Sermon: Ordinary 23, Year B

Sermon: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Text: Mark 7: 31-37

“And Jesus said to him “Ephphatha!” that is “be opened””

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The next few weeks of Scripture are all centred on the same theme: sight to the blind, speech to the mute, hearing to the deaf, freedom to the captive.

We may think that these things do not apply to us, for we are (perhaps with the help of glasses or contact lenses, or a special piece of electronics in our ears), we are not so diminished. Imagine what life would be like in the first century without glasses – I who can barely see beyond the end of my nose, and I suspect many others of us gathered here today would be reduced to sitting at the crossroads, unable to engage with society, limited in work, begging for alms, held captive by our health.

And yet, even with all of today’s modern gadgets and corrective aids, we are still blind, deaf and mute.

• We are blind to the injustices in our society, to the needs in our midst, to the challenges in this very community.
• We are deaf to the cry of the refugee, the distressed, the call of mission in this place.
• We are mute when we encounter slavery, iniquity, oppression and violence

I am not just speaking in a global context either. For once, I am not just referring to happenings in far off lands of which we know (or care) very little. All of this happens on our doorstep, and we all fail to live up to the Christian Gospel.

“Be Opened” are the words Christ uses to heal, to release, to return to active society. “Be Opened” are words of transformation. But Christ does not use words alone, for words alone do not speak of the mystery of the incarnation. Why would Christ choose to come down amongst us – God made flesh – which is the literal meaning in incarnated – why would Christ choose to come down amongst us and then not use physical things to help transform us.

Christ touched the deaf-mute, and used his own spittle to engage with him – raw physicality. In the same way, other fluids of Christ continue to enable us to “be opened”: blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on the cross, flesh from bread made holy by his words “this is my body”. Yes, my dear friend, all of life is sacramental, all of Christ’s healing work and his teaching is sacramental, and this is why we place such great emphasis on the Mass, on the real presence of Christ, on the healing ministries through oil and the laying on of hands – for that is what the Holy Scriptures teach us to do, and through those we will be opened to the saving grace of God. “Ephphatha” – “Be Opened”.

This leads me onto other ways in which we are called to be opened out to God, and I believe it is right that this morning I share with you some of the possible directions which this church may be able to be opened to God. Let me speak this morning about some thinking behind the re-ordering of the Church.

We need to ask ourselves some key questions before we even start; not ‘what colour stain shall we have on the wood’, or what shade of magnolia will get past the DAC, but fundamental questions which lie at the heart of liturgical change and the re-ordering of this church. They are:

• Where do we come from?
• Who are we?
• Where do we go from here?

Do not think for a moment that we can only dwell on architecture or colour swatches. Church architecture has only one purpose in mind: liturgy. Liturgy is what makes a church live and move and have its being (to paraphrase the Acts 17:28), and if we are not guided by the need of our Liturgy, then we are merely redecorating the front room. And at the foundation of our liturgy is our theology – our moving towards the heart of God.

So what we do must be rooted in our history and tradition. It means that we recognise that we are Anglicans and as Anglicans have a distinct sacramental tradition – with the Eucharist at the centre of our worshipping lives. Unlike the United Reformed down the road, or the Quakers who just need a room to come together, we must come together for a distinct purpose: to share in God’s holy mysteries.

As Anglicans, our sacramental life is supported by Scripture, Tradition and Reason – the three legged stool – which is all focused on God.

Pause for a moment and reflect on these three questions. How does this shape not only our past, but also our future. How does this building serve the people of God in their quest for holiness? What does that mean to you, and where will it take you?

Few can have not been aware of the pressing need for re-ordering of this sacred space, but with such changes inevitably comes a sense of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. I have tried to encourage as many as possible of you to share their vision for the future, and we have taken on board those few suggestions and the more extensive work undertaken a few years ago in preparation for the building of the Narthex – this project is most certainly not my idea, and has been fermenting in this parish long before I came here.

The primary purpose of this space is to enable to worship of God. Worship not just with words (and I suspect at times we use too many of them to let God speak to us), not just with music, but with all of our senses: sight, hearing, voice, smell, taste, touch and movement. We do not worship God from a sensory deprivation chamber but rather from an extension of our own being. This space therefore needs to enable us to move towards the heart of God, and anything which gets in the way of that: no matter how old, how new, how festooned with memorial plaques or burdened with history, anything which gets in the way, should be moved out of the way of the movement of the worshipper spiritually towards the heart of God.

This means some hard choices. Some hard choices will be more popular than others. Each fortnight I read in Private Eye of some church being berated because it is trying to achieve what we are trying to achieve, and some will mourn the loss of furnishings they have grown familiar with over the years. But few people find these pews conducive to worship, for they belong to an age when it was felt you had to be uncomfortable in Church to stay awake during the vicar’s interminable sermons (well, perhaps they need to stay).

The failure of these pews on my left, showed, when we took them out how they had simply worn out – the base of them was rotten through and, after 150 or more years of sterling service, we sometimes have to accept that things wear out, and churches move on.

Although this church has had pews since its inception, and they were all free pews – meaning that the church has always been poor because of the lack of pew rents! Pews are only a mid-19th Century creation. In the ancient church, as now in Orthodox Churches (see the pictures at the back of Alioș), the people stood throughout for worship. This allowed for a certain flexibility and fluidity in movement towards the altar. The sermon occurred at the end of the service (as it still does in the Book of Common Prayer Mattins and Evensong), and the people would sometimes bring a stool or a shooting stick.

Over time, they bolted their stool to the floor, families brought a whole bench, someone put a box around it to prevent other people sitting in their place and suddenly, you have box pews and the fluidity of movement and flexibility of worship has been tied down.

