Imagine if…..

“At [insert church name here] children are at the heart of everything we do.” – Imagine if that was really true.

“Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Imagine if we really took that seriously.

Imagine if we listened to children as much as we expect them to listen to us.

Imagine if we treated every child with dignity, compassion and respect. Imagine if we acted like we really believe every child is a full member of the body of Christ, made in the image of God.

Imagine if instead of modeling how we want our children to worship, we looked at the worship they are already modeling to us, and joined in.

Imagine if the word we most often used about children’s contribution to the life of the church was something other than “cute”. How about “profound”, or maybe “revelatory”, “imaginative”, “creative”, “deep”, “prayerful”, “inspired”. Imagine if we recognised and valued those things in our children.

Imagine if we prayed for – and truly expected to see – the gifts and fruit of the spirit made manifest in our children, not in the future, but now.

Imagine if we no longer priviledged an adult’s view of God and faith and life above that of a child.

Imagine if we created worship centred on children, and then worked out how to fit the needs of adults around the edge.

Imagine if we looked at every aspect of what it means to be a child, and took Jesus’ words to heart. Imagine if we tried to become like children not just in selective, comfortable ways, but in every way, defying the expectations of the world.

Imagine if we lived wholeheartedly in the kingdom of God, a kingdom where children of every age are loved and valued and treasured for who they are.

Imagine if we stopped trying to be grown-up, in control, and lived in total child-like dependence on God.

Imagine if…..

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Pilgrims, tourists, and a closed door

On a visit to York Minster the other day I saw this sign: “The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in this chapel. It is only open for quiet prayer & not for sightseeing.” It was affixed to a heavy, wooden, firmly closed door, located unprominently part way down the south transept (for those not au fait with cathedral architecture, read “not at all in an obvious place”).

I tweeted a photo of the sign, and quickly got a wide range of responses, including some diverse and obviously strongly-held opinions. Some felt that a quiet place to pray was an essential part of the minster’s ministry, and the sign a sensible attempt to preserve that. Others thought it was an awfully excluding statement.

It took me a while to untangle my own thoughts and feelings about this sign. Something about it instinctively didn’t sit well with me, but what?

I understand the desire for a quiet place for prayer. I myself have frequently been annoyed by being gawped at and/or photographed by hoards of tourists when trying to pray in a cathedral or other “touristy” church. As a teenager whose diocesan cathedral was Canterbury, I vividly remember feeling too embarrassed to kneel in the presence of a whole coach party, and simulatneously guilty for letting them put me off.

But I’m not sure my preferences are really the point. What of the visitor whose only interaction with “church” is to visit historically interesting places of worship for a day out? What of their needs – shouldn’t they trump mine? I can pray anywhere, anytime. Who knows what other opportunities that casual visitor might have for an encounter with God?

I guess what bothers me most about this sign is the rather concrete division between those “sightseeing” and those seeking “quiet prayer”. What of someone who comes in thinking themselves a tourist, finds themself in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and is moved to pray, perhaps even for the first time? With a sign like this, where is the space for the transforming work of the Holy Spirit?

And it does bother me that the Blessed Sacrament is hidden away, separated from the “ordinary” people. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, did not hide away from those who sought him, however unlikely or unsuitable. Nor should we hide away his sacramental presence in our cathedrals, minsters and churches. Perhaps that view comes hand-in-hand with a particular “open table” theology of the Eucharist.

I’m not a fan of barriers in churches generally, physical or metaphorical. Barriers, closed doors, stumbling blocks, call them what you will, they don’t seem to have much place in the good news of Christ or the mission of his church.

(Footnote: And what of those wishing to pray loudly in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament?!)

What are your views? How can minsters and cathedrals balance the needs of those seeking a space to pray, with those of tourists and other visitors?

“Love is the fulfilling of the law” – sermon for 7th September 2014

May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

 “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” writes Paul to the Romans in our first reading today. I wonder, what are the laws we live by, the rules that govern our way of being together? [ask children for examples of school rules]

We need rules and laws to live together, every community does: every school and country and church. But I wonder where our rules come from, what their purpose is? [apply to school rule examples]

Rules and laws are only helpful if they have a purpose, and Paul is very clear about what that purpose should be: love.

In today’s psalm, the psalmist asks God to show him what God’s laws are, and how he should keep them. “Lead me in the path of your commandments” he prays. And God answers that prayer, for all of us, in the person of Jesus, who is the way God calls us to follow, and who is love. And so Paul can say to the Romans, “love is the fulfilling of the law”. The path of God’s commandments is love, as revealed in Jesus Christ, love incarnate.

In the birth, life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, God changes the world. We are no longer in a world where the written letter of the law is sovereign, but one in which the law, the way, the truth, the word has a name and a face and a body in Jesus. Our laws must now be rooted in the deep, self-giving, infinite love of Christ.

Some rules are for all time: you shall not murder, for example. These rules, as Paul says, are a fulfilment of what Jesus calls “the greatest commandments” – love God, and love your neighbour.

Other rules are for a particular time or place or people. Things which used to make sense as laws seem strange to us today. It used to be the law that if you drove a car at night someone had to walk in front of it with a red flag and a torch – imagine if we still did that now! When that law was invented, it was a sensible way of keeping people safe (which is part of loving our neighbour) but if we did it now it would just be daft.

There are some laws in the Bible which seem pretty strange to us too. For instance, the book of Leviticus includes a rule against touching the skin of a dead animal, which would be a problem for any of us wearing leather, and also a rule against coming before God with unkempt hair, which could be a problem for me!

For the people for whom these rules were written, they made sense as part of how they honoured God, but it would make no sense for us to go on following them today. Incidentally, this is the same list of rules in which we find one of the verses most commonly used against gay people in the church, which might give us pause for thought.

The laws and rules of the world, even the rules of the church, are only God’s laws in so far as they are a manifestation of God’s love. It is up to us, each of us, and us together as a church, to discern the love behind the law, to apply the rules in a spirit of love. And when rules and customs and laws are not rooted in love, we need to be brave enough to challenge and change and discard them in favour of God’s ever-loving way.

God’s law is not about the carrying out of specific instructions, not a tedious set of rules to be kept. It is, or should be, a whole new, radically different, way of living, filled and overflowing with abundant love. This is what Jesus means by “life in all its fullness”.

The great American writer Maya Angelou, who died earlier this year, said this: “Love recognises no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates wall to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

When our rules become barriers which prescribe false limits to love, they are no longer the will of God. When our customs become walls which separate us from our neighbour, they are no longer rooted in God’s love.

So let us examine the rules and customs and laws by which we live our own lives. Let us put aside anything we find there that is not in accordance with God’s law of love. And let us live life in all its fullness as the liberated children of God, filled and overflowing with God’s love.

Amen.

Readings: Psalm 119.33-40; Romans 13.8-10; Matthew 18.18-20