Sunday 17 October 2010
10.30 Holy Communion Woodchurch
Gen 32:22-31, 2 Tim. 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips open to us something of your written word and lead us to journey ever closer with your living word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For those of you who follow my occasional ramblings on Facebook you may have noticed that I had what may be called a day of contrasts last Thursday.
After dropping Henry at nursery in Tenterden I drove down to Bodiam. About two hundred yards past the entrance to Bodiam castle there is an entrance to a farm called Rocks Farm. There is nothing remarkable about the entrance at all, and when you turn into the drive and park outside the farm house, there is nothing remarkable about that either. In fact the first sign that this may not be simply a normal Sussex farm is when you go through the front door and find yourself in the midst of a Russian Orthodox church, complete with walls lined with icons, several Russian ladies wearing hardscarves, lots of sweet smelling incense and a priest who looked about 7 feet tall wearing robes which make my chasubles look frankly understated and a long grey beard which puts even Archbishop Rowan to shame.
This, for those who may not have been previously aware of its existence, is a Russian Orthodox convent dedicated to St Elizabeth the New Martyr and I had gone to join them for their Divine Liturgy.
Some people say to me that when they come to an Anglican church for the first time that they are never quite sure when to stand up and when to sit down. There are no such concerns in the Orthodox Church. You stand up. All the time. And when I say all the time I mean for about an hour and 45 minutes. There are no overhead projectors, no orders of service, no hymn books and, in fact almost no congregational singing at all. The priest and the small choir of one or two people chant the service between them – there was, I think, one hymn but it was in Russian and as my Russian is limited to ‘may I smoke?’ which is not much use as I don’t smoke, I decided not to join in! But the amazing thing is that although I know the service was an hour and 45 minutes, because I looked at my watch at the end, the service itself flew by and it felt like being caught up in the spirit and experiencing something of the divine or heavenly.
When the service finished the priest welcomed me and then indicated that I should come and join him and all the others for an early lunch. The Orthodox always fast for at least 12 hours prior to communion which means that they like to eat as soon as the service is over. So I joined them for a lovely lunch of soup, fish, some red cavier and tea – it was all very hospitable, very Russian and very nice.
That evening, as many of you know, was the Alpha evening and some people, in fact most people, would see the Christianity of the Alpha Course to inhabit an entirely different universe from the Christianity of Eastern Orthodoxy and it is probably true to say that not many people experience both in the same day and the apparent differences between them are easy to imagine and need not detain us now. But what really struck me as profound was this – in the same way that the Divine Liturgy was concluded by the sharing of a meal together so the Alpha evening started with the sharing of a meal together. And yes I did get two meals that day which was very agreeable although not sustainable. But the important thing is this: around the table at the convent in Bodiam and around the table in the Bonny Cravat here were groups of Christians, albeit from different cultures, who were sharing fellowship with one another whilst each of them explored their relationship with God. Once you strip away all the externals God has his hand on the life of every person in both places and in his call on their lives he had brought people together around a table to encounter one another and ultimately to encounter Him.
And of course, what is true of those groups of people last Thursday is equally true at us today. Each of us has been called from our different homes, different backgrounds, different lives, but we have all been called to be together right here and right now. That call of God upon our lives may be heard and experienced in many different ways but the fact is that everyone here has heard and responded to that call. And what are we here to do? To acknowledge God’s desire for us to be holy by repenting of all the things that hold us back, to hear his word, to give him Glory with our voices (some more so than others in my case), and even to gather around and eat together, firstly by sharing bread and wine around the Lord’s table and secondly by sharing tea and coffee and biscuits around Madge and Wendy’s table. The number of times I have heard people say that they do not need to come to church in order to be a Christian – in my experience, and in my reading of the bible, when God calls people he very rarely calls people to be hermits, the vast majority of people are called to be together in communion and in community. You are the called and gathered people of God, the people on Alpha are the called and gathered people of God and the people in the Orthodox Convent are the called and gathered people of God and it has been my huge privilege to see God at work in such variety and yet in such unity this week.
And God does work in amazing ways. In God there is no such thing as coincidence, only providence. This week at Alpha the subject was “How and Why Should I read the Bible” and one of the main verses that we looked at was from 2 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.”
And of course, almost as if to reinforce the message, that is exactly the scripture we have today. In the Alpha talk Nicky Gumbel made the point, quite correctly, that to say that scripture is inspired by God is not the same as to say that God wrote the scriptures himself, perhaps using human scribes in a form of automatic writing, rather we should always remember that each book in the bible, and there are 66 different books, was written by different people (many books by more than one person), at different times, in different styles and for different purposes. There are books of history, books of law, books of poetry, hymn books in the psalms, books of wisdom and good advice in the proverbs, books of prophecy, biographies, dramas, letters and so on. Every person who wrote every word was as human and as flawed as you and I. And yet, behind that humanity God’s call and God’s spirit, his inspiration or his divine breath worked not only within each person who wrote but also in those who gathered together this diverse collection of writings. Each writer, in their different ways, was inspired by God to tell something of the story of God’s relationship with his people and that inspiration and those stories continue to speak to us of God to this day and none of us should neglect to read the scriptures for ourselves and, most importantly, to prayerfully ask for God’s inspiration on us in order to both understand and apply the lessons on scripture in our lives.
And we do need that inspiration to understand because not all of the bible is immediately straightforward either to understand from our modern Western mindset, nor to apply to our lives which are so different in their externals at least, from the lives of those who wrote them.
I spoke to one lady on Alpha who said that she struggled with some of the lessons in the book of Job. And I said that struggling with the scriptures in order to seek to understand them was actually a good thing. Jewish theology and philosophy has a very long and healthy tradition of exactly that sort of struggling and I mentioned to her the story of Jacob who spent the night struggling with God himself and who would not let go of God until he received a blessing. And, you guessed it, that is exactly the Old Testament reading that we have today.
It is a mysterious story worthy of much wrestling with meaning itself. Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, wrestled with a mysterious man but they seemed evenly matched. And so the man struck Jacob on the hip and put it out of its socket but still Jacob would not be bested until he received a blessing:
“I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
And the man reveals that he has been struggling with God, he blesses him and in the process changes him by giving him a new name: Israel. And as the sun rises the newly named Israel gives thanks that he has survived his encounter with God and limps away a profoundly changed person.
So we should not necessary expect our encounter with God in the scriptures or in our lives to necessarily be an easy one. Sometimes we have to struggle and wrestle and cling on to God and maybe even shout at God and say: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
And a true struggle, a meaningful encounter, with God will not and should not leave us unchanged. The story of God’s relationship with his people that we encounter in the bible time and time again is a God who, yes, accepts us as the human and fallible people that we are, but who does not wish to leave us in that state but who lifts our eyes to new horizons, new possibilities, new relationships with God and his people, whether those people are to be found in an convent, in a pub, in a church or preferably all three. We should not come to God expecting God to change but rather knowing that God calls us to save us and to change us from one degree of glory to another.