Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Church that knows how to party!

We’ve reached the end of the road.

And it’s not such a bad place to reach on Pentecost Sunday.

When Felicity pointed out John Pritchard’s little book, Going to Church, a User’s Guide, she commented that she thought it might contribute to a series of sermons.

The blurb on the back was promising.

The book sets out to be a ‘route-finder through the mess, the mystery and magic of the church, written by someone who fully understands the problems but is confident about the value.”

John Pritchard, the Bishop of Reading, looks at the Church as it is, the Church as it is meant to be and the Church as it might become.

It is in the second part of the book that he asks the question, What’s the Church for?

That’s not a bad question to think about this Pentecost Sunday as we celebrate the birthday of the church.

Without apology he says at the outset that he is going to set the bar quite high in answering that question.

“The primary taks of the Church is to worship. We come to church for all sorts of reaons, some of which hardly bear repeating in respectable company, but the Church itself, the Church as a whole, the Church in its pure, uncut form is there to worship God.”

“If the Church’s first task is to worship God, its second task is to join in God’s mission. The last five words are important. The mission is God’s and it’s something we join in rather than construct for ourselves. God’s very nature is to be missionary because mission is the outpouring of God’s love into the world. We are simply called to join in with What God is doing. It follows that the God of mission has a Church, not the Church of God has a mission!”

What’s the church for?

The third answer John Pritchard gives is ‘Community’

Again, how important it is for us to think of Church as ‘community’ on Pentecost Sunday.

John Pritchard speaks of the growing frustration with our fragmented, individualitic, consumer-oriented ways of living at the start fo the twenty-first century.

“It has been the genius of the Christian faith to emphasise the importance of local congregations, wherever ‘church’ has sprung up. When people become Christians they very rarely do so on their own; they have been known, loved, accompanied and encouraged by a community of faithful people – the local church.

“Community is the Church’s mode of existence. Communities are the human expression of divine love, showing us what God wants for us and valuing us for who we are. It’s in a community that people know our name.”

Worship – Mission – Community: these are the three strands that are woven through the fabric of our church life.

It is in the third part of his book that Bishop John looks to The Church as it might become, and outlines ten things he would go to the stake for in any church.

As I run through the themes we have explored about church over the last few weeks, can you work out what you think the tenth and final thing is that John Pritchard would go to the stake for in any church?

Ten things to go to the stake for in any church …

A church that takes God seriously
A church that takes our humanity seriously
A church that takes the world seriously
A church that prays
A church that sees itself as a learning community
a church with a sense of humour where they laugh a lot – mostly at themselves
A church where love is all around
A church where everybody participates
A church that looks to the future

So what could the tenth thing be?

The first clue is today Pentecost.

The close friends of Jesus had dwindled in number and were literally holed up in an upper room in Jerusalem fearful of what happened in the crucifixion of Christ, in awe at his resurrection, and now fearful of what lay in store. The doors were locked for good cause.

What happened that fiftieth day after resurrection day defies description. There was a sound like the rush of a violent wind, that filled the entire house where they were sitting. There were divided tongues ‘as of fire’ that appeared among them.

All of them were filled with this unseen yet very real strength, power, of God. The helper, the advocate, the counsellor, the strengtener, the comforter promised by Jesus had come upon them. They had a strength from beyond themselves and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.

Beginning to speak in other languages, they rushed from that place … and they made quite an impression.

Bewilderment, amazement, astonishment are just three words Luke uses to describe the reaction of the crowdx. Some were perplexed and some simply sneered and poked fun – they are filled with new wine!

But it’s only 9-00 in the morning, said Peter.

What was it about those people who that day saw the birth of the church in its worship, as it joins with God in mission, and supremely as community?

Something special.

And another clue in that passage we read from Luke 15.

We’ve told the story so often to children, it’s so firmly fixed in our minds that it is easy to lose the point of the story as Luke records it in Luke 15.

Jesus was on a journey.

And on his journey he ate.

With lots of unexpected people.

There was a joy in that table fellowship that prompted him to tell stories about the banquet they would share in heaven.

