notre dame montreal

Being the Church

Sermon by The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley

Preached 2

There is a beautiful and powerful scene in the film “Witness”, directed by Peter Weir, which lingers in my memory. In the film the hero, played by Harrison Ford, has gone into hiding in an Amish village. The Amish are a religious community in Pennsylvania in the United States who still live an eighteenth century lifestyle, without electricity and other modern conveniences. This community cherish tradition and simplicity and reject the outside world with all its chaos and ugliness. So the hero, who comes from the violent world of the city where he is a gun toting policeman, comes to live in this backward looking society, where people wear eighteenth century dress and speak in old fashioned words. There is no fashion, no noise. Everyone is expected to keep to very strict codes of manners and morals. If they fail to do so they are shunned.

In the scene which I always remember, the whole community gathers together to build a barn for a neighbouring farmer. All the Amish people in the county arrive in their wagons and set about the task of raising a barn in a day. Accompanied by Aaron Copeland like folk music, under a golden light, all the people work perfectly together, slotting the wood into place, placing the nails precisely in the right place until the great moment when the four sides of the barn are hauled upright and can be put together. Each person seems to know their task and to do it perfectly, without hesitation or argument. The children learning by watching and by being given small tasks to do, the older people advising, the women passing up drinks and preparing a gigantic meal to be shared at the sundown at the end of a glorious useful day. As I thought about this film, it came to me that that is a symbolic way of expressing what we are trying to do together here at St Mark’s and at Putnoe, we are trying to build something together, something lasting and of value. Each person here, whether new or long established as a member, has a part in the enterprise of being God’s people in this place. And every week that passes we are trying to build a church worthy of the greatness of the God who made us.

Now I am not talking about the building as a physical structure although that is important of course. I am talking about us trying to build ourselves as the body of Christ, as a community of faith. Like the barn raisers, we each have our roles (although not, thankfully divided up strictly according to whether male or female). Some take on the role of helping lead, as part of a team, others help with taking care of finances, others have the vision for the future, others deal with the practicalities of the here and now. Others tend to the needs of the sick and elderly, while others nurture the young. Some help the families of the bereaved while others celebrate them and life events with flowers. There are scores of tasks being done quietly every year which all go to making this place what it is.

Since I have been appointed as a minister to the Circuit and to the Partnership churches, I have found myself asking basic questions: what is a church for, what does God want us to do? What specifically should a minister do? What do we want to see strengthened or developed in the Partnership churches? I expect we will all have some agreement on these issues as well as differences of emphasis, but this morning I am going to consider of dreams of what a church might be in the light of the challenge of Jesus’ teachings on power. Today’s Gospel is highly challenging for us as it was for the people who first heard Jesus’ words. The passage deals with two key concepts in Christian faith: power and service. Jesus was aware that his followers had been arguing behind his back about who was the most important among them. Never one to let a wound fester, Jesus asked them straight out. What are you talking about ? And he settled down to teach them on the subject. As Charlie reminded us last week, Jesus was always confounding the expectations of his disciples. Perhaps they were hoping to hear that, as a reward for following him, they would be generals, or kings or great rabbis, exalted on earth and heaven. Instead he said that one who would be great would have to become as a servant. What a disappointment! And then he further compounded the confusion by bringing a child into their circle of grownups and stating that whoever received a child in Jesus, name, would receive Jesus! How utterly bewildering, what had a child, small, weak and unimportant got to do with the grownup important world of religion and ideas! How could one welcoming a child, welcome the Lord? Puzzling teachings indeed, but ones that need to be re-examined and refreshed in our minds and hearts. These are Jesus’ orders to us as a Christian community and we have to build this teaching into the very foundation of our church. A church must be based around the loving service of each to another and the recognition that Christ can be found in everyone. In Jesus’ teachings even the apparently least significant person is beloved and models Christ to the world.

So in the light of these teachings, we are directed to look at each other as precious and lovable, and to look beyond the doors of the church building, and to see the wider community as worthy of love and attention. Our churches, the community centres, speak about what we want to be as disciples: warm, welcoming and compassionate. In order to achieve this ability to love each other and the wider community we have to focus on our prayer life, asking for God’s inspiration to guide our actions. Prayer is the fuel which runs the engine of the church. Without it, we can easily go astray.

This loving approach to the outsider has long been part of the traditions of these two churches and was the inspiration for breaking down denominational barriers, and recognising our common purpose. Now the church has regular worshippers from a number of denominations, including Baptist, Roman Catholic and the Church of Scotland as well as the URC. Letting go of boundaries, dropping barriers takes courage and good will and is a constant exercise in giving, but what a gain we have had in terms of enrichment and growth in understanding! We also welcome a number of other denominations as guests into the Partnership churches, working for better understanding and trust.

And so between all the different denominations we are knitting together our traditions, the ideas about faith, the patterns for prayer and worship and building something which is distinctively our own, an edifice, if you like, which borrows from a number of traditions, which may with God’s grace be better and stronger and more beautiful than what was before.

And so we are about a lot of things, as churches, we are about prayer, and sacrament, worship, about action locally and abroad, about outreach and about mutual love. We also have the buildings and resources to steward and bills to pay. There is a lot to do but it is a church enterprise where we all are members together in the body of Christ as the body of Christ, and we all have some thing we can do. Our roles change over time and according to circumstance. Many of the older members have taken on a number of different roles and jobs over time; leading the children’s groups, looking after the fabric of the building and so on. Sometimes elderly or unwell people say very sadly that they can’t do much now. But even the unwell can, hopefully, still pray and the work of the active needs to be supported by the prayers of those who contemplate and intercede with God. In my imagination the two churches are peopled not only by the living, but by the many wonderful, faithful people who have been part of the life of these churches before us. We have been thinking a little about the men and women who came before us as we prepare for the fiftieth anniversary of the building of the church at Putnoe. All that work, all that prayer and money has gone to make the people and the place what it is today. And we remember all of them with love and gratitude.

But it is our duty not only to keep things going along as they are but to make the church for the future, so that in another fifty years these two churches are still here to proclaim the faith in the living God in a very different church of the future. So I end with a set of questions, which we can all think about. What does this church need now? And what can I do to help serve God here, where He has placed me? What will this church need to survive into the future and how can we ensure that it does so?

We have many challenges: to attract and keep the next generations, to educate all to be knowledgeable about the faith and to be active in its service. We want to proclaim the Gospel by our worship and actions to the people in Brickhill and Putnoe. We need to maintain and develop the buildings so that they are fit for the work we need to do. More than anything else we need to recognise that being the Church is a collective enterprise which we do together. We live in an age of consumers, where people like to join in as and when and not to commit, people now want things put on and not to have to take part, and that is fair enough. We can’t give our all, all the time and we know that over a lifetime energy and time, and financial ability all ebb and flow. That is the natural way. But my image of us as a community of builders, all joined together in the great purpose of making churches to last, is based on the idea that the sum of all our efforts is greater than one person or even ten persons. If we believe in the beauty of the dream of building a church to reflect God to future generations, we must each of us ask, what is my part in making the dream come true?

The Martha and Mary prayer.

Lord, there are those who are good leaders, those with gifts to speak and make decisions; those who are good listeners, and those who quietly care; those whose work is little noticed, but without which our church would be the poorer. Take all our gifts, Lord, and use them for your glory. Amen

Adapted from a prayer by Margaret Wilson, MU Anthology of Public Prayers)