St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Laetare Sunday, 2015

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 “Jesus, Fr Adam Smallbone and the Church…”
I speak in the name of Jesus the Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
 
I recently came across a TV series that stopped me in my tracks and I guess a lot of you would be mesmerised as well. I do not watch a lot of television, perhaps a bit of Sky News and a little of the Ignition Channel. However, one evening I came across a new TV series entitled Rev. (as in Reverend) and I was fascinated.
 
The series revolves around Reverend Adam Smallbone who is Rector of an inner-city London Church after leaving a small rural Suffolk parish. His wife is a busy lawyer. His best friend, Colin, is homeless and unemployed and his curate, Nigel, is a frustrated Anglo-Catholic who believes that he should be running the church. One of Rev. Smallbone’s biggest challenges is dealing with his Archdeacon, Robert, who makes life very difficult for Adam. Their regular meetings often take place in the Archdeacon’s taxi on route to some important meeting that the Archdeacon has to attend. Should the meeting not go the Archdeacon’s way, Rev. Smallbone is often dropped off on the middle of the highway, cassock and all!
 
One particular episode stands out in my mind that I was able to watch recently. The church where Fr Adam is Rector, namely, St Saviour in the Marshes, is looking a little forlorn and neglected. Funds are running low and Chapter is putting pressure on Adam via the Archdeacon to raise funds or risk being closed down. This is a sad reflection of many of our parishes in our very own diocese I might add. Fr Adam plans a Midnight Mass on Christmas eve and he is delighted when many people begin to fill the church. However, most of the parishioners are intoxicated and the episode climaxes when Fr Adam is busy with the consecration prayer and everyone starts to sing pub songs out aloud…
 
I sat bolt upright.
This was serious.
What was the message that the producer of this episode was trying to convey?
Why was I reacting so strongly?
Was this close to home in the questions and issues that it was raising?
 
I began to realise as I reflected on the episode that many of my deepest fears and concerns about the church were being reflected … hence my reaction. The producer had somehow very cleverly reflected the dire situation that many of our parishes find themselves in today.
 
Is the church still relevant to the people?
Do the people still want and need the church?
Why are so many people today liturgically illiterate?
Why are so many parishes today struggling financially?
Lent is traditionally a time of reflection for all of us.
These are some heavy issues to reflect about.
I have no doubt that many of us have indeed asked one or more of these questions at some stage of our lives.
Do not be afraid to ask questions.
Do not be afraid to query the status quo.
Do not be afraid to reflect upon change.
Jesus was not afraid to ask questions, query the status quo or to reflect upon change.
 
 I am reminded of the Gospel lesson that we shared today. To live in the times of Jesus was to live in exciting times. There were miracles happening, Jesus was teaching deeply and profoundly. Many would argue that in some ways perhaps it was easier to be a believer during the early years of Christianity when the ministry of Jesus was still so fresh and tangible.
 
Has the church perhaps lost the tangibility of the ministry of Jesus and thus many of the people in our society have become disillusioned with the church?
 
This is a difficult question to answer and I do not claim for a moment to have all of the answers. I am also very aware of the dangers of generalising.
 
What I do know is this:
That firstly Jesus is NOT the church. Yes, the church is supposed to be Jesus, but Jesus is NOT the church. We need to remember this. Too often we become so embroiled in the life of the church that we actually forget who Jesus is and what He stands for. This is a danger that all Christians must face and deal with in their daily walk with Him. 
 
Secondly, there are pockets of excellence where various churches are engaging in outstanding ministry (and I do believe that St Michael’s is one of these), their financial needs are being met, people are being led to God, the clergy are on their knees praying and God is present. It is not all doom and gloom in the Kingdom of God. He is alive and He is present in many of our churches.
 
Thirdly, there is hope! What stood out for me in Fr Adam’s Midnight Mass is that even though the parishioners were high on a spirit that was not Holy, they were STILL coming to Mass! They recognised that the church stood for SOMETHING… something that they needed and aspired to, a value, a longing, a hope… life. You see, the church, with all its faults and problems, is still seen as a beacon of hope and light in society…
 
This then places a huge responsibility on people like you and I, for we are the representatives of Christ’s hope and love in the world. Yes, you and I, with all of our fears, anxieties and hang-ups!
 
