Faith, community and humanity

Sometimes, as a preacher, I look at the lectionary readings and my first thought is err, what have these readings got in common? This happened this week. The reading from the epistle at first glance looks to have little, or nothing, in common with the Gospel.

But, maybe it does.

I also think the epistle and gospel readings also have real significance post the horrific and homophobic murders in Orlando, and the appalling murder of MP Jo Cox. Jo's husband Brendan said on Thursday 'hate doesn't have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.'

The epistle  is possibly one of the most quoted, most loved passages from St. Paul. It is Paul at his theologically most radical; it is Paul seeking to make sure that he hammers home the message that 'in Christ' there is no room for hatred based on any aspect of our humanity. It is Paul saying that as long as we are focused on Christ, through faith, there is room for plurality of ideas, so long as they conform to the standards demanded by grace and mercy. It is Paul saying that it is not legitimate to impose our thoughts, sub doctrines, ideology and preferences on others.

It is important to remember that Paul writes as a Jew, but for the Gentiles. Paul inhabited a world where the law, and the micro details wrapped up in the law, counted for everything. In Paul's world there was little room for diversity and inclusivity; hospitality even. Who you were and how you behaved counted for everything and, especially your salvation. If you were deemed through the law to be an outsider in this world your lot would continue into the next.

And yet, Paul stresses  that faith and not the law is the universal route to salvation. Paul it should be noted is not suggesting that faith means throwing away the law, and collapsing into the worst excesses of moral relativism, but he is saying that faith and its implications come first. It is our faith that unites us with Christ and allows us, the Body of Christ, to be a blessing in and for humanity; to be a blessing to and for the world is our religious vocation. Yours and mine.

Faith, for Paul, changes everything. Without faith all we are left with is technique, a long and impossible list of does but more importantly don'ts. Without faith we are, like the demonic, trapped. The Demonic, who the religious community deemed to be the ultimate outsider, shows us that no one, no one at all, stands outside of God's radical hospitality and grace. 

Faith changes our very conception of God; 'therefore now faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.' Grace and mercy now become the watchwords. Through faith we receive God's grace and His mercy. That is the good news.

It is the good news that set the demonic free, for the demonic, in stark contrast to the religious elite, with their insistence on the law and human rankings, recognised that Jesus is the 'Son of the Most High God.' Belief in Jesus sets us free; all of us, without exception.

But free to what end? Free, again like the formerly demon possessed man, to proclaim the gospel, to 'declare how much God has done,' to be a blessing to all. Free to fulfil our true vocation.

Faith, and faith alone, is our entry ticket into the communion of saints, God's holy family. You, and I, are members of God's family simply because we are believers, because we have faith. Faith it seems goes hand in glove with inclusivity and acceptance. Faith and faith alone bring us back to the hospitality of God. And such radical hospitality is open to all, irrespective of human and temporal identity markers.

'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And, if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.'

The problem is that so often the world, and the religious world in particular, doesn't want to believe this, preferring tribal identities leading to schisms.  We sometimes prefer the minutiae of the law to  faith, the consequence of which is mercy, grace, inclusivity and the radical  hospitality of God, first made available through us in the here and now. That is our vocation as people of faith.

Legalistic thinking can be far easier to deal with, offering fixed points of artificial certainty whereas the consequences of faith grace, mercy, inclusion, hospitality are ever fluid, ever progressive, ever challenging and, ever disquieting. Faith cannot leave us securely in one place, instead it leads us on eroding all certainties save one.

All faith gives us is the one great certainty; Jesus. And, we know that Jesus disbarred no-one from his love, mercy and grace. The story of the demonic tells us so.

The concept of 'there is no….' is open to misuse. Some suggest that because 'all of you are one in Christ Jesus,' we need no longer own or claim or temporal identity markers. For me this is a cruel and depersonalising theology, one which refuses to accept that all of our differences are held together in one larger family, the family of faith, even the family of humanity. Paul never ceased to own his own Jewish background, neither did Jesus. No one should be forced to disown their basic core identity.

As people of faith we need to ask ourselves what it means to celebrate – not merely accommodate or tolerate -  diversity and, to exercise radical  hospitality. St. Paul was writing to a highly polarised community in Galatia. He was keen to stress that Jews, Greeks, male, female, slave and free were all to be afforded the hospitality of God. Paul was addressing the big issues of his day, for in his world Gentiles, females and slaves were all regarded as second, even third, class citizens.

Paul's basic point is simply this: before God there is no such thing as a second, or even third, class citizen. Each and every one of us is first class: 'in Christ there is no….'

So our contemporary challenge , and I think it is a global challenge, is to identify those groups who some, mistakenly and catastrophically, deem to be outside the hospitality of God, and then to challenge ourselves: 'are we still acting as disciplinarians, asking people to live under the force of man made and depersonalising laws?'

For our role, calling and vocation, as people of faith is to be agents of grace, mercy and the radical hospitality of God, extending his love and blessing to all, for that is what it means to live as a person of faith. That is what it means to be the Church.

 

Amen.

 

(Begin with the Prayer for the Queen from the BCP)

 

There can be little doubt that her majesty has taken into the heart of her vocation the Christian values we have heard about in today's Gospel reading (Luke 22, 24-27) & the reading from the book of Proverbs (8, 1-116). The queen has never sought to Lord it over her subjects, she performs her role with wisdom, dignity and humility. But, also I suggest passion and commitment. She is after all the monarch who suggested in the 2012 Queen's Speech that our response to God's love for us, made manifest in the life and death of Jesus Christ should simply be this: 'to give him my heart.'

