Sunday, 20 October 2013

Praying for Justice

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 
20th October 2013 11.00am

Luke 18:1-8  Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.'  4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,  5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'"  6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says.  7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?  8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Genesis 32:22-31   The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  26 Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."  27 So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob."  28 Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."  29 Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.  30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."  31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5   But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,  15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.  NRS 2 Timothy 4:1 ¶ In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you:  2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.  3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.  5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

This week, a group of us from Xchange,
            the young adults group here at Bloomsbury,
joined with a couple of hundred other people
            for a preview screening of a new film, called The UK Gold.

The Guardian review of the film describes it as
            ‘the kind of film to get the blood boiling and the steam hissing out of your ears’.[1]
It continues,
            ‘With the assistance of a string of well-informed talking heads,
            [this] film points out the major features of the tax avoidance landscape:
                        tax havens, brass plates, capital flight, crown dependencies, and the like.
            It soon becomes clear that the avoiders' best weapon is silence
                        – the list of those who refused to talk to the film-makers,
                        helpfully appended to the closing credits, speaks volumes.’

The film is being promoted by Christian Aid, ActionAid, and Oxfam,
            and it raises uncomfortable questions
                        of some practices prevalent in the finance industry,
                        and particularly the city of London.

It will also elicit different responses from those who watch it.
            Some, like Andrew Pulver of the Guardian,
                        will be left with their blood boiling.
            Others, like myself, will be left with a string of questions
                        and wanting to know more.
            Some may be left with a sense that the film has overly-simplified the issue
                        and misrepresented the nuances of the finance industry.

All of these are good responses.
            What would count, in my book, as a bad response,
                        would be indifference.
If we are indifferent to the way in which the powerful institutions of our society behave,
            we create a culture of indifference
which in turn allows those institutions to become indifferent in their turn
            to the effect that their actions have on others.

And in many ways this is the point of the film
            – to challenge our indifference
                        to the ways in which money, and especially taxation,
                        are handled at a national and international level.
Whether, in the final analysis,
            we agree or disagree with its conclusions
            is less important than that we ask the question.

Something that interested me about the film
            was the way in which it juxtaposed fairly hard-headed information
                        on the way in which UK crown dependencies and overseas territories
                                    such as the Cayman Islands
                        offer effective tax havens for multinational businesses,
            with the personal stories of those at the bottom end of the social scale
                        who are facing cuts to their benefits as a result of austerity measures.

We saw how companies operating in the developing world
                        in industries such as mineral extraction
            were able to avoid paying tax in those countries
                        by registering within one of the UK tax havens,
and then alongside this we also saw
            the catastrophic effects that such tax avoidance measures have
                        on those living and working in those countries.

The film’s technique was to highlight the plight of the poor,
            in order to highlight the indifference of big institutions to their suffering,
                        in order to put pressure on those institutions to change.

All of which starts to sound quite a lot
            like our parable for this morning from Luke’s gospel,
where a poor widow’s plight is pitted against the indifference
            of a powerful representative of a powerful institution.
But more of that in a minute…

In the question-and-answer session after the screening of The UK Gold,
            the panel included the Reverend William Taylor,
                        a vicar from East London who features in the film
                        trying to challenge city institutions.
Someone from the audience asked him
            what would be the one thing he would want to say to Christians,
                        to inspire and encourage them to campaign against injustice
                                    in the way that he has.
And without missing a beat, he simply replied,
            ‘Read the Bible’.

Well, he got a round of applause from me at least, on that one.
            You see, I think that when we read the Bible,
                        when we struggle with the Bible,
                        when we try faithfully to hold the stories of our faith
                                    against the realities of our world and experiences,
            we open ourselves up to challenge and change,
                        as the narrative of scripture
                                    engages and transforms the ways in which
                                    we live and think and act.

Our reading this morning from 2 Timothy
            contains that famous passage on the purpose of scripture,
            which I’m sure is familiar to many of us:

16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof,
            for correction, and for training in righteousness, 
17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient,
            equipped for every good work. 

