Homily for St Mark's 165th Dedication Festival
Delivered by the Right Revd Jeremy Greaves, Bishop of Northern Queensland, at the 165th Dedication Festival of St Mark’s Fitzroy
Martyn Percy recently related a study from some years ago, where a Professor of Psychology at the University of Louvain took an interest in how people feasted and celebrated. As part of his research, he asked one of his students to write a thesis on the following subject: ‘how do children, from the ages of 9-11 years of age, experience the phenomenon of feast?’. The student approached the subject in a number of ways, and one of these consisted of showing a controlled group of 100 children three drawings of a different birthday feast.
In the first drawing, the picture depicted a child alone, but before a mountain of gifts and presents waiting to be opened. In the second drawing, the child was not alone, and was surrounded by just a few members of their family, and some food - a birthday cake, ice-cream, and other treats. But there were many fewer presents to open - in fact only one parcel, and not very big at that. In the third picture, the child was surrounded by wider family, friends and neighbours, and there was more food. But there was no gift or parcel in the picture at all, so nothing to open. The question the children were asked was simple enough: which of these birthdays would you rather have for yourself, and why?
Seventy percent of the sample chose the third picture. And they explained, as children might, that this was the real feast. They said ‘because in the third picture, everyone is happy - in the first picture, only I am happy, and in the second picture, not enough people are happy’.
The children, in other words, grasped something authentic about what it means to be human... and perhaps something about what it might mean to be church. That by being together, and only by being together, can we be truly happy. True, this takes organisation, and can be headache for the organisers. But a feast, to be a feast, needs people. A feast is not about ‘what’s in it for me’ or being self-fulfilled. It is about others, as much as ourselves.
This seems to be something missing entirely from all of the hubris spewing out of the GAFCON meeting in Jerusalem in the last couple of weeks. “Because you don’t agree with us, we’re not even going to sit down at the table with you.”
As a friend said to me the other day, “Even Judas joined Jesus and the other disciples at the last supper.”
A true feast, in Christian terminology, is a communion with God, and a communion with people. The two are indivisible. We cannot share at the common table and only be self-interested. Any more than we can share in a common feast of the word, and be only there for ourselves. In God we are invited into a meal and an experience that is collective in character.
Martyn Percy says, “Because God’s love is shared. God’s feasts are gracious in character; sublime in their fullness, greatness and capacious vision. They draw us in; and they send us out. They are profoundly communal.”
The feast that Jesus regularly refers to and calls us to join - that of the Kingdom of Heaven - is an inclusive, widespread and open affair. And the early church understood this not only in liturgical terms, but also in social and political terms too.
So the first Christians looked after the widows, orphans and poor. And they treated them not as objects of charity, but as equals. They did this to foreigners, friends, neighbours, slaves, free, male, female, children, adults… As John Chrysostom wrote, ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas: ‘where charity rejoices, there we have the feast’. The early church were committed, in other words, to that that third picture. The birthday of the church was Pentecost: many nations; many tongues; one Lord; one faith; one hope; one church.
The church, in other words, was always for others. And, it seems to me that over 165 years the people of this place have had a deep understanding of what that might mean. In building an inclusive community with a big heart, people in this place have discovered the truth of Chrysostom’s aphorism and know what it means to sit down and feast with “strangers and aliens” so that they are welcomed as members of the household of God.
In responding to the HIV/AIDs crisis of the 80s and 90s, through engagement with the arts community, in your desire to be a place of real spiritual and intellectual depth you continue as a parable of what things could be like if we re-oriented our understanding of what the church is called to be and re-captured the idea that the feast that Jesus regularly refers to and calls us to join - that of the Kingdom of Heaven - is an inclusive, widespread and open affair. But these things have only been possible because the church in this place has put down deep roots – 165 years is a long time to be known by, and to get to know, the community in which you are located.
Mark Oakley tells the story of an old shepherd in a field behind his grandmother’s house in Shropshire. He says, “One time, I saw him in the field carrying a real shepherd’s crook. So I joked with him that my boss the bishop had one of those too. And I asked him if he really used it to reach out and hook naughty sheep with and haul them in.”
“No”, he said. “The best use for this, is to stick it down firmly into the ground so that I can hold on to it so tight that I become still enough that the sheep learn to trust me.”
Which is probably what we might hope for in parish ministry, that the sheep might learn to trust us…
It reminds me of the Benedictine vow of stability. A vow that articulates a commitment to this place and this community.
But it is about more than a commitment to "place" as a geographical location. The vow is really about being present, and available. To honour the vow of stability for Benedictine monks means to strive to be present in mind and in body - seeking to engage others beyond a merely superficial level.
One Benedictine monk writes that, “Stability demands we be generous in sharing our lives by allowing others to know us, personally and professionally; ready to share ourselves through contributions to the common life and by hospitably accepting and honouring each brother's contributions to the community's effort to be more than merely a bunch of individuals sharing a house, but, as the Book of Acts renders it, " one in heart and soul." A community where, "No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they owned" (Acts 4:32) in common - even our very selves!”
A church like this begins to look like the picture painted by the writer of Ephesians, “a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
A friend of mine in the UK recently wrote about what evangelism might look like in more catholic parts of the church. He said that it is a very different vision to “that of the Evangelical God of mission – a jealous God who is placated only by young rich people giving Him their lives and money.” He suggests that “one of the ways catholic mission can come back to life… is not by seeking to feed this hungry God, or imagine we can find out what he is up to if we look closely enough… [perhaps] we should stop spending all our time wondering about God, he doesn’t really need us to do that. Instead we should think about people, what they do, why they do it and how we might, with careful approach, get them to invite us to be part of their lives.”
And they’re never going to do that unless we are around long enough for them to get to know us and to trust us and unless we are present and we are available.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God… with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
“with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” … like old Tom’s shepherd’s crook there is our anchor. And when it is Christ who invites to the feast, the only thing for us to do is to build longer tables so everyone has a place.
A few weeks ago the Archbishop of Canterbury, reminded us that,
“At the heart of what we do and believe as Christians is a revolution. It’s not conventional. It’s not normal. It’s not just living life as it comes.
It’s a revolution in which Jesus Christ is not watching from a distance but is next to each one of us and says: “You are loved, you are called, come and be with me, and let us change the world.”
Come and be with me and the whole household of God and let us change the world.
So, this morning, as you sit in your pew, or when you next kneel, think about the prayers that have risen up from the floor in this place over the last 165 years. Think about the thoughts and inspiration that have come from the pulpit and lectern; the nourishment from the altar. The small cups of water from the font that mark each generation. The hands together at a wedding; the tears of farewell at a funeral. The company and warmth of congregation and community. All these things form the deep roots of this community. On their own, they can seem tiny, and seemingly insignificant. Yet they are the things that, provide the rich feast to which all are invited and together build this place into a dwelling-place for God.
Life is short and we have too little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us.
So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind….
and may God who has richly blessed you - and through you, blessed this fine parish, kind community and countless others - continue to sustain and nourish you in the years ahead.
May the Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you.
This truly is a dwelling place for God. The Lord is here. Amen.