Sermon by Rev Roy Lowes, past Moderator of West Midlands Synod Sermon Notes Sue’s Induction Wembley Park and St Andrew’s Ealing July 23rd 2016 2 30pm. at Wembley Park United Reformed Church
Let me tell you about Mr Brassington. He was the headmaster of my secondary school in the North east of England where I grew up. It was a new school, he was its first headmaster and we its first pupils. He was not a Geordie. He had come from the far south of England (a place called ‘Birmingham!) but had been inspired by the singing of Geordie voices when he had been at the cup final at Wembley in 1955 when Newcastle had beaten Manchester City. He never shared what words they sang at that match but he remembered that they were to the tune Cwm Rhonda! That inspired him with a love for the Geordie even though he knew there was much poverty and depravation in the North east. He came with a passion to assist – one might even say ‘save’ – the Geordie boys. And his passion had three elements. It seemed to me and they were:
a Vision – he never lost sight of us at our best, as we were meant to be
b Value – he assured us of our worth at all times not least in making sure that the new school had inspiring facilities,
c Virtue – he insisted that our worth was expressed in virtuous behaviour, as the little ditty he taught us – ‘leave other people and other people’s property alone’ illustrates!
Such elements I believe are indeed saving; vision, value and virtue. They are how a Christian life should be. We should be loving God who had the original vision of humanity and is the source of our value and we should be loving our neighbour as ourselves in virtuous actions.
We see these things in our scripture readings;John’s gospel passage suggests vision. The reading this miracle spells out to those at the wedding in Cana and especially to Jesus’ disciples and family is that in their midst is something new. A new age that is dawning, a new way of understanding life. Water is of course vital for life and cannot be underestimated in its importance for human existence. Wine though was and is drunk (amongst other reasons!) to indicate an extra special occasion, a sense of celebration. This new age indicated and inaugurated in Christ, coming into human society in Cana even though not all are aware of it, is a sign and indication of how life is meant to be. We are here (as it suggests later in John) as a result of a divine vision that we should not just have life (water) but have it abundantly (wine).
In the Isaiah passage we hear of The passage is surrounded by admonitions to the chosen people for their misbehaviours. But as in other places in the Old Testament God, whilst dishing out chidings, breaks in on God’s self to say nevertheless that God values his people and will never let them go. They are precious and loved and held. God says ‘I have called you by name’. It is an adoption formula.
Jesus takes this valuing a stage further -valuing of all people across all sorts of boundaries.
This valuing of people is not the same as being nice and tolerant to people, a liberal soft soaping. The theme of scripture includes justice and judgement. But there is something extremely powerful in understanding that destructive human behaviour is more often than not driven by a sense of weakness and fear, a compensating for what we lack by a grasping or striking out. God’s calling us by name, especially from the cross in Christ where he becomes the hurting soul of each one, is a core element of Christ’s redemption of us all, a core element in understanding and experiencing God’s valuing of us in our essence.
In Philippians Paul’s benediction and instruction to rejoice is followed by an instruction to be virtuous: to be gentle, not to be anxious, to be truthful, honest, honourable, just, pure and to seek excellence.
Such lists were common in Greek culture. His wants his hearers to follow the instructions but also to reflect on them and to judge their value as they see Paul enacting them. If they are virtues seen in the pagan world the church is not to be embarrassed because God’s goodness comes to the surface anywhere in his creation and what we must do is recognise it, celebrate it and live it. These Paul says, are the virtues to live by.
And if these are the virtues, note what they are opposed to i.e. how they had been living: with harshness, being anxious, lying, being dishonest, dishonourable, unjust, impure and achieving poor quality in their living! Do we recognise these in our world?
Vision, Value and Virtue. This is the work of the gospel – it is the work of salvation. It is not fashionable to talk of salvation, but it is the work of the church that the church is called to concentrate on – for it was Christ’s work!
And that work is to fight against Sin, another unfashionable Christian concept. I don’t know how I would define it but I know that it undermines God’s vision of life; I know that it undervalues people and that evil rather than virtuous action ensues.
And when I look around at this world as it assaults our senses through the news I see us all too often not fulfilling, God’s vision, not valuing all people and engaging in actions that are often less than virtuous. This is true in destructive actions and in our reactions to them.
Yes, the world has become frightening and many people rightly worry after the financial crash about their economic security. There is huge disparity between rich and poor and unpredictable horrific violence in and since 9/11. But as well as a forthrightness about justice ought we not to be facing it with something that reflects loving our enemy as Christ commands is to do, ought there not to be grace in our response and not just defensiveness and protecting our own? There is as ever too much greed, too much scapegoating and violence. And this is so amongst the poorest and the richest, amongst the powerful and the weak.
Making war and the language of war is engaged in far too quickly rather than the language of justice, diplomacy and the need to build consensus and work with international organisations-giving them due honour.
What we need is not so much to be doing the right thing (which can lead to self righteousness and be politically motivated) as doing the virtuous thing which is often self sacrificial.
