Monday, 27 July 2015

Prayers of Intercession inspired by the feeding of the 5000

Great God of creative abundance. We come before you this morning as a people in need of your generous blessing, and so we offer ourselves to you, with open hands and receptive hearts.

Take away from us our pretensions of self-reliance, and unmask for us our images of self-security. Help us to realise that our fleeting blessings of health, wealth, and power are fragile idols of sustenance, and that we entrust our souls to them at our peril.

May we learn instead to see ourselves and our world with your eyes; may we come to appreciate where true value lies; both within ourselves, and in the lives of others.

May our eyes be opened to the gentle gifts of grace that you have placed in our midst, and may we come to value the abundance of your hidden yet dawning kingdom, as it is made real in our midst.

And so we offer ourselves to your service: Take the gifts of our lives, and bless them, that we might become a blessing to others. Whether we bring wealth or weakness, power or poverty, health or helplessness; we place our lives into your hands, and we ask for your blessing.

We offer before you today the resources of this church; we offer our resources of people – from pastors to volunteers to occasional attendees; we offer our resources of money – from that which sits in our personal bank accounts to that which we hold collectively as a community; we offer our building, our contacts, our friendships, our whole bodies, and the body of Christ that is this church in this place. May we learn together the lesson that hoarding the resources of the kingdom is not what we are called to do. Grant us the courage to release to your service the gifts you have given us.

And so, mindful of the needs of others, we pray for those who live in need, poverty, uncertainty, and fear; aware that you call us to play our own part in the coming of your kingdom of peace and justice.

We pray for all those who are hungry today, and especially for those who have this week used a food bank for the first time in order to feed themselves or their families. We pray for all those who will share lunch in this building today, as we sit down together to share with one another the blessing of food. May this tangible sign of your kingdom be transformative and life-giving in our midst.

We pray also for those who have an unhealthy or abusive relationship with food and drink. From the overweight to the anorexic, from the middle class drinker to the hardened alcoholic. We recognise how easily the kingdom blessings of food and wine can become distorted in our own bodies. And so we pray for the various anonymous groups that meet here, and for the support they give in helping people re-balance their lives. May we learn to see ourselves as you see us.

We pray for those who have the power to make changes at a national level, for policy-makers, politicians, and business and industry leaders. Keep them from the dehumanising commodification of humanity, and may they instead find ways of bringing the body politic to health for the common good. We ask for, and commit ourselves to, your transformative vision of a just and equal society, where none go hungry and all are fed.

And so, finally, we pray for ourselves. May we learn to share both the hidden and visible blessings of our lives, offering ourselves and all that we are and have, to the service of your in-breaking kingdom of equality and justice.


In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Whose church is it anyway?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 19/7/15
Whose church is it anyway?


1 Samuel 8.4-22   Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah,  5 and said to him, "You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations."  6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to govern us." Samuel prayed to the LORD,  7 and the LORD said to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.  8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.  9 Now then, listen to their voice; only-- you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them."  10 ¶ So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king.  11 He said, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots;  12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.  16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.  17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.  18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day."  19 ¶ But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, "No! but we are determined to have a king over us,  20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles."  21 When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD.  22 The LORD said to Samuel, "Listen to their voice and set a king over them." Samuel then said to the people of Israel, "Each of you return home."

Matthew 16.13-19   Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"  14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

The question of how to lead the people of God,
            and, indeed, who should lead them,
            is nothing new.

There have been arguments over leadership styles, strategies, and strengths
            since the time God first called Israel to be his people.
From Moses the murderer leading the people from slavery to freedom,
            to the unfaithful judges , to the warrior kings,
                        to the conquering armies of Assyria and Babylon,
            to the armed insurrectionists of Maccabean revolt,
                        to the scribes and the Pharisees and the puppet monarchs of the first century,
the Bible is shot through with stories of leadership both good and bad.

Well, mostly bad, if we’re honest,
            but there are some glimpses of glory along the way.
Although, when I stop to think about it,
            the glory is more often of the blood-and-guts kind,
            than it is the glory-hallelujah kind.

But anyway, ‘leadership and the people of God’, has always been problematic.
            And it still is.

I have a friend, who refers to it as ‘the L-word’,
            because he believes that the word ‘leadership’
                        should never even be used when speaking of the people of God.
            ‘We are called to service’, he says, ‘not leadership’.
And of course, he’s right.
            We even call our ministers ‘Minister’,
                        a word which comes from the Latin for ‘servant’.
Just as an aside, this is something our politicians might do well to remember
                        as they aspire to ministerial office,
            and we become the subjects of their tender ministrations.

