“In Service”

Sermon preached on “Mayor’s Sunday”, 13th September.

(Based on Philippians 2: 6-11 and John 3: 13-17)

Anyone near the town centre on Friday afternoon, MAY have noticed our church-bells ringing – ringing, in fact, for a little under 3 hours: I know, I Iive next door!!

A highly expert peal of bells was rung in honour of Her Majesty the Queen who, after 63 years on the throne, has now overtaken great-great granny, as the longest reigning monarch in British history. And, although her long reign has seen changes in society, so rapid and dramatic as to be unimaginable 63 years ago, throughout it all she seems to have maintained a steady sense of purpose and commitment.

Many of us are familiar by now with a certain clip from the speech she gave on her 21st birthday:  declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. “                                                                                                                         While many of us may have no personal recollection of belonging to that great imperial family, I think the majority of people would recognise that she has tried to live out that noble statement of service, of duty, ever since.

But if the words “service” and “duty” may trip off the tongue happily enough, I want to suggest two other words that we might apply to the Queen’s reign and to the notions of public service, and “Christian service”.

Our readings today attribute two characteristics to Christ’s own ministry – “sacrifice and “humility”. And I want to suggest that there are shades of that same self-offering – of sacrifice and humility – in the life of our monarch, and of others in public life.

For all those in the public eye, the notion of a private life is a luxury that will be afforded very rarely. Those who serve in public office do so at considerable cost, not only to themselves but to their families.

And the Royal family is no exception – with very little chance to escape the lenses of the media, very little time to do their own thing, and absolutely no chance of escaping the carping criticisms of others or of defending themselves against such criticisms.

The Queen herself, with an intelligent mind and vast experience of public life, studiously keeps her opinions to herself when at times she must be itching to really speak her mind!

Prince Philip – is notably LESS cautious in his speech!

But for him, supporting his wife as our monarch meant the sacrifice of a promising career in the Royal Navy, and all that might have been for him.

And there also is an element of humility in their willingness to undertake so many public engagements: Despite the shy awkwardness evident in that clip from the Queen’s 21st birthday speech – she now engages quite naturally with a much broader spectrum of society.

In an image conscious, status conscious age – she sits light to the elevated status that she might assume – exemplifying instead sacrificial duty and humble service.

And so to public life more generally and to the life of our community here.

We’re very fortunate to have as our Mayor someone who shows remarkable commitment to this community and a real understanding of our varying needs. Phil works tirelessly – and has demonstrated that he is quite prepared to get his OWN hands dirty whether that be filling sandbags or reading the riot act to those supposedly resurfacing the road last summer!

We’re very fortunate that he has been willing to serve and serve again in that role – and, although that has been wonderful for us, we need to remember that that willingness is not without cost – the sacrifice of personal and family time.

And if public service inevitably involves personal sacrifice, then I think there is an equally significant element of humility in being prepared to share the task with others.

Perhaps because the personal cost is high it’s easy for those in office to demand recognition – to protect their own little sphere of influence in order to appear even more significant – to ensure public status.

And yet we achieve so much more when we work together and cooperate across different strands of our common life.

Here in Wilton right now, we have a professionally run Youth Centre purely because Church and Town Council worked together to make it happen – the Church’s Educational Trust providing the staff, the Council securing the building for them.

It would have been easy for the Church to protect its own resources for more selfish projects, it would have been easy for the Council to be wary of a faith group leaping in to rescue a secular provision – but neither of those issues arose. All of us could clearly see that the issue wasn’t about us – we simply had to address the need that had arisen and get on and work through it together.

And there’s a strong mandate for that approach in our Scripture readings: It was for the life of this sometimes messy and murky world that Christ came and died and rose again.

And that life is not about “us” as individuals, it is about ALL of us as sharing a common humanity – all of us as children of God. And that guiding principle needs to govern both our public policies and our personal actions.

There’ve been two other major items in the public eye this week – the Refugee crisis and the Assisted Dying Bill.

I can’t deal properly with either of those things just now – but I’ll simply reflect that both are complex and incredibly emotive subjects.  And so, more than ever, it is vital that we enable ALL those with experience and insight on either issue to contribute to whatever decisions are made, whatever action is taken.

