Let me begin with a story:

About nine years ago I found myself in the retreat centre for the Ely Diocese for a three day period. The reason I was there was that I was on something called a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, or a B.A.P.   A B.A.P. is the selection conference you go on to be assessed for your suitability to train for ordained ministry. One component of the assessment is that you have to give a short presentation to a group of fellow candidates. So one afternoon I found myself listening to a presentation given by a very academic type. It is fair to say that the presentation was not going well. In fact the presenter, who did end up getting ordained, knew that his presentation was unravelling so, in an effort to rescue his the situation, he decided to ask the following question: what is your favourite hymn?

I quickly settled on an answer, and blow me the first person in the group nominated my hymn. Then the second person nominated the next hymn that came to my mind and thus it continued, and I began to panic; big time. In fact my brain froze and I couldn’t remember a single hymn! This troubled me deeply because I happen to know that I have been singing hymns since at least June 1974, for this was the date on which I received my primary school hymn book: Christian Praise. I had at that stage been singing hymns for around 40 years yet I couldn’t remember a single one of them.

Finally, just as it was getting to my turn a hymn came to mind, chosen probably because my B.A.P. was just after Holy Week: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. When I vocalised my choice I experienced two sensations: a feeling of approval from the assessors and a sense that my fellow candidates were thinking ‘you smug so and so.’

But, the truth is that we, God’s people, should spend some time on a regular basis surveying The Wondrous Cross. We shouldn’t do so only on Good Friday, for it is through surveying the Wondrous Cross that our faith deepens, our discipleship grows, our innate holiness is ripened and we grow in Christian wisdom. We need to regularly gaze at the crucified Jesus, for the cross is the place where we learn about two things: what humans, you and me, are capable of at our very worst and what God is truly like. When we learn to survey the Wondrous Cross what we see is human weakness and divine strength. What we see is the limit of human power and the limitlessness of divine power. When we survey the Wondrous Cross we see human hatred encountered and transformed by divine love: what we see is Love, Love, Love; that’s what we see, and begin to absorb for ourselves when we stop at the cross.

We have spent some time over the last few months trying to work out exactly what it means to “be church”, thinking about the things that we do and the things that we are called to be as part of the body of Christ. I have to say that it has been very heartening for me, to come in here as curate and see that there are so many people engaged with the calling that we have. But firstly i would like to talk about the building. Of course, this church building is a special place, at the geographical heart of the community. Whenever I come here there are resonances of what has gone before, all those fellow pilgrims that have travelled through here before, all that history but without the people this would just be a pretty building.  It is what happens in here that makes it a truly sacred space, it is the human interaction with the building that makes this place truly special.

Because as beautiful as this church is, and I doubt anybody would doubt that it is indeed wonderful, it is not its beauty that brings us here.  The fabulous stained glass windows, although they are a help, are not the focus of our devotions. Where our focus is, is usually the altar. Every week we come here and the Eucharist is celebrated there before being distributed. That is the place at the intersection between God and us, where something mysterious and glorious occurs.

The other place is no less important and yet we walk past it most weeks - I certainly know that I am guilty of that. It probably doesn’t get thought of all that much but it is easily just as important as the altar because that is where our journey commences, the place where we are first brought into the Body of Christ, where the mystery, the adventure begins. The font where we are baptised.

I occasionally get into conversations where the person that I am talking to tells me that they were baptised.  When I hear that my heart sinks a little because the fact is is that we weren’t baptised, we are baptised.  It is something that we carry with us, it changes us, we are not the same person after we have experienced it. We join the countless millions of people who have gone before us, and it leads us right back to Christ .

Jesus’s baptism marked the beginning of his ministry here on earth. Up until that time, he had not performed any miracles, but with God's stamp of approval and with the spirit of God upon him, Jesus began to do just that, perform great miracles. From this new beginning, many people began to understand that Jesus was truly the Son of God and they began to follow him. It all started with a baptism.

I understand that these are big footsteps to follow, there are none bigger but in our own little way we are called to copy that with our baptism. All of who  are baptised are given a new beginning, a chance to be all that we can be because of that fundamental shift when we are baptised. Rowan Williams said that, “As baptised people we are in the business of building bridges”, and this is what we are all called to do. Building bridges between our neighbours, whether that is in the town that we live, within our country or around the world, as a member of the family of Christ we are called to build community, to think of others and to do what we can to bring a little glimpse of heaven down here in the here and now. I am sure that most us would agree that we could all do with a little more of that in our lives and in the world around us.