The culture of ‘leadership’
            runs through our contemporary experience
                        of what it is to be the people of God,
            every bit as much as it did in the first and tenth centuries BC.
From Archbishops to archimandrites,
            from elders to deacons,
                        to senior ministers to home group leaders, to worship leaders;
we consistently structure our communities of faith
            so that we know who’s in charge.
Which of course, means we also helpfully know who’s to blame
            when things don’t go the way we want them to.
But we might come back to that…

Many of you will know that I, like Ruth,
            have spent a significant proportion of my time over the years
            engaged in what we try to call ‘the formation of ministers’.

Interestingly, it’s very carefully not called ‘ministerial training’,
            on the basis that no amount of training
                        can ever adequately prepare someone for the task of ministry,
            and in recognition that what is really needed
                        is the formation of appropriate character and spirituality,
                        rather than the acquisition of specific skills.

However, our language continually betrays us.

Whenever one minister meets another,
            one of the first questions they will ask each other is ‘where did you train?’
Of course, this is a carefully structured question
            to work out whether you have an ally or an enemy before you:
If they trained… I’m sorry, if they ‘were formed’ at the same College as you,
            then you have a friend for life,
if they ‘went to’ a different College,
            they will be assigned to a position somewhere on the sliding scale of enmity
                        that we all carry in our hearts,
            and everyone proceeds with due caution.

Some might call this an ‘old boys network’,
            but I couldn’t possibly comment.

Anyway, I worked at the Baptist College in Cardiff for eight years,
            and was part of the interviews for prospective students.
One of the questions we would often ask someone, would be,
            ‘why do you want to become a minister?’
And often, the answer we would get back would be,
            ‘because I feel God is calling me to lead a church’.
Which, at one level of course, is a perfectly acceptable response.
            After all, why else would you apply to a Baptist College
                        to be trained… I’m sorry, ‘formed’… as a Baptist minister?
Except, as I’ve already said,
            the language of ‘leadership’ may not be the right way
                        of describing what it is we think we’re doing
            when look to identify people within the community of Christ’s body
                        who are called to specific roles of service such as ministry.

One of the things I have to do as a minister
            is go to what are, these days, called ‘ministers-meetings’.
In the days when ministry was male,
            these meetings came to be referred to as ‘fraternals’,
                        because they were a meeting of ‘brothers in ministry’, for mutual support.

I can remember, in my early years of ministry, back in the last century,
            finding it slightly odd that I was sat in a room of women and men,
                        which was still being described in all-male terms.

Thankfully, in these more enlightened times,
            such gendered language never ever happens.
Except of course it does.
            Just last month Ruth, Dawn and I all received an email
                        from a very nice and well intentioned fellow London minister,
                        which addressed all three of us as ‘Dear Brothers in Ministry’…
            To be fair to him, when it was gently pointed out
                        that there were some sisters in the group as well,
                        he was most apologetic.
            He didn’t mean anything by it, and he’s very supportive of women in ministry.
But his unconscious use of ‘brothers’
            to address the members of what he probably still thinks of as the ‘fraternal’
                        betrays a deep underlying assumption about ministry,
            which is I think shared by many more people
                        than would ever admit it even to themselves.

There remains, I suggest, in many of our churches and ministers,
            a tacit assumption that Christian ministry is, in effect,
                        a certain kind of leadership
            which is predicated on distinctively male patterns of competitive behaviour.

I think I’m allowed to say this,
            because I know it is true, because I see it in myself,
            and I also know what it does to me.
I went to an all-boys grammar school.
            I know all about male competitiveness,
                        and testosterone fuelled rivalry.
            I know all about the desire to be Alpha-male.
I can play that game with the best of them,
            and occasionally I can even win.
I learned fairly early on in life that I might not be the fastest,
            or the strongest, or even the cleverest,
            but I was pretty good at out-smarting my rivals.
And when my early-learned default position of combative competitiveness
            reasserts itself in my adult life,
I become the person I don’t want to be,
            and the image of God within me is further distorted.

Now, of course, I’m not saying that women can’t play these games too.
            The alpha-female who has learned to play with the big boys and win,
                        is a well known gender clichĂ©.
But even here it’s not a level playing field.
            The Alpha-male is looked up to,
                        the Alpha-female is denigrated.
It seems that even the women who choose to play the male leadership game
            are disadvantaged when they do so.
And this, I suggest, is because the game is itself the wrong game for us to be playing.

God is neither Alpha Male nor Alpha Female,
            and when we construct the leadership of God’s people
                        based on a model of seniority and competitive leadership,
            we lose sight of the God who is love,
                        who calls us to mutual service.

