16 September 2018 Sermon for Proper 19, (St Nicholas, Great Wilbraham & St Vigor, Fulbourn)

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

May I speak in the name of the (+) Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It was my great fortune, or possibly misfortune, to discover one day on the Internet a sermon by the great American preacher and theologian Fred Craddock. That sermon, on the passage from Mark’s gospel we heard today, shook my beliefs and in particular my view of the church and the church’s mission. One line struck me in particular:

“It is faulty thinking that says the death of Jesus is the life of the world, and the death of the church is the end of the world.”

So much to think about. Is the death of the church a possibility? What would that even look like?

Looking at the news recently, things don’t look all that rosy. Less than two weeks ago we heard in the papers that the Church of England is facing a generational catastrophe. Only 2% of young adults identify with it, and 70% of under-24s say they have no religion.

Could we be seeing the beginning of the end? Whether it is that or not, we seem to be firmly set on playing the numbers game in the church. Every new central initiative now seems to be about boosting numbers: “going for growth”, “reform and renewal”, “raising the spiritual temperature”.

This all feels some way from the words spoken by Jesus in today’s gospel reading “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If we are involved in a quest to save the Church of England from collapse have we taken Jesus’ message seriously? “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “a church which fights for its self-preservation, as though it were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world”. In other words, a church which fights for its self-preservation can’t preach the gospel.

And at times, it really does seem that the way the Church of England approaches its mission aims as self-preservation above everything else. If we do enough stuff, if we put on interesting activities, if we get enough people in, we’ll be OK. The church will be OK. The church will survive. We want to save our church so much, but could that desire be sucking the life out of it?

We will never be the ones that give the church life: only Christ can do that. Our work, our mission, in the church involves being sent by One who is faithful, and remaining faithful to Him. In Matthew’s gospel, think of the Great Commission where Jesus sends out the disciples, saying “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. Or in John’s gospel where Jesus after he has been raised says “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

We are sent by Jesus, because he was sent by God the Father. We are missionary people, we are a mission-shaped church, only because God is a missionary God. The only mission possible for the church is the mission that God has already begun by sending His Son.

If we are to continue in this, then our mission must be Christlike, it must be Jesus-shaped. No aspect of Christ’s mission can be ignored, so the mission of the church will necessarily draw in Christ’s Incarnation; His Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension; the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; and then Christ’s second coming when his mission will be completed.

In today’s gospel, Jesus talks about being killed, and on the third day rising again. The crucifixion and resurrection are both in view. But it is the horror and shame of crucifixion that really looms over us here – deny yourself and take up your cross.

Who in the church wants to hear that? Peter certainly didn’t sound very keen.

When Peter recognises that Jesus is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, Jesus first tells Peter to keep his mouth shut, then tells him that he must be rejected, suffer and die. Oh, and Peter can tell as many people as he wants about that. Then, when Peter acts all concerned, Jesus calls him Satan! It only gets worse: not only must Jesus die, but his followers must give their lives as well.

Of course, Peter panics. He runs from the idea of a dead Jesus, just as he denies Jesus three times and flees before Jesus is led to his death.

Peter here takes the role the church has filled ever since: running from the idea that self-sacrifice and self-denial are needed to partake in God’s mission. Denying that there is a cross for the church to take up and bear.

“It is faulty thinking that says the death of Jesus is the life of the world, and the death of the church is the end of the world.”

I think of that line from that sermon every time I hear of a new initiative.

Or if you prefer the words of Jesus to those of Fred Craddock:

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Does “going for growth” sound more like a survival exercise, or losing our life for the sake of Christ and for the gospel?

Focussing on the cross does not mean we have forgotten the resurrection, but one cannot happen without the other. There would be no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. We do not know what resurrection may look like for the church in the 21st century, but as long as our survival instinct denies the need for the cross we may never know.