Knowing that we need to do something doesn’t make it easy to see what that might be. And we all need to see beyond our pre-formed ideas or knee-jerk reactions if we are to understand the full consequences and do what is right for all concerned.

I want to end, where I began, with Her Majesty the Queen.

Despite the constantly shifting backdrop to her reign, somehow she has remained – determined and absolutely true to that early pledge of service.

And I think one key reason for that resilience is that she is not simply a Head of State.

At her coronation she was anointed as a Christian monarch, marked out and symbolically strengthened by God for her unique role for life.  And that ideal is something that I think she has taken with utter seriousness and had always sought to live up to.

And so perhaps another pointer for all of us.

Just as our common humanity demands the humility to work with others, for the sake of the common good, so our common status as children of God demands that we sacrifice our proud notions of status and self-determination and try instead to recognise where He is leading us.

Without God’s blessing our work is in vain – but if we entrust all our work, however menial or grand, to God’s guidance, if we dedicate our own lives to the service of God and to our neighbours, then we can and will continue Christ’s saving work of transforming the world.

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Out of the Ordinary

Out of the Ordinary..

(From a sermon based on  Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2 and John 6: 35. 41-51)

 

Back in the summer, the Wood family spent a happy week in Cornwall and, as usual, I used this annual escape to indulge in a good read –  a little mind-stretching Philosophy, one of  my daughter’s A level English books, and a good stash of my own.

Among these was a book called “little Exiles”. This is a novel – a work of fiction – but based on the real life experiences of some of those who, as children, were shipped out to Australia to begin a new life. In the wake of World War 1, the “Children’s Crusade” rescued huge numbers of fatherless children from destitution, and took them to children’s homes in Australia (and later Canada as well) and prepared them to become farmers and farmers’ wives.

The reality was always a fairly tough one – but in the early days, the Crusade did meet a pressing need. The Children’s Crusade was founded with a high moral purpose and a clear intention of making life infinitely better for those who passed through its homes.

Little by little, however, a more high-handed attitude crept in – those in charge of the system knew best – children were permanently separated from their remaining family so that the new start was absolute – no looking back.

Any mothers who subsequently found their circumstances improved would be frustrated in any attempt to track down their own children: letters to or from home would not be delivered, no information would be passed on. Those in charge knew what was best for all concerned and they weren’t going to be budged on that.

And by the time of the 2nd world war, the organisation had a momentum all its own.

Rather than a moral crusade determined to rescue waifs and strays from the murkier streets of Liverpool or London, it had somehow morphed into an institution that needed children in over to maintain itself. And with fewer genuine cases of absolute poverty, those in charge became rather skilful at manoeuvring hapless mothers into handing over their offspring, when with a little help, a little time to set things in order, a normal, loving home life could have been sustained.

Somewhere along the way, the original vision was lost – and instead existing to give children real opportunities of a productive and fulfilling life, the Crusade sought to preserve its own life by securing a regular flow of “little exiles” – even if that meant destroying families in the process.

Somewhere along the way, things went rotten.

Just about the same time that I was reading this novel, we heard about the closure of “Kid’s Company” – an organisation which has done a huge amount of good work, over the past 19 years, among some of the most disadvantaged and challenging young people in our society today.

And we were left trying to make sense of confusing allegations of financial mismanagement and worse.

Has the same thing happened, as with the Children’s Crusade? Has the original vision been lost within an organisation that simply became too big? Did those in charge of Kids Company begin to see themselves as so important they didn’t need to worry about finances – believing someone else would always be there to bail them out?

At this point it’s not at all clear – and we can only hope that over the coming weeks we will be able to make more sense of it and that something may yet be rescued from the good work they have undoubtedly achieved.

We can I think take due warning from the fate of both those organisations, however.

As Christians we also belong to a very large and very complex institution – the Church.

There is no guarantee that we won’t lose our way, or become so convinced of our own importance that we lose the plot. And so we need to be sure of our reason for existing – of the core purpose that we need to cling to in order to prevent the rot setting in among us too.