I still go to the occasional Mostly Male Macho Ministers’ Meeting, as I call them,
            carefully alliterated because some might say
                        that the kind of minister drawn to such groups
                                    may have trained at a certain College
                                    where everything has three or more alliterative points,
                        but I couldn’t possibly comment.

Anyway, when I go to them, I find myself drawn, again and again,
            into a Christian ministers’ version
            of the ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ game.

‘Where’s your church?’ I’m asked, ‘and how big is it?’
            Honestly. I’m not kidding.
When guys get together, even spiritual, prayerful, Godly guys,
            it all very quickly boils down to a question of size.

Is it any wonder that female ministers usually stop going to this kind of meeting?

Is it any wonder that our underlying assumptions about ministry
            remain predicated on a pattern of male leadership?

And at the heart of all this is quite an important theological question,
            the answer to which will affect everything else.

And the question is this: ‘Whose church is it anyway?’

If we have ministers who believe that God is calling them to ‘train’ for ‘leadership’
            so that they can grow ‘their’ church to be bigger than the other man’s church,
we have entirely bought into the culture of kingship
            that Samuel warned the ancient Israelites against.

To which I want to say, ‘Whose church is it anyway?’

If we construct our churches as kingdoms and empires,
            then we will need strong leadership and bold growth strategies
                        to ensure they can hold their own compared to the neighbouring churches,
            and we will echo the voices of the Israelites
                        who cried to Samuel, ‘appoint for us a king, to govern us like other nations’.

To which I want to say, ‘Whose church is it anyway?’

And here’s the thing:
            I simply do not believe that the people of God should be led by a King.
Whether that’s a king of Israel, a holy Roman emperor,
            a defender of the faith, or a macho male minister.
The spirit of kingship, when it takes root in the people of God,
            tends us towards competitive imperialism.
It fosters a belief that the church is ‘ours’,
            and that ‘our church’ needs to be led, strongly,
            into the brave new world that God has in store for us.
…preferably one in which ‘our church’
            does at least as well as the one down the road.

The problem, of course, for me here,
            is that everybody still seems to love a monarchy.
I might say we need no king but Jesus, the servant king,
            and people will still say, ‘show me my King, so I can follow him to victory’.

There is something deeply attractive about the idea that someone has been born to lead,
            that they have been called by God from birth to a particular leadership role.

Whether it’s a call to lead a church, or a call to lead a nation,
            or indeed a call to do both at the same time,
            as the monarchs of our country have claimed since the time of Henry VIII.
The spirit of king-ship is deeply embedded in our collective psyche.

And whilst I’m on the subject of the Royal Family,
            last week, on our way home from holiday,
                        Liz and I called into Sandringham,
                        to take a tour of the house and grounds.

Now, I make no secret of my republican sentiments,
            but even I found myself fascinated, against my better judgment,
            by the inner workings of the house of Windsor.
Did you know that the Queen insists that they dine by candle-light,
            and has had the electric lights removed from the dining room?

We made our pilgrimage… I mean ‘visit’ to Sandringham,
            just a few days after the christening of Princess Charlotte in the Sandringham church,
            and I took a moment when we were in the church
                        to read some of the entries written in the book of prayers.
The expressions of love, devotion, and loyalty to the royal family,
            were somewhere between astonishing and nauseating,
                        to my unenlightened republican eyes.
But I cannot deny that they were heartfelt and deeply held.
            There were page after page of written prayers
                        for God to bless this family above all others,
                        as they fulfil their God-given responsibility to lead.

Everybody seems to love a monarchy! And not just the Brits…
            Did you know that the royal family generates about £500 million every year
                        in tourism revenue?

We are, it seems, deeply attracted to the idea
            of someone taking leadership responsibility,
not because they are necessarily good at it,
            but because they have been called to it by divine providence.

But of course, just because your father or mother was a great leader,
            doesn’t automatically mean you will be too…

We can see this very clearly in the book of Samuel.
            Just a few pages earlier, in chapter two,
                        Eli the priest had discovered the hard way that the sons of the priest
                                    don’t necessarily make good priests themselves,
                                    and so he had taken on the boy Samuel to lead once had died.
                        And then Samuel’s own sons were nothing but trouble,
                                    and so the people asked for a king.
And in one swift move, the leadership of God’s people
            moved from the spiritual to the political.
                        From the priestly to the military.
The people of God became a kingdom,
            a dominion ruled by a king.

Which brings me back to the church,
            and specifically to this church, here in Bloomsbury,
            and how we can discern together the nature of God’s will for his people.

