Sunday 10th of September, 2017
Festival of Dedication – Christ Church St. Laurence
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of my very favourite paintings is Ivan Kramskoi’s Christ in the Wilderness which was painted in 1872. You are able to see this on page 9 of the Order of Service and you might want to look it up on your favourite search engine when you get home and examine it more closely.
This remarkable painting emphasizes Jesus’ human nature and was received with some consternation when it was first exhibited.
In this painting we see Jesus sitting forlornly on a rock, head bent down, with tired eyes, dirty feet, and wringing his hands together in anxiety.
That is one reading of the painting but there is another and, I would suggest, more accurate reading or interpretation of the painting and this is that here we see Jesus determined to fulfil his mission of love no matter what it costs.
His eyes are tired but focussed, his feet are planted firmly on the road that will lead to his passion and death, and his whole demeanour is of one who is not to be trifled with but, rather, one whose mind is made up and whose will is firmly set to do God’s will.
Christ’s Incarnation, his being truly human and truly divine, fully embeds him, and therefore God, in our human condition and being embedded in our human condition we can gain great comfort in the fact that God is with us in all circumstances – both in our times of joy and in our times of despair.
God is connected irrevocably to us and we to God and being connected in such a profound and deep way we are able to view our human condition through another lens rather like we viewed Kramskoi’s Christ in the Wilderness through another lens – the lens of faith.
This faith is not wishful thinking or projection or plain stupidity. Our faith is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and being grounded thus, knowing that God in Christ shares our human condition completely and fully and having the hope of Christ’s resurrection in our lives, we are able to emulate Jesus as he sought to do only God’s will and to walk in God’s way of love no matter what the cost might be. For we know that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, not even death itself (Romans 8: 38-39).
What then might our lives look like as we seek to do God’s will and as we live as those who have this unshakeable faith in Jesus’ resurrection?
Bishop Tom Wright gives a sense of what an answer to this question might be when he writes (in Surprised by Hope, p. 193):
“The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
So then, how might we, having our faith anchored firmly in the hope that we have in Christ’s resurrection, and in our resurrection too, build for God’s kingdom in our setting and in our times?
How might we build upon the solid foundation of Christ’s resurrection as we seek to participate with God in the building of God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and love for all?
As with Bishop Tom Wright, I offer a few suggestions – some sign posts of the coming of God’s kingdom for which we hope and pray:
Caring for the widow and the alien, providing care for the poor and needy, and welcoming the stranger in our midst are at the heart of God’s will for our world and, sadly and ironically, those who bang on the loudest about Christian values and Australia being a Christian country seem to be those who most often neglect the weightier matters of the law such as mercy, compassion, and love.
All humans are deeply connected as children of the one God and those of us who have the capacity have the responsibility to care for all and to ensure that none are left to the ravages of a cold and heartless world where there is just way too much needless and senseless suffering and pain.
There is so much need in our community and it is increasing at an alarming rate.
The Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, recently reminded some of us that our Anglican heritage and tradition is neither sectarian nor confessional and those who seek to take us in these directions fail to understand the great strength in being a Church that welcomes all and cares for all because God welcomes all and cares for all including the whole of creation.
Living and serving in the Diocese of Sydney gives one a firsthand insight into how ruthless and cold life becomes when law takes over from love and when dogma replaces grace. Not to forget how banal things become when informal worship replaces our beautiful liturgy.
In a sermon based on I John 4: 7-12, that notorious saint, the fifth century African Bishop, St. Augustine said: “If you want to see God you have the means to do it.”
This beautiful passage from I John reads:
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
How might we who are gathered here to give thanks to God for the ongoing life, witness, mission, and ministry of this Parish Church of Christ Church St. Laurence participate with God in the building of God’s kingdom?
Love one another. As Michael Leunig said, “it’s as simple and as difficult as that.”
Because God is one with us in Christ and we are adopted into God’s family we, who have been welcomed so freely and wondrously by God, are to “…welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15: 7)
This ministry of welcome, our mission to participate with God in the building of God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and love, requires us, as it did of Jesus in his ministry and mission, to place our faith in God and to resolutely seek to do God’s will.
Remember, “if you want to see God you have the means to do it.”
Professor Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, maintains (in That Was the Church That Was) that religion flourishes when it is enmeshed with the lives of those it serves and dies when it no longer connects. Societal churches depend on a healthy relationship with their societies, even when there is mutual criticism.
Professor Woodhead predicts that by 2020, up to 4,000 churches across Britain could close. By 2050, the once mighty Church of England could have just 150 thousand active members.
What has led to this situation and, given that it mirrors our own, what might we learn from it?
Firstly, clerical paternalism, and in some cases outright misogyny, became increasingly visible as society started to embrace women’s equality.
