Is anyone a fan of the radio programme ‘Just a Minute?’

I have to be honest I am an occasional listener rather than a devotee. But, when I do listen to it I enjoy it. Of course one of the things you mustn’t do, as a contestant, is to repeat a word or phrase.

If Jesus was telling the gospel story we have just listened to as a Just a Minute competitor he would have been eliminated fairly early on.

The gospel passage is just 8 verses and yet Jesus uses the words justice, and unjust, five times. The passage is most frequently used to demonstrate the importance of perseverance in prayer.  But, I would like to suggest that it invites a deeper question:

 

‘What should be the focus of our prayers?’

 

Is it too much to suggest that when we pray we should be radically committed to the notion of divine justice breaking into the world; after all that is what the woman wanted; justice. She wanted to be treated with dignity and given her dues. Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves? And, if we want it for ourselves surely we should desire it for others? Our humanity is intertwined for as Desmond Tutu stresses ‘my humanity is bound up in yours, we can only be human together.’

The story is asking us, through prayer, to align ourselves with God’s values, with kingdom values; to strive for all that leads to justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Justice is one of God’s values.

We need as people of God to identify injustice and then pray into, even against, it week by week. That is why I always pray for those who are made to feel less than fully human. To be on the receiving end of injustice diminishes us all; this is Desmond Tutu’s point. I suggest that we all know this from our own experience.

As a Christian leader I have been inspired by those who have fought for justice, often sadly, having to go into battle with people of faith who have used, or do I mean abused, the Scriptures to validate all sorts of wrongdoings.

People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who refused to cooperate with Hitler’s regime and paid for it with his life or, William Wilberforce who stood hand to toe with those who sought to justify the slave trade and who wrote his petition on the altar of Holy Trinity Clapham, so sacred was his task and, Desmond Tutu who campaigned consistently and with dignity against the atrocity of apartheid. All of these characters understood the words of St. Paul to Timothy:

 

‘All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.’

 

Today’s readings challenge us to identify the sources of injustice in our communities and around the world, to pray that justice will be restored and, to commit ourselves to be agents of justice, for God is just, and it is God who we serve, for as Desmond Tutu has reflected:

 

‘if you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’

 

It is thought provoking stuff, isn’t it? Amen.

Rev. Andrew Lightbown

 

20th Sunday of Trinity: Jeremiah 29, 1 & 4-7, 2 Timothy 2, 8-15 & Luke 17, 11-19

 

I don’t know if it has ever happened to you? I am talking about that light bulb moment when suddenly it makes sense, the moment when you get something that has hitherto been a bit of a struggle. Teachers certainly report this happening in the classroom and it’s good to know that perseverance is frequently rewarded.

 

For me the reading we have heard from Jeremiah was a lightbulb moment; it came at a time when I was trying to work out what it really means to be a person of faith. Hearing the reading and listening to a sermon about it, changed my whole faith perspective. Previously I had thought of faith as a system of personal beliefs, albeit beliefs shared with others, reinforced through church attendance and worship. Of course this is an important and foundational aspect of faith. But, what I have come to believe is that to be a person of faith must mean transcending personal beliefs, however strongly held. Faith is not just about me, or even a small group of folk who happen to believe pretty similar things to me; it is also about how we relate to the wider community. The central question is: ‘are we as a faith community a blessing for others; even those who don’t hold the same set of beliefs?’ This is the question Jeremiah is asking? Are the Israelites in exile to be a blessing to the people of Babylon, or are they going to retreat into themselves and become ever more inward looking? These, I would want to suggest, aren’t just historical biblical questions, but also contemporary biblically inspired questions. They are also questions of Holiness, for holiness is an outward facing characteristic.

Jeremiah suggests to the Israelites that they need to commit themselves to the wider community for the common, good. They are also told to pray for the welfare of the city; ‘for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’  I would like to suggest that in Winslow’s welfare we, at St. Laurence, find our own welfare, security and wellbeing. Serving the community prayerfully and materially is part of our DNA but we must always look for new ways to relate, engage and serve. It’s something we need to think about. This week’s pew sheet offers two opportunities for service: helping at the school and prison visiting.

The Church must always also be a placing of healing; that is the message of the gospel reading. Healing is of course, one of our three aspirations. Our hope is that through this church lives can be patched back together and affirmed. That those who feel unclean will feel cleansed. Our challenge is to welcome the unclean, odd, ill and plain different. This is what it means to be hospitable.

 

This brings me back to another question: has anyone ever said to you ‘after all I have done for you?’ Or have you ever said it? If you haven’t said it have you thought it?

I suspect that Jesus was tempted to ask this question of the nine lepers who didn’t come back to say thank you. Interestingly the one man who came back to say thank you was doubly unclean. There were two reasons why he was an outcaste. First, he was a leper. Secondly, he was a Samaritan. Jesus, under the Jewish codes of exclusion, really had no business engaging with lepers and he certainly shouldn’t have bothered healing, affirming and including a Samaritan Leper. But he did. Jesus was, and is, inclusive. It is interesting isn’t it? The ultimate outcast – as prescribed by a human and religiously inspired system of ranking - expressed his gratitude and remained a member of Jesus’ new faith community. The others? Well, they received what they thought they were entitled to. And, it may well be that as we seek to widen our net of engagement and inclusion we will be constantly surprised by those who choose to say thank you and stick with us, as faithful members of our, St Laurence, community. Amen.

