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.

A sermon preached on the feast of Pentecost at St. Giles Church, Godshill 2017 by the Reverend John Towler

Tante agurri! Happy Birthday. Pentecost, Whitsunday is traditionally a day when we reflect on new life, on birth. The writer of Genesis reflects on the meaning of creation when he writes,

“…and the Spirit of God was moving over (or was hovering over) the face of the waters”.

St.Luke in his gospel story in announcing the birth of Jesus through the words of the angel writes,

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”.

And again St Luke in the book of the Acts of the Apostles records his version of the birth of the church, a community of followers of Jesus of Nazareth when he writes,

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance”.

The anticipation of births is exciting and full of apprehension for the child bearer and those who stand by to witness the miracle. Births are painful processes producing considerable discomfort, sometimes anxiety as the mother prepares to bring to life the new born within her. Each birth is different. Each birth signifies a new life to be lived, a new person joining and searching to belong to the human race. Each birth is so normal and so special that we set aside a day in which we seek hold on to the significance of the miracle of life. St Luke paints a vivid picture for us in metaphor of the first Christians awareness of the Spirit. The word ‘wind’ is the same word as ‘breath’. God in Christ is as present to them as close as breathing. The Greek translation is ‘pneuma’ reminiscent of pneumonia and a pneumatic drill and the considerable power unleashed by it. Why ‘tongues of fire’? One explanation is found in a rare book in the Apocrypha, the Book of Enoch where ’tongues of fire’ refer to the indwelling of God in his temple-hence, tongues of flame representing the indwelling of God in his people.

As Jean Vanier writes, “There is a universal I hidden in the depths of every human soul, an I who gathers all together….fragile, secret, silent like the flame of a candle. And that is the true God.”

So it is right that today we as a Christian Community here should celebrate its birth once again. As we celebrate the Church birthday in today’s complex cosmopolitan world what have we to offer? Are we a dying institution or are we a spirit-filled community?

The spirit of truth is constantly prodding us to renew our perception of truth, cleansing our vision. We must confuse words as truth. We bring to words our experience and this makes it our truth. I use the word ‘prod’ advisedly. How much do we examine what we do and what we are for? What are we hanging on to which needs pruning? What questions are too difficult to ask? The message of the early church is that they found a new freedom from fear of others to boldly live by a set of values, kingdom values. How can we free up our Churches from encumbrances which tie us to old and worn out traditions and language? For me the Church is in danger of becoming too identified with a business model so that we are losing our spirit led freedom to respond in more spontaneous ways. Business like we must be as we are good stewards of our inheritance, but we are primarily ambassadors of the kingdom of God a way of being in the world and worshippers of Almighty God.

Hear the words of Martyn  Percy , Dean of Christ’s College, Oxford:

“Only when the church is free of impose ideologies and agendas, can it begin to reclaim an identity as an institution that radically speaks of and embodies God-rather than being consumed by shallower mission and management targets.”

If we give some time to contemplation and meditation we shall find that the Spirit will bring to birth in us riches beyond our imagining. One of the daily times I treasure is in the practice of contemplation, meditation call it what you will. I am talking about a conscious effort to allow yourself to be aware of the mystery of God present within you. This requires few if any words. We can fill our God time with so many words that if we are not careful we shall miss a sense of his presence. Yes, it requires an act of faith on your part to allow yourself to rest in him, to let him take over you rather than you trying to badger him. And you have to keep at it even when you feel empty, knowing that his spirit will never abandon us.

To be aware of God’s Spirit within us is to seek to connect with a power, a dynamism, an evolutionary force of love which alone will transform people’s lives. Allow him to bring to your awareness all the things you are grateful for, all the people who have enriched and continue to enrich your life and that of his church. “He will bring to mind all of which I have told you”.

That is a great gift for our world. Many will never know the source of their capacity to love and serve. They may never know loves name. But that does not matter. Your being there in the presence of God on their behalf is a way of being Christ for the world. John Taylor a former Bishop of Winchester put it like this,

“Love for life, love for the world, love for little things, love for people you have never met is actually brought to birth as you meditate on what you have known and experienced. It is the bread of our love that is produced by this quiet milling over, which is also the work of the Holy Spirit”.

The celebration of Pentecost alerts us to the disturbing nature of the God we worship. We are to be renewed, transformed ourselves and be renewing and transforming agents of the lives of others. We are Spirit bearers and as such we live by a set of values which some will find odd. We shall be tempted not to believe it is the Spirit.

We are in danger of becoming a busy church, a money raising church, a local tribe only concerned with its own life and continuity. Jesus challenged us with much weightier questions, questions that a coming Election we could well ponder on.

Who expects us to forgive those who offend us? Who expects us to place the marginalised and the poor of the world before the respectable of society? Who expects all races and religions to treated with respect and tolerance? Who expects us to go the extra mile? The church is seen by many as an odd community. Believing in the power of the Spirit will cost us. As we celebrate the church’s birthday let us reaffirm our commitment to those spirit led values which make us fearless, believing, peaceable, loving and accepting and spirit bearers for all God’s people. It is by the tongues of fire at Pentecost alone that we can have life and have it more abundantly. T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets gives the reason:

“Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove”.