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Sunday, 10 May 2009

Evensong Sermon

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love us,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
Amen

Revelations 3 v 8; I know your deeds. See I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.

I confess that the Book of Revelations is not my favourite book in the whole biblical canon, it doesn’t even come anywhere close to being my choice of reading from scripture. It is a book that challenges, it is misquoted, abused and a favourite among every fundamentalist sect you care to name. It is here that you find all the most frightening images of heaven, of hell and of the last judgement. It is here that many of the New Age re-inventors of all kinds of strange religious and irreligious expression find encouragement and fuel for their sometimes alarming religious thinking. Frankly it’s the one book that could possibly make me agree on some issues with Richard Dawkins.

The Book of Revelation is often used by those who seek to denigrate Faith by portraying its imagery as being somehow the working of a deranged fanatic. A man of unbalanced mind probably high on some substance which would, in today’s society, be proscribed. But is this a fair assessment of it? Uncomfortable the book may be; but does that mean it is automatically either the province of the terminally fundamental, or something to be discarded and discounted? I suggest to you that we cannot discard or disregard it and neither can we leave it to the fundamentalists to abuse. We have to embrace it and discern its message for ourselves and our generation – and to do that requires a lot of listening to the Spirit and a willingness to grow in faith.

What is often not understood about the book is that it is in a long Jewish tradition of apocalyptic writing. It belongs in the same class of Old Testament scripture as Job, Daniel, Esther and several other books. The writer uses allegory to mask his condemnations aimed at the secular authorities of his day, a necessary device in a state where critics did not enjoy longevity. Even in our own society, much of William Shakespeare’s work and not a few others spanning the Tudor and Jacobean periods employed allegory to get their criticisms of the state and the government across to a wider public. In our age, used as we are to a much more direct approach, we often forget this and fail to look at what the allegory is really saying, for very few can be literally interpreted. Even in the time of the Council of Nicea, there was doubt as to the authenticity of this book and it was included in the New Testament Canon only because the very aged St Boniface attested that his teacher, who had been a pupil of a disciple of John himself, had spoken of his teacher having been among those who wrote what the then dying John dictated.

Yet, when we look past the allegory and the grim imagery, we find that, as in so much of scripture there is a really important message waiting to be seen. Certainly in the letters to the seven churches of the Revelation that is very much the case. My text is taken from the letter to the sixth church and each letter has a different story to tell. Philadelphia, modern Alacehir in Turkey, is not one of the wealthy congregations, nor one of the most influential or authoritive, yet they are praised for their faithfulness. By contrast, the wealthy church at Sardis is damned for its apathy and complacency.

Which are we? I look around me at a magnificent building, one famed for its music, its liturgy and its beauty, but do we show the kind of faith which the congregation of Philadelphia obviously held? Are we complacent in our faith, or do we strive to grow, to try new ideas, accept new visions and new understanding – or coast along nice and gently without seeking any excitement to spice up our spiritual life?

When I look back at my own spiritual journey – as I have had to do in recent weeks as I prepare for the Selection Conference and undergo some pretty intense and rigorous interviews with my Spiritual Director, Bishop John and the DDO – I find that there have been numerous points along the road where I have been coasting, just going with the flow. There have been times when I have refused to confront my own prejudices and accept that there may be valid reasons to make changes. Some of you may well recall that, not that many years ago, I would have been among those very reluctant to even attend a Mass celebrated by a woman in Orders – yet this week I served at a Mass celebrated with Bishop Mary. Does this mean my faith is alive and someone else’s isn’t? Emphatically no – it simply means that I have found the Holy Spirit moving me and pointing things out to me that someone else may not yet have encountered. I am still in as much danger of falling into complacency as anyone else, or worse, of becoming so self-righteous that I fail to help someone else find their way into spiritual growth.

Complacency and pride were the great sins of Sardis, complacency that they had received the Word and needed to do no more than meet for worship, argue their understanding of their faith among themselves and ignore everything and everyone else. No wonder John writes;

“You have a reputation for being alive; but you are dead!”

To the Christians of Sardis this must have come as a shock – how could he praise Philadelphia – so much poorer, so simple in their worship, so inadequate that they couldn’t afford to build a grand church in which to meet. Not long ago we heard in our lection the reading of the King who divided his wealth between three slaves giving a hefty sum to one, a goodly chunk to another and a good slice to the third. The first two put the wealth to work and made even more of it; the third sat back and didn’t even try to use it. This is very much the image that springs to mind when reading the letters to the churches; and in particular those to the wealthier churches who seem reluctant to use their resources effectively and beneficially for the whole church and not just for themselves.