But did you notice what comes shortly after it?
            The letter goes on:

I solemnly urge you:  2 proclaim the message;
            be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable;
                        convince, rebuke, and encourage,
                        with the utmost patience in teaching.

You see, scripture isn’t something
            that readily or easily yields its most precious treasures.
They come slowly, and often after a struggle,
            as our preconceptions and prejudices
            are slowly and painfully brought into the light for transformation,
and as our indifference is challenged
            to the point where we can remain indifferent no more.

Reverend William Taylor was right in what he said
            – the one thing Christians can do,
                        to become inspired to get involved
                        in working to transform the world,
            is to read the Bible,
                        to read it persistently, to read it urgently,
                        to read it with patience, to wrestle with it,
            as its uncomfortable and challenging message
                        leaves us nowhere to hide.

As Jacob discovered in his night of wrestling with God,
            there is no blessing without struggle.
He emerged limping and bruised,
            but having discovered the blessings of the covenant in the process.

And those of us who are the heirs of the covenant
            need to hear that the Christian life is no easy ride.
It isn’t a seamless wave of blessings
            received with little effort on our part.
Oppression isn’t transformed into justice
            because someone decides one day to claim the victory of God.
Rather, the devilish systems of our world are challenged
            when those of us who live by the story of Jesus
                        bring that story to bear faithfully, persistently, and tirelessly in our own lives,
                        for the transformation of the world.

And so we find ourselves back
            at Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow, as it is often called.
This is a simple parable, with only two characters,
            there is the widow,
                        who we are told is a victim of injustice,
            and there is the judge,
                        who we are told neither feared God nor had respect for people.

The judge is a representative of the Jewish legal system,
            which was specifically charged under the Hebrew Bible’s law code,
                        with the care of the vulnerable within Jewish society,
                        including widows and orphans (cf. Deut 10.18; 14.29 etc).
And it quickly becomes clear
            that he is not exercising his power and responsibility as he should.

There are two schools of thought in interpreting this parable,
            which tend to occupy the pens of the various commentators on it.

One school of thought says that this judge
            is to be seen as a kind of inverted representation of God.
And whilst we might not see God as capricious or indifferent,
            nonetheless, the point is made that if we persist in prayer as the widow did,
            surely eventually God will hear us and answer our prayers.

Needless to say, this is a problematic reading,
            because it raises for us all sorts of questions as to why it might be
                        that God would answer our prayers on the tenth, or hundredth, time of asking,
                                    but not on the first.
            What is it that has changed in the intervening time?
                        Is it that God needs badgering into action?
            Is it possible that God is in fact far more unpredictable or fickle
                        than many of us would like to believe?

And then there is a second school of thought about this parable,
            which draws attention to the Jewish rhetorical technique
            of arguing from the lesser to the greater.
Such arguments were common within Judaism,
            and can be found in many other places elsewhere in the Bible,
                        (cf. Mt 7.11; 10.25; 12.12; Lk 12.24, 28; Rom 11.12, 24; 2 Cor 3.8; Heb 9.14)
            usually introduced by the phrase ‘how much more’.
So, for example,
Matthew 7:11  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

By this reading of the parable, the unjust judge isn’t God,
            or even an inverted representation of God,
Rather, the point is made by suggesting an argument from the lesser to the greater:
            If even an unjust judge grants justice eventually,
                        how much more does God long to grant the prayers
                        of those who cry to him day and night.

But the lesson remains uncomfortably similar to the first reading,
            which is that we should continue to persist in prayer
                        and God will eventually get round to answering us,
            even if at the moment he seems to be ignoring us.
After all, surely he is much more motivated to do so than the unjust judge,

But, you know, I find this second reading almost as problematic as the first,
            because it still takes us no closer to an understanding
            of why it might be that God, who of course is nothing like the judge,
            is still doing such a good impression of him by ignoring our prayers!