As Churches have become more complex, they have moved away from their original few simple foci, and I believe that we need to move back to those original foci. If we give proper emphasis to four key elements, then this sacred space will give us back so much more. If we open this sacred space out, then we can be opened out to God.

What are these four key elements? Best described by Richard Giles in his seminal book Repitching the Tent – a book I strongly advise people to engage with, he identifies these elements are this:
A Place of Presidency
The Mass is not read to you, it is certainly not read at you. It is a shared participation between priest and people. Just as a priest cannot say a mass without the answer of its people, so worship needs to be presided over. This is far more fundamental than simply led. My first act was to install a presidential chair, and after a little experiment in this unsatisfactory space, we have now settled on somewhere suitable – for the time being. Any new arrangement requires a clear place of presidency, not to boost the ego of the priest, but to ensure that the mutual dialogue between president and people and with God is clearly and unambiguously led.
A Place of Word
The proclamation of Holy Scripture is the lifeblood of the Church. Morning and Evening Prayer are pickled in God’s word. As Jane taught us only a few weeks ago, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the sacrament are co-dependant: you cannot have one without the other.

The Gospel should be processed: given honour and feted in some way. The epistles and old testament are given the accord they deserve. Some churches seek to democratise the word – a member of the church stands from where they worship and shares the scriptures, but this diminishes its importance.

Scripture, Tradition and Reason are the Anglican bedrock and a clear place for the word, and preaching upon it is important. This need not be an ornate marble ambo, or a huge pulpit, for even this simple legillium, perhaps in future decorated simply in the colours of the season is a focus for the sharing of God’s holy word amongst us.

Think also of other ways in which God’s word is proclaimed. We live in a multimedia age, and so we should also give due consideration to our use of technology in our proclamation of the word: the hearing loop has transformed worship for some people, recorded music in addition to live music, the use of the screen has all transformed our worship, and in future it needs to be designed in, rather than bolted on as an afterthought. When multimedia is used in worship – and I experienced some great examples at the Greenbelt festival this year, I recalled Psalm 150. God gives us all of this to praise him.
A Place of Sacrament
Every Anglican Church has an altar, and its importance is undeniable given the centrality of the Eucharist in our worship. Increasingly, the altar has moved away from the east wall of the church and into the midst of the people – breaking down the barrier, and certainly removing the physical barrier of the altar rail. Jesus said “let the children come to me” (Matthew 19:14), and we are all children of God, so why are there barriers between him and his congregation.

Given the size of this church, it is not realistic to move in the same direction as, say, Holy Trinity and move the church entirely into the round, but to move altar and people closer is a significant step. The midweek masses take place within the sanctuary and are intimate acts of worship because of this proximity; I see a major place in this for this altar (the Lady Chapel altar), for it is the right scale for this church, and it is around this that we can gather to share broken bread and wine outpoured, and have that holy sacrifice brought into our midst.

One sketch for the church showed us gathered around in a circle to receive the sacrament together, rather than as we do now in rows: a wonderful statement of our collegiality – “though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in the one bread”. Who knows, that might work, and it may be worth experimenting with once we have a space in which that might happen.
A Place of Water
The final focus of our being is the place of baptism. Both of the dominical sacraments (the sacraments instituted directly by Jesus) need a focus in church. The sacrament of the Eucharist, in word and sacrifice on the legillium and the altar, and the sacrament of baptism in a powerful statement of a font.

Look around the church at present, and you see bold and proud statements of word and sacrifice, and yet when it comes to our confidence in the saving power of baptism – well, we appear to be a little under confident. The classic font which for many years stood at the back of the church (by the 1920’s it was where the vestry is now, according to Mike and Mary’s excellent book) and when I arrived it was on your right where the Narthex is now) had been desecrated with masonry paint at some point in the 1960’s and was unusable, and for many years our small portable font has done us sterling service. This font still has a place in the future of this church…

But what does it say about baptism? About the gateway to our salvation? About our confidence in our salvation at all?

If we are to leave a major legacy to those who come after us, then it is in the form of our place of baptism. Members of the congregation travelled to Salisbury to be inspired by Bill Pyes’s water sculpture used as a font in the cathedral – to see still, deep waters (think Psalm 23) and streams of living water:

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”
John 7:37-38

In Baptism, the water must flow. This is why many practise baptism in rivers or the sea, and in our shrunken symbols we pour water. Let the rivers flow (Isaiah 41:18) and let us demonstrate that our faith is not static or stagnant, but dynamic and flowing and invigorated with the life of the spirit.

Everyone has water features in their gardens these days, and the infrastructure is not hard to achieve. Outside the museums in Bristol are marvellous structures with smooth flowing water which speak of deep tranquillity and vigorous life.

We have the opportunity to do something which will be a bold statement of our confidence in baptism and a legacy to future generations.

The Church is not a static museum piece, but collects the past – where we have been – in the present (who we are), and leads on the future. We cannot and should not remain so firmly rooted in our past that we are shackled in our worship, but neither must we be insensitive to our heritage.

Most importantly, most fundamentally, we must recognise that the church is not this building, but is the people within it. This shell is not the church, YOU are the church.

St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.

Ephesians 2:19-21

The holy temple is its people, with Christ as the cornerstone – the pinnacle. We should not be limited by our building, but empowered by it. We in this parish are being given a great opportunity by Christ as we look to the future.

Christ meets us today in word and sacrament and immediately after this mass in baptism and says “be opened”. Ephphatha. Let us “be opened”

Let us pray…

Amen.