My return from Sabbatical has been somewhat bumpy. I had hoped for a gentle re-entry but with footballs through stained glass windows at St John’s and then a gargoyle falling from the church tower punching a hole in the roof, things have been a little disrupted. There have been times when a wrestle with Jacob, as in our first reading (Genesis 32:22-31), would have been preferable. These ancient buildings trigger awe and wonder, lift our souls and inspire us in holiness. They also require a lot of attention and sometimes without warning. It is therefore important to remember that the most important task in front of the church is not transepts, tracery and towers but people, prayer and how we proclaim God’s saving love for creation. If we are being generous in spirit, we could imagine the judge in the gospel (Luke 18:1-8) as being overburdened by other matters, though that is not how Jesus tells it. Whatever the case, the woman’s need was pressing and mattered.
On Friday, for those of a certain age, an icon of childhood TV was with us in the Cathedral presenting prizes for the Peterborough School at their speech day here. Floella Benjamin, who presented the children’s TV programmes ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’ from 1976 into the 1980s, came here and I couldn’t resist taking a picture of her in front of the ‘arched window’ – well we do have a few. It turned out the school’s photographer’s company had bought Humpty a few years ago and if he’d known in advance he would have brought him to greet one of his past carers. That would have raised the excitement levels somewhat.
Floella had a wonderful manner with the children of all ages, giving each of them time as she presented their prizes. Afterwards she took a great interest in all of them who came up to her and there were many who did. It was a reminder of who mattered most in the room – it was the students because that is who a school is for. Her speech included getting us all to join in with the sound effects for a retelling of the story of the three little pigs. One half of the cathedral were the little pigs, my side had to play the big bad wolf. She used this to talk about the importance of being true to values which matter most, and resisting pressures to conform in ways that are not healthy and even destructive of self or another, to resist the huffing and puffing of the big bad wolves when it comes. She encouraged the young audience to be considerate, to value one another and be kind; to be contented, with who we are, and be thankful for what we have; to be confident, so that we have the resilience to say ‘no’ where that matters and to be courageous to stand when there are attacks and the mood is not favourable for us. Those four ‘C’s – consideration, contentment, confidence and courage – were all in our epistle reading (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5) and also the gospel (Luke 18:1-8).
In the letter to Timothy, the writer encourages his reader to be rooted and grounded in the faith that he has learned and holds firmly. He is to proclaim the message “whether the time is favourable or unfavourable” (4:2). And for us, as it was for them, finding the right language that communicates and connects with where people are is crucial. The language of faith is not common currency at the moment and so we have work to do to help people move from crossing the threshold to find that place where life changes its focus and is captured by God and a spiritual encounter with Christ. I don’t think we should underestimate the challenge here and it is one of the reasons behind the most recent church attendance statistics released by the Church of England this week. It shows a steady decline continuing, of just 1 or 2% but nonetheless steady. If that trajectory continues unabated then the prospects are for ruins and buildings which speak of a past faith that is no more.
Actually, things are not completely gloomy, because spirituality has a way of finding an outlet and there are plenty of mind body soul expressions around. That provides a place for connecting with the narrative of faith, the story and real presence of God in Jesus Christ to be made. It just takes a little courage, confidence in the gospel, a considerate approach that values and loves, and contentment that God is good and life is blessing. Comparisons are often made about how the nave of cathedrals were used for all sorts of events in the past, and they were. The difference is that then people lived in the story of faith, it was their operating system and default setting. Today it is not, so crossing the threshold is just the beginning, but it is important to encourage it because it is a journey many rarely make. And stage two won’t follow unless it starts.
At the Deanery Synod Meeting on Thursday, Charlie Nobbs, the Diocese’s Director of Mission, asked how many people believed that their churches could turn around and find new life, new people, be places of lively, loving faith. The response in a secret poll was encouraging. Of those present 76% said that they did believe this was possible. A further 7% were undecided. When we are thinking about how to approach the task of growing churches I think there are three factors to start with. The first is prayer. That runs through everything we do, everything we are. And our gospel was a story to encourage faith in prayer. How much more will God give if even an unjust judge gives? The second is a desire for this. Do we really want to see churches that grow in faith, in numbers and in service? If we don’t, then empty, declining shells is what we will get. Thirdly, and this came to me on Thursday, was that we need to believe it is possible; to trust in God’s goodness and that it is his church and so will not fall away, if we are faithful – whether the times are favourable or unfavourable. And Christianity has survived in some pretty unfavourable times, indeed it began in them. This belief is the gift that comes through prayer and faith and trust that all things are possible with God.
None of this is about growing institutions. That is probably the dullest way to go about mission imaginable. It is about people, who are loved, who are given time and honoured, who are shown what blessing means. For some that will be desperate needs are met and I spoke a little about this when Garden House marked the first anniversary of opening in the precincts just over a week ago – Garden House is the go-to place for homeless people, especially those at the lowest ebb, rough sleepers and those with no place to call home. Meeting needs can be the myriad of coffee drop ins that there are and Wednesday at One serves such a purpose with its lunch afterwards. Meeting needs can be where the lonely find company, those who are usually rejected find acceptance and all are greeted with the love of Christ. It can mean so many things, but when faith is seen to transform lives then it becomes a place of turnaround, of transformation and lives are blessed – including our own.
The question at the end of the gospel reading is the punch. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (v8) Not if we think this is a task we can do in our own strength, in our own efforts, and to our own glory. That is why prayer is the first and last and middle element of all of this. It is God’s kingdom we seek and in tune with it we can place our trust and hope – whether times seem favourable or unfavourable – because ultimately it is the way of life and hope and truth.
Sermon for Trinity 18, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 20th October 2019