A Sermon for 26.9.10, Back to Church Sunday
at Crosby Ravensworth
given by David Jones

(Introduction at the beginning of the service.)

Many of us know and love that rather long-winded introduction to Mattins and Evensong in the Book of Common Prayer. 'Dearly beloved brethren, the scripture moveth us in sundry places', etc. It sets out, in its own way, why we come to church, and I thought that today in particular was a day for thinking about that. Perhaps I should start by mentioning what we are not looking for. If you read the Bishop's letter in the diocesan 'News', you'll see him clearly saying that we don't come here to be entertained, or to have frivolous fun, or even to be bowled over by wonderful music. We do come to do all the things listed in that introduction.

But we'll think about all that in the 'Talk' slot later on.

May the words of my lips and the thoughts of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

As I said at the beginning, I want to think today about why we come to church services. Many of us were brought up to come every Sunday, and there's an obvious danger that we just do it out of habit. It doesn't happen very often, but on the rare occasion when I don't get to church on a Sunday, perhaps when we are away on holiday, I find myself feeling slightly uneasy, specially at the time when I know there's a service going on at home.

I don't know why I feel uneasy. Do I feel somehow guilty? Is it just that any change of habit leaves you feeling somehow odd? It's not necessarily that I feel disconnected from God. I might be out in the country or up a mountain. You can feel very much in the presence of God in the middle of His creation.

So what is it all about?

First. We glibly say that we 'come to worship God'. What does that mean? Well, I'd suggest that we are all somehow aware at all times of the wonders of the world around us. On our holiday a couple of weeks ago, we witnessed two particularly spectacular thunderstorms. I think we all probably feel 'put in our place' by such things. We realise just how small we are. But yet we believe that God knows every one of us by name, and He cares about us. The Gospels tell us that the hairs of our head are numbered. You don't necessarily need to take that literally, but the point is clear. He wants every individual one of us to find fulfilment and happiness, given the particular talents and interests we each have.

Simply saying that makes us aware of how great God is, how huge His mind. In fact, we can't begin to put it into words, because words can't say it. Quakers will tell us that we spend too much time talking in our services and not enough time listening. I fear that they are right.

But the other side of that is that if we are to sit silently and feel the presence of God, we must get ourselves into the right frame of mind. So this is where the Bishop is right when he says that we don't come to be entertained. We have to prepare ourselves. If you go to a concert or a play or a football match, you know that you will enjoy it much more if you have some idea of what to expect. In a shallow sort of way, you can get some sort of enjoyment even without being prepared, but the chances are that if you go in like that, you'll come out thinking that you'd like to know more about the music or the play or even the rules of football before you go the next time.

So a church is a place where we can feel specially in the presence of a power so much greater than ourselves, and when we come to a service here, the liturgy and the prayers and the hymns, as well as the sermon (I hope) can lift our hearts and minds into His presence.

So that's the first thing. We come to worship.

Second. That Prayer Book introduction to Mattins and Evensong begins with confession. This is something that can worry us. The CofE seems particularly hot on sin and confession. The form of confession in the BCP Communion service seems rather heavy-handed: 'the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable'. And we come back week after week and (potentially) say it all again.

Do we really feel like that? Ought we to if we don't? What do we mean by 'sin'? The theological answer is: 'cutting ourselves off from God'. Speaking for myself, I have to say that there's no doubt that this does happen. And there's no doubt that there are things we say and do, and things we fail to say and do, which would not be so if we were fully in the presence of God.

So I have to say that, for me, the language of some forms of confession is distinctly OTT, but there is an underlying truth that I can't avoid. And I know that there are things which I said or did long ago for which I'd like to apologise, but I can't because the person I offended is now dead. But I know also that by prayer I can lift that burden, or, rather, I believe that it is God who lifts that burden. And I know as well that where I do get the chance to go and apologise, I find that the person I thought I had offended has entirely forgotten about it and the burden was only in my mind.

