Sermon by John Towler. Trinity 4. Hyde Church. 2017.
A disaster waiting to happen! That is how many residents at the Grenfell Tower Flats described their tragedy. I guess all of us might have had such words on our lips to describe such occasions we have experienced or witnessed. How often have you found yourself angry and frustrated that you have been or are not be listened to and understood? We are left feeling disappointed and powerless. Those of you who have experience of teenage children, dogs with cloth ears, and partners with selective hearing will know what I mean. Or you have played Chinese whispers and end up with a distorted and misunderstood message. A tragedy waiting to happen or a distorted misunderstood message!
Well, St. Matthew records such an event in this morning’s gospel reading. ‘To what shall I compare this generation?’ It would seem that the ‘generation’ Jesus speaks of is the whole of humankind. He likens it to a children’s game in which girls on flutes invite boys to dance the wedding dance and in which wailing boys call upon the girls to sing a funeral dirge. But the boys do not respond to the flutes, nor the girls to the wailing. Both groups refuse to play the game. This brings the response: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’. How does this parallel the situation with John the Baptist and Jesus? It would seem that John comes preaching with a message of mourning and repentance: Jesus announces joy and the presence for the kingdom and invited others to join him to enter into it. John the Baptist is vilified as having a ‘demon’ and Jesus was clearly known for being good company at parties and the disreputable company he kept. Both invitations to this generation fall on deaf ears-the messengers are ignored. A disaster waiting to happen!
Despite the poor response to Jesus what he is doing and has done is vindicated. It is those who are not ready to respond favourably that are the losers.
John the Baptist and Jesus had come proclaiming the good news of the establishing of God’s kingdom in the world. Jesus is drawing attention to his first hearers and us today that refusing to listen, hear and understand the good news is an option which many are choosing. Jesus has called his church into being, expressly to proclaim the good news of God’s love. Those of us here this morning have been granted sight, and some us glimpses, of that love. With that sight and those glimpses comes responsibility.
I have written elsewhere in the Avon Valley Partnership Magazine my views on how we are doing in the Church of England. Some of it I fear is a different view which I find is being promulgated in the wider Anglican Communion and especially in our Church of England.
It all hinges on how we see the role of the church in modern society. In recent years I believe the church has panicked about numbers and we have had prophets of doom telling us that we belong to a dying church so we had better do something fairly dramatic. First let me say, I do not believe the church is dying. Second that I firmly believe that whatever fragile, tired, energetic, failing, exuberant body we at times might feel to be, we are in St. Paul’s words an expression of ‘the body of Christ’. Whatever the numerical strength of the church, it will always be the ‘body of Christ’ in the world-a body of people in every locality seeking to worship God with thankful hearts and feeding those in need whoever and wherever that need presents itself love one of Sydney Carter’s songs (same guy who wrote the Lord of the Dance) when he writes, ‘The poor of the world are my body’ he said. This does not mean we do not have to pay attention to how we utilise our resources financial, human and spiritual. This does not mean that we need to constantly review the worship we offer, the way we express the good news of the gospel in word and action. This does not mean that we can neglect the findings of modern science with all its wonders and seemingly unanswerable questions. For example, much of hymnody still reflects a three tier universe, knowledge which science rejects.
What I want to say next is not meant to be a dig at the modern church but simply to offer some thoughts about the direction in which we are travelling. In this I have been inspired by the writing of Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christ’s College, Oxford in a book called the ‘Future of Anglicanism; currents, contour and charts’.
In a way, to use an earlier metaphor, I want to invite you in a reflective dance about our modern church. At the heart of Martyn’s argument is that much of our current business with so much activity is that our church is being managed and organised like a business where Bishops become chief executives, Parish Priests become local managers and you the congregation assume the role of customers. This leadership model is a kind of rescue mission in the face of disaster about to happen. We have begun to measure God’s activity in terms of ‘targets’ and ‘missional outcomes’. We have unwittingly taken on the mantle of ‘success’ as a Godly criterion. So, for example, a church congregation of 12 might begin to be seen as a failure unless we can find ways of boosting the numbers.
Martyn Percy reminds us that Jesus was seldom interested in quantity and writes, “the kingdom is about enriching quality, even in small numbers”. I guess it is not a surprise. We live in a world obsessed with measuring this and peoples’ achievements numerically-health service, education, social care, police etc. It is easy amidst the daily bombardment of the importance of measurements to forget that the church’s primary task is twofold-the worship of God and the working to establish the kingdom of God with those values of love, forgiveness, and justice for all people. The mission of the church for me is about uncovering and sharing in the work that God is already doing in his world and with his people.
Here at Hyde your parish church is a jewel in the crown alongside all other churches. The building is a place where all can receive baptism, where young and old come to ask God for his blessing in marriage, where a community gathers to bid their fond farewells to those who have died. All who live here are members, some active, some occasionally active and some latent. Our job is to serve them unconditionally. They are welcome at all stages of their spiritual development, and those who might call themselves agnostic or atheist.
As well as communities of activity we need to be communities of quiet and contemplation as we ponder what God has in store for us. ‘To what shall compare this generation?’ says Jesus. Like Father Kerrigan in the ITV series ‘Broken’ much of what we do will not look like success to the world. In the end his community saw through him something of the vulnerability and brokenness of Christ.
So the gospel always comes with a public health: if our eyes are simply on swelling numbers to be successful we might just be missing the message. Committing to the gospel brings hard times as well as good. Like the children in the market place we need to dance with those mourn and dance with those who rejoice knowing that our gracious God goes before beckoning us to join him in the dance of life.