Learning from Children: Generous Hospitality

Yet again, I have been learning more from the children I work with than they have from me. This is not unusual, it happens most days, but I thought I’d share this one.

This morning the pre-school next door to church had an unexpected fire alarm and, as is the agreed procedure, evacuated the children into the church. Just as we were starting Small Saints, our group for pre-school children and their families. So suddenly instead of 12 children, we had 42!

In the midst of the ensuing chaos, I observed the following. M, aged 3, had been playing with the playdough for some time, carefully cutting out cat shapes and lining them up along the edge of the table. Suddenly she looked up and saw a large and unexpected group of unfamiliar children arriving. She immediately picked up the cats she’d made, squished them and all the playdough into a ball, and split it into many small amounts, which she gave to other children as they arrived at the table.

A small act of kindness perhaps, but pretty impressive for such a young child to do unprompted. I was proud of her.

And I think M taught me something today about what really generous hospitality looks like. It means putting aside the things we want, the things we’ve planned and worked for. It means sharing what we have and letting others share in the creative process. It means taking the unexpected in our stride and not being afraid to relinquish control. It means letting go of our own ideas so that other people’s can find a place to flourish.

The sort of generous hospitality God calls us to is not about shifting our boundaries slightly so that others can fit in with what we’re doing. It’s about looking at who is in front of us, and doing things in a way that includes everyone, even if that means abandoning our own dearly-held plans.

Sometimes it takes a fire-alarm and a 3 year old with some playdough to bring me back to where God wants my attention. Thank you God for using your children to teach me (yet again).

Sermon for All Age Eucharist, Trinity Sunday 2014: Isaiah 40.27-end, Matthew 28.16-end

May I speak in the name of the one God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day in the church calendar when we celebrate the great mystery of God who is three in one and one in three. It’s easy to get bogged down in the complexities of how that works, how God can be one God, and yet be the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all at the same time. But that’s not what Trinity Sunday should be about. It’s not primarily an invitation to a complex theological debate, but to a joyful celebration of the great mystery which is at the heart of who God is.

The key to entering in to the mystery of the Trinity – not understanding it, but entering in to it – is relationship. At the heart of who God is, is relationship, because God is Love, and Love doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Love must entail relationship. And so we see this relationship at the heart of God. Whether we talk about Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Source of all Being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Whatever language we use is only an imperfect description of the loving relationship which exists in God, and in which God exists.

[Volunteers x3 to hold: plant, cross, flame.]

God is creator [plant]. God is redeemer [cross]. God is sustainer [flame]. God is all of these and God is each of these, in relationship with each other. [Place string around volunteers] But the relationship doesn’t stop there, this isn’t a closed circle. God creates us [plant]. God redeems us [cross]. God sustains us [flame]. And in so doing, God invites us into relationship with God, into the love at the heart of the Trinity. And so the circle expands to include all of us.

[Send children with string to encircle congregation, meeting by door.]

And that relationship, that love, doesn’t stop with us either. God invites us into relationship, and from the place of love sends us out to invite others into relationship too, with God and with us. We see it in today’s gospel: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” And so the circle doesn’t stop here at the door.

[Get children to roll balls of string out of door.]

The love which God extends to us, we must extend to others, beyond our doors, beyond our comfort zone. Imagine our balls of string stretching out across the churchyard, through the town, around the country, and right the way around the world. This is what God’s love is like: all-encompassing, never-ending, open to everyone. God is Love, and that’s why to really know God we have to accept his invitation to enter into the mystery of the infinitely loving relationship at the heart of the Trinity, into the heart of Godself.

And from that place of love we have to be ready to go out, as Jesus commands, and share that love with everyone, inviting them to share in the mystery of God who is both three and one. Isaiah asks “Have you not seen? Have you not heard?” And so many haven’t. So however imperfect our understanding of God, of the glorious mystery of the Trinity, we need to be ready to go out and share our faith, however inadequate it seems to us, in our schools and workplaces and public spaces. Because we have good news worth sharing: God is love; God loves you; there is no greater mystery than this.

Amen.

Sermon for All Age Eucharist on Low Sunday 2014: John 20.19-end

Poor Thomas. All the other disciples had seen Jesus, but he’d missed out. No wonder he wanted to see for himself. After all, it’s not easy to believe in something you haven’t seen for yourself. It’s not easy to know about something you can’t see.

