Eucharistic community – is it the bearing we’re wearing? Sermon notes Trinity 9B

Notes for a sermon for the saints at St Wilfred Grappenhall – August 2nd 2015 (Proper 13B, Ordinary 18B, Trinity 9)

The text: Ephesians 4:1-16

We all have one letter in our hands – it’s a part of a letter with a prison stamp, which seems to be addressed not just to people in one place, Ephesus, but to all places at all times. This fragment is intriguing because of the wonderfully motivating language, but because it touches on the behaviour of saints. It’s a letter to saints about how saints behave. In the letter WE are called saints so it’s a letter about how we behave.

My sermon is playing for time – time for us to dwell on this fragment – time to gather round three hearths within the fragment. Please feel free to wander round this in your own way at any point, but for those who want to stay with me I start with a question that, for some reason kept bugging me while I was reading this letter. The question is, “Why did the guest have to leave the party?” It’s a question posed by the story from Matthew’s gospel (chapter 22).

I’ve got an email here which might remind you of that story. It’s one of those “complaining” emails.

It begins:

“Hi King”, (isn’t it strange how we don’t use “dear” so much in emails? Does it mean that people are now less dear and precious to us in the days of bulk correspondence?) – anyway, the email goes on:

“I feel I have to complain to you about the way you treated me at the party you organised. First of all, thank you for the invitation. I had thought that I would have been invited to one of your earlier parties because of the work I have done in the community. Anyway, I did manage to rearrange my diary so that I could join you in the palace.

“I was shaken when your flunkies grabbed me and escorted me from the party. I can’t see what I did wrong. They said it was because of what I was wearing, but the invitation did say that the dress code was informal, and other people were wearing t-shirts and shorts as well.

“What’s made matters worse is the media coverage. The headlines are awful and everywhere, and the film showing me weeping and gnashing my teeth has gone viral on youtube. You have made me a laughing stock. It has been so damaging, embarrassing and disrespectful. I demand an immediate apology.

“And one more thing. I don’t know who did the seating plan, but I can’t understand why I wasn’t at one of the top tables. You don’t seem to realise who I am.

Yours, humiliated,
Frank Lee Speaking.”

I’ve got the king’s reply:

“May I speak to you frankly? I do this in love.

I felt honoured that you accepted my invitation, and that you made the time to come (many didn’t – which explains why there were so many people there who you’d probably only seen begging at the city gate). It wasn’t the clothes you wore (I rather liked that t-shirt you wore). No, it was the bearing that you were wearing. You were upsetting the party and upstaging the guests. You were resentful, argumentative and arrogant. You had to go.

I am sorry that you felt embarrassed. That was never my intention. I hope you understand.

Love

Rex X”

Welcome to the party.

As Christians we enjoy ourselves. We use the language of party – a eucharistic language. Sunday by Sunday there is eucharist, celebration, wine, good company, gifts, song and a party Spirit. It’s not a party to be missed for the food – the bread that gives life to the world.

The party spirit of the worshipping community is captured by describing it as “Eucharistic community”. I want to share three hearths with you – the three hearths take us to the heart of what a eucharistic community is – what the party is about.

First:

At the heart of our eucharistic community is our “thank yous”. A eucharistic community meeting is full of thank-yous – count the “thanks” in the liturgy, in our prayers, in our scriptures, in our interactions. We are awash with thanksgiving. Thank you, thank you, thank you. The eucharistic community is raised in appreciation and thanksgiving – indeed, that is the very meaning of the word eucharist.

Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, says that “Thank you” is the best prayer that anyone could say. She says that she gets to say that prayer a lot: “thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility and understanding.” Is that our prayer?

Ephesians talks of “thank yous”. Here’s how The Message translates another verse (5:4) in the letter: “Though some tongues just love the taste of gossip, those who follow Jesus have better uses for language than that. Don’t talk dirty or sill. That kind of talk doesn’t fit our style. Thanksgiving is our dialect.” Thanksgiving is our dialect.

Positive psychologists are also talking about the importance of gratitude and thankfulness as a transformative and converting behaviour…..