The long and nasty fight against women priests was particularly destructive because the Church had always been a church of women. They were the ground troops filling the pews, cleaning the church, carrying out parish visits and making the tea (a central ritual of the Church of England). They were also the major fundraisers, running fetes and jumble sales and leaving large bequests. They were among the Church’s best apologists and writers – think of Maude Royden, Dorothy Sayers, Barbara Pym, Penelope Lively, P.D. James and so on – and they were the organisers of a myriad different activities and institutions, from healthcare to education. Above all, they were the ones who socialized the next generation into the gentle virtues and deep but understated commitments of Anglicanism.
So the House of Clergy’s relentless attempts to stop them from being treated as equals was suicidal. Its moral case was non-existent and the theological arguments had been lost a long time ago: Archbishop Temple described them as “desperately futile.” The Anglo-Catholics fell back on a pipe-dream about unity with Rome, and evangelicals resorted to theologically-inept arguments about ‘gender complementarity’ and ‘male headship.’ It would take until 2013 for the Church of England to allow women bishops. By then the rest of the country had moved on. It was too little too late.
And then there was theology. The Church of England’s failure has also been an intellectual failure. Since the 1950’s it has been faced with a series of serious moral and intellectual challenges and shifting cosmologies, worldviews and value sets. Rather than responding in kind, it has retreated into Biblicism and angry side-swipes from a ‘post-liberal’ standpoint.
The failure of nerve was apparent as early as 1968 when Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God provoked national debate. It was a perfect opportunity for the Church to make the Christian case afresh. Archbishop
Ramsay ducked the challenge on the grounds that it would disturb the simple faithful. But the simple faithful were attending university in ever-greater numbers, and were asking pointed questions. The Church ceased to offer a credible cultural and moral framework, and the tradition of Anglican scholarship which had placed the Church of England at the heart of universities and schools was chased away by a mind-numbing mix of management speak and ahistorical ‘Bible-based’ assertions.
Exacerbating all this was the unbalancing of the equilibrium between the old Church parties – high, low, and broad. In its place came an American import: the loaded dichotomy between evangelical and ‘liberal’ which positioned the latter as wishy-washy and inferior (the Anglo-Catholic party had been smashed to bits by its defeat over women and its love of lost causes). Increasingly, the evangelicals grew louder and marginalized the ‘liberals.’ Even Rowan Williams caved into them, both over women bishops (which he delayed) and homosexuality (which he opposed). Wealthy and well-organised conservative evangelical support from around the world, including Sydney, played a part as well.
Quoting from Bill Vanstone, with reference to the evangelicals, Professor Martyn Percy writes that:
“…the Church of England is like a swimming pool – all the noise comes from the shallow end.” (Anglicanism, p. 22)
Today the Church continues to squabble over same-sex marriage, but no one except insiders are listening. They are getting on with their lives, without benefit of Church. In 2013 for the first time a majority of Britons declared themselves ‘no religion’ not ‘Christian’ or ‘Church of England’ – and their numbers continue to climb.
The decline of the Church of England is now so relentless, and the profile of the ‘nones’ so youthful, that the trend will not be reversed. The nones are the ones having children, and the Christians are the ones dying out. More and more people neither know nor care about the Church of England.
Given this situation, which closely mirrors our own, what might we learn from it? I suggest that:
Rather than acquiescing to the loss of connection with the community, we seek to engage and to serve – as God engages with us and serves us in Christ’s Incarnation.
Rather than being out of touch with the community and fostering what one might call a ‘hardening of the oughteries,’ we seek to welcome and to embrace and to serve and to love as God in Christ welcomes all.
Rather than retreating into intellectual obscurantism and relying on ideology, we trust that the Spirit will “guide us into all the truth” (John 16: 13) and that the truth is to “set us free” (John 8: 32), not to bind us.
As Bishop Tom Wright comments (in Surprised by Hope, pp. 29-30):
“…left to ourselves we lapse into a kind of collusion with entropy, acquiescing in the general belief that things may be getting worse but that there’s nothing much we can do about them. And we are wrong. Our task in the present…is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.”
May we live as resurrection people and, because of the hope that we have in Jesus’ resurrection, bring hope into a world that is in desperate need of it.
St. Paul’s, Burwood, and Christ Church St. Laurence have enjoyed a special relationship over many years and it is a delight to be able to share this beautiful act of worship with you this evening. I bring you warm greetings and heartfelt good wishes from the community of faith at St. Paul’s and I pray for God’s richest blessing to be upon the Parish of Christ Church St. Laurence as we give thanks to God for 172 years of faithful witness in this Parish Church to the love of God made manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks for the continuing faithful ministry of those who serve God and God’s people at Christ Church St. Laurence, thanking God particularly for Fr. Daniel, Fr. John, Fr. Ron, the Wardens and Parish Council, and the whole community of faith here at Christ Church St. Laurence as you continue to be “…built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, and to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 2:5) May God bless you and keep you. Amen