Tuesday 5 June 2018

Readings: Ezekiel 47,1-12 and 1 Peter 2, 1-10

The churchwardens among you are probably thinking as we read the first reading from Ezekiel, ‘I’m glad I wasn’t the churchwarden in the temple when all that damp appeared’.

Some of you might be thinking; would that we could get back to the days when just living stones is all we had to deal with, and not these solid ones as well. So I want to say first of all a very big thank you. Thank you on behalf of the congregations and the communities which you serve.It may feel sometimes that you’re in well, not quite smoke filled rooms, but little rooms doing lots of business and working to keep the business of the church going, but it is a really important gift that you bring, not just to the church, not just to the congregation but to the towns, the villages, the parishes in which you are and of which you are the churchwardens. So a very big thank you.

I think the theme this year, from what I’ve heard people saying to me, was not quite admin overload - does that sound familiar?Those letters GDPR came up quite a few times and I was thinking back – this is my fourth visitation now – that I can measure the years by what issue I’m going to be the lightning rod for in these discussions. Not that I want you to feel sorry for me, you won’t I know, but I remember one of the first visitations was when the Safeguarding toolkit came out. There was a sort of groan: how will we do this? Does it make a difference?And I have to say, it is wonderful that you do do it and each year that’s being fulfilled more and more - and yes, it does make a difference because we want, particularly with all the things we’ve seen recently in the press about our church, about other organisations, we want our churches to be as safe as they can be for children, for vulnerable adults.So sometimes the things that seem like box-ticking are really important, doing the Kingdom things we believe in to make our churches places we know people can come to and feel safe and valued.So thank you for that.

I remember the year after that when it was Fairer Share.Or as it was nicknamed once ‘towards a less unfair share’.Trying to divide the cake in a way that is equitable, for the mission and ministry not just of the church where you are or I am, but for the whole ministry of the Church in this diocese and across the parishes, the schools, the chaplaincies, across the whole patch.Trying together to share the cost of that so that we can effectively minister toGod’s love in places perhaps we don’t see or have contact with, but where we believe that needs to be shown and reflected.And this year interestingly we are re-doing Fairer Share. It seems to be a little bit easier this time round.

The one that came back this year is the one I’m partly to blame for.It’s the Buildings for Mission survey, which collided with GDPR, for which I take no blame at all. I’ve a feeling with GDPR that in way we are sort of collateral damage here.European law, in trying to hit some of the big companies that are taking data, means they came in with this very far reaching law.But thank you for all that you have been doing for that as well. For that, of course, is also trying to honour people, isn’t it?Not trying to exploit people and that’s something we believe in and want to do.The Buildings for Mission survey is what it says on the tin.Our buildings aren’t just for conservation, though they are very beautiful places and they speak to people of God.They are a part of God’s mission wherever we are.And we want to find the best way of making use of those, the complementary way that not every church has to have the same ministry because of the building it is.They are all different.This one might not be quite like the church you come from.We all have an appropriate ministry for the churches and the buildings and the settings in which we are.And I hope that the Buildings for Mission survey will get a conversation going between us, so that beyond our congregations we can together see how we can reflect God’s love and his glory in the world.

So for all of that I’d like to say a big thank you. Thank you, too, for the conversations that we’ve had and the relationships we build up within deaneries, between parishes and across the diocese. Relationship is something which is surely absolutely at the heart of all we are and believe as Christians.

But in this place [Pershore Abbey] I find myself returning to a theme that some of you I know have heard me talk about fairly recently - the theme of St Benedict.This was one of his monasteries, a Benedictine monastery.We have Evesham, Malvern Priory, both Malvern priories, Worcester Cathedral, Tewkesbury down the road, many others.Benedict was a monk around the turn of the 400’s into the 500’s, very early in the life of the church, and I’m fascinated by the man.I’m fascinated by the fact that when the world around him seemed to be falling apart, particularly Europe seemed to be falling apart and Rome was being overrun, when it seemed that everything familiar was disappearing, a man called Benedict took a group of people up into a mountain and formed a little praying community.

A faithful community of prayer in times of change.And that vision spread.We are sitting here because it spread as far as here, over a thousand miles away - the vision that faithful communities can bring God’s love and hope to a world in turmoil.Many people today are saying that the world is in turmoil, and I guess it’s not so different to the world in Jesus’ day, in Benedict’s day. In fact, we human beings are pretty good at turmoil, aren’t we?

But we also have this calling as Christians to try and hold on to something which gives a message of hope, a sign of encouragement in the world.And Benedict formed these faithful communities of prayer and it seems to me that’s not a bad description for your parish church, to be a faithful community of prayer especially in a time of change and turmoil.

