You are God’s Building

ST BARNABAS’ ANGLICAN CHURCH, RIVERVALE
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY – 16th February, 2014
SERMON NOTES

Many years ago – it’s funny how more and more of my stories begin like that these days! – many years ago, when I was a lad, I met a retired couple at church who were seriously unto prospecting for gemstones. We lived in Kalgoorlie, and there were several good areas, not more than an hour or so’s drive from town, where quite a wide range of gemstones was to be found. I went on a couple of day trips with these folk and came home with a nice little haul of coloured rock, rough samples of what, I was assured, were good bits of gems which needed work.

In due course, the couple took me to their gemstone club, which met in the manual arts department of my old high school. There, over the course of a few evenings, I was taught to cut up my samples with a diamond-bladed saw and put them into a small “tumbler”, rather like a miniature cement-mixer, lined with abrasive paper, and left to run for several hours.

As the stones were tumbled at speed, they rubbed against the abrasive lining and one another. The end result was smoothly rounded and polished “real” gemstones, fit to be attached to cufflinks, tie clips, brooches or even gold rings. They looked pretty flash and the hobby interested me for at least several weeks 🙂

When I am doing marriage preparation with couples – many, many times over recent years – we necessarily talk over the area of communication and the resolution of conflict. By way of illustration, I usually show them a set of coffee tables which grace my study, and which I made in night classes at Toodyay District High School in my time as rector of that parish. I explain that, from basic timbers salvaged from a house my Lions Club demolished, I created my “masterpiece” entirely with the aid of friction – saws, planers, chisels and lathe, drills, sanders and sandpaper, and finally the application of polishes. All the processes involved friction and any amount of heat. And I tell my couples that a good marriage will have its fair share of friction and heat as two different people grow to become one, adjusting to each other’s likes and needs, and forming a strong and lasting bond.

As most of you know by now, KT and I have been married exactly forty years this very day. And I’d love to be able to say that we’ve never had an argument or a cross word, but I’d hate to be loudly contradicted while I’m preaching! In truth, I readily acknowledge that we’ve had our share of conflict and of situations that required serious discussion, heart-felt apologies and forgiveness, and even some fun “making up”!

In today’s readings from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the subject of conflict, as he speaks about relationship and forgiveness.

Jesus speaks of someone coming to make an offering at the temple – for which we can appropriately substitute “church” in our context – and remembering that he/she is at enmity with a “brother or sister”. It is clear that the offering and its accompanying worship of God must wait until there is reconciliation with the one aggrieved. I would add “at least a serious attempt at reconciliation”, because not always will the one hurt accept an apology and grant forgiveness. Then, Jesus says, it will be appropriate to come and bring the offering and, by implication, rejoin the people of God in worship and fellowship. I note that Jesus says, “If you remember that your brother has something against you”, but I’m sure that it is equally relevant if you have something against your brother or sister – in the faith and/or in the family
In each Eucharist, as you are well aware, we have the moment which is called in the Prayer Book, “The Greeting of Peace”. Sadly – and sometimes frustratingly to us clergy, at least – this greeting has tended to degenerate into a free-for-all, in which we catch up with one another’s health and family situations, and even the weather. Whether I or anyone can actually change this back to its original intent is a moot point; but let me explain its intended significance.

Our Eucharistic liturgy follows a simple pattern:
• Gathering – greeting, prayer of preparation, hymn of praise (“Gloria”) and prayer of the day
• Ministry of the Word – we hear readings from the Bible and listen to the sermon, which – ideally – expounds the scripture and makes application to our lives as church and Christians
• The Prayers of the People – in which we bring to God our concerns for the world, the church, the community, the sick and suffering and we remember those who’ve died in the faith
• Now we come to preparation to receive the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. In this section we acknowledge our unworthiness to receive the Sacrament (the “prayer of Humble Access” or “Approach”, and we confess to God our sins – all that has damaged our relationship with God and with one another – and hear the words of Absolution, assuring us that we are reconciled to God in accordance with God’s promise to “all who turn to him in faith.
• And so to the Greeting of Peace. Reconciled with God, we turn to one another and express our acceptance of and unity with one another, including forgiveness and reconciliation as necessary. We are, as the priest declares, “one body in Christ” and “Christ has reconciled us to God in one body by the cross”, and thus we “share his peace”.

