Bilbo’s last song…
This is an incredibly difficult sermon to write. It feels part sermon, part goodbye, part end of term report, part I don’t know what. What do you say to people you love when you have to leave them? Maybe I should take Ruth’s advice, and say I love you and then sob for a bit?
Well I certainly I want to say that, although sobbing isn’t really my thing. But I also want to say something to you about God, for that is my purpose here. And on this New Year’s day, my final day, the thing that comes to me, is that God makes all things new. Because love is always new. And love is not always safe.
I was talking with some people from another church not long ago about evangelism. Many churches are medium sized, middle of the road in terms of worship, few children, that sort of thing, and are keen to grow. I said to one person, in the hope of encouraging them, after they had described their church, “so that’s your church, a church with 30 people in it. What would a church with 100 people look like? What would be different?” And they said, “there would be more people in it”.
They were wanting everything to remain the same, only with fewer financial worries, and more people to share out the work. Come and join our church, because we want your money and your time. That sounds like a fun church, doesn’t it? Milton Jones my favourite comedian, said that churches are like helicopters. No-one stands too close for fear of getting sucked into the rotas. Because there is a name for people who do work that you want them to do. Employees. What that person didn’t want was new people wanting to do new things. What they didn’t want, was change.
But it is the essential nature of God, the essential nature of love, is to be willing to be changed, which means doing new things. To make space for other people, not to tell them where their space is. Not to fight our own corner, but to fight someone else’s. To focus on the love of people, not things. When we all do that, then everyone feels safe.
I know, I know. God is unchangeable, right? Well, yes and no. God is beyond time, which frankly is a concept beyond us. Augustine said that God lives in the eternal present – all things are in a moment, and one moment contains all things. But it seems that the manifestation of that unchangeable eternal present moment, is in dynamism, in eternal newness.
Sometimes we want the church to feel safe, because the rest of the world seems unsafe. Because we are afraid of the future. A whole year stretches ahead of us, and a year after that, and we’re afraid of that future sometimes. It’s all so new. Unwritten, to our eyes, coming towards us out of the unknown. We want the church to shield us from that, and I’m afraid that just won’t happen, not if God has anything to do with it. We want God to shape the future in patterns which are familiar to us, as though it were the past. Safe and known. And God won’t do that. We know that, we’ve seen it. God won’t let us hide away, permanently children, permanently insulated from the world.
The stable, the virgin birth, the flight to Egypt, everything about our Christmas story is unsafe. Everything about Jesus’ life is unsafe. There is nothing cosy, nothing insulated about the raw, new real life of Jesus.
The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfils himself in many ways, wrote Tennyson, and in the life of Jesus we see the breathless, energy of the universe which is always tumbling into birth and regeneration and new life. The old prayer book collect for Christmas speaks of humanity as “regenerate”. Made new. Old hopes of controlling the world, holding the world back, will be dashed, but despair, disappointment, loss, they too will all be swallowed up in the fierce love which carries us into the newness of God.
I’ve always envied those who can seemingly to the Apostolic thing, leaving comfort and certainty for the unknown, the explorers and evangelists. They were never afraid, they never clung to their choral tradition, their liturgies, their way of doing things. They had something which sometimes I grasp, oftenI fail to grasp.
Which is that churches feel safe because we find God in them. But churches should not be just that. They should be where we can find God, but they should also equip us to find God in ourselves, in each other. So the church isn’t our only safe place, we are the safe place, because God lives in us.
Because then, and this is the really hard bit – there is nothing to be afraid of. Nothing. If god is with us, there is nothing to be afraid of. There is no room for fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.
God does not leave us alone, like frightened children. God is with us, as our Christmas story tells us. We are the safe place, we are the place of love, of joy, of truth, of beauty. When we feel like that, we are kind people, generous people, open and warm. Because that is what God is. That is when churches grow – when the church itself becomes less important, and the people, and the God within them, becomes all.
We should remember that. God is with us. We should remember the joy of that, when things change, when people move on, when we are confronted by newness. We should remember it when loved ones die, when the old order changeth. God is with us, to help into the new.
I have been with you nearly six years. It doesn’t feel long, and yet I have learnt so much. So I want to thank you for what I have learnt, gained.
And I just want to leave you with one thing that I have gained. I thought that I had gifts which I could share – preaching, liturgy, teaching, scholarship, friendship, prayer. I thought those things were important. But what you have thought me, what I now know is far far more important than all those things, is to be kind. To be gentle. To forgive. To be open. That is a lesson which you can teach all your clergy, and the church and the world will be better for it.
For that, and for so very much more, my heartfelt thanks.