
Bishop Tim has set us all on a journey and I get a sneaking feeling he did know what we didn’t know. Maybe until last year you didn’t feel very involved but now you have your sections of the pMAP to focus on. The point is this – if all you continue to do is to come here on a Sunday it won’t be long before no-one is here because these beautiful walls not only keep us in but they avoid us reaching out and no-one out there can see in. I notice that part of your plan is to make a bigger link with the school – not just Ian, or Gary, Rachel, John, Nicky and occasionally me when I take an assembly but each and every one of you. You now have the opportunity to dig wider round this building as far as the school and maybe the Bat & Ball and let some goodness in. The people might think it is a bit smelly to begin with but in time new growth will sprout and the main stem will grow, but not before, to go back to Isaiah, we have welcomed in the foreign nations by going out to see them. I shall look with interest at what you do in the coming months.
Of course the big question is – are you up to be that smelly manure, not very welcome at the beginning but in time turning what is barren into something that flourishes and pours forth fruit? Community exists all around us, we can offer much to it but we have to let it know what we have to offer,, we have to welcome it by giving it some extra encouragement and we can’t do that by trying to do it from in here. We have to let it know what it doesn’t know. Maybe you now think I have created a stink that you would rather not have – well if so you can throw me out.
And I’m going to finish now where I’ve potentially been the whole time – in a controversial place. By being in community within this partnership will make the journey into community easier. The vineyard in the parable has vines in it and at least one fig, they exist close by to each other, sharing the same soil – do the three parishes in our patch of ground exist as different things that live in the same place but do not entwine or do we travel between churches, support each other, see ourselves as one united patch of fruitful ground or do we say “I’m a grapevine, or I’m a fig and we don’t need to have anything to do with each other?” If I’m honest, and I might as well be as I am probably deep in the manure already – I think we remain, after what 10 years – separated. I’m not saying we should all be grapes or figs because there is room in God’s acre for all, but the point is we share that acre for the mutual benefit of all:
“For the body itself is not made up of one part, but of many parts. If the foot were to say, because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body, that would not keep it from being a part of the body…God put every part in the body just as he wanted it to be. There would not be a body if it were all only one part. As it is there are many parts but one body…so then the eye cannot say to the hand – I don’t need you…if one part suffers all the other parts suffer with it, if one part is praised all the other parts share its happiness.”
So says St Paul to those not just in Corinth but to us in Hale, Woodgreen, Godshill, Breamore, Sandleheath and Fordingbridge.
If we are community, we can be community, not just as Christians but right through the community in which we live. Amen.