So, I want to suggest a different way of reading this parable,
            and I think it’s a way of approaching it which might get us a bit closer
            to the persistent and faithful struggle embodied by the widow,
                        to see the world transformed
                        in the name of the in-breaking kingdom of heaven.

The way I read this parable, the unjust judge is not God
            he’s not even an inverted pastiche of God.
Rather, he represents the satanic forces of power at work in the world.

The unjust judge, who has no fear of God nor respect for anyone,
            represents those systems and structures
                        which have lost sight of their God-given intent,
            and have become instead indifferent
                        to the plight of the poor and the vulnerable.

These structures could be governments,
            indifferent to the plight of those at the bottom end of society,
                        seeking to restrict benefits and cut services
                        in the interest of political expediency or ideological pragmatism.

They could be businesses or international financial markets,
            indifferent to the exploitative or oppressive effects
                        that their endless quest for profit has
                        upon those who find themselves standing in the way of the bottom line.

They could be those systems specifically charged with protecting the vulnerable
                        such as the police, the army, or the justice systems,
            when those systems become indifferent to the causes
                        that they have been established to champion.
            From institutional racism to military dictatorships,
                        it is all too easy for power to breed corruption.
And this, of course, is why Jesus used the image of a judge
            - he is the one profession who should have stood up for the impoverished widow.

But beyond these large institutions and their tendency to systemic indifference,
            the unjust judge could be you, and he could be me,
This is especially true those of us who have money and power.
            Because we too face choices as to what we will do with that which is ours to hold.
                        We too must make choices about who to vote for,
                                    or where to invest our money:
                                    which pension scheme or hedge fund to endorse.
            Will we make our choices based on what’s best for us and ours?
                        Or will we hear the voice of the widow at the door,
                        crying out for justice, crying to us for righteousness?

In Jesus’ parable, the widow’s continual
            and perseverant approach to the indifferent judge
is effective in the end,
            because her weakness vulnerability ultimately calls him to account
            and leaves him little option but to act to bring her justice.

It was the same story in the film, The UK Gold,
            where the personal stories of those affected by the avoidance of tax
                        were told in such a way as to call to account
            those in positions of power and influence
                        who would otherwise remain blind and indifferent
                        to the consequences of their actions and decisions.

In many ways this is the path of nonviolent resistance.
            It has echoes of Ghandi, of Martin Luther King, of Rosa Parkes.
With the disempowered simply presenting themselves again and again,
            bearing testimony in their own bodies to the injustices they have suffered,
            holding the world to account that the world might be transformed.

Do you know the wonderful song ‘The Mothers of the Disappeared’
            by the Irish rock group U2, from their 1987 album The Joshua Tree?
It was inspired by lead singer Bono's experiences in Nicaragua and El Salvador
            and it gives voice to the pain of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo,
                        a group of women whose children had been "disappeared"
                        by the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships.
These women simply never stopped asking the authorities,
            what had happened to their children.
Through persistence and pain they eventually got some answers,
            with many of their children confirmed dead,
            but others found to have been adopted out or otherwise re-housed.
Some people have been brought to justice,
            and the mothers keep asking the questions.

And so we’re back to Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow,
            which, according to Luke’s introduction of it (v.1), is actually about two things.
Firstly, it is about the need to pray always,
            and secondly it is about not losing heart.

This parable is not just about praying for justice,
            or about interceding for the poor.
It’s about taking action,
            it’s about standing alongside the widow of Jesus’ story
and joining our voices with hers,
            in persistently challenging the forces that oppress and misuse power.

The lesson of this parable isn’t just that 'even a bad judge will give in occasionally'
            it's rather that 'even a poor widow can effectively challenge the powers that be
                        in the cause of justice and righteousness'

And it raises for us the uncomfortable question of whether, in fact,
            it may be that the only effective challenge to oppressive and exploitative powers
                        can come from the voice of the poor,
because it’s only when the powers are brought face-to-face
            with the dehumanising effects of their actions
            that they can be held to account and enabled to change.

