On February 17 we celebrated, for the second year in a row, Love your Church Sunday. Here is the sermon preached that day by Stella Wiseman at St John’s and St Mark’s.
We love because he first loved us
Sunday was Love your Church Sunday and given out at the services – and sent to those who weren’t there but are part of the church – were some leaflets titled Love your Church Sunday 2019.
That does rather raise the question why we might love our church.
The leaflet speaks a lot about this and about some of the ways we might respond, but I wanted to share some personal ideas about why I have moved from a position of thinking that church is something I should do and should like, to something I actually really do like, in fact I do love it, even when I don’t love the institution of the church.
I have been in the Anglican church all my life and, for many years took part in communion services where the words near the start of the Eucharistic prayer – the one that leads up to saying the Lord’s Prayer and then receiving communion – were:
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God
It is right to give him thanks and praise.
It is indeed right,
it is our duty and our joy,
at all times and in all places
to give you thanks and praise,
holy Father, heavenly King,
almighty and eternal God,
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
I could always appreciate the duty bit, but not the joy. But I think that was when I saw church as something we did – a place we went to, liturgies we followed, beliefs I thought we had to have, beliefs that I had somehow to persuade myself to have even when I wasn’t sure I had them, which made it was all quite trying.
But recently it has dawned on me that church is not about what we do and what we believe so much as about who we are. Church is a who, not a what. By that I mean it’s about us being the body of Christ, all with our own strengths, weaknesses, personalities, beliefs, understanding etc, and all loved and equally important in God’s eyes, and all of us part of the body of Christ on earth.
It’s actually being here in this parish that I have begun to learn this, to learn that church is a community, a family, though with fewer blood ties. That’s what church started out like in the days after Jesus was on earth – a community – though in the early church they held all their possessions in common which I am not suggesting we do (although we are encouraged to make contributions to the church and there is more about that in the Love your Church Sunday 2019 leaftet. They were a community and we are a community.
That doesn’t mean we are all lovey-dovey and everything is sweetness and light. There are, as we all know, divisions in the church as a whole, deep divisions and deep hurt. There were divisions in the days of the early church – in particular about and between Jews and Gentiles (eg in Acts six ‘the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food’), and there was great division over circumcision and whether it was necessary.
There will always be divisions as, guess what, we are human and we don’t know all the answers despite what we think. But this sermon is about what we love about church not the divisions and we forget this sometimes and focus on what we do not love, on what goes wrong.
What I love is the community and support in bad times. We all have these. Many of you will be going through a very difficult time at the moment, or just coming out of one, or about to head in to one. It is what happens. My family and I have had a pretty rubbish time recently with redundancy and illness, and there has been huge support for us. This has been through the church and from elsewhere – one non-churchgoing friend turned up with a big bag of food and some flowers for us at one point. Jesus doesn’t work just through ‘churchgoers’.
But there are added dimensions that I have found in the church which are not so apparent elsewhere. The first is the understanding that God is with us in all of this. In the Old Testament reading this week (Jeremiah 17 5-10) it is written: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord… They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” I’m not saying that I am not fearing or anxious or that I am bearing a lot of fruit at the moment – I am very anxious, today has been particularly tough, and what I can do is limited – but I understand from this and from elsewhere (eg Psalm 23 ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’) that God is with us in this.
The second is prayer. Sometimes I haven’t been able to pray. It has seemed foolish, as if somehow I am expecting a miracle. In times of crisis I can’t always believe – a faith seems to be no more than wishful thinking. But that is where the church helps. For a start, there are people praying when I can’t pray, when you can’t pray. I was at a meeting of the group LGBT+ Christians Southampton and around the other day and I was asked for an update on what has been happening. The leader said: “We hope you can feel held in our hands for a few hours” and we were prayed for and I know other people in that group and in this parish and all over the place, are praying and they are praying when I have felt I can’t pray. That is enormously comforting.
In fact, the church, as the body of Christ, carries us when we can’t do it ourselves. Sometimes we find it hard to believe but you will find that the creed which we say in a church on Sundays says: “We believe…” which is perfect when I, as an individual, can’t believe. There are days I find belief hard. That happens to all of us, but the corporate belief remains and is still there when our faith returns.
The church is also a family who are not as immediate as your home family which means that when something difficult is happening they can be a step away from the raw emotion that may be consuming you and the rest of your family, which can be a huge help.
Church is also a place to learn about God and to ask questions – that is very much the case in this parish. There are groups in the parish where you can study and learn more – Moving On!, Beyond Belief, various Bible study groups and so forth – and you can ask anything. You don’t need to worry about holding the ‘correct’ beliefs. I would not be setting out to train for ordination this September if I had not been in a parish where I could discuss my questions, doubts and beliefs without fear, where I have been held through the years as I wrestled with faith. It started when John Page was rector and carried on, allowing me to explore without fear of judgment or rejection. I am very grateful.
There are groups and activities too which are more to do with just getting together and being sociable, making friends – table tennis, art, Connections, choir are just a few – times when we can get to know each other and help form a stronger community – but always an outward-looking community and never cliquey.
Churches are not perfect but that is OK. We love church because it is made up of us, but us with God, reflecting God’s love. Being part of the church is not something we have to do by ourselves – we are the outward expression of God’s love on earth. As is written in the Bible in John 4, v 19 ‘We love because he first loved us’.