What might a church bearing its cross actually look like? It was former Archbishop William Temple that said, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” So, in one sense it would look like a church for others, not for ourselves. Who does the church use its time, its people and its money for? Itself, or for others?

Are we in the business of saving our lives, or giving our lives? What does that mean, give your life? I turn again to Fred Craddock:

“What does that mean, give your life?
I think it means being able to empty your pockets for someone else’s children.
I think it means to treat as mother and father those who are not really your mother and father.
I think it means to claim as brother and sister people to whom you’re not kin.
I think it means to reach out and touch untouchable people as far as our society is concerned.
I think it means to sit at table with people who live far outside the tight social circle of some of your friends, and break bread together.
It means to continue to give money to others, even when the paint is peeling in the sanctuary.
I think it means that…”

I think so too.

9 September 2018 Sermon (St Vigor, Fulbourn)

How should we pray?

I heard a sermon recently, where the preacher said “Prayer is easy”. I thought, “Well, it isn’t for me…”

One of the few people I’ve known who made prayer look easy was my grandmother Rosemary. She had a long list of people she prayed for every day. She spoke as if God was an old friend – they were happy in each others’ company. I was on her prayer list. That comforted me.

I hope one day I might have that same relationship with God my grandmother had. I don’t know exactly how I get there, but I think prayer might have something to do with it.

Why do we pray at all?

Jesus says “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Why is there any need to pray at all if the Father already knows what we need? God knows what we need, but do we know what we need ourselves? Prayer may be a part of working out what we really need. [We are not in the business of trying to change God’s mind when we pray. It’s not about changing God; it’s about changing us.]

When should we pray?

Jesus says “whenever we pray”, meaning regularly. [Jewish communal prayers of Jesus’ time would have been three times a day, like our pattern of morning, evening and night prayer.] Prayer is a habit that keeps us secure and grounded.

As well as prayer together, Jesus speaks about time alone. Throughout his life, he took himself away to deserted places to pray.

What should we pray?

It can be so difficult to think of what to say. The more I’ve learnt about prayer the less I try to make up on the spot. So many wonderful prayers have already been written. [Some people find the slower pace of writing down their prayers helpful.] Or prayer may just be resting in silence with God.

We can pray using the prayer Jesus himself taught us. Maybe saying it silently or aloud, or using it to direct our prayers. Praying it slowly line by line. Allowing each line to speak to us in some way.

Our Father in heaven
What does it mean for God to be our Father? Who else is God’s child? What does that mean for how we treat them?

Hallowed be your name
Offering God our worship. Joining Mary in the Magnificat: My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my Spirit has rejoiced in God my saviour.

Your kingdom come
Where are the signs of God’s way of doing things, the Kingdom of God, in our world today?

Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. As St Paul says, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Give us this day our daily bread
We thank God for feeding us with the Body and Blood of His Son Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. But why are we fed, when there are people who do not have enough to eat?

And forgive us our debts
None of us are innocent of wrongdoing. We come to God asking for forgiveness, and we receive it. As the 1st letter of John says, if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

as we also have forgiven our debtors
Christ on the cross forgave those who crucified Him. Can we do the same?

And do not bring us to the time of trial
Jesus prayed that the cup of his torment be taken from Him. It was not. Where was God in Jesus’ suffering? Where is God in the suffering of people today?

but rescue us from the evil one
The world is full of evil. Evil causes pain and suffering but with God all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well.

That saying of Mother Julian of Norwich “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well” was one of my grandmother’s favourite prayers.

How then should we pray?

Even as my grandmother got older and frailer she didn’t stop praying for everyone on her list. As she went from a chair to a bed, the list went with her.

As her voice began to fail others prayed for and with her. In the days before she died, I sat by her bed and said Evensong. She lay and listened, and prayed.

Her daughter, my mother, was with her when she died. My mother is not someone comfortable with making up prayers on the spot. But she felt called to pray out loud for her mother. What could she pray?

Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
For ever and ever.