I wonder what you can know about something you haven’t seen. Let’s try an experiment to find out.

[blindfold child and give them an object]

What can you tell us about it? What shape is it? What texture? Heavy or light? Hot or cold? There are some things you can know without seeing. But what colour is it? Is it plain or stripey? There are some things you can’t.

Other children [not blindfolded]: What colour is it? Plain or patterned? You know more about it when you can see it. But there are still some things you can’t know. How old is it? Who does it belong to? What will happen to it after the service today?

There are some things we can know about an object without seeing it, some we know when we see it, and some we still don’t know even when we have seen it. And it’s much the same with Jesus.

There are some things we can know about Jesus without encountering him ourselves. Other people can tell us about Jesus. We can read about him in the Bible. We can see pictures of him. And we can learn a lot from all those things. Thomas could know some things about the risen Jesus too before he saw for himself. He could know what his friends told him. But that wasn’t enough.

And it isn’t enough for us either. We need to move beyond what we are told about Jesus, to encounter him ourselves. We need to move, like Thomas, from the place of hearing others say “we have seen the Lord” to being able to say for ourselves “my Lord and my God”. There are some things we can’t know about Jesus from the words of others – we each need that real encounter with the living, risen Christ.

That personal encounter with Jesus is something that comes only by God’s grace, we can’t make it happen. But we can invite it. By prayer and, like Thomas, by asking. Thomas is often described as doubting, but I prefer to think of him as wondering. He had heard that Jesus was risen, but that wasn’t enough. He wanted to know more, wanted to experience for himself the presence of Jesus.

And we should all want more. More of God, more knowledge, more closeness, more depth of encounter with the risen Jesus. We shouldn’t be content with what we are told. John tells us at the end of today’s gospel that what he writes about Jesus isn’t all there is to know. It’s a good starting point, but there is more to be had, if only we will ask, and pray, and wait in expectation.

And like Thomas, we should be ready to make up our own minds, and ready to have our minds changed. You are never too young to have our own opinions about God, to know how God is at work in your life. And you are never too old to learn something new and surprising about how God is working.

Beware of anyone who tells you they have all the answers. Beware of anyone who starts a sentence “the Bible clearly says…” Scripture is not a how-to book or a manual for life. It’s an invitation to go deeper with God, to learn more about what it means to walk with Jesus, to ask the Holy Spirit to lead us more and more into all truth.

May we, like Thomas, dare to ask more of God, dare to want to experience and know for ourselves the truth of Christ’s resurrection. May we dare to invite the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts. And may we not be surprised when our encounter with the living God changes everything forever.

Rainbow Sunday

Today (16th March 2014) is Rainbow Sunday, an initiative started by Inclusive Church to celebrate and affirm LGBT people in our churches. At the church where I am children’s minister, we marked Rainbow Sunday in Ark, our children’s group, with discussion, stories, prayer, and the creation of a beautiful rainbow altar frontal. Then we took our altar frontal into church, put it on the altar, and I had about a minute to talk to the congregation about what we had been doing and why.

All Saints has sometimes tended to keep our message of inclusion “under the radar”, as a colleague put it this morning, occasionally mentioning sexuality as an afterthought in a list of groups we are not excluding, but “not making a big thing of it”. Our congregation is in every sense a broad church, and I am aware that there is a very wide range of views on this subject. Today felt a bit like sticking my head above the parapet!

This is (roughly) what I said:

“Today is Rainbow Sunday, the day in the church calendar set aside for affirming and celebrating LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans*) people in the church. The rainbow, as we know from the story of Noah, is a sign of hope. It has long been used as a symbol by the gay community to represent the hope of equality, a brighter future, and the right to be and to celebrate who God made each person to be.

The church does not have a good track record when it comes to how we have treated gay people.  Too often our brothers and sisters have been hurt and rejected simply because of who they, these precious children of God, are.  Still, when equal marriage becomes a reality at the end of this month, same sex couples won’t be able to get married in this church, to experience that joyful celebration and blessing of their love as part of the body of Christ. Still our church leaders are too slow and too hesitant to speak out against the support shown by some of their African counterparts for violently homophobic laws.

Still, in so many ways, the church fails to be the face of God’s justice and love. And I believe God weeps for that.