Second:

In the depths of Eucharistic language there is gifting – and that is the basis of our gratitude and thankfulness. It is how “eucharist” is spelled. CHARIS comes in the middle of that word. “Charis” is left when you peel away the “eu” and the “t” from the beginning and end of “eucharist”. “Charis” is the heart of “eucharist”. “Charis” means “gift” and “grace”. We have words that are recognisably derived from CHARIS, for example “charity”, “charism” and “charismatic”.

Someone who wears a charm bracelet wraps gifts around her wrist (– a charm arm) – celebrating charming life, an acknowledgement of being charmed and a vocation to be charming, generous and gracious. Grace is the word that is used in the “thank you” letter addressed to the Ephesians. “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”

I wonder if the wedding guest was told to leave because he had no charm.

According to our reading, there are two groups of people within a Eucharistic community. One group is made up of saints, the other group is made up of apostles (they are advocates), prophets (they speak from the heart of God to the heart of the people), evangelists (they are angels with only have good news to share), pastors (they shepherd) and teachers (guess what they do). Those are charisms that form a ministry team – and you can bet that some people here are part of a team like that – the beginnings of a team of people who are gifted and charmed to help this other group of saints, so that all of us are equipped for ministry until we find the unity that God has in store for us. All of us are charmed and gifted – but some are charmed and gifted to help the rest of us – be saints.

The gifts God gives can only be valued by a Eucharistic community. They are gifts of ministry for the sake of the saints who live for the sake of the world. That’s the party spirit.

Third:

The third hearth of a Eucharistic community is that we are communities in formation.

We are still growing up, with growing pains which show in our joints and the way we join each other. Our relationships are always less than perfect. Outsiders often call us hypocrites because we so often don’t walk the talk.

We often forget that we are still growing, that we have so much to learn, that we are building one another up. We often speak the truth to one another (try to teach one another a lesson) forgetting that the responsibility within the Eucharistic community is to speak the truth in love. That is the party spirit.

I wonder if the wedding guest had to leave because he only spoke the truth, or because he was a know-all, not humble enough to realise that he had so much to learn. Paul said, “we must no longer be children … but speaking the truth in love, must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ ..”

I wonder if it was something about the guest’s bearing. Was it the bearing he was wearing? I wonder whether it is something about the church’s bearing which, in some quarters, has become branded as toxic. Thanksgiving isn’t always what hits people in the eyes. it’s not always obvious that we see ourselves only as children, only as “growing up”. Nor is it always apparent that we are thankful party people, or that we are always charming and blessing.

Each place needs a community of thanksgiving, a community which is intentionally growing up, and a community which is charming and blessing, so that the ways of the world can be changed, so that so that life can be different, so that those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death may find hope, and may find a welcome at the table where all their hungers are satisfied, so that they may share the bread of life.

(The drawing is by Cerezo Barredo, part of series of illustrations for the Revised Common Lectionary – this one is of the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22).

Leaving us for good – a sermon for Ascension Day

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Gee Cross.

Introduction

Our two readings come from the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of the Book of Acts. (Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53)

Luke ends his Part One and begins his Part Two with a celebration of Jesus’ Ascension.

At first glance it looks like these two volumes are addressed to a particular person called Theophilus.  But Theophilus is a strange name. Translated, it means “God lover” – which leaves us with a question. Are these two books addressed to one person called Theophilus, or to all “God lovers”, including ourselves?

And the story of the Ascension is one that causes us all sorts of difficulties. It’s a story that stretches the dimensions of our lives, where earth and heaven connect – a tall story that is difficult to fathom.

40 days and nights have passed since Easter Day (40 days and nights!). Those 40 days were packed with Jesus’s appearances and his talk of the kingdom of God. The 40 days  end with this – a blessing, a promise and a withdrawal as Jesus was carried into heaven, carried out of the sight of the disciples on a cloud.

So what?

Flight paths

It seems like only yesterday that we were landing at Heathrow after visiting our son and his girlfriend in the Philippines. It is actually 40 days and nights – we landed on Easter Day, having been on a plane for 17 hours. The flight path reads like a where’s where of the world’s trouble spots.

Bosnia, Beirut, Bangkok, Iraq, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia etc etc – flying into Manila, regarded as the second most dangerous city in the world.

How weird was it? Flying 38000 feet in the airspace above those trouble spots, with all their tensions, sufferings, betrayals, poverty and uncertainty, as if they weren’t there. We were flying over deep divides and no go areas as if they didn’t exist. We were like birds flying over reality and missing all that counts in human life. It was as if we were travelling in a totally different dimension.