With this is mind, I was blessed to recently come across a book entitled “Why nobody wants to go to church anymore”.  Thom and Joani Schulz, the authors, have spent their entire adult lives serving the church and challenging the status quo.  Thom and Joani realised that many churches in America are in a decline. Unfortunately, the statistics confirm this. “People are leaving in astounding numbers with no sign of a turnaround. And despite church leader’s best efforts to stem the tide, more than 80% of people are finding something better to do on Sunday mornings.”
But there is hope! In the same way that Fr Adam found his pews full at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, so too do Thom and Joani Schultz suggest ways of reinvigorating the church so that the spirit lives on.
 
Thom and Joani suggest that there are Four Acts of Love that the church needs to demonstrate if we want to keep on growing.
 
Firstly, we need to be showing Radical Hospitality. We need to be looking past invisible differences like attitudes, values and lifestyles, as well as past visible differences like clothing, skin colour, age, gender, economic status and sexuality. Who sets this example for us? Jesus does. Jesus says, “You are welcome just as you are.” Throughout His ministry, Jesus embraced prostitutes, cheating tax collectors, smelly fishermen and all manner of sinners (including you and I). The New Testament is full of stories of how Jesus engaged with people who were less than desirable in society. 
Do we always do that?
So how do we show Radical Hospitality?
We make a point of authentically welcoming others
We connect and care
Be a friend
We accept those that are different to us
Colossians 3:14-17 reminds us…
“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”
 
Secondly, we have Fearless Conversations.  Jesus loved to encourage people to think. He would often ask questions like, “What do you want?”, “Where is your faith?”  and “Who do you say that I am?”
What are Fearless Conversations?
They seek to understand
They listen before speaking
They ask great and wondering questions
They allow others to talk
They offer non-judgemental responses
Fearless Conversations are NOT about pretending to have all the answers
James 1:19 reminds us…
“Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: you must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.”

Thirdly, as our act of love, we need to be show Genuine Humility.
How do we do this? Well, Schultz suggests that we need to acknowledge that we are all in this together. As humans we are all on this journey of life. We must admit that we don’t have all the answers.  Remember we currently live in an age of immediate access to abundant information through the World Wide Web. People are overwhelmed with information. They are not necessarily seeking more information, they are, however, seeking authentic, humble and Jesus-centred relationships… remember the Fr Adams full pews on Christmas Eve?
How do we do this?
We are open to learning from others with different beliefs
We are open to learning from people of different ages
We admit mistakes
We put people first
We communicate freely and directly
Philippians 2:6-11 reminds us…
“Though He was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. He gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of being a slave and was born a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honour and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
 
Fourthly and lastly we need to have Divine Anticipation.
This means that we need to live in the mystery and wonder of God.  (This is something else I believe we get right at St Michael’s) Too much of contemporary society focusses on cold hard facts, statistics, technology and scientific method. In spite of all this, our God still reigns. The Sun still rises, the rain still falls and the Holy Spirit still gives life. God is still with us every day. It is often we who are hiding from Him behind our iPads, laptops and HD television sets. We should rather be focussing on the reality of God’s presence and action in our lives today. 
How do we do this?
We realise and acknowledge that God is actively involved in our lives every day
We accept that there are things that we can’t explain
We trust the Holy Spirit
We stay relevant
We expect God to show up
John 13:31-35 reminds us…
“Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other: your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
There is no doubt that we are living in interesting times.
Even more so as Christians.
 
Never before has the time been so right for us to shine the light of Jesus in a world that does not know what it is looking for. The church, with all its faults, remains a beacon of hope and light in the world, ask Fr Adam Smallbone at St Saviours in the Marshes. The challenge for us as Christians representing the church at large is to remain relevant and real in a world that has become so cyber surreal. This is not an easy task for us to take on. I do believe that if we remain Christ centred, humble and real through the Holy Spirit, we will remain close to God and the church will continue to thrive, all be it in a different form from what we are used to.
Are you ready for the challenge of being a Christian in the 21st Century?
 
May God bless you in the week ahead as you review your personal walk with him and your positive role in the church of God.
Amen.
 
 

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