This is different from being a holy huddle.Somehow Benedict’s monastery didn’t succeed in being holy huddles; in fact they became places of hospitality and welcome. They celebrated the Eucharist regularly. When we take bread and wine, we take the ordinary stuff of the world and we say the ordinary stuff of the world can show us the glory of God.We take the world seriously as Christians, we don’t try to escape from it or shut it out.And so Benedict’s communities were faithful communities, but they were also world facing and world affirming communities.They were interested in what went on outside the walls of the monastery as well.

If ever we want to do our mission action planning, however we describe that, maybe the best place to start is outside the front door of our church, actually in the parish, with the parish in our view, not just the familiarities of the building around us.It seems to me that today, as ever, our churches are called to be communities of blessing with a message of hope.And the message of hope is that our God is un-put-downable and nothing that can be thrown at God throws God, because ultimately Jesus rose from the dead, ultimately God’s love is stronger than anything we can imagine.

So how do we as churchwardens and priests alike together help build communities of blessing which bless the communities in which we are set with messages of hope?The two readings which we had this evening have both those at their heart.Peter’s letter, our second reading, people think was probably written to a small group of quite dispersed and dispossessed Christians.They probably didn’t have a building to worship in, they didn’t have much of a place, they were pushed aside, they were marginalised at the time, they were up against it.

Peter wrote words of encouragement. He said to them, first of all, by quoting from Scripture, that you have a history, you have a story, you belong.You’re not just the dispossessed, you’re not just the poor, you’re not just the nobodies, you belong in this history of salvation.“See I am laying in Zion a cornerstone and precious”. You’re a chosen race.He puts them in a line, in a story, he gives them this story: people who felt they had no story, they become part of the story, God’s story with us.

To people who had no place he gives them a place and that place is Christ. Christ who is the cornerstone, the one on which the whole building rests.So to these people who are placeless they are given a place where they can feel at home:at home in God.

And thirdly he gives to them a standing, a status, which they didn’t believe they had.You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood.Once you were not a people but now you are God’s people.This is a really strong message of hope the writer of this epistle is giving to those Christians who might have thought everything was hopeless.They have a story, they have a place, they have a standing, a status.They count.

That’s a message that so many of us need to hear.Perhaps I need to hear it again as well, perhaps we all do, telling it to each other, that we’re valued, that we’re chosen, that we’re holy.And interesting for Peter it says this not anybody’s doing other than God’s, our God is like that, our God wants to love us into life, building that community of disposed, uncomfy Christians into a community which could be a blessing, a community with a message of hope that they first received from themselves.And if Peter wrote this I wonder why he did, because, if you remember, Peter was often the one who got it wrong, often the one who put his foot in it, often the one who knew what it meant to be forgiven, to be loved into life.He knew what it was to receive that love.He had to learn at the Last Supper to receive, to have his feet washed and that is a great message of hope surely.

Then back to that first reading from Ezekiel, the vision of the temple.I think you have to imagine a tour guide taking place round the temple, showing them all the wonderful things and then he shows them this water coming out and it’s a thin trickle. It’s a trickle in a parched and dry land, and it grows ever wider, it grows ever deeper.I love the bit when he says along the way, ‘mortal have you seen this?’Are you paying attention? Have you noticed?

For what comes from the temple isn’t just for the religious few, it’s not just for those in the temple.It is blessing for that desert land.It ends up wonderfully, so rich, bringing living water to the Dead Sea, dead through its saltiness, then as now.And these trees grow, their fruit will be food, their leaves will be for healing. This water that flows through the temple is a gift for the community to everyone.It’s an ever deepening river of blessing.Isn’t that a wonderful message of hope?

And isn’t that a wonderful picture for your parish church? To imagine a stream coming from your church of God’s love, which is an ever deepening river of blessing for the whole world, for God loves the world so much.Ezekiel’s prophecy was when they had no temple, when they were in exile, when all seemed absolutely hopeless. he had a vision that somehow the community that would grow around this would be a community of blessing for the whole world, a message of hope for everyone.

We started with the business, the stuff, the safeguarding toolkit, GDPR.I end with communities that bless the world, messages of hope.But they’re all part and parcel of the same thing, you know, because God is there in the very ordinary things doing that blessing and giving that hope.In those surveys, in the work that we do, in the work that sometimes seems so mundane, it’s all part of that story, that story which helps us become, under God’s grace and in his power alone, thank God, in his power alone, communities in our parishes, in this Archdeaconry, in this diocese here and now, which can be blessing to their communities and radiate a message of hope.