 

Rev Andrew Lightbown

Inclusivity and tradition: Genesis 1, 26-31, Galatians 3, 23-end & Luke 4, 16-22

 

I would like to talk today about how this Church can develop both its mission and its worship. Mission and worship are, of course, closely related. People learn something about God and his love for each and every one of us through our worship. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that through the simple act of believers meeting together to sing and offer praise to God many came to believe (Acts 2, 46-47), whilst St. Paul stressed (1 Corinthians 11, 26) that ‘every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes in glory,’ (1 Corinthians 11, 26).

 

However, before I talk to you about the enhancements we wish to make in our worship and mission I want to start with a question; a self-directed, rhetorical, question: ‘why am I, Andrew, here as your parish priest?’ You see like all of you I don’t have to be here, no, I chose to be here. And, for me there is something deeply significant and challenging about the word choice. Choice implies attraction. There was something very definite about you that attracted me and made me choose you rather than carry on pursuing other conversations. The fact that I chose to become your parish priest is in fact down to you, not me. Think about it for a second. During the period of my placement, before I was installed, we could have decided not to carry on with each other. You could have decided I wasn’t right for you and vice-a-versa. Indeed when I started with you I was somewhat cautious about committing my longer-term future to you. So why did I choose to do so, what attracted me?

Two words: inclusivity and tradition. These words at first sight don’t necessarily appear to relate; but, perhaps, they do. You included me in your community. Your love and involvement with this church pre-dates mine. You took a risk. You knew a few facts about me, but you didn’t know about some of the things that have most deeply affected me, and continue to affect me, for good or for ill; the things which actually inform my ministry and comprise my identity: the really deep, often unspoken things.

What you did relates to the first reading we have heard from Genesis: you recognised me as a person made in the image of God, and you decided that this was good enough. Thank you!

And we must go on being all embracing and all inclusive, recognising that all are made in the image of God. We must go on insisting in the words that we heard from the Epistle that in Christ all are equal and that male, female, Jew, Greek, able bodied, disabled, young, old, strong, fragile, straight and gay, are all, because they are made in the image of God, to be fully included in an authentically Christian community.  I believe this with every fibre of my being.

 

And we must recognise, drawing on the Gospel reading, that Jesus came to set all free, to break any yoke that makes any individual feel less than fully human. Inclusivity, equality, justice and, liberation; these are some of the Church’s guiding principles. And, they are deep gospel principles. Sadly, not all churches recognise the ‘Inclusive God.’ Some, churches continue to build higher fences rather than longer tables. It is for this reason that after discussions with the PCC, and the Bishop, we have decided to join a network called Inclusive Church. Inclusive Church’s statement of belief is simply this:

‘We believe in inclusive church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful, which seeks to proclaim the gospel afresh for each generation, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and deep is the love of God.’

Other Churches, and there are over 150 of them, whose theology of hospitality and inclusivity has led them to join Inclusive Church include St. Alban’s Cathedral, Ripon Cathedral, St Martin-in-the-Fields, St. Mary the Virgin (the University Church) Oxford and, St. Michael’s Amersham. We will be in good company, as a Church which stresses that ‘all, yes all, really are welcome in this place.’

 

So if your spirit of generous and inclusive welcome was my first reason for, as it were, taking the job, the second was your tradition. I am very comfortable with our styles and patterns of worship. I enjoy both traditional and contemporary forms of authentically Church of England worship. This Church, I strongly believe, is a place where the way we worship is intrinsically linked to our mission. And, we need to build on our worship traditions. We will do so in two ways. First, we will build on our commitment to BCP worship by joining the Prayer Book Society, purchasing new Prayer Books and, on fifth Sundays offering Choral Matins, instead of a Sung Eucharist. We will continue to celebrate BCP Holy Communion on the first and third Sundays of every month and Evensong on the second Sunday. On the fourth Wednesday of every month the midday Communion will be from the Book of Common Prayer. This means that there will be a BCP service in this Church every week of the month. Our worship in Advent and Lent will also include Compline and Prime. These enhancements will come into effect from January next year.

We will also be offering a different form of Communion service called Come and Share All Age Eucharist on the third Sunday of every month - replacing the existing All Age Eucharist. This service has already been used in the Benefice and will be less formal that the current All Age Service. The new service will last about 35 minutes and will be followed by breakfast.

The PCC have also made the decision to admit children to Holy Communion, following preparation, from the age of seven. This will bring us in line with other denominations and recognises the Bishops guidance that baptism is the only necessary pre-requisite for communion and that ‘Jesus’ acceptance of children was clear.’ Recognising the ecumenical dimension - and Jesus won unconditional inclusion of children - the Canons of the Church of England were amended in 2006 so that children could be offered, as full members of the Church, the sacrament of the Eucharist.

 

The decisions we have taken, which have also been discussed at length with Bishop Alan, will stand this Church in good stead: our worship will be enhanced and, our mission extended.

We will become even more widely known as a Church committed to celebrating the deep and enduring traditions of the Church of England with freshness, relevance and joy. We will also become known as a congregation committed to offering the love of God to everyone, without exception, just as you did to me, based on a theology which insists that each and every person is made in the image of God. Amen.

 

Rev. Andrew Lightbown