And, to answer my question from earlier:
            ‘whose church is it anyway?’
I want to say very clearly:
            It is not our church. It is God’s church.
            This is not my church, it is God’s church.

The kingdom we are engaged in building together
            is not a kingdom of power, influence, and strength,
but a kingdom of subversive living,
            mutual service, and deep spirituality.

So, should I be concerned that our congregation size
            isn’t as big as that of the church down the road?

Well, if it’s all a competition about size,
            then yes.
But if what we’re about is something else altogether,
            then no.

We spent some time at our deacons’ meeting this last week,
            considering together the question
            of what we think the ‘core values’ of Bloomsbury are.

The deacons are a group of about fifteen people,
            some of whom have been part of this church for many years,
            and some of whom have come into membership more recently.
So the list of ‘core values’ that they came up with
            draws on both the history and heritage of Bloomsbury,
            and also their experience of it as it is today.

I wonder, before I tell you some of the things that the deacons’ came up with
            if we can do this exercise together here this morning?
Just for a moment, try and think of one or two words,
            that sum up for you what you think might be a core value of this church.
Something about this place that is distinctive or important,
            perhaps the thing that keeps you coming back here…

[pause]

OK – we don’t have time to go round everyone,
            but I wonder if some of you might be prepared to call out…

… … …

Thank, you, that was really interesting.

I’m sure you’re dying to know what the deacons came up with,
            and so I’m going to offer a description of Bloomsbury
                        drawing on, and expanding a little, the words they came up with.
I hope you’ll recognise it as the church you know and love:

Bloomsbury is a place of transformation, welcome, and hope.

It is a place of inclusivity and openness,
            where we make every effort to live in unity,
                        even though we are a diverse group of people.

It is a community of friendship and acceptance,
            and we are concerned for all people,
            because we believe that everybody is in the image of God

We are a church where we are careful to listen to one another
            and where we value a variety of voices and opinions.

We are a church where faith takes shape in practical action and service,
            both as we care for the vulnerable and homeless,
            and as we care for one another.

We share food together regularly, extending hospitality and openness to all.

We are a church that is not afraid to speak out and take action
            on issues of politics, justice, and peace.

We are a church which embraces intelligent, liberal, open theology,
            and which values thoughtful preaching, teaching, and reverent worship.

We are a church which values sincerity and integrity,
            and doubting is welcomed not condemned.

We are a church that believes that God is love,
            and that God’s people are called to live in love,
            as we practice the presence of God in our midst.

And, finally, we are a church that is deeply radical and non-conformist,
            taking inspiration from our long history of nonconformity
            to help us live courageously today.

Did you recognise Bloomsbury?
            Are there things that we’ve missed?
            Other things you’d want to add?

If so, please do get in touch with Dawn, Ruth, or I,
            as we seek to offer ministry to this wonderful, diverse church
            to which we’ve been called.

My challenge this morning,
            is for each of us to consider where, in all of this, do we fit.
What is the part that you have to play
            in this church of which you are a part?

If you’re not sure, and you don’t know where you fit,
            please come and talk to me, or to Ruth or Dawn.
If you sense God is calling you to become involved in some way,
            perhaps today is the day to begin exploring that…

At our AGM church meeting this afternoon,
            those of us who are members of the church
            are going to be continuing to think together
                        about the nature of our church,
                                    what our resources are,
                                                and how we might best use them.

We’re going to be electing deacons who will serve us for the next three years,
            and we’re going to be praying together about how God will lead us.

And in all the discussions we will have about practicalities,
            we will need to keep our eyes fixed on the bigger picture,
of why God has called this particular church at Bloomsbury into being,
            and what we’re called to be here for.

We’re not a kingdom seeking to grow its borders,
            and we don’t need a king to lead us.
But we are a community of Christ’s people,
            called to live out the alternative kingdom of God.

I said at the beginning, that I’d come back to the question
            of who to blame when things don’t go the way we want them to in church life.

Well, we’re a Baptist church,
            which means that our decisions are taken collectively,
            through prayer and discussion.
And the invitation is for each of us to take our place
            in the decision-making processes of our church.
So if you’re not yet a member, why not become one?
            And if you are a member but don’t come to church meetings, why not start?
Let’s take responsibility together before God,
            for the life of the church to which we have been called.

And in all of this, let’s keep before us the vision
            of the church that Jesus gave to Peter.

The church that is founded on the proclamation and worship of Jesus,
            the messiah and the son of the living God,
is a church which can withstand even the gates of Hades itself,
            as it embodies life, love, hope, resurrection, and transformation.

We are the church of God,

            and it is to this that we have been called.