At Ark this morning we’ve been looking at the last two verses of today’s gospel reading, which N will read for us [John 3.16-17]. Everyone who believes inherits eternal life. Jesus came not as judge but as saviour. How can we hear those words and not be moved to do our bit to right the wrongs done to our LGBT brothers and sisters?

And so today we are making this small start. We are saying that discrimination is never the will of God, and that in this church we will not accept it. We are saying that there is nothing about anyone that is not fearfully and wonderfully made by God. And we are celebrating in all the colours of the rainbow the fabulously diverse group of people God calls us to be.”

 Then the vicar led us in this prayer, which I wrote for the occasion:

“Loving God,

We thank you that each of us is made in your likeness

And that every aspect of ourselves is a gift from you.

Help us to celebrate and treasure each other

As your precious children.

We thank you for the rich diversity of sexuality and gender

And pray that we may come to value one another

And support each other

As we grow more and more into the people you made us to be.

We thank you for the example of creativity and love

Shown by our children today

And ask that we may all face you and each other

With the openness and honesty of a child.

May your church become ever more like Jesus,

Filled with the generous love of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.”

Here’s a picture of the altar frontal:

Image

And finally, a quote from one of the children who helped make it: “it’s to show everyone who comes into our church that God loves them just how they are”.

 

Come as you are

It is fair to say that time-keeping is not a strong point at the church where I work. Our main Sunday service starts at 9.45. At 9.43, approximately half the congregation will be there, some of them even sitting down. By 9.50, most have arrived. A steady trickle will continue until at least the sermon, with the odd one or two continuing to come in at random intervals throughout. Some will arrive just in time for coffee afterwards.

Me. I’m obsessively punctual. I hate being late, and will go to great lengths to avoid it. And to be perfectly honest, it drives me up the wall when other people are late. So how do I feel about the time-keeping at All Saints? Actually, it doesn’t bother me at all. It has done, but it doesn’t now, because I’ve come to see it as part of how we welcome people as they are.

To take a not-unusual example from the other Sunday, I was chatting after the service to a mum of two children, who told me about the awful week she’d been having. It had clearly been one thing after the other, culminating in the realisation that various factors involving changed timings of a rugby practice for one child, an unexpected dance workshop for another, and a husband on nightshifts, meant there was no way she’d be able to get to church on time. “I nearly didn’t come,” she said, “and then I thought loads of other people come in late, no-one’s going to mind. So I came. I missed the sermon, but I got here in time for communion. I’m glad I came, I really needed it today.”

Here is an example of exactly the sort of person who most needs us, the church, on a Sunday morning. Busy, stressed, snatching time between family commitments, but desperately wanting the comfort of belonging, community, communion, drawing near to God to be refreshed and renewed, ready for the next long slog of a week. And if we were the sort of church where people turn and stare and tut when you come in late, she wouldn’t have come. It’s as simple as that.

So no, I don’t mind when people wander in half way through the sermon. I don’t mind when they take their children to the toilet in the middle of the prayers (after a loud “but Mummy, I need a poo NOW”), or when a toddler is laughing or yelling, or when the two old ladies behind me carry on with their conversation throughout the Eucharistic prayer. Because that’s part of who we are. It’s part of being a family, God’s family, as we gather at his table.

It’s part of how we welcome people. Jesus doesn’t wait for people to be sitting in neat rows and listening quietly before he welcomes them. God says “come as you are”, and so should we.

But we’re so far off from that, aren’t we? So far from accepting and welcoming people however they are, whoever they are. We might be ok with a yelling toddler, but what about a drunk adult shouting the odds? A couple of old ladies talking, fine. But what about someone talking to voices only they can hear?

Mental illness, addiction, disability, family breakdown, challenging behaviour, poverty, a dozen other things that make up what professionals politely refer to as “chaotic lives”. Are we really ready to say “come as you are”? Or do we mean “come as you are, as long as it’s not too disruptive to how we do things”?

If we believe in a God who loves unconditionally, extravagantly, outrageously, and if we believe Christ calls us, as the church, to be his body in the world, how can we place limits on that love? How can we say “we love you if…” “we welcome you unless…” Those are things we’ll never hear God say. And if we the church say them, in our words or actions, rolled eyes or tutting, disapproving glances or avoided eye-contact, we place limits on that love which are nothing to do with God at all.