Complacency is a major enemy in everyone’s faith. The call is for us all to strive for the gospel. Each of us has a gift or set of gifts with which to work and we are all expected to put them to work for the Lord and for the Church – and by the Church, I do mean the whole community of God, not just this building or this congregation, but the whole of God’s Christian Church in the world. We must all become soldiers of Christ and do our bit to bring the gospel to all the nations. It is a terrible indictment of our Church and our faith that all my Muslim students at the Fire College have a deeper knowledge of the Bible and of the Gospels than the majority of my supposedly Christian colleagues. We have become complacent, we have sat back and done nothing to promote biblical understanding or study and left that most precious resource to the fundamentalist movements to use and abuse. What would St John write to us?

But, there is more in these messages to the Churches, for we have, as Bishop Mary reminded us on Wednesday evening, to learn to listen effectively. We have to hear what is being said to us and not be selective in that hearing. Sometimes that means having to hear what we do not want to hear because it makes us go where we do not want to go, or opens memories and fears we do not want to face. That is something I have to struggle with on occasion, some of the things in my childhood were painful and have left a mark, many things in the twenty years I served actively in the South African Fire Service left scars. But sometimes I have to confront those things and hear what they teach when dealing with new situations or confronting the need to grow and change or to shed dearly held and comfortable precepts so that I can make room for something new. I am not alone in this, we all have things which make us uncomfortable or uneasy and we all have different ways of dealing with it. St John of the Revelation tells us that we cannot swim with the tide all the time; that sometimes we have to confront our comfortable selves and deal with the uncomfortable. It is not an option; it is a condition of faith.

Recently I have read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s little book, Silence and Honeycakes. It looks at what the so-called Desert Fathers have to say about our society and our lifestyles. To a modern reader some of these men are decidedly odd, some eccentric and others possibly paranoid. They have widely different approaches to their spiritual growth and most admit to “running away” from the world. But the key question then becomes, what were they running too? If I run away from something, where do I go? Where do I hide? As children, we run to our parents when we are hurt, afraid or threatened. As an adult that is no longer an option, so the question remains, if I run away, where do I run too? Or more importantly, who do I run toward?

In his gospel account St Matthew gives us an answer to that:

“Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

The Book of Revelation looks forward to the Coming of the Kingdom and John is determined that those he has taught and brought to faith in Christ will be prepared. We cannot now interpret this book without looking carefully at the situation its original readers faced. It seems likely that it was written soon after the Roman sack of Israel and the destruction of the Temple, much of its imagery reflects this, yet it remains fresh and pertinent to ourselves, since it speaks graphically of the dangers of arrogance and complacency. Each of the “seven letters” is in fact an introduction to different sections of the book. Clearly some of the churches were struggling with persecution while others weren’t. Clearly the struggling churches seem to have built a stronger faith than those not being persecuted and there is certainly a lesson there for us. It can be no accident that the strongest faith today is often found where there is the greatest adversity and where Christians often experience persecution for practicing their faith.

A joke sent me by a friend sums up some of the complacency in our society rather nicely. It tells of three men enjoying a drink in their local. They spot a man with an annoyingly familiar look sitting alone at the other end of the bar and spend some time trying to identify him. Is he a celebrity slumming it? A football star? A cricketer perhaps? Eventually one, an Irishman, says, I think it’s Jay-sus. The others argue for a bit but the barman confirms it, so they club together and send him three pints, a Guiness, a Fosters and a pint of Bitter. He smiles and accepts their gifts, drinks them and comes over, shaking hands with the Irishman he thanks him for his Guiness and the Irishman exclaims in delight that his arthritis is cured. Next he shakes hands with the Australian and that man is cured of his bad back – but the third man refuses to shake hands saying – “Back off mate! I’d lose my disability benefit!”

If we are not to receive the letter that went to Sardis, perhaps we need to consider, are we content to nurse our disability and preserve our benefit – or do we seek the healing that comes with growing in the spirit and accepting that, while we may lose something, we stand to gain infinitely more? Let us pray for the courage to recognise our complacency and dismiss it. Let us pray for the courage to challenge our comfortable certainties and explore the uncertainties. Let us pray for the gift to hear what others say and the listen when God speaks and finally, for the courage to follow where he leads us, to surrender our own hopes, fears and comforts and walk with him in the uncomfortable places we all strive to avoid.

Let us hope that our letter begins:

“I know your deeds; see I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.”

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