To return to my original stories, it is clear that in any relationship – friendship, marriage and church – there will be times and occasions of conflict. I have many memories of conflict in the churches where I have served as priest – serious disagreements at Parish Council meetings, how money should be spent, the times of services, arguments over the placement of flowers, unhappiness that so-and-so didn’t clean the toilets properly, and various interest groups debating who should have the use of the church or hall when – to which, I have no doubt, you can add many conflicts you have experienced.

In our Prayer Book wedding service, we say that “as God has called [Fred and Mary] together in marriage, so he brings their differing gifts and hopes into a unity of love and service”. And we all know that such unity does not come magically and mysteriously in the wedding service, giving the couple an automatic and everlasting happiness. We well know that the grace of God in bringing us together is sufficient as long as we are willing to adjust and even compromise to build a great and lasting relationship. We will – in the nicest possible way! – knock the corners off each other in the tumbler of marriage and will probably after many years begin to look and speak and think alike – not by the victory of one over the other, but by the gradual and willing adjustment of each to the other, creating something beautiful for all to see and admire.

As Christians everywhere, but especially as the people of St Barnabas’, we are called together by God, and “as he has called us together, so God brings our differing gifts and hopes into a unity of love and service”. When we come to church, we cannot guarantee that the congregation will be made up entirely of people who are “just like us” – in fact, we probably wouldn’t enjoy that much, if at all. We are, like my gemstones and the timber we salvaged from a demolished house, in a pretty rough state. But God is at work in and among us to create something beautiful.

In today’s Epistle reading, St Paul has been berating the people of the church over their divisions – jealousy and quarrelling”, he calls it. He urges them to concentrate on what matters – it’s not about who is more important than whom, nor about who is the better leader to follow. Rather, he sums it up by saying, “we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

I like the expression, “God’s building”, because it is not a concrete word, like a building of bricks and mortar completed and signed off. The word, in the Greek in which St Paul is writing, means “a work in progress”.

After forty years, KT and I are still a work in progress, and will be as long as we live.

And we all – as individual Christians, as a parish, and as the church on earth – are God’s work in progress, and we are called to work together with God and one another to bring that “building” closer to completion.

Apology, forgiveness and reconciliation are the stuff of our relationships;
love and service are the evidence and outworking of God’s great and beautiful creation.

TLBWY

Presentation of the Lord

PRESENTATION OF OUR LORD IN THE TEMPLE – 2nd February, 2014

ST BARNABAS’, RIVERVALE

SERMON NOTES

Thirty-one years ago today, the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, on a hot and windy evening in Holy Cross Cathedral, Geraldton, the Archdeacon formally presented me to Bishop Ged Muston, declaring me to have been examined and found to be “fit for the office” of deacon.  There being no public objection to this, the Bishop laid hands on me and said, “Stephen, Take authority to execute the office of a Deacon in the church of God, now committed to you; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  And everyone said, “Amen.” And I went away a newly-minted Deacon, let loose on the church as a sort of senior apprentice.

 And a year later, on the eve of this same Feast, same climatic conditions, same Bishop, same Archdeacon, same declaration of my “fitness”, but this time as a Priest.  This time, it was not just the Bishop laying hands on my head, but all of the clergy present – a dozen or so, according to the picture you’ll see in the church lobby this morning.  And, believe me, the feeling of all those hands on my head and shoulders was weighty indeed, though probably not as weighty as had been the bishop’s statement of the “dignity and importance of this office”.  After I had answered numerous questions about my commitment to serve God and the Church, all those hands were laid on, and the Bishop said, “Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the church of God”, and quite a bit more!  And off we went to practise.  And I guess that thirty years on, I’m still practising!

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I’ve occasionally wondered if the Bishop had a particular reason for the deaconing and priesting’s happening on this feast of the Presentation of Christ, and long since decided that 1st/2nd of Feb was a convenient date because a number of the clergy were travelling through Geraldton about then to return to their far-flung parishes after the summer holiday. 

 Lest this become just a self-serving celebration of the “Feast of the Presentation of Steve in the Cathedral”, let’s think for a few minutes about the Feast which Mother Church has given us for today.

 I want to suggest that we can talk of “presentation” on four levels:

 Firstly, of course, we have Jesus being brought by Mary and Joseph to the Temple in Jerusalem.  He is forty days old, and the Law and custom required two things to happen this day.  One was the “purification” of his mother.  Hebrew law declared every woman who gave birth “unclean” for a period of forty days after the birth.  This had do with the shedding of blood in childbirth and meant that she was not allowed to attend the Temple for worship until she was “purified”. 