Elizabeth recognises that even as monarch she also serves that 'other country' she first 'heard of long ago.' So should all Christians. Again to paraphrase from I Vow to Thee My Country the Queen has understood that she has a vocation to bring into the here and now 'all heavenly things above.' So should we. It's what we pray for in the Lord's Prayer: 'thy will be done, thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.'

Christianity is central to the Queen's identity and, we should always remember that the Queen is 'Supreme Governor of the Church of England,' and, 'Defender of the Faith.' So as members of the C of E we have a double reason to celebrate her birthday. But, she is no narrow minded defender of the faith. The notion of hospitality, one of our aspirations, is central to Her Majesty's understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Listen carefully to the words she used when opening the 2012 Lambeth Conference:

'The concept of the established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.'

 

Let's pause and reflect on the Queen's mental model of what it means to be the Church of England:

Passionate about the good news of Jesus Christ, fostered through its own distinctive spirituality. Evangelical in inviting all to give their hearts to Jesus Christ.  And yet, simultaneously hospitable to all. Concerned, always, for the Common Good, and desirous to cooperate with any person, group or faith who shares that aim. Humble and gentle in the exercise of its leadership.

Is this a mental model we could share?

Could we go further and make sure it is woven into the very fabric of how we do Church here, in this community, for this community?

I think, hope and pray so.

If we can dare to be this sort of Church we will do Her Majesty proud, we will give due honour to her years of loving service, and like Her Majesty we will help shape and enduring legacy. We will give back to the Queen a real and lasting present; the sort of present that cannot be stolen or eroded away.

And there is one other present we can give the Queen; our prayers. Our prayers are the only present the Queen has ever asked from us. In the Foreword to 'The Servant Queen' – our church present to you – Her Majesty reflects:

'In my first Christmas Broadcast in 1952, I asked the people of the Commonwealth and Empire to pray for me as I prepared to dedicate myself to their service at my Coronation. I have been and remain very grateful to you for your prayers and to God for his steadfast love. I have indeed seen His faithfulness.' Note what the Queen is really saying, 'our' prayers, have helped her to both know God, and to fulfil her vocation. So prayer really is a wonderful present.

So let's keep a short period of collective silence during which we give thanks for the life and witness of  Queen Elizabeth II, both as Monarch and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, to 'give him' our hearts and to commit ourselves to the service of humanity, here in this place.

 

Amen.

Let me start by asking a question. Is there anybody you consider to be a hero? It doesn't need to be someone famous, although it might be.  I think, although I am slightly guessing, heroes are afforded their status based on two criteria: what they do, or achieve and just as importantly how they achieve it. Sadly, I suspect that in today's culture many are more interested in what we might think of as 'mere achievement' rather than the character.

I think that there can be little doubt that Laurence quickly became a hero to the early church. Laurence is of course our patron saint. There is a chapel dedicated to St. Laurence in Salisbury Cathedral and, the ancient European Cathedrals of Genoa, Lugano, Prague and Trogir (Croatia) are all dedicated to St. Laurence. In more recent times the cities of Amarillo (Texas) and Berthangandy (India) have also taken the name of St. Laurence. When Sadiq Khan was installed as Mayor of London in Southwark Cathedral, the Dean saw fit to invoke the spirit of St. Laurence.

And yet, St. Laurence was not an ecclesiastical high flyer. He wasn't an archbishop, bishop or even a priest. He was a deacon. He never rose above the first rung ladder on the church's ladder of hierarchy. Maybe he would have done in time, who knows, but his martyrdom got in the way.

His martyrdom got in the way because he understood what the gospel is all about. He knew that you cannot serve two masters, you either serve God, by following in the footsteps of Jesus, or you serve yourself. He understood that God cares for the poor, the weak and the marginalised. He understood that the middle classes, of which he was a member, have an ethical responsibility to use their assets judiciously. He understood a basic Christian truth:

That assets should be used to help people, rather than people being used to to build assets.

'If you have many possessions make your gift from them in proportion, if few do not be afraid to give according to the little you have.'

'Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.'

The readings inform us that what is at stake is our own souls; it is our souls that the world wants to steal, not simply our 'stuff.'

Laurence had an eye for the common good. He understood that people are the treasure of the church. Its a lesson we all need to learn and re-learn. Loving service, hospitality to all, irrespective of worldly rank, status or achievement should be our central, Christian, concerns. Everyone in God's house deserves the best. No one should be treated differently; that's why its so crucial to the practice of our faith that we all share one common meal, the Eucharist. Its the one meal where everyone gets to eat and drink the same amounts from a common set of vessels.

It is my hope that this church will continue to regard St. Laurence as our local hero and to be inspired by his story. The story of this humble deacon must entourage us to embrace the dangerous and dirty pursuit of holiness. Like Laurence we need to look to the common good whilst regarding the poor, weak, rejected, different and marginalised as the treasures of the Church. As the reading from Tobit reminds us: ' do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you.'

And, if we are serious about a deacon shaped ministry we need to make sure we are active in the community, serving the community and its needs. I hope that St. Laurence week is a catalyst for our ongoing, diaconal, ministry.

As a 'good Anglican' I am going to leave the last word to Pope Francis, who in the following reflection captures the essence of Laurentian spirituality, the ministry of the deacon and the dirty work of holiness:

'I like to use the image of the field hospital to describe this church that goes forth. It exists where there is combat. It is not a solid structure with all the equipment where people go to receive treatment for both small and large infirmities. It is a mobile structure that offers first aid and immediate care so that its soldiers do not die.'

St. Laurence, I suggest, should for us, not simply be a name on our letter heading, but our hero of the faith, a Saint whose spirituality and influence lives on and informs our mission and ministry in, but more crucially for, this community and especially its most vulnerable members.

Amen.

 

Rev. Andrew Lightbown