Sunday, April 25, 2010

A church where everyone participates

A sermon preached at Highbury's Gift Day

Giving is right at the heart of our church life at Highbury. On two occasions in the year we have a special focus on giving. One is at Harvest when we share our giving between mission at Highbury and our commitment to the wider mission of the church, usually a mission partnership we are involved in in another part of the world.

Our focus at Gift Day is on the mission of the church here at Highbury, and very specifically again this year, funding the post of Pastoral Assistant.

We do not have any other sources of funding. We are who we are, we do what we do together, and we can afford what we can collectively afford together. All of us are invited to plan our giving through our giving scheme. That ensures a basic, you could call it, biblical, fairness. Each of us is encouraged to give as we are able. “Each of us must give as we have made up our minds, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide us with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything you may share abundantly in every good work.”

At Gift Day our giving involves a financial commitment. But giving at church is much broader and deeper than that. It is about giving of ourselves to another, to the wider world, and most importantly of all to God.

In my sequence of sermons prompted by John Pritchard’s book, Going to Church – a user’s guide, at the eighth thing he would go to the stake for in any church.

A church where everybody participates.

“There’s a church in Nebraska,” he writes, “which has only one resident. Elsie Eiler is in her seventies and is the town’s registered mayor, clerk, treasurer, librarian and licensee. She collects taxes from herself, grants her own alcohol licence,and single-handedly repairs the town’s roads. She says: “Some day this town will just be memories, but I like it here.”

“Some churches seem to be heading the same way, because there’s only one person who matters – the vicar, or the churchwarden, or the organist.

“The old do-it-all-yourself, command-and-control model of church life ought to be dead and buried.”

That is something I want to say a big AMEN to.

It is something that goes right to the heart of church life here at Highbury.

It is what we are about.

Everyone counts in the church family. Everyone has something to do.

A year ago we came up with a new way of working that has meant that each Tuesday morning we have a ‘team meeting’. Becky and I meet first for half an hour, and then we are joined by Sue, our Church Secretary, Roger, the Treasurer, Felicity with whom I share so much two of our Pastoral care team, Peter who does the room bookings – we just review the week.

Yesterday our Deacons met reflecting on the ideas more than fifty of us came up with at our Annual Meeting.

On Thursday evening we had Morton Brown room full of people who share in our visiting scheme.

Children’s work … in so many ways ours is a church where everybody participates.

But let’s just check ourselves for a moment.

I want to come back to John Pritchard’s book, It spoke to me not simply because it rang a chord. I also found it a challenge. All the way through. The kind of book that makes you take stock of where you are. And maybe think through where you are over again.

In ‘a church where everybody participates … ‘The old do-it-all-yourself, command-and-control model of church life ought to be dead and buried.”

I say a big AMEN to that.

But I then read on to the next sentence.

“It is, however, one of the aspects of church life most prone to resurrection.”

That was the sentence that caught my eye this week.

I hear in those words a warning note.

Felicity and I have been here nearly 19 years. The continuity that is reflected in that period of time was seen at the three churches day when our deacons met with the PCC’s of St Michael’s and St Luke’s as a strength. It is encouraging to hear that that’s the way it is perceived.

But alongside that sense of continuity is a danger we must all be aware of.

It is now more than two years since Becky joined us. She is entering into her third year. That’s great – we have benefited so much.

And on this Gift Day we reflect our commitment not just to Becky personally but to the concept of the shared ministry that is reflected in the appointment of a Pastoral Assistant.

But there is a danger. We have paid employees who will do that. We can leave it to them.

It is a question that we need to pose ourselves – do we leave too much to those who are paid in ministry? It is a question we need to pose ourselves.

And I believe it is a danger we need to avoid.

Let me take one specific example we need to give thought to. Becky has been appointed to focus on work with children and family. The work she has done in that area is immense. One major project is to enable a transition for those older ones in Junior Church so that we can extend and develop and also to reach out to others in the wider community. She has helped us work through that issue immensely. One key element has been Transformers. We share the work with St Luke’s. Effectively its leadership has been shared between the two paid employees – Wes the youth and children’s worker at St Luke’s, and Becky, our Pastoral Assistant.

It is wonderful that Wes’s wife, Becca, has been accepted to train for the Anglican ministry and they are therefore moving to Bristol to take up that training from September. That means Wes won’t be around. How do we support Becky in developing that work? That is an important and pressing question for us.

It relates to this wonderful vision of a church where everyone participates.

For me one of the great passages in the Bible that prompts our thinking along these lines is in Ephesians 4.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

I hear that appeal from Paul reaching out through the Ephesian church, down through the century to us. He begs each of us to be the people we are called to be.

As we explore this theme there should be no pressure.

Above all, there should be no sense of pushing square pegs into round holes. We are each of us to lead the life to which we have been called.

I love those characteristics – these are the characteristics of the kind of leadership, the kind of belonging that we all need to share – humility, gentleness, patience, love – the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

As each of us takes these words seriously, in whatever position we are in, then our church has the makings of a church where everyone participates.

This is, as John Pritchard suggests, not something for discussion. It is something that is the very essence of what ‘church’ is. This kind of unity, these character marks are not up for discussion as far as Paul is concerned. This is the very essence of church.

