Vicar’s sermon 29th September

Sermon 29th August 2021 Mark 7.1-8, 14-15,21-23

People notice: that’s the thing.

When the Pharisees and scribes gathered around Jesus we’re told they noticed that the disciples ate without ritually washing their hands. And it goes on to say ‘they asked him’, why?

Which set me thinking: what do people notice about us? The Church, this church, how we are? What do they see?

I suppose it depends who you ask and who the people are doing the noticing. The newspapers noticed when a Welsh Bishop was less than complimentary about members of the Conservative Party. Any number of people notice when issues surrounding abuse are involved…or perceived hypocrisy (over racism, homophobia, climate change, investments……the list is long !)

But closer to home…what do people notice here …in Barnard Castle? What would we like them to notice? People don’t particularly have much time for ‘The Church’ as an institution but they do have time for their local church. So how do we, as Christians, stand out from everyone else? That was the case in our bible reading wasn’t it…what the disciples did or didn’t do ‘stood out’, was ‘noteworthy’? The Pharisees and their friends expected one sort of activity from Jesus disciples – ‘following the traditions of the elders’-  and they noticed that they lived by a different set of values. What seemed to be happening, (as the disciples lived and learned from Jesus) was that they began to adopt His way of fulfilling the great commandments of ‘loving God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and loving their neighbours as themselves’ and His way differed from the old way.

What also stands out is that it was the fledgling Christian community that lived differently… they did not live according to the tradition of the elders, they had a common way of living. The noticing that took place was not just what Peter or Andrew or James or John did as private individuals but what the disciples did together.

Twenty centuries on we have inherited a very individualistic way of ‘being human’. Fast-fading are the overarching stories that bound people together. Everyone must make their own story now and post it on their timeline on FaceBook. But our experience is that community helps us to locate ourselves, it helps to shape and frame our identity: what we do together is important.

So again I ask…’what do people notice about us (together) as a church community’? It is hard to answer that question honestly…quite simply because we would need to ask others rather than come up with the answer ourselves. We have a picture of who we are and assume those outside agree with it. In our heads we imagine (say) that the Parish Church is at the heart of the community: we’d be wrong – we asked that question as part of our Partnership for Missional Church journey…and we have asked it again through the Lottery Project. People are pleasantly surprised about what goes on here, they are even supportive once they know about it…but not as many as we might have thought get beyond the gate of the car park and cross the threshold of this building….and whilst we think this building is central to the town it’s not – it’s set back off the road and the bulk of Barney has grown up away from it.

Those that do notice us see that the door is always open. Those that enter notice an atmosphere here, a warmth and welcome. Some notice the FoodBank Collection boxes or the Period Poverty provision. They might notice a care for this place and a delight in its history. If they time their visit they would pick up a sense that music is important here…and perhaps see the word ‘community or welcome’ on the noticeboards. But you will have noticed that I have fallen into the trap of speaking of the church as a building not as a community – even if this building speaks of what is important to us.

As we emerge from the pandemic my guess is that folk might notice that a lot of people contribute to our acts of worship: worship is important to us: breaking bread together, reading the scriptures, coming together to pray – we will be looking to you to sign up for the various church rotas over the next couple of weeks so that you can pick up ministries that have fallen into abeyance through Covid.  A closer look might show those looking in that there are folk who work on our behalf beyond this building in our local schools (say) …or with young children at Smuffies.  It has been lovely to notice new folk who have joined our community choir or orchestra over the last year and how the friendships within these groups are growing…. lovely too, to hear of the care our Mother’s Union have offered through the lockdowns…. And have you noticed that there are new faces in the congregation? The Covid period has seen more people engaged in our study groups and online worship and the creation of various Teams in our church life is helping people to find a way to contribute to our common life …which has expanded to embrace environmental concerns and to build on people’s sense of pride in the heritage of this place. We may be ‘set back’ from Newgate but we are trying to think out beyond this place to engage with the town better to create partnerships with others who share our values.

It has been lovely to notice the numbers of families approaching us for christening services: for all that one might notice the grey hairs of our congregation young families are still looking to this community to help them celebrate their children’s birth and to affirm their value before God.

Why is this? Why do we do what we do? How do we put all this into words? As we go through the Autumn our PMC Steering Team will be helping us to ‘bottle’ what it is we stand for in this place: who we are…what we do…what is important to us. They’ll be helping us to notice what God is up to within and without the church. They’ll be helping us to frame a simple strapline to help others understand what we are about as Christians in this place and then helping us to frame a plan to build on this. Your input will be needed.

Why? Because people notice…and then they ask ‘why’. We’d like everyone here to be confident of Jesus’ call upon our lives and in what he wants us to be and do in this town so that when that ‘why’ question comes you’ll be able to give an answer to Jesus’ praise and glory. 

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