As always, we do well to start with the gospel and with Christ himself.

Jesus says :“I am the bread of life – the living bread that is come down from heaven – the bread which I will give for the life of the world.”

Jesus IS clearly making a claim to be special – in John’s gospel there are a whole series of statements beginning “I am”, each time rooting people’s religious needs in him.

I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the light of the world, I am the resurrection and the life” and so on.

And yet the purpose of that specialness is life – and specifically the life of the world.

Jesus is not drawing attention to himself in  order to be admired but to point to the Father. He reveals the divine life within his own self in order that others may receive that divine life – bread is given and shared in order to sustain those who receive it.

And so back to us:

We say “We are the Body of Christ” –at every Eucharist we claim that divine life among us.

What we then do with that claim is the key point, I think.

If we start to think that Christ’s presence among us somehow sets us apart from – and makes us better than the rest of humanity (as some Christians do), then I think we have a problem.

That way lies the self-importance and self-delusion that enabled the Children’s Crusade to justify its actions.

In this Gospel passage (John 6: 35, 41-51 ),  the main thing that the crowds grumble about – the main accusation against Jesus – is that he is just the son of Joseph: they know his parents, they know who he is.

How can he claim to be special??

And perhaps that is the key point of this Gospel – in Jesus, God’s power and glory, God’s transforming grace, are revealed in flesh and blood – the extraordinary revealed in what is ordinary.

If we are the Body of Christ – are we then called to see ourselves simply as ordinary people graced by God’s presence? Are we charged with the task of revealing God’s presence in the ordinary and everyday events of our  common life?

Is our true purpose to be like Jesus – the living bread – always giving something of ourselves in order to sustain and bring life to others – and in doing so always rediscovering the richness of God’s life within us?

If that is so, then the key to our mission lies not in grand schemes, or structures; not in  seeking power and influence for ourselves, but in simple human encounter – honest and open and ordinary.

Let me return to Cornwall, and to another discovery I made there – an extraordinary idea that I discovered in a very ordinary place.

At Port Isaac, there is a converted Methodist chapel which has in it a very fine Café.

On the wall of their toilet their hangs a certificate – which reads: This toilet is twinned with Latrine 439, Bangladesh.”

And there was a photo of said latrine – a sort of corrugated iron shed.

At first glance I wondered if it was some kind of strange joke – but there was a website listed at the bottom so I had a look. And no – it was certainly not a joke!

Toilet Twinning, I learned, is a way of sponsoring improved hygiene in a number of developing countries. Here’s the official explanation:

For just £60, you can twin your loo with a latrine halfway around the world, in a              country of your choosing.Your smallest room becomes the proud owner of a personalised certificate, complete with a colour photo of its twin and GPS coordinates so you can look up your twin on Google Maps.

Your donation is used by Tearfund to provide clean water, basic sanitation, and hygiene education. This vital combination works  together to prevent the spread of disease.             

Children are healthier, and able to go to school; parents are well enough to work their land and grow enough food to feed their family. With better health, and more ability to earn a living, men and women discover the potential that lies within them to bring transformation. 

You may be surprised that I could visit one of the most beautiful parts of the country and return obsessed with toilets – but I do think this is an excellent idea!

And so I wondered – could we make Toilet Twinning our Charity of the month sometime soon?Could we twin both our Church toilets? Could we then persuade our school to twin their toilet block with another school – or spread the idea to other groups in the town??

It’s a very unusual subject for the church to be raising! But then perhaps BECAUSE of the very simplicity of the idea, the very ordinariness of the question of basic hygiene – we might just make a real impact on people’s consciousness here and on the lives of those in other countries who need help.

St Paul urges us to be “imitators of God”. It is our calling to reflect both the generosity of God – who gives us life — and the humanity of Jesus who embraced every aspect of life, and who offered his life for us all.

There is nothing too ordinary for God or beneath his concern – there is nothing too ordinary or beneath the dignity of the Church or her members. We say, in our mission statement, that we strive “to reveal God’s love in worship and action” – let’s do so through every possible means, the more ordinary the better.

Website: toilettwinning.org