So I would urge you, whenever you come into church, as well as looking right to see the altars, we should also be looking left, seeing the font, remembering to ourselves that the journey that God calls us to may have started before we realised it did and that we are to do what we can to build bridges, just as our saviour and so many others did before us.

Amen

Mark Nelson, Assistant Curate

‘Therefore since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.’ Strong words from the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews and yet words which we do well to take as an article of faith, for let’s be honest we live in a flaky, unjust and at times a downright cruel world.

As we look at and consider the world around us it can seem too cruel to bear. The very real pain, suffering and injustice of the world can leave us feeling both angry and impotent. The good news is that men and women throughout the generations have felt this self-same sense of hopelessness and futility. The prophet Jeremiah, one of my heroes, certainly felt this way at the beginning of his ministry:   ‘I am only a boy’ he says to God, which could taken as the equivalent of saying ‘why me, why do you want me to be the one who says to the powers that be, enough is enough?’ The answer God gives is simply this: ‘why not you, and if not you who?’ God is saying the same thing to his people today: ‘if not us, then who?’ We the people of God need to develop the courage to speak out against all forms of exclusion, prejudice, hatred and tyranny: ‘if not us, then who?’

One of the Five Marks of Mission is to challenge the unjust, by which we might mean excluding structures of society. We are called on to be agents of freedom and liberation. We are Christ’s arms of love in a sometimes cruel world, but we are more than this, for like Jeremiah, like John the Baptist, and like Jesus, who let us not forget, was a social prophet, we are to called on to be the divine voice; God’s echo chamber. We are called onto be a people of healing, but also a people who dare speak truth to power, and the two go hand in glove. Christians are not meant to be passive; we are not meant to be religious stoics. The here and now is the place where we exercise our faith, through the works of our hands, and with voices raised loud, for as Meatloaf sang ‘heaven can wait.’

This combination of healing and prophecy is played out in today’s Gospel reading. The story starts with Jesus seeing a disabled woman and he calls out to her. Moved by compassion his instinct is to include her; he beckons her over, touches her, heals her, and gives her back her dignity. For eighteen years she has been excluded and now she is to be included. Yes, there is a very real physical healing, but there is also a social and relational healing. Our job is to effect social and relational healing, to free people from the power and domination structures that leave them as bystanders at best; excluded and vilified at worst. That is what real healing both looks and feels like. But that is not all that Jesus does for he also enters into a terse conversation with the synagogue leader.

The synagogue leader is an interesting character. He is a kind of work’s supervisor; a clip-board king. He hasn’t much real authority, still less status in the world of Jewish religion, but he is determined to protect his own turf and to protect the minutiae of the law. His obsession with the minutiae of the law is, however, at the cost of his humanity.  He would prefer to ‘shame’ others than to see healing, liberation and inclusion. He is a walking and talking religious tragedy. He knows all the rules but none of the virtues. In his conversation with this Captain Mainwaring type figure what Jesus does is to relocate shame. The synagogue leader wants the disabled woman to be the focus of shame, but Jesus takes away any shame that she might be feeling and places it on the synagogue leader and his ilk. And, that’s what prophets do: they relocate shame. They name and relocate cruelty and injustice.

Over the course of September and October we are going to be considering Anglicanism’s Five Marks of Mission. We are doing so for one simple reason: so that we become an ever increasing Christ-like church, for Jesus is the ‘perfector and pioneer of our faith.’ Being Christ-like means acting as Jesus does in the account we have heard today. It means acting with compassion, as agents of healing, reconciliation and justice whilst at the same time daring to speak truth to power, so that shame can be properly located. This is the journey we are, hopefully, about to embark on. It will be an interesting and challenging journey, one for which we might, like Jeremiah, feel ill-equipped,  but let’s do so in the full and certain knowledge that God is ‘our consuming fire,’ and that however uncertain we may feel, through the very exercise of our faith we are both ‘receiving’ and proclaiming a ‘kingdom which cannot be shaken.’ Amen.