This is my sermon for tomorrow on the Third Sunday for Advent. From Matthew ch.11 I reflect on what the age of the Messiah looks and feels like. Perhaps this is what we as Christians we will be judged on rather than our own targets and goals?
There remains a “targets and goals culture” – much of it an industry of gobbledygook – which hangs over main institutions. Thankfully, the structures of the Church of England has meant that (on the whole) we have got away lightly. We do not employ vast armies of Mandarins to same degree that now choke the NHS, local government and education. God keeps his Church slim and trim.
Go online to the professional jobs pages (The Guardian Weekend issue) and you can find examples, some companies and institution drowning in a sea of management waffle and continuing to fill their ranks with nonsensical jobs. Here’s an instance from one post - “We a remain a forward-looking company seeking to invest and diversify in ambient monitored paradigm shifts across industry sympathetic individual-person-centered outlets.” An award should go to whoever can decipher that. Prospective trainee teachers were told on one pamphlet that – “High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the on-going learning process.” Why not just say children thrive in good schools? A Hospital recently advertised the job for a verbal communications and procurement officer (that is a secretary) where the strap line to the post stated "You will enjoy the satisfaction of assisting people in their safe and time effective discharge pathways from an acute hospital setting." In plain English I think that means the person will be expected to man the welcome desk from time-to-time.
Sometimes this kind of stuff is down to incompetence, but I wonder if it is also down to many poor souls feeling lost when either the company is too big or the job too vast? Could it be that as humans we collude with each other to not stray beyond our comfort zones? We bloat our companies to hide our weaknesses.
What are the goals and targets of God’s Church on Earth? Beyond mission statements, mission action plans, and various SWAT analysis we do well to return to the Scriptures to find God's purposes for us. I recall the first in-house retreat at the seminary 23 years ago and the first session opened on this very topic. It was Advent and the speaker, a well known priest from Northern Ireland read that extract from Matthew 11. Jesus says the disciples of the imprisoned Baptist - ‘The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ Our guide said that if these are the signs of the age of the Messiah, how is the Messianic age visible in our lives as individuals and churches? Does any of this happen in our own churches? For the age of the Messiah is not something purely of the past or of some distant future. The age of the Messiah is wherever the Church is present, wherever two or three are gathered in His (Jesus’) name. This is where it gets scary because God is asking us to host the Messianic age HERE AND NOW! We cannot fob it off to some future point. Neither can we claim that the Church is not fit or ready for mission. The Church is gifted the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures, the Tradition, the Deposit of Faith and the average member of a congregation will have heard at least thousand sermons over the lifetimes. How much more ready can we be?
In his seminal book ‘Awareness’, the Indian Jesuit Father Anthony DeMello said this of church growth, ‘they (the general public) will come when the dead are raised.’ I have nothing against us doing good planning, reasonable management, setting goals, even having a mission statement. DeMello was not a wacky televangelist but a deeply respected intellectual. I suspect that what he was exposed to India made him say that about raising the dead. For these eastern cultures (which could all too easily dismiss as “less-developed” or primitive) are much more open to things of the Spirit than we in the materialistic West.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
When reading Isaiah 35 (the first reading of Lectionary this Sunday) I was reminded of Saint Bernadette of Loudres – Bernadette Soubirous who died in 1879 at the tender age of 25. She is not a familiar figure to Anglicans and, no doubt, could easily dismissed along with the whole enterprise as tacky, fake and simplistic faith overly reliant on the Virgin Mary. Bernadette was equally sneered by the establishment of the little French town including the parish priest, the mayor, the rural dean and the bishop. Given a vision by the Virgin Mary of a spring of water she went down on hands and knees and scrapped up the mud with her bare hands. People laughed and some considered this evidence that she was ought to be in an asylum. Eventually the water did come and it has never stopped gushing out. Are we ready to get on our knees and be laughed at? Are we ready say of our own dry land ‘the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad – the desert shall rejoice.’ (Isaiah 35.1) I’m not trying to be preachy here – I am preaching to myself as well, and I do so gulping.
In Loudres, you could say that there are two Loudres. There is the town filled with tacky shops dripping in a religiosity unparalleled. To the religiously burgoise this is religion at its worst. Then there is the Domain, - the inner sanctum which has a walled citadel with the Shrine, gardens, a hospital and an indoor stadium. I went in 2000 with the Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust. Over ten thousand sixth formers, students, doctors, and parishioners take some of the most disabled children for a fun week. One afternoon I pushed Gary in his wheelchair around the gardens. We had struck up a friendship in our group. He told me of his every operation, 18 in all, many to his spine to help his cerebral palsy. This story became like a litany because he would conclude every micro-story with “I’m still smiling Daniel – God loves me.” He could not see the tears running down my face because I was behind him. I felt extremely humbled. Dear friends, by the end of this afternoon, I was a jabbering wreck. I went to my room in the foetal position. I was not upset, indeed, I was happy-joyous but deeply deeply humbled, and yet somehow lifted up.
The worship was extraordinary. (See video link here) Most of the clergy at the HCPT Mass dressed in clowns outfits for the Eucharist. The songs were simple and joyous but with a stadium full of people, many disabled – in such an environment you cannot but put yourself aside. You are not there to please yourself but to make sure the disabled person you accompany is happy and served well. I have rarely found such peace and a place of healing.
I say this because the word Domain, means in the place of the Lord. It’s very near to the idea of the Age of Messiah that Matthew wants us to know of. Is our church a domain? Do people meet us and find the Age of the Messiah? Advent readings push the idea of the last judgement and these readings may not seem very Christmassy. But, perhaps this the criteria by which we will be measured by, as Christians and churches. Whether we are the domain of Jesus Christ or not?