Sermon for Trinity 2 2021
Whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. (2 Cor 5:9)
Well, the Euros have started- that is, the European football Championship -and this week the English Manager Gareth Southgate wrote an open letter to the people of England, disclosing his passion for game and asking us all for support. I’m sure he would be very glad if his team used my text to you this morning as indicating their loyalty to him over the coming tournament. ‘Home or away, we make it our aim to please him.’ (As it happens, England are playing at home a lot).
Home is meant to give all sports teams an advantage, which is hardly surprising, because the surroundings are familiar, the support is there, even in these days of uniformly sleek super-stadiums. We have got used, in the last 15 months, to gatherings of people, united by the interneton a plane where physical location doesn’t matter, but that, while fine for meetings, is illusory inreal life. With the exception of very few people our lives are lived in geographical locations, in bricks and mortar, surrounded by the people who are important to us. People who don’t have those things, we call homeless.
Yet, what, for Christians, is our true home? St Paul, in our reading, draws a distinction between being at home in the body, yet away from the Lord. Writing as a tent-maker, he carries on a theme started at the beginning of the chapter and contained in last week’s lectionary reading: ‘We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, eternal in the heavens.’ Here, he seems to throw a spanner in the works of the whole physical- virtual divide we’ve been living in for a year. Neither is our true home, he says. Our real home is in heaven.
This is important and a much-neglected theme in the church. We have lived through a time of unprecedented peace-time deaths in the last year. The church, through statements of Bishops and Archbishops, urged people to stay in our bricks-and-mortar home and save lives. This was important in controlling the spread of the virus, but missed a huge opportunity in not questioning what we mean by home. When, tragically, the many thousands of people who lost their lives did die (and are still doing so) , did they become homeless? I believe not, but were making a transition to their eternal home, as we all will. St Paul wrote elsewhere: ‘Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.’ (1 Thess 4:13). My regret, is that by our words (or lack of them) and by our actions (by locking the doors of churches throughout the week) we gave a truly hope-less message to the people of England. This was sad, because the message given by our online and recorded worship was just the opposite– full of hope, grace and joy. Which was louder I leave you to decide.
I realise that this is a contentious statement, and that many would hold the view that, in locking our churches, we were showing care to the nation, so I want to broaden out the subject of ‘home’ by looking at our Gospel reading this morning and what this says about the church.
‘To what can we compare the Kingdom of God?’ asks Jesus in today’s Gospel. ‘It is like the mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all seeds; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’ When Jesus spoke these words, his movement was very small: the twelve disciples and various followers. The main theme of Jesus’ teaching was the Kingdom of God, described not by definition but by many parables of which we have two today. What we can say definitely about the Kingdom in His teaching is that it’s a non-territorial place ruled over by Jesus the King. Within that Kingdom there is the Church, but the church is not the Kingdom, which is found in many places where Jesus’ values hold sway. Only when we arrive in our heavenly home will we know its true citizens.
So the Kingdom is the tree and the church is a collection of large branches. On those branches are many things, including those nests of which Jesus spoke. Nests are homes for birds. Church buildings can, I believe, be numbered among these nests, or homes, to shelter and inspire people on their path to heaven, and it falls to us few to care for them.
It’s really important to understand that a church building is not just a room for meeting. A good church can tell a story, can lift the spirit, can rest and feed the soul for the next leg of the journey towards heaven. In the last week two very different churches have come to my attention. First, Coventry Cathedral, the story of whose building was retold on the TV as part of its year as Euro City of Culture. The whole building tells an incredibly inspiring story, from wartime tragedy to restoration, from the cross to the Resurrection. The other building was a simple church in inner-city Portsmouth, set in an area of high-rise flats and student dwellings which I visited on Tuesday. Within this transient and constantly changing population the church offers not just Sunday worship, but what they call ‘host spaces’, areas in the church which groups can use or hire while they are there on their journey through life. For me, I felt at home instantly.
In Ventnor and Bonchurch we have four buildings, open during the week, that also act as resting places or inspiration for the people that visit. Since we re-opened initially one of our churches, then all a year ago (I’m proud to say, at the first opportunity), and especially recently, I have met so many people in this church, some of whom pop in regularly, to pray, to sit, to pour out their troubles, and seek help. Sometimes they wanted to talk, but mostly not. Many are not sure of their beliefs but the church is there to help them on their journey.
So, as we may watch the football and see players who were nurtured on their home grounds before spreading their wings to perform in many of the world’s great stadiums, so may we find our faith nurtured in this church family and building so we become familiar with and ready for the eternal habitation which awaits us in heaven.