All churches it seems to me are about salvation as all churches are about the work of Christ and his work was a work of salvation. -This is a key to ecumenism! For if all churches see themselves as self-consciously emerged in the same saving work of Christ bringing to bear their particular resources and emphasis then then the need and the vitality for ecumenism becomes more explicitly apparent.
And I think that Reformed churches contribute to this saving work not in the cathedrals and liturgies of the higher churches and necessarily in the energetic and enthusiasms of popular evangelicalism. Rather like Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress it is to be in the step by step way in our Christian gathered communities we journey to work by consensus, we keep God’s vision of how we can be as God’s people, we assert the value that Christ gives by being the centre of each person and the importance of translating that into living virtuously in our lives and daily working.
Sue you have come here to those energetic churches having given and gained a great deal at Wylde Green United Reformed Church. You have taught much and learnt much. You have insight, intelligence, pastoral skill and a commitment to your calling. You come here with hope energy and joy.
St Andrew’s and Wembley Park are here as a joint pastorate for the first time. You have great resources and a wonderful cultural mix and a wish to build links with those in the community who use your premises whilst building links and being inviting to the wider community. GOOD FOR YOU!
I would say this to you all. Remember that you are not just here to struggle on and survive, or to be a group of do gooders, or to be a holy huddle. You are here as minister, elders and congregants to cooperate on a vital and saving piece of work. The vital saving work of Christ – and perhaps in a milder way the saving work of dear old Mr Brassington. That means….
At all times have a vision of how we and our communities should be living, people of new wine, living life abundantly -in peace- with our daily bread -being who we are for others. In fact people are increasingly conflicted and sceptical about governments’ ability to help and solve problems. Neither socialism, nor communism, nor capitalism, (all hopes of the past) now seem to be What’s more many of those on obscenely fat salaries and those on benefits are it is suggested, on the fiddle There is a shortage of optimism. BUT however desperate things in your life or communities or the world are remember that you have God’s vision and a reason to hope. In your communities and with others who sing a similar song be a people of vision and hope.
At all times have an awareness that god’s saving act in Christ as Isaiah had intimated shows us our value as a way to undermine our cruelty and to give us the courage to be vulnerable to one another, rather than defensive in fear.
There is an old, evil and deeply disturbing pattern in human society which identifies those we are opposed to as evil, as vermin or sub human. This gives us permission to do as we wish with them. It’s not just the Jews which shows that pattern, but inter racial hatred and prejudice (just watch the film’12 Years a Slave) or the way IS and other extremists engage in heinous acts of violence or the way some want to portray people who are terrorists as sub human. If we see that God values all equally and calls us not to kill our enemy but to find ways to love them, to be gracious, to take risks for peace then we can sense what a radical and challenging call to value and love that Christ’s call is. And we can only do that if we know that God has called us all by name. I urge you to carry that faith, that awareness that Christ is the soul of each person, that sense of valuing, into your service here
And in all that you do as a community show and assert the importance of whatever is good, honourable, just gentle and true. Work for the common good and goodness in yourself and others. At its highest form this is love. Work at intercultural understanding. Michael Jagessar, United Reformed Church Inter cultural Secretary, suggests this must be through accepting mutual inconvenience in our relationships. So in your relationships as two churches, as minister and congregations, be gracious and good for each other by being prepared to be inconvenienced for the other. And let that be a mark of what you urge and encourage in this place amongst those in the community who are on your premises and those to whom you reach out.
Don’t be a NIMBY – be an IMBY, not a NOT IN MY BACK YARD but IN MY BACK YARD if that is what is for the common good of where you live. This is one example of what it is to assert virtue. This is what it is to love
Mr Brassington (who I discovered in 1980 got the OBE for his services to education in the North East) came to save some Geordies and he certainly improved many lives- though our singing always disappointed him!!
But you here as Christian communities with other Christians and people of good faith, you are here continuing the saving redeeming work of christ. You can do it:
- by holding in front of you the vision God has for us all which brings hope,
- by having faith in Christ having become the heart of each person and thus giving everyone ultimate value
- by living and promoting virtuous living, the common good which is love.
Vision and hope
Value and faith
Virtue and love
These are things of your collective ministries and saving work. And they are the things of your relations together. In this time of transition as Sue gets used to a new ministry, you churches get used to having a minister again, remember God’s vision for each other, value each other as if Christ was their soul -which he is – and be prepared to do the good and virtuous for and with each other.
Mr Brassington heard Cwm Rhondda and had a mission to breathe vision, value and virtue into children’s’ lives. You as Christians listen to hymns every week let them and especially the hymn Sue has written a hymn (which we now will sing) inspire your living out vision, value and virtue. As her hymn asks and as do I…
‘Spirit of God, breathe through us in our worship,
Take and transform the gifts and griefs we bear
Bind with your truth this act of dedication;
Confirm with hope each step of faith we take;
Disturb with joy our cautious hesitation
Renew with strength the promises we make.
Spirit of God, pour out your affirmation,
Bless us for life, made sacred for your sake.
Vision, Value, Virtue…
May it be so…