Those of us who would challenge the powers-that-be in the name of justice
            but who would seek to do so from our own positions of comfort and security
                        may find that we are already colluding
                        with he very systems we are seeking to stand against.

This is why we who would see the world different
            need to find ways of embracing and including within our own communities
            those with whom we would challenge the satanic structures of the world
                        which keep all people, from the poorest to the most powerful,
                        hostages to fortune and authority.

We who would have compassion for the poor
            may find it helpful to remember that the word ‘compassion’
            is the bringing together of two Latin words:
                        com, meaning with, and pati, meaning suffer.
            Compassion for the poor involves suffering with the poor.
Any challenge to the indifferent powers of exploitation
            that does not include the voice of those who are being exploited
            will lack the power of the persistent widow.
But if our communities of transformation include those who are otherwise dis-voiced,
            then the cry we offer in challenge of power
            will be a voice of persistence informed by compassion.

It’s interesting to hear what the judge says as he grants the widow justice.

He says (v.5),
yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice,
so that she may not wear me out by continually coming

The Greek word here for ‘wear me out’ is a word that actually means
            to beat black-and-blue, a bit like a boxer at the end of a long round,
and it carries a connotation of ‘shame’ not just exhaustion.

As a defeated boxer might be said to have been shamed by his opponent,
            so the judge is ‘shamed’ by the widow.

When we join our voices with the voices of the oppressed,
            when we learn the language of the poor
            and speak with them against the oppressive powers of indifference,
then God is active in the shaming of the powers that be
            into taking actions that bring justice and blessing to those in need.

In our wrestling with God in scripture,
            the stories of our faith can become for us the persistent widow,
shaming us with their honesty,
            and persisting in their challenge that we should be different.
As Jacob was left beaten and limping by his encounter,
            so we too may find ourselves black and blue after a night with the word of God.
But from the encounter comes the blessing,
            as we are enabled by the persistence of God
                        to disentangle ourselves from the seductions of complacency
                        and the temptations of indifference.

Sometimes I despair at the intransigence
            of the powers-that-be which rule our world.
Can they ever be brought to account?
            Can they ever  be changed?

Yes, says Jesus, they can,
            and it begins with those who have compassion,
            it begins with those who are downtrodden and beaten up.

It is an upside down revolution,
            where the world is changed not through popular uprising
but through the telling, and living, of the stories of oppression:
            repeatedly, continually, faithfully.

It is a revolution which begins when people wrestle with God and with scripture,
            bringing the darkness into the light, even at great cost to themselves.

It is the church in solidarity with the poor
            against the indifference of the machine.

It is the faithful few who will not be told to be silent.

And so Jesus ends with a question:
            ‘And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

This is a hard task, it is a task that it would be easy to talk away from,
            especially when faced with the indifference and hostility
                        of the powers of oppression.
And yet, and yet…
            we are called to keep the faith.

When I was a student at Bristol Baptist College,
            Brian Haymes was the college Principal,
and every Friday, as he sent us out to preach
            in the small churches and chapels of the villages of the west of England,
he would offer the same words of blessing:
            ‘Preach well, and keep the faith’.

And it seems to me that these are fitting words for us today also.

We have heard the sermon,
            let us now keep the faith.


Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Stories We Live By

Sermon for the Induction of Revd Louise Polhill
The Grove Centre Church, Sydenham, 2pm 12th October 2013

1 Corinthians 12:12-31  For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.  15 If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.  16 And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.  17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  19 If all were a single member, where would the body be?  20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you."  22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,  23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;  24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member,  25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.  26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.  29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?  31 ¶ But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away,
            it was a dark and stormy night, and the robbers sat round the camp fire,
                        so the old men say,
            and they all lived happily ever after.

We all love a good story, don’t we?