As he journeyed towards Jerusalem he spoke a lot about banquets. He ate a lot in the company of all sorts.

And not everyone approved.

For some of the Pharisees and Scribes this was the last straw. Tax-collectors of all people. And sinners – that’s an all-embracing word for you – wre coming near to him and listening to him.

Shock, horror.

And the grumbling began. This fellw welcomes sinners and – this is the worst horror of all – This fellow welcomes sinners and … eats with them.

So and that little word ‘so’ is important.

It is in response to the sneers at the company Jesus kept not least in those meals and banquets that Jesus told them this parable.

Notice the point of the parable.

‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.

How many sermons have you heard preached on that wonderful parable.

Isn’t it a glorious picture of the Good Shepherd’s love for his lost sheep.

There’s a wonderful animation of it on the church web site!

But is that the point of Jesus’ parable as Luke records it here?

Or is there something more?

That something more is the clue to the tenth thing John Pritchard would go to the stake for in any church.

6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

It’s the shared joy of that shepherd who cannot keep his joy to himself but wants to share it with all his friends and neighbours.

In at number 10 comes A church that knows how to party.

Bishoip Jack Nicholls is quoted by John Pritichard as having a simple formula for a successful church – prayer and parties. That takes a lot of beating.

Prayer was in at number 4.

John Pritchard confesses that parties are an unlikely tailpiece. And yet, he asks, why should the be?

Jesus often paints his picture –parables of the end of time in terms of a heavenly party, a banquet where the most unlikely people are sitting at top table, but the food is great (and just maybe the speeches are short!!)

Partying together is a subconscious way of echoing this image in the present as we do in communion.

Parties say: it’s good to be alive, life is for celebrating, and this is a group of people I want to be with.

So … it’s good to party just for a few moments after church over coffee maybe.

It was good to party last week at Brunel Manor, not least with our very own version of Highbury’s Got Talent.

We’ve got another party coming up in a month’s time on 4th July when we are going to have a church picnic in Pittville park.

And maybe there are other parties to come to along the way …

As John Pritchard says, Our Local church, believe it or not, is the place where we’re given an appetizer for the Banquet at the End of Time. We might as well get in the party mood!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Church that looks to the future

We have reached the ninth thing that John Pritchard, the Bishop of Reading, would go to the stake for in seeking a church to join.

A church that looks to the future.

It is a theme that plays for us today in two ways.

The first is the way that John Pritchard envisages and it relates to something that was shared at the Church Meeting on Wednesday evening, and something that was launched at the May Assembly in Leicester yesterday.

The second has to do with the start of Christian Aid Week and speaks very much to us as we set about the task once again of collecting for Christian Aid.

“It’s important,” says John Pritchard, “that the Church walks into the future holding on to the thread of tradition. The problem comes when it walks into the future backwards. We need to be looking expectantly to the new generations, the next leaders, the next steps towards realizing the vision God has given. This means particular attention being given to children and young people, and those who have been drawn in towards the edge of the Church’s life.”

That’s what was introduced to the Congregational Federation Assembly yesterday, something Becky shared with us at the Church Meeting on Wednesday.

Child Friendly church is an initiative that has been greatly valued in a number of churches in the last couple of years, and now it is coming to the Federation. It invites us to reflect on what we are doing with our children and young people, and how we can ensure that their voice is heard in the life of the church.

A small group have worked through a questionnaire and it is greatly encouraging to see how much our activities with children fit in with the good practice advocated in this scheme. A number of things were identified and action has already been taken to address those.

Copies of that questionnaire were passed round at church meeting and if you would like a copy there are copies available to have a look at.

In addition the children have a questionnaire to fill in – and Becky would really like parents to help the children to fill in their responses so they can be drawn into the plans.

In addition to the questionnaire Becky has drafted two short documents that are really designed to get us thinking about the place of children in our church, then to embed the good practice we have developed so that it can be passed on and finally to ensure that we give our children and young people a voice in the life of the church. In particular, the draft document outlines a way of involving the children in the big decisions a church has to make from time to time.

