I was at the beautiful and historic Snape Church last night to put the Revd Mandy Reynolds in as the new Rector of the Alde River Benefice – one of our many country groupings of parishes in this rural diocese. She’s come from being an army chaplain, so I thought a stirring sermon was in order, and someone did call it afterwards a call to arms – though as you’ll see it’s really a call to not-arms, to let our faith power a love which will defeat violence and terror in Jesus’ way. If you’re interested, read on …
Churches like these don’t look as if they have been built onto the landscape, but grown out of it. They’re rooted here. And they have been growing out of it for over 1000 years. Now hear some good news: show me another Suffolk institution, business or organisation that has shown that much resilience and been going that long. So a big thank you to you and to your forebears for keeping the flag of faith flying, and flying well too.
But all the same, we still feel vulnerable in an age of great change, just as the church has been vulnerable before, say during the time of the Black Death, and is vulnerable now in many places all over the world, despite its overall growth.
So it’s no surprise to read in your parish profiles that you long to see growth and new life. So do I. But let’s be clear about how it is likely to happen. Decent organisation and planning is very helpful, and probably essential: but it doesn’t of itself bring in the kingdom. The ungodly use it as much as the godly. It’s a good servant but a rotten master. Godly growth comes from God. He gives the increase: as much for a church as for a farm. We play our part: but we mustn’t play God.
So I want to pull one phrase out from your profiles as the starting point. Speaking of your new priest you say you wish for someone for whom the joy of the Lord is their strength.
That’s it: that’s where the growth begins. It begins when we let ourselves be grafted into God’s vine, which we heard about in tonight‘s reading and which was Israel’s symbol of itself as God’s people, under God’s cultivation. That’s why, by the way, some of Jesus’ most powerful teaching was about what happens to vineyards when they ignore their owners.
Don’t ignore the owner, the maker, the one who can give the growth. Graft yourself into him by faith, with prayer and worship as regular as your mealtimes, and let his life flow into you like the sap through the vine. And don’t be surprised that if you miss out on those disciplines you’ll pay the price just as much as if you miss your meals. Abide in him as he abides in you. Then you’ll start to bear fruit: to know his love, his joy and his peace, even in this heartbreak of a world.
Once the sap is flowing and the shoots are shooting the other things you’ve been looking for in your new priest will start to come true too, not just because Mandy is marvellous, which she is, of course, but because the whole vine, all of you, will be bursting with God’s life too. To use an old-fashioned word: you will be disciples. And to be disciples of Jesus the Christ is the greatest adventure life can bring. Why on earth are we so shy about it?
So you’ll find your worship becoming both more meaningful and more joyful: old words will take on new depths and new words will be given you. You’ll find yourself sharing that worship, that joy, that sense that here is something that makes a difference, more winningly with your family and friends, and they’ll want to come and have a look for themselves as they see grumpy old Gertie and bossy old Bertie (the names are made up of course) be filled with new love and grace. This is my commandment, said Jesus, love one another as I have loved you.
Little by little the gifts and talents in even the most unlikely of you will start to shine and be recognised. You’ll work as a team, and the company of Christ will build. Instead of worrying about how you’ll keep going and hoping folk will join for what they can give you not what God can give them, you’ll find your hearts beating a bit faster for those in need, wanting to give not receive, and finding of course that the more you do give, the more you receive as well. And the kingdom will come, just like we’ve been praying all these years.
Rather painfully we are also finding out again at the moment what happens when God’s kingdom does not come, in the awful terrorist attacks and outrages in France, in Nigeria, in Syria. And I feel sure that the response and antidote to these is not to ban religion but to do religion well. To promote and live out faith that is uses its commitment to be committed to others, to put their needs before its own – a way we as Christians must surely follow because it was the way of Christ. While we are still his enemies, he died for us. Let’s keep silence for a moment for those who are suffering, and for those who are trying to follow a way of good faith. …
I’ve been speaking as if all of this is new. But of course you’re already on this adventure in a thousand ways. Perhaps, though, you do recognise moments when you’re tempted to throw in the towel, or have a go at someone else, or let a worry sit on top of you, or get so precoccupied with keeping things going that what you’re keeping them going for slips quietly out of focus.
So tonight is a night not just welcome Mandy into her new ministry, but to set off together again as the Fellowship of Christ, boots mended, provisions packed, daring to face the challenge of a difficult journey because the King is here, and we are called to help his kingdom come.
If that sounds like Tolkien, it’s meant to. We may be hobbits in a world of orcs, but there is deep value and deep truth in these ancient villages of rural England, shaped by the faith over so many years, growing quietly in God’s garden. And I for one am not willing to abandon them, but believe that from them, from you, new growth given by God can emerge, that can help our whole society regain its senses, and find its true self again.
Will you join the adventure? If your faith is on the back burner, is tonight the night you draw close to the fire? If your seat in church has been empty too often, is tonight the night that you decide to fill it again and see the whole company the stronger? If your faith has faltered too often at the threshold, is tonight the night you say yes to active service out there in God’s world?
Yes, I suppose it as an unashamed altar call: although as we’re the C of E I’ll spare you the blushes of actually getting up from your seats. The altar is there every Sunday after all waiting for you to share in its feast.
But make no mistake, this is personal. The older I get the more I realise that unless individual people make their individual choice for good and for God, unless they say yes to the Vine, then nothing will really change and the terrorists can win. Tonight, though, you can change, and you can change the world.