2 before Advent - God's Kingdom in Today's World

A sermon preached by Julie Gittoes at St John the Baptist Holland Road, 17 November 2013

In yesterday's Guardian Giles Fraser reflected in his typically provocative and unequivocal style on the impact of the financial squeeze on the church in the inner city. The writing on the wall for him was the quarter of a million required to carry out urgent work in a grade-II listed tower, used more often than not as a public lavatory. But it wasn't just the cost of buildings that worried him, it was the generosity required by the whole people of God to sustain ministry and mission in every parish, regardless of economic circumstance.

Are we facing the end of an era, as Giles suggests?

This evening's readings don't allow us to settle into complacency or diminish the scale of the challenge. But nor do they leave us without hope. It is precisely at the points of challenge that we reflect on what is to be at the centre of our lives, discerning God's will and purpose for us.
Therein lies a glimmer of hope.
Like you, we at Guildford Cathedral face enormous challenges in terms of the cost of maintaining a building. We like you are having to raise substantial sums of money - and like you we are finding support from outside agencies an encouragement. However, there is still the prospect of huge disruption to face once work starts; concern about the way in which our energies can be consumed by such projects.
A few weeks ago Claire encouraged you to pray: not just for the financial capital to restore your roof; but also for vision to think about the kind of activity that might take place, the opportunities to engage with the community; for unexpected partnerships that build the Kingdom of God; this sacred space can be a resource - a place of worship and stillness that embraces the thankful, curious and sorrowful.
How do we cherish our places of worship appropriately: so that they are places of encounter with God, pointing beyond themselves; so that they can be places of engagement with the world, building relationships to flourish for the sake of the common good.
For Jesus, the Temple is his father's house. A place of belonging and encounter; a place where as a infant he vocation is set out - a light drawing the Gentiles into relationship to God; the glory of his own people. There was an intense cost to that love; a sword would pierce Mary's heart; yet when she first looses him, he is found in the temple. He was listening, questioning, growing in wisdom; just as he continued to teach and heal, to challenge corruption and restore hope as he ministered within the temple's courts.
His disciples are transfixed by the scale, magnificence and beauty of the Temple. Buildings are places of stability and security. Churches are sanctuaries; they are still points. Yet stones are impermanent however splendid.
Jesus responds to his disciples architectural appreciation by speaking of the temple's impending destruction. The apocalyptic imagery is unsettling and familiar: war, revolution and earthquake, plague and famine; cosmic upheaval and would-be messiahs announcing the end.
Before all this, says Jesus, before the consummation of God's Kingdom, you will face persecutions. Not because we seek to defend our right to exclude and marginalise; but because of our calling to include and embrace. Some of our brothers and sisters will indeed face imprisonment today - for refusing to be silenced, for not colluding with all that dehumanises, for seeking the glorious liberty of the children of God.
In the midst if uncertainty and upheaval of the present age, Jesus offers words of wisdom and encouragement; he is present with them, inspiring them? To be disciples of Christ is a commitment which reshapes our priorities, our attitudes and our actions. It ought to make us more attentive and responsive to the cries of our world, not less so. It means that we risk being unpopular; that we have to speak truth to power.
We are called to live in between times. We live in the light of Jesus's life, death and resurrection; we live in anticipation of the fulfilment of God's purposes. We are called to live now. Radically committed to this place, to the people we worship and work among engaged with the concerns of our own time while set seeking to set out a vision that transcends the preoccupations of any one generation. Living now is hard. It is quite tempting to take a step back and let it all happen around us; to adopt either a hedonistic of fatalistic view point.

That however is not the vision of the Kingdom; it's an attitude challenged in tonight's epistle.
It was written to address concerns within the Christian community, rather then wider social issues. It is about how we live and engage now. The word translated as idleness is actually a word more accurately used to describe behaviour that is insubordinate or irresponsible; those who are rebelling against community, or challenging the needs or wishes of others. Almost like playing truant. That includes eating the food that belongs to others, without paying for it; it meanings being unwilling to contribute to the common good. It's living now without a sense of vision or understanding your part in it. It's discipleship minus the cost.

We are not called to live like that. We are not to be mean spirited in our support of parishes in social and economic deprivation; we are not to limit our vision but to extend it. Paul urged people to imitate him - to adopt a similar attitude and disposition. In relation to the community - the body of Christ itself - we should all contribute with generosity out of our resources, time and skill. In relation to the world in which we live, we should attend carefully - listening and engaging - in order that we can respond with wisdom.
Faith however, does not wait for someone else to think, act or pray; rather it plunges into the reality of life day by day - with all it's delight and complexity, frustrations and hopes. It is patient enough to build trust; impatient enough to seek justice.
We can only do this when we recognise that this life isn't the whole story. Our ability to live now is shaped and sustained by the Eucharistic vision of the not yet. Our liturgy speaks of forgiveness and peace; of abundance and invitation. It is here that our failings are met with mercy; here that our hopes are sustained. It is here that we stand before a radiant light - which brings healing yet also melts our flaws.
Malachi had addressed God's people with words of prophecy - calling them back to God's purposes; but he also sets before them a apocalyptic warning - abuse of human freedom is terrifying and spirals out of control. Yet hope is still glimmering on the horizon.
The 'sun of righteousness' will arise. The sun dispels all shadows - exposes everything to the light. The sun is a symbol of justice and righteousness. It only when pain and selfishness are brought into the light, that healing can emerge: divine heat consumes the refuse of human activities; the glow of the sun overcomes social division, challenges wickedness and restores human harmony.
What does that mean for us worship sing amidst sirens and shopping centres; comfortable basement flats and those who are lonely and isolated?
Here we stand as God's people: preparing to receive what we are, the body of Christ. May we work quietly and diligently as we seek to discern God's purpose for us in our daily lives and for this sacred place. May we be prepared to take risks in engaging with our community, sustained by the grace we receive in this sacrament.
May we know when to be prophetic, and when of offer comfort. We who are refined by light are called to be people of light. Yesterday Jonathan Freedland said of Pope Francis he wants to do more than stroke the brow of the weak. He is taking on the system that has made them weak. May our lives, our buildings, our faith and our work be equally loud and clear voices against the status quo.
Holland Park Benefice