Vicar's Sermon - Pentecost 2017
Over the last few months we have experimented with holding extended periods of silence during our services. Members of our intercessors rota have been stood down for the day: not because intercessory prayer is unimportant – if the church doesn’t join with Christ in praying for God’s world then who will?- but to allow God some space to do something new with us as His people. Some people really struggle with silence. You might be one of those people. A common experience is that the moment silence falls your mind starts to leap about from one thing to another and you leave a period of ‘prayer’ feeling totally frustrated, having been unable to focus your thoughts. For others, silence comes more naturally, or at least more readily: their frustration is with the words that we pile up a little too freely in ‘poor talkative little Christianity’ as EM Forster called it in his book ‘A passage to India’. Freed from the pressure to come up with more words some people’s experience of silence is like a great sigh of relief, they are able simply to relax into God’s presence and let Him do what He wants to do.
Our silences in church have purposely been offered as a way of disarming us. For all that our liturgy, crammed full with words, is meant to draw us close to God sometimes it can do the opposite: we use it as a sort of armour plating to prevent Him getting too close to us. We sometimes do this in our won human relationships: we will talk about everything and anything except the one thing that needs to be talked about…between families, amongst our friends. Words as a means of repelling God rather than communicating with Him
So I wonder how you have experienced the silence in church these last few months?…and what it felt like to you today: because our Pentecost liturgy began with the encouragement simply to sit in silence. The other week members of the Shared Ministry Development Team shared their thoughts about our silences. ‘It’s working’ they said. Which begs the question ‘what is working, what is happening when we, as a whole church simply sit still?’ ‘There is a sense of the silence coming up from the congregation’ said someone else ‘that reminds us why we’re in church in the first place.’ The silence ‘takes us to the core of what is important for us as Christians which is the Presence of God amongst us, it creates space’…’it stretches Time’ and ‘gives it a depth’. Does any of this ring true for you?
I suppose what we’ve been trying to do, what our service today tries to do on this Feast day, what seems important to hold onto is this: putting God first. We of course know that He is ‘the Lord’, He is ‘the Almighty’, he is ‘King’ and the like, but we don’t really act as if this knowledge has penetrated particularly deeply into our lives. God as ‘chaplain’ to our needs rather than Lord of our lives. God, expected to be ‘on call’ for all our wants whilst we divert His calls to answerphone. Our experiment with ‘silent prayer’ has been geared towards letting God be God. A ctions speak louder than words sometimes and so, in our silence, with our silence we have been saying ‘we are here. We are your people. Take us, melt us, mould us, use us.’ This silence has been a gentle act of courage: who knows what God might want of us?
In Holy Week there was a wonderful programme on the TV called something like ‘From the Bronx to Bradford’. It followed the lives of 5 or 6 Roman Catholic Franciscans who offer their ministry from a huge, rather dilapidated Catholic church in the centre of Bradford. Their ministry involves a soup kitchen, through it and through other means they are trying to support some of the most vulnerable people in their community. As Franciscans they live exceptionally Spartan lives and also spend several hours a day in prayer. ‘Why do you do it, why do you give so much time to prayer?’ asked the interviewer. ‘Because we couldn’t possibly do what we do without drawing on God’s strength’. This pretty wild and whacky bunch of Christians overflowed with a sense of God’s presence with them: they couldn’t get enough of Him.
I read this week of a group of nuns in Dallas. There are just four of them, they belong to the Missionaries of Charity, the same order as mother Theresa. Their ministry is with the homeless and the abused. ‘’The basic ministry’ they say ‘is prayer. The sisters gather together four times a day to pray for an hour. They use mostly silent prayer, contemplating the love of God in front of the Blessed Sacrament. This is how they receive the love that they need, to give to the people. ‘We could never do what we do if we did not pray this way’ one of them said ‘It would be too hard’.
Which brings me to Pentecost and the disciples all gathered together in one place in the Book of Acts. Luke, in his account of the coming of the Spirit makes it clear that the Spirit is given some time after Jesus’ Ascension: go back into the city, Jesus had commanded his disciples on Ascension Day and wait. ‘Wait for power from on high to come upon you.’ It is this waiting that seems important to highlight today. It wasn’t enough that the disciples had spent three years with Jesus ‘on the road’. It wasn’t enough that they had joined with him in that last journey up to Jerusalem or, for that matter, that they had met with Him following the resurrection. No, they still needed more – the power of God working within them. If they were to be His witnesses they needed to bear witness in the Spirit’s power. Surely it must be the same for us?
Our waiting in prayer is a recognition that when push comes to shove the church of God is a miracle, a miracle wrought by the work of God through His Spirit. We affirm our belief in this miracle each week when we say in the Creed: ‘I believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. ‘God’s Spirit is working here’ we say ‘not here alone but most definitely here’. It is the giving of the Spirit that establishes the church which is why the Spirit and the church are linked in the Creeds that we confess. I have no problem with the church adopting models of organisation and good practice from other institutions, but in the end, the church cannot be a club or a society. The church exists because God wills it and because He breathes His Spirit into it. And He commissions us to bear witness, to bear fruit. To use the language of John’s Gospel and the image of the vine and the branches: ‘without me’ says Jesus ‘you can do nothing’. Lest we forget, Pentecost reminds us of this truth, our need of Him and His promise to share His life with us. We enter the church through baptism and the pouring out of the Spirit of God upon us. We cannot be Christian at all without God’s Spirit.
But too easily we forget. Too easily we act in our own strength and wonder why the work is hard and bears no fruit. Too easily we tell God what we are doing and ask Him to bless it rather than ask what He would have us do. Pentecost flips that around and shows it to be a mistake. Waiting, waiting on God is sometimes the hardest thing to do but the most needful. Ears attuned to the slightest whisper of His breath. Hearts ready to beat in synch. with His. Tongues eager to be set free to proclaim the mighty word and works of God. Here we are then Lord. Ready and waiting. Come Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your Love