Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 4th September 2016, Trinity 15, United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 4th September 2016, Trinity 15, United Benefice of Holland Park

The holidays for many of us are now over, and we’re at the beginning of a new academic year, children starting school for the first term, others moving to a new year or a new school, back to church after a summer break, so it’s worth asking the question: What happens when we come to church? Why we do attend church? I regularly reflect on this question. I also ask myself the question: If I wasn’t a signed up priest, would I bother turning up! It’s an important question to ask.

There are many people in the Church of England who are desperately worried about church decline, and perhaps also about the church’s loss of significance at a national level. What are we to do about this? Is it up to the vicar to work harder and ever longer hours? That’s one option, although judging by the significant level of clergy burn out, perhaps not a long term solution. There are those who have studied church growth who suggest that the answer is to be ‘relevant’ to the needs, concerns and culture of our modern world. Enter trendy vicars and a soft rock music style with a rock concert format. The rationale here is that young people don’t go around listening to organ music in their cars, therefore the church should adapt, to be relevant, to become more contemporary.

Other churches have attempted to include novelty into their worshipping life – with churches built like a theatre with comfy chairs, and that include seeker services (ie church for those who don’t normally come to church). Others have tried café style church, where you munch on coffee and croissant during the service. It’s easy to sneer at such attempts to engage with non-churchgoers. But I sincerely hope that some of these approaches bring in those who don’t normally attend church.

As a church here in the United Benefice of Holland Park we haven’t gone down this ‘relevance’ or novelty route. We sing hymns, hear from the Bible, we grapple with how to make sense of Jesus’ hard sayings like in today’s Gospel – to hate your mother, brother, sister… and so on – what might Jesus mean?
Is Jesus using hyperbole to express a literal truth — perhaps he means that authentic discipleship demands radical renunciation.  Even good things can distract us. On Sundays we grapple with the Bible. And then we hold the needs of our broken world in prayer, we receive simple gifts of bread and wine, and we are sent out to share God’s peace, compassion and love. Of course, there is a yearly rhythm that encompasses all of the emotions and experiences of life. But our weekly service is very similar and it’s only fair to ask, does this hour that we spend in church really do anything? Does it change us?

I’d like to suggest that it does, and profoundly so, although the change is slow, its gradual, and it’s almost imperceptible. Part of the change that happens involves simply being part of a community. Hearing about the kingdom of God, the bigger narrative of which we are a tiny part, de-centers our ego. Coming to church slowly changes us into people capable of forgetting our own needs for a moment in order to find a spark of generosity for those in need.

We were once deeply communitarian people, and it's only recently that people have been able to become invisible to their neighbors and have lives that are detached from any local community. We need to rediscover why we need to belong. And the church community is one way of doing so.

The cricketer turned sport psychologist, Steven Sylvester, has written a book called Detox Your Ego. He argues that inflated egos are getting in the way of our objectives. People who compete to bolster their sense of self-worth, who narrowly focus on their own interests, experience more stress, failure and frustration. However, he suggests that stress can be reduced, and our talents liberated, if we work towards bigger ideals such as family, country or moral purpose. Sylvester says this: “When we think about ‘me, me, me’ we tend to get nervous and to worry about what could go wrong… But when we play for others, when the focus is outwards rather than inwards, we become more creative and ultimately more effective. We have to get our egos out of the way.”
Sylvester writes from personal experience as a county cricketer in the 1990s. His form was never consistent. He struggled with nerves. He belatedly realised that he was putting too much pressure on himself because he wanted to be the main man. Only when he learnt to turn his focus away from his ego did he discover a deeper joy in the game. Researches that backs this up.

William Muir, a biologist at Purdue University in Indiana, wanted to increase the productivity of chickens, as measured by eggs laid. He took a group of ordinary chickens and left them alone for six generations. When he came back, he found that they were fully feathered, behaving normally and producing lots of eggs.

Then he took a group of the most productive chickens and put them together and in each generation allowed only the most productive to breed. This was a group of what might be called “super chickens”. After six generations of selective breeding, however, things had gone terribly wrong. All but three were dead. The rest had been pecked to smithereens.

Muir concludes that the problem was the chicken’s equivalent of ego. The super chickens want to rise above the rest. They want to be the star performers. They are driven by their aims and interests. But that is why they’re not able to collaborate, to share, to coexist.

The interesting thing about this experiment is that it attacks the basic model that most of us operate with. Most of us crave additional self-worth, we desperately desire to be recognised. Yet the problem with building bigger egos is not just that it can have bad effects on those around you, it can also undermine your own objectives. According to this vision, it’s only by connecting with others that we can achieve our goals. Sport has long grappled with the issue of ego.

The debate last year over the cricketer Kevin Pietersen was effectively about whether a “super chicken” could be accommodated within the England team. Management apparently felt that his narcissistic attitude was corroding the team ethic. Pietersen’s admirers argued that a decent coach should have been able to harness his ego in the service of the team’s objectives.

I personally feel resonance with the focus on team rather than the big ‘super-chicken’ individual. The Team GB women’s hockey team worked together in winning the Gold at the Rio Olympics. I read a comment from one of the ladies: ‘we weren’t the best players in the world out there… but we’re the best team.’

Returning to where we started: What happens when we come to church? Firstly, we hear that we are loved more deeply and fully than we can ever imagine. We discover that the secret of our identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. What happens when we come to church is that we detox our ego, we hear about other needs, not just ours. We hear of the bigger narrative of the kingdom of God, God’s way of doing things, and we are invited to share in a small way in that vision. In a fragmented, individualistic world, we are to model a different path. We are to be a place of community, of belonging and healing. And we may radiate the burning fire of God’s love.

Matthew Syed, ‘The Times’, January 7 2016

Holland Park Benefice