4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

That’s the basis for a church where everyone participates.

But. And there is a But.

Each of needs to recognize we are the people God made us to be.

7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

Who we are will shape what we do as we recognize what we are passionate about, what gifts we have, and what kind of a personality we have.

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,

At this point Paul homes in on one set of four gifts. On other occasions he enumerates many more gifts. We need to be aware of the great variety of gifts there are.

I guess this is one of my favourite passages because it includes the description that I have always felt describes best my gifts. As a pastor and teacher. The passage is a favourite ... and I come back to it today.

But interesting it contains within this passage the very challenge posed by John Pritchard’s comment.

Let’s see again what Paul goes on to say …

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,

12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Even at that very moment that Paul celebrates the very thing I feel called to I am challenged to return to the notion that no matter what our gift is everyone of us needs then to be concerned to share it for equipping everyone for ministry, for building up the body of Christ.

There has to be that empowering dimension to the kind of ministry I am called to that works towards involving everyone.

This is how John Pritchard puts it …

Leadership will be dispersed throughout the church’s life, although it will have a clear focus in the leadership team and the one who has been given final responsibility.

The bottom line for John Pritchard is this. I believe it needs to be the bottom line for us as a church too and for me in the ministry I share.

God is present in the wisdom and gifts of all God’s people, and the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A church with a sense of humour where love is all around!

I hesitate to follow on from Becky’s fun with the children. It was great fun seeing her re-telling of the story of Noah's ark with so many unexpected animals.

And as for the joke about opening the door ... that was one she had not actually run past me before the service!!!!

I must say I have enjoyed John Pritchard’s book, Going to Church

Among the ten things the Bishop of Reading would go to the stake for in any church is

A church with a sense of humour where they laugh a lot – mostly at themselves.

It’s very sad when people feel that on entering a church they have to take off their personality and leave it at the door. You catch a glimpse of that when young men, unaccustomed to church and dressed up uncomfortably for a baptism or wedding, are clearly enormously relieved to get outside, where you can almost see them shake off the formality and resume normality. Laughter in church would be deeply odd to them. But laughter is a gift that belongs to our humanity. It’s God-given and one of our greatest pleasures – as well as being good for our health. Humour should be alongside holiness as the ‘ground bass’ of our church life. Sometimes as I watch the Church acting out its protocols like vintage Gilbert and Sullivan, I think God must be hooting with laughter (if you’ll excuse the anthropomorphism) As if our formalities mattered.

Laughter is a gift that belongs to our humanity

My problem is … I am not good at telling jokes!

So I want to move on … to another of his statements and one that is very timely in the week when we are going to have our Visitors’ meeting.

John Pritchard is also adamant about another of the things to go to the stake for in any church …

A church where love is all around.

… even when it has to be expressed in forgiveness. Love is the litmus test of a church’s life. It tells you whether it has got the Jesus gene or not. Love is the projection of God’s life into the world and so it is one of the very few things that increases the more you give it away.

In each of his letters Paul comes to a point at which he seeks to apply the thinking behind his Christian faith to practical everyday living, not least the kind of living that is so necessary in a church family.

Coming towards the end of Ephesians that’s exactly the kind of thing he reflects on.

Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.

Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

There is so much that is precious in what Paul has to say.

I like the way that passage begins.

So then, putting away falsehood let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.

Paul has a very strong sense of belonging when it comes to the church. On a number of occasions he speaks of everyone who belongs to the church as if they were members of a single body. And in that body the seemingly least important members are just as important as the seemingly very important members.

But here the analogy he uses is a little different.

He is adamant – we are members of one another.

We belong to each other. We are part of each other.

When one hurts we all hurt.

That sense of togetherness is bound together by a sense of love.

How that works out in our church is key to the life of our church family.

We have a wonderful collection of church directories from about 1900 to about 1930. Not unlike in size or content the directory we continue to publish. One difference is that the church directory includes a listing of all the members and adherents with their addresses … and it includes the visiting district they are in and the church visitor.

Isn’t that fascinating.

Our present scheme of visiting districts goes back 50 years, but 100 years ago the church family was divided into visiting districts.

That notion goes to the heart of what we do to bind ourselves together as a church family.

Every 6 months the church visitors meet together for an evening when they compare notes and someone with a particular experience or speciality feeds in thoughts and ideas that can help build up the whole work of visiting. On Thursday we meet as church visitors and Deacons and will be joined by a friend of Kate Blazey who works with older people and is going to share with us on the support we can give and share with those who have dementia.

Someone who has been a visitor for quite a number of years is Katherine Stanley – she is going to say a few words about what it means to be a visitor.

Reflections on being a Church Visitor by Katherine Stanley

When we moved to Cheltenham, nearly 38 years ago, we visited some other churches and after a few months settled into Highbury. When new to a church, you don’t realise the organisation behind is, so I didn’t know all about the Districts and the Church Visitors, but I did know that every month a dear little old lady brought us our Highbury News. We lived in Beechurst at the time, and it was Marion Darvill, for those people who remember her.