We do need to make our confession, in whatever form, so that we really can move forward. We really do need to feel that we are forgiven, that God really wants us back in His presence all the time.

So, first we had the idea of Worship. Then we had Confession and Absolution - facing what we've done and knowing for certain that forgiveness is on offer.

Thirdly, then, how do we do all that? Well, it's there in that introduction again: 'we assemble and meet together to render thanks, … to hear His most holy word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary...

We meet together. Some people will insist that they can keep up their faith and their consciousness of the presence of God all by themselves. That doesn't work for me, not by itself. For me, meeting with other like-minded people, sharing in the liturgy and the hymns and the prayers and the communion keeps me on track. Many people are worried about falling attendances at church, and all sorts of explanations are offered and all sorts of remedies are put forward. It is a matter of great delight to me that you in Crosby Ravensworth have shown that your church building matters to you, and in fact you have developed a new community spirit that even the Prime Minister recognises. I hope and pray that you will be able to keep it up, and pass it on to the next generation, allowing them to do things their own way. I hope also that it is not just the building that matters: it is all that goes on here and all that it represents to you all.

I do hope that you will keep on attending services here, and if you find that any of them have, in the Bishop's words, lacklustre liturgy, tedious sermons and poorly prepared notices, you won't stay away but instead do something about it.

I often say to youngsters when I'm getting them to do little jobs in church and they don't feel very confident: 'look them in the eye and say " If you can do it better, come and do it".' If you feel somehow dissatisfied, that probably means you have an idea about how things could be done better. Excellent. Come out and say so. The more people who are involved, the more we will all feel that we 'own' it. Our worship can then reflect who and what we are, and visitors will feel that there's a real buzz about the place.

'We meet together' … to hear His most holy word. Why? Why might we want to hear stuff written 2 or 5000 years ago?

We believe that the whole sequence of the Bible is a tale of God gradually showing Himself to mankind, culminating, of course, in the birth of Jesus and His teaching. I've been known to observe before now that nowhere does Jesus jump up and down and say that He is God or the Messiah. The best we get is, when others ask the direct question, that He says: 'You said it.'

The Gospel record is an account, very largely of His teaching. There's a comparatively small amount of what we would regard as 'biography'. We are told that the ancient world didn't see biography in quite the way we do. They were not much interested in the minutiae of somebody's life. They were much more concerned about who and what they were and how they thought.

The Gospel accounts, then, try to show us what Jesus was, as a person, how He thought, how He lived and how He taught us we should live. To those who say that the Christian faith is a man-made religion, I say: 'Yes, it is, because that is what Jesus wanted it to be. He wanted us to work out for ourselves how were are to live and how we are to see Him.'

And when we've worked that out, from reading the Bible, from prayer, from the words of liturgies ancient and modern, and, yes, even from sermons, we find ourselves bound to recognise His greatness, His power, His love and His caring for us.

Lastly, in that BCP introduction, we say that we come to 'ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.'

We come to pray. Which means listening as well as talking. It means also realising that what we think we want might not be what we really need. Every parent knows that time and again we have to tell children: 'No, you can't have that. It's not good for you'. Or 'you must wait for it'. Or 'you must save up for it'. If we acknowledge God's greatness and His caring and His love, then we must accept the same idea in His response. If our prayer is just a shopping list or a catalogue of demands, it's no surprise if we find that our prayer is not answered. If, however, we pray about something and listen, we might find an unexpected idea popping into our mind. And when we think about that, we decide that that is actually the best response to whatever was worrying us. I do believe that it is the Holy Spirit who has put that idea into our mind. But I repeat that He can only do it if we are listening and not talking!

So let's try to pull all this together. We all know about families. We all recognise that the best families are the ones that function together. They don't sit permanently in separate rooms. All the members care about each other. They all share the jobs around the house. Of course they quarrel and fall out from time to time, but then they get back together again. They learn from their mistakes. They try to do better next time.

I don't think I need to rub it in any more how hugely this applies to our Christian family.

And now to God the Father..................