Sunday, 9 February 2014

A spiritual presence in the city

There are a number of occasions when I wonder what as a church we can actually contribute to the major challenges that face us.  The scale of need is such that we can easily find ourselves just a drop in the ocean.  There are flagship projects like the food bank which has seen churches and others coming together to pool resources to meet emergency hunger.  These look dramatic and the scale they are able to operate on is impressive.  But often what we do is small scale.  Of course we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that, because lots of small-scale support does add up to a much bigger picture.  But it is easy for the picture to look overwhelming and our small contribution to look insignificant. 

What we offer is not always directly practical.  A lot of our world is focused on doing, on outcome measures and meeting targets.  But that is not all churches are here for.  Our first reading from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah58:1-12) gave us an impassioned cry for justice, for looking after the needs of the poor and vulnerable.  That is an important thread in the Bible’s picture of what it means to respond to God’s call.  But there are times when I find myself in a situation where there is no practical support to offer.  I can’t make it better; I can’t remove the problem.  When I sit with the grieving there are no words to take away the pain and often too many words are not helpful.  When I sit in meetings with council officers struggling to balance unbalancable budgets, I can’t wave a magic wand to take away what looks to me like an apocalyptic deficit.  Our council will be facing a budget cut of over £40m over the next few years.  That is a crisis.  There are no easy magic wands to make that an easy ride.

What I find though, that seems to be appreciated in ways that often surprise me, is that the presence of someone who stands for the bigger picture, a sense of the eternal, seems to bring a calm and comfort that I can’t explain.  It is not that we bring God into the situation, but we make that perspective visible.  And this church sitting in the heart of this city's public space is immensely important just for what it stands for.  And the more we can open its doors the better.  This church being here, being a place where God is worshipped and where prayer is visible matters enormously; far more than any statistics can reveal and far greater than the secular blogs would lead us to believe.

The think tank Theos has referred to this as spiritual capital.  What we offer is the working capital for the spirit and the soul.  The value of this is extremely difficult to calculate, but research shows that the presence of and engagement with these places, with their communities and the sacredness they represent, has a lasting effect that is hard to quantify.  This stems as much, if not more, from what we are than it does from what we do.  There is of course an exchange between what we do and what we are.

Our readings this morning were about precisely this.  They call us to look at what lies at the root of who we are.  Our second reading (1Corinthians 2) gave us that strange phrase at the end about having the ‘mind of Christ’.  No one knows the mind of God, except God.  Humans can be very arrogant at times assuming that they know everything that there is to know.  And we know a lot, a lot more than some of our ancestors knew, well about some things.  We’ve forgotten a lot too.  But faith in Christ, while it doesn’t tell us everything, provides a perspective, a lens through which to look and see something of the purposes of God, what we can cope with any way.  This is that God is the source of our life and its goal too.  We have no purpose outside of this beyond a few fleeting moments which in the grand span of time are but a blip.  That is what we stand for, which comes with the language of the eternal, the spiritual, a sense of purpose beyond the immediate.

Sometimes doing is not enough.  In fact we are completely powerless and stare into the abyss.  I do this when we face grief.  When the floods overwhelm, well there are things to do before, but once they have washed away all we know, there is a moment when we either have a spirit that looks beyond these, however fragile, or we go under.  And I don’t mean that we should send messages to those flooded out in the West Country that their suffering is just a blip in the grand scheme of things, if we do that we will deserve the punch that comes back!  But standing there alongside them with a faith that even when the world is flooded, trusts in God, can be a support.  Broken we might be, we know we are fragile, but we are not abandoned, even if it looks and feels like it at times.  Ultimately all of us will be broken one day and that is part of the mystery and wonder of life, of being mortal.

The 'mind of Christ' is the vision that God wills life and holds in store for us a life beyond this one.  These sufferings are passing; our ultimate fortune does not rest on goods and possessions, on our health or wealth.  Faith is not just for when the sun shines.  It must be for the storm too, otherwise it is of no use whatsoever.  What never ceases to amaze me is how much those in the thick of it, up against it, find that faith and appreciate those of us who represent it being around.  When there are debates about the sustainability of churches and projections of its long term vibrancy looking shaky in many places, we are taken back to what lies at the very core of who we are and what we stand for.  And that is quite simply God.  Without God we have nothing and are nothing.  With God, we have everything we could possibly need – individually, corporately and eternally.

This is the salt that gives sodium chloride its tang (Matthew 5:13-20).  Without it salt is worthless and pointless.  This is the light that we don’t hide under a tub, but let shine out.  This church stands for God or nothing.  Yes we campaign on issues of justice, peace and social care.  Yes we offer hospitality to all sorts of groups, to those who drop in and are an artistic venue.  But above all, in all and through all, we stand for God; we provide spiritual capital which can be invested in a myriad of ways and that offers hope without which we are lost.  This is God’s world.  We belong him.  So when the floods come we have a hope to hold our fragile and vulnterable life.  At these times what we are counts for more than what we do.  It is the distinctive gift we bring to the city: the spiritual capital.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th February 2014

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