Catch ‘the vision for work with children and families at Highbury’ and let’s adopt the ‘strategy for hearing children’s voices’.

That’s part of the way we shall be a church that looks to the future.

It is for John Pritchard not only children that are part of that future. It is also those drawn into church life. How we draw people in and in particular how we enable those exploring the faith to come closer to that faith is all important.

“Nurturing new disciples isn’t an optional extra,” writes John Pritchard; it’s maintaining an effective maternity ward for the kingdom of God.”

He poses a number of key questions: “where are young people heard in the church’s life? What proportion of the budget goes on children and young people? Is there an adult nurture course running regularly – once or twice a year? How do the church’s plethora of contacts turn into active nurturing of those interested in exploring issues of faith? If we’re playing hardball the message is this: grow or die.

It is a powerful challenge that he shares with us.

But his insight for us today is only part of the story.

The reading we have heard is a reading all about the future. The ultimate future in God’s glory. That selection of verses from Revelation 21 and 22 is a powerful vision of the glory we look to at the heart of our faith.

We need to be a church that looks to the future with that confidence that is contained in these wonderful words.

God himself will be with them;* 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes.Death will be no more;mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

That city of God in that heavenly vision has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25

On either side of the river of life that flows through the city of God is the tree of life* with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3

It is a wonderful vision of the future. Hold on to that vision and we shall be a church that looks to the future.

But we are mistaken to think that it is simply a vision of a future glory ahead of us.

It is the kind of vision of the future that can shape the here and now.

It is exactly in this sense that this vision of the future plays out for us at the beginning of Christian Aid week.

The youngsters have been thinking of toilets. Or at least, they have been thinking of the lack of toilets in some parts of the world. And the difference Christian Aid partners can make in providing sanitation and water where it is badly needed, not least in Nairobi in Kenya.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Church that thinks of itself as a learning community

For the first twenty-five years of my ministry I was immensely involved in the committee work of the Congregational Federation. For the whole time we lived in Shropshire I would go to and fro to Nottingham to Council meetings, Christian Ministries Committee, Pastoral Care Committee and to meetings of the Training Board.

It has been good over the last six years to have handed the reins over to others.

I miss the car journeys I used to make to Nottingham from Shropshire. As often as not I found myself in the company of one of our senior ministers, Norman Sedgeman. What was good was to sit at the feet of a senior minister and learn from his wisdom.

It would have been fun to have done such a journey around about now in the lead-up to a General Election. In one direction we would discuss theology, and we would not see eye to eye on everything. And in the other direction we would discuss politics a subject on which we saw eye to eye on even less.

On each journey he would ask what I was reading, and I would ask likewise of him. He may have been in his 80’s but he was passionate to learn more about any and every subject under the sun. He would always have some book or other on the go. On the return journey he would ask, so what have you learned today? Friend Norman was always on the lookout for something new to learn. Not a day should pass without learning something new!

It made for stimulating conversation. And a profound impression on me.

If I sense the gift I have in ministry is that of a teacher and a pastor, I have throughout my ministry been very much involved in the business of teaching and learning.

I am passionate about teaching and equally passionate about learning.

It is exciting on Saturday afternoon at the Congregational Federation’s annual assembly we shall be celebrating 30 years of our training course. There will be a cake to cut, a book telling the story to buy, insights into our new Foundation Degree and the launch of our new initiative, Growing Disciples. It promises to be an exciting day … and still time to come along if you would like to join in the celebrations.

It excited me to see John Pritchard, the Bishop of Reading, say in his book Going to Church - A User’s Guide, that one of the ten things he would go to the stake for in any church that was worth joining was this …

A church that sees itself as a learning community.

A learning church, he says, is on the move. It isn’t satisfied; it knows that the kingdom of God has not arrived in its midst, but that, as in nature, growth is the only sign of life.

I once listened, John Prtichard goes on to say, “at the start of a conference to an African who had been a bishop since he was 30. Now over 60 and hugely respected all over Africa and beyond, he said he had come to the conference to learn about being a bishop. Such humility becomes us all.