(Another example would be our city’s flyovers)

For the last 40 days and nights it has been back to earth with a bang!

Which, I suspect is where we belong. We are, after all, Adam – humans made from the earth, to walk the earth, with our feet of clay. And for that, we believe that God loves us – and we may believe that is where God wants us to be – down to earth, earthy and earthed.  That seems to be the message that Luke is leaving us “God lovers” as he describes Jesus’s goodbye to his disciples, as he leaves them us to be “witnesses … to the ends of the earth”.

Grounded as birds without wings

I don’t know whether any of you have read Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernieres. I’ll try to describe the story without giving anything away for any of you who want to read it.

The story is set in innocence at the turn of the 20th century in a town called Eskibahce in south-western modern-day Turkey, then a part of the waning Ottoman Empire. The village potter, Iskander, a Muslim, makes clay bird whistles for his son, Abdul, and his Christian friend, Nico. Their whistles make different bird song. One is a blackbird, and the other is a robin. They take on the nicknames of their birdsong – Blackbird and Robin.

They are birds who fly over the hills overlooking their town. They play at flying, but, of course they can only fly in their imagination.

Reality soon becomes quite different, as the population of the town gets caught in events. They find themselves caught in the tensions between Greek nationalism and Turkish nationalism which destroyed the fabric of the town. The boys are of course, birds without wings, and they are caught up in the violence of the conflict. There is no way that they can fly over their divisions. They are earthy and they are earthed – and they suffer the consequences of down to earth historical realities. Such realities can only be overcome by living through them.

We all have flights of fancy, don’t we? But at the end of the day there is no escaping the day to day challenges of our lives. We cannot rise above them, but have to engage with them. We can’t ignore them, because that would be irresponsible and careless.  We have to live with our circumstances, and through the events of our lives.

That is what Jesus leaves us to do. That is what Jesus leaves us for.

Left behind for good

The picture that Luke paints for us is a farewell scene, which might remind of us other partings, and snapshots of farewell greetings with the waving of hands, the dabbing of tears, the heartache and the parting words.

Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends, but this goodbye scene is so different. It is not tinged in sadness, but explodes with joy, because Jesus’ parting words are full of promise. The promise is that the disciples, the God lovers, would receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. That promise must have helped them to look forward with hope instead of looking backwards with sadness. The gift of the Holy Spirit transforms all our partings and farewells since that good bye described by Luke and celebrated by us today on this Ascension Day. The gift of the Holy Spirit is a blessing for all those who mourn. It is the help we need to live through what seems to be the dead ends of our lives. It is the comfort to ….. It is the strength to overcome.

The disciples were indeed left behind, but left with joy “continually in the temple blessing God”. They were left behind for good.

The good they were left behind for was surely to live through their lives as witnesses, in a way that God’s blessing shone through. Their lives weren’t easy. They faced hardships, imprisonment, persecution and death. They were hard pressed on every side, but they lived through those times.

The good they were left behind for was to convey the spirit of Jesus, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to prisoners, to help the blind to see and to let the oppressed go free. (Luke 4:18f)

The good they were left behind for was to live through all of this, to keep their feet to the ground, to take the long walk through difficulties to freedom, down to earth, with feet of clay.

Like those God lovers, we have the same blessing – treasure in clay, earthenware pots. Is the challenge that Luke addressing to his dear readers just this: to be down to earth witnesses for all the earth by living through the tensions and challenges of our lives.

Have we been left behind for good? Has the church been left behind for good?

But this isn’t saddening. There is no reason to lose heart because of it.

This is the great farewell. This is the goodbye that gives all goodbyes hope and joy. This is the goodbye which spells out its meaning. “God be with you”, his spirit is with us.

Therefore, we go. We go in peace to love and serve the Lord, realising that it is now up to us.

Adapting a prayer of St Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but us,
no hands, no feet on earth but ours.
Ours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world,
ours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
ours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Ours are the hands, ours are the feet,
ours are the eyes, we are his body.
Christ has no body now but us,
no hands, no feet on earth but us,
Ours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but us.

We are left behind for good, with his blessing and spirit.

Cerezo Barredo’s weekly gospel illustration