 The second part is that every first-born male child had to be brought to the Temple, presented to God, and “redeemed” with another sacrifice – usually that of a lamb, but Joseph and Mary, being probably not too well off and a long way from home, came with “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”, as we read in the Gospel.  The son was therefore a gift from God, given to God, and given back to the parents and the world.  This is a concept to which I’ll come back shortly.

 The writer to the Hebrews from whose letter we read earlier, brings out some of the significance of this event.  He stresses the humanity of Jesus, who shared in flesh and blood – was fully human like us – so that he could destroy death and all its power.  We are left with no uncertainty that Jesus is any less human than we.  The story of the Presentation celebrates One who, while fully divine, is equally fully human, fully Jewish and undergoing all that both humanity and Jewish law require.  The Hebrews’ writer goes on to tell us that “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people”. 

 The old man, Simeon, and the probably-even-older Anna, understand something of this.  They have been waiting many years to see God’s Messiah.  Simeon says of Jesus that he is:

“your salvation,

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

 Jesus is God’s “gift that keep on giving”.  He is presented to God in the Temple; redeemed at the cost of a couple of pigeons; given back to his parents; given as a sacrifice on the cross to restore us to relationship with God; and given back to us in the resurrection; so that, again to quote our Hebrews passage, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested”.

 This principle of sacrifice  – of giving and being given back can be seen in that many, if not most, sacrifices in the Jewish Law were “fellowship offerings” – that is, the animal (lamb, goat or bull) would be killed and put in the fire on the altar.  Some parts would be totally destroyed, but most of it would be carved up and served to the worshippers present.  They got back their sacrifice – perhaps with roast potatoes!  Give to God and God gives back in spades!

 The principle carries through somewhat in our practice of ordination.  The late great Howell Witt was my Bishop in the Diocese of North-West Australia, when we lived in Paraburdoo.  When I spoke to him about offering for Ordination, I remember him telling me that I could feel called, but it was the church which chooses – both, we hope, under the direction of God who is always the caller and chooser.  And we got though the process of a Selection Conference in Perth under the direction of Archbishop Geoffrey Sambell, who sent us to Melbourne to study.  And the rest, as they say, is history!

 So there is a sense in which, at an ordination both the candidate and the church present a person not just to the Bishop, but to God.  This is an offering which we believe God accepts and then gives to the church and the world in service. 

 Carrying on with this theme of presenting offerings to God, let’s think about what is happening at this and every Sunday Eucharist.  Before the Great Thanksgiving, we sing the “offertory hymn” and the “gifts of the people” are brought to and presented at the altar – gifts of bread and wine, and gifts of money.  These are our offerings, our sacrifices, giving to God some of what God has given us.

 So we pray, “Through your goodness we have these gifts to share.

Accept and use our offerings for your glory

and for the service of your kingdom.”

 And the offerings – money, bread and wine – do not simply vanish in a cloud of smoke, never to be seen again.  In fact the money is taken and used by Parish Council to enable God’s work in the parish and beyond.  I’m very proud that, as a parish, we give away a significant portion of our income for God’s work beyond our boundaries.

 And the bread and wine, symbols of our life and labour, become for us the Body and Blood of Christ – taken, blessed, broken and shared, giving us life and hope and renewal week after week until Jesus returns.

 Which bring us to the final “presentation” for today. After everyone has received the bread and wine, we pray together,

            “Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice

            through Jesus Christ our Lord.

            Send us out in the power of your Spirit

            to live and work to your praise and glory.”

 You see, we all – not just those ordained or otherwise specially set apart by the Church – are a sacrifice, an offering to God.  And God accepts that offering and gives us back to the world to be light and salt and leaven – to make a difference, and to do works of love which will continue to build God’s kingdom here on earth and in heaven.

 Today, then, I give thanks to God, to whom I was “dedicated” as a baby, called in baptism a child of God, called and chosen and ordained to serve.

 Today, I give thanks to God for you, my brothers and sisters in the faith, called to mutual love and service, and to whom I happily continue to pledge my love and service.

 Today, I give thanks to God who has abundantly blessed me – and us all – with life and health and material and spiritual blessings.

 And, above all, I give thanks to God for the “inexpressible gift” of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, through whose great sacrifice we all are “redeemed” and reconciled with God and one another.

 TLBWY