Well, when thinking about what I was going to say this morning I realised that this dear little old lady, was probably about the age I am now!!!

After some years, I was asked if I could become a Church Visitor. As I enjoy meeting people I said yes.

Highbury has 12 geographical districts, each district having one Deacon and 1, 2, of 3 visitors, so that every person in Highbury can feel some connection with the church.

In this church, we have our own building, but this ccanot exist without people, because the people are the church, drawn together on Sundays and during the week as well so we are all connected through our Christian faith.

It is up to all of us to help each other feel welcome in our church, and the Church Visitors have a special tool to help them – it’s called Highbury News. This is a really valuable link, because as well as giving all the news about Highbury it enables the visitor to make contact with everyone in their patch, thus strengthening the Christian connection of love and care.

Another way of promoting the family feeling in Highbury is the way that the Visitors themselves have a meeting with the Pastoral Care team, usually twice a year, when there is a special theme, and the opportunity to hear about concerns in all the other Districts. I can assure you that no confidences are betrayed, but it is an extra way of helping that Christian family feeling.

It is interesting to see the kind of dynamic Paul envisages in a church family where we are all members of one another. It is not all sweetness and light, all cooey and lovey dovey.

Be angry … he has space for anger, but do not sin. That’s an interesting qualification. Maybe there are times when we can be angry – even with each other. But there is a line beyond which we not cross in our anger. When it turns bad – turns to sin.

Then comes that very wise advice – advice to be taken to heart in any family and in any church family.

Do not let the sun go down on your anger.

Interesting isn’t it the injunction about thieves giving up stealing. Isn’t that an interesting insight into the makeup of the church Paul knows he is writing to. It is not a repetition of the injunction ‘do not steal’. Paul envisages that a church family will be made up of a mixed bunch.

There is room for the thief – but the thief is to stop thieving and to share with the needy.

Then Paul comes back to what is said, what passes the lips …

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

That’s a wonderful measure of how we speak one with another, what we say to each other, and the tone in which we say it.

Building up – edifying. Words that give grace!

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit.

Things you do can make others not so much angry, as sad.

And they can make God sad.

Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.

Those are the negatives … but in place of the negatives paul then lists the positives. They are the things for us to take to heart in our conversation with each other, in our visiting scheme in the whole of our church family life.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.

What it all boils down to is that we be imitators of God, as beloved children, and that we live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for , a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

I love those words …we are called to live in love.

That’s what church is all about.

That’s worth going to the stake for.

John Pritchard recalls a doctor who once said that he’d been in general practice for 30 years and he’d never found anyting as effective as a prescription of love. “What if it doesn’t work?” he was asked. “Double the dose,” he replied.

Churches need to be places where such prescriptions are given out endlessly and inexhaustibly. If people don’t experience something different about the quality and character of loving in a Christian community, you can’t blame them for not taking their enquiries further. “God is love, and those who live in love live in god, and God lives in them (1 John 4:16). That sounds like a cast-iron argument to me, says John Pritchard.

At the heart of our church family life, at the heart of that church visiting scheme

Let’s live in love as Christ loved us.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Tears on Easter Morning ... but more beyond

Our theme for the Sundays leading up to Easter and through Holy Week has focused on the tears.

Jesus wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus.

Jesus wept when he saw Jerusalem. "Would that you had known the things that make for peace, but you did not."

Peter wept when be betrayed Jesus three times.

The women of Jerusalem wept as Jesus passed by.

The women who had accompanied watched and wept as he was crucified.

What I like about the Christian faith is that it is realistic.

It does not offer an escape from a world of weeping.

Instead, our Christian faith, offers us a way through that world.

Through Holy Week we have laid bare the cross at the front of our church. It has cast a shadow on the wall.

That shadow is a reminder to us that at times we all have to walk through the valley of the shadows.

But in the valley, in the darkness of the shadow, God is there, in Christ to accompany us along the way of weeping.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me.

It is only through the valley of the shadow that we can reach the glory of resurrection victory.

But that resurrection victory is assured ... and it is one we may share.

Yet even in the moment of resurrection victory there is still weeping.

Mary Magdalene weeps in the garden.

The two on the Road to Emmaus are 'downcast' and saddened with, maybe, tears in their eyes.

There is weeping on Easter day too. And the presence of Christ is with us in the weeping.

In our prayers we remembered those we know to be sad in bereavement. But we also remembered those who are in places of conflict, not least in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, in Palestine and Israel. Especially as we received greetings from friends in Bethleehm and the Scout group we have partnered with. A reminder that Bethlehem has been closed off this Holy Week to those wanting to worship in Jerusalem. And we shared the tears of those who were bombed in the Good Friday bombing attacks in and around Gaza.

Our commitment is to heed the Christians of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, of Israel and Palestine who through the Kairos Palestine document urge us to support them in their commitment to peace and to oppose those bent on violence, not least the violence of the settlement regime in the West Bank.

We walked again the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, the Way of Weeping, following the stations of the cross we had set out in the church.

Even on Easter Sunday we walked through the way of weeping to the cross and beyond to resurrection glory. And in doing that we shared that confident faith that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Nothing in the present or the future. No height, do depth. Nothing in life or in death. Nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light