How can we be ‘a church that sees itself as a learning community’?

I find myself coming back once again to Ephesians, and to a passage that follows on from what we read last week, and leads into what we read two or three weeks ago.

14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Paul takes the analogy once again of the body. This time, however, he thinks of the way the body grows. He marvels at the way a babe learns and grows into a chid, and the way the child grows up. The body is something that grows. That is the thrill of the analogy. So, when Paul uses the analogy of the body in order to understand the nature of the church. He doesn’t simply use it to speak of the way all the different parts of the body are different and contribute to the whole. He also uses the analogy to challenge us to think that the church is not a static organisation, but a growing organism.

For Paul that growth is a growth that happens in a particular direction. He speaks of growing towards maturity, but the maturity he thinks of is a maturity that is in Christ.

We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.

For Paul we learn and grow as we see the truth in Christ … but we seek the truth only as we speak the truth in love.

Working together as a body with all its different parts growing into that maturity in Christ is a wonderful, dynamic, growing process that promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

For Paul the learning that is at the heart of church life is shaped by Christ, expressed in love, and involves growth.

So where does that learning take place in our church?

It starts in the hearts of each one of us. We each must ask whether we have the humility of that African bishop and the openness of our friend, Norman Sedgeman. Learning then happens in our own reflections. Praying, reading the Bible, reflecting on it.

You can just squeeze in Songs of Praise with our evening service – or tape it if you want. It is one that our David Waters, who grew up in church here, and spent a year with us as a volunteer was working on around the time of Mark and Denise’s wedding. It’s very much his baby as it marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Society and explores faith and science.

Are we open to learning in the way we reflect on what we see?

Then we learn in our conversations in the church family. Learning is something that goes on. But then we have a particular focus for our learning. At the heart of our worship is a place for teaching – that goes right back to Acts 2 when from the outset the church met to listen to the Apostles’ teaching. If teaching is at the heart of our worship in the sermon, then learning needs to in the hearts of all of us. Open the Book, our House Groups, Prayer Groups, Hyper-space, Junior Church, Hy-Tec, Transformers, - so many specific places where the focus is on learning. Learning from each other, learning from God.

But we must not imagine that the kind of ‘learning’ Paul had in mind was something simply cerebral. Just head learning – learning of information, ideas, thinking.

The kind of learning Paul had in mind was the kind of learning that actually shapes the way we lead our lives.

17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practise every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ!

Paul lived in a world of conflicting life-styles. Ephesus was a sea-port and significant centre of Roman culture and life. Hosting one of the seven wonders of the world, the temple to Diana, Artemis, was a focal point of one of the great fertility cults of the Roman empire.

Paul was passionate that the Christian way was not just something to learn about, it was something to live. He was passionate about that set of values that would make a world of difference only if people took those values to heart. That was the way of life that he saw in Christ, and drew from Christ. And it is such a different way of life from the excesses of that Roman world in Ephesus.

He is adamant …

Where is that alternative way of life to be learned?

Paul comes back to Christ, to Jesus.

20That is not the way you learned Christ! 21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus.

This is where we reach the crux of the matter for me.

We must constantly return to Christ. It is in Jesus, his teaching, his ministry, his healing, his suffering, his death and his resurrection, that we have the measure of the teaching and learning that is at the heart of the life of the church.

Look to Christ and you will see the shape of what church should be, the shape of what our own Christian life should be.

21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 3and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Renewed in the spirit of your minds, clothed with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in Christ Jesus, in true righteousness or justice, and holiness.

John Pritchard concludes by saying, “If a church thinks it has arrived, that’s a sure sign that it’s dying. I long ago realised that one of the great joys of ignorance (of which I have huge expanses) is that there’s always so much to learn.

“So it is in a learning church.

“Its members are committed to deepening their faith, their knowledge, their skills, their spirituality.

“They’re being shaped into the community of God’s growing people.”

I would add, “they’re being shaped into the community of God’s growing people” and into nothing less than the body of Christ.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light