Sermon for First Sunday in Lent and in preparation for the Parish Conference

Jesus went out into the desert 40 days and 40 nights having heard the call of God ‘You are my Son, my beloved’ but without knowing what it might mean. He had to go out into the desert to find the content of his Messiahship. What he found in the course of struggling with himself and with Satan in the course of those 40 days was probably very different from what he started out by imagining. He has to discover his own music, his own themes, and those were very different from the ones that had been handed down to him by tradition, the messianic expectations conjured up by figures like King David or Moses.

Come unto me all you who are heavy –laden, for I am meek and
humble hearted and you shall find rest for your souls

That was more the Messiah he was going to be.

He was going to learn the path of absolute obedience and trust in God, even when this trust did not seem to give him anything. He would not strive to draw attention to his Messiahship by acts of power allowing no real choice, but by acts of persuasion and mercy. He would not arrogate to himself power and influence, a structure of command, but in the end allow himself to be led away ‘like a lamb which is dumb before its shearers’. Every answer that Jesus gives to Satan in the course of his temptations is an answer that keeps things open rather than wrapping things up. In treading the path of absolute obedience, deliberately not knowing what lies ahead of him, rather than having it all planned out beforehand, was a path of obedience that would reverse all that had gone on beforehand when Israel and walked its own way, rather than God’s, resulting in alienation and despair.

Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.

Today I am trying to persuade as many of you as possible to come for all or part of the Parish Conference we are planning for 4-6 may at the Diocesan Retreat house at Wychcroft. But my intention in so doing is not to construct some huge blueprint or business plan, but rather that we should begin to discover together what is our own music as a Christian community created in this particular place. What are the different parts which go into making the orchestra? What is the particular context in which we must make our contribution in obedience to the music? What are the particular themes we each bring in our individual Christian journeys and how do we blend them together and improvise? I imagine the conference to be rather like a jazz piece, where you start with a basic tune and a variety of musical forces, but you have no idea where the improvisation may lead. This you discover, not by looking at a score, but only in the course of playing. But that does not mean you are completely free and independent. If anything , as a jazz musician, you have to be more obedienct to the music and the other players, precisely because there is no set score, and you do not know beforehand how the music will be resolved. But as you play together certain themes begin to emerge.

I am very grateful for the work that Chris Todhunter and other members of the congregation have already done in stimulating reflection and discussion. It has been truly fascinating, and certain things have already begun to emerge. Here are a few of them:

The possibility of making more imaginative use of this magnificent building and its different spaces.

• The need to establish and develop the different ministries which already go on within the congregation and to find new ones which link it more closely with the surrounding parish.

• The need to find more opportunities to get to know each other better across the congregation and to welcome and establish new members.

• The role that St Alfege’s might have as a place of welcome and inspiration for the diversity of people who flow through the area as tourists and visitors.

• The attention we give to people at different stages in their Christian journey ie not assuming beforehand that they are all basically at the same place.

One of the most important truths to emerge in the course of the discussions we have been having on the PCC is that individuals have been helped most in their Christian journey when they have become ‘active learners’; in other words, when they have been involved in a task, service or ministry for the common good. Very often they have discovered by trial and error the particular talents and capacities they have, and deepened their sense of vocation. for example, being a welcomer in church at weekends has meant that sometimes they have been called upon to comfort an individual or encourage them in how to use the church for private prayer. I myself have found being called upon to lead a teenage confirmation group- something I hadn’t done for a long time- immensely challenging and rewarding. How do we increase these opportunities rather than diminish them?

Jesus did not go into the desert to find answers, but to discover his vocation, his particular identity as Messiah. when he came back from the desert, he drew a group of people into an active experience of learning, not by listening only, but by doing. He didn’t make them into a rabbinic school with a training programme with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead he drew them more and more ddply into all sorts of novel experiences, including healing people themselves and casting out demons. that did not mean that they became perfect practitioners. In fact we know that on occasion they let him down disastrously. But by this time he had been able to make their music so much a part with his own that –except for the one, Judas, that had to be lost- they were able to make even their failure a part of their pilgrimage.

Too often we want change only if it means essentially things remain the same, but with the niggling doubts and dissatisfactions removed. We may be frightened and disturbed by what it means to truly enter into the spirit of the dance with Jesus. But having entered it, could we remain content with anything less?

Almighty God,

who hast given thine only Son to be unto us

both a sacrifice for sin

and also an example of godly life;

give us grace

that we may always most thankfully receive

that his inestimable benefit,

and also daily endeavour ourselves

to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.