Whether it’s the child listening with mother,
            the adult reading the latest block-buster,
                        or the teenager engrossed in the latest TV series
                        or role playing computer game,
            a compelling story has the capacity to hook us and enthrall us.

Liz tells me that if I’m lost in a good book,
            she can talk to me and I won’t even notice,
and I think this must be true –
            when I read, I go the places that the story takes me,
                        often places I could never go in reality;
            and I meet the people who live there,
                        characters who become as real in my own imagination
                                    as many of the people I have met in real life.

Stories matter to us,
            not just for enjoyment,
            but because they spin the narratives of our lives.
We all live by stories,
            we all tell ourselves stories about who we are,
                        where we have come from,
                        where we’re going,
                                    how we are going to live.

At a fairly basic level, we have our own biographical stories –
            so, my name is Simon, and I was born in Sevenoaks.
My parents are Colin and Davida,
            in fact that’s my Mum sitting just over there.
I’ve lived in Sevenoaks and Sheffield and Bristol and London,
            and I’ve also worked in Cardiff.
And now you know something about my story, if you didn’t already.

And maybe if we get to know each other better,
            I’ll get to know something about yours too.
And whilst our biographical stories go some way towards defining us,
            there are other narratives we use to construct who we are,
                        how we think of ourselves,
                        and how we will choose to live.

Are we poor or rich? Socialist or capitalist?
            Married or single? Male or female?
                        White or Black? Christian or non-Christian?
                                    Ordained or lay? Church member or non-attender?
Each of these words conveys a narrative,
            they are short-hand for the stories we use to write our worlds.

Here today, as we gather to celebrate Louise’s induction
            to the ministry at The Grove Centre,
we are marking the coming together of two different stories;
            and part of our time this afternoon
                        is given to hearing both the stories of Louise,
                                    and of the church here at Sydenham,
            and of how these stories have now coalesced
                        around a call to Louise to minister in this place.

But of course it’s not just Louise’s story,
            or the story of The Grove Centre,
that are represented here today,
            there’s also my story, and your story, and your story,
                        and all the many, varied and complex narratives
                                    that we each of us brings with us.
The story of a church can never just be the story of a few key individuals.

I’m always a little wary of the kind of church history
            that just tells us the names and deeds
                        of the ministers who have gone before,
            because the story of the ministers isn’t the story of the church.

Rather, a true history of a church
            will recognize the contribution of all those
            who have played their part in that community down the years.
Some will have been there as ministers, or deacons,
            or in other positions of prominence or leadership,
but as anyone who has been a minister knows,
            they are only more visible because they are standing on the shoulders
            of the giants who are supporting them,
                        to paraphrase Bernard of Chartres
                        who said it five hundred years before Isaac Newton.

We cannot, and shouldn’t try,
            to reduce the story of the church to the favoured few.
There is a tendency to pin it all on the minister,
            but it is a tendency that we must resist.

This is what Paul is getting at in our Bible reading for this afternoon.
            The church is the body of Christ,
                        it is one body, but it has many members.

This idea of using the metaphor of a body
            to represent the diversity of a unified institution or community
                        wasn’t a new idea.
Aesop’s Fable ‘The Belly and the Members’
            drew the analogy between a body and the political state
                        hundreds of years before the time of Christ,
            and it’s likely that Paul would have known this fable
                        and may well have been referencing it
                        in his image of the church as a body in his letter to the Corinthians.

However, Paul takes the metaphor away from Aesop’s political meaning,
            and instead he personalizes it –
                        the body that he is talking about isn’t the state,
                        rather it is the body of a person –
                                    it is the body of Christ.

You see, for Paul, the church isn’t the same as the state,
            despite the best efforts of many down the years since to make it such.
Neither is the church the same as a club,
            or indeed any other voluntary or involuntary association of people.
It’s not a political party,
            it’s not a special-interest group,
                        it’s not a social club,
            it’s not defined on the grounds of ethnicity, gender,
                        social standing, or sexuality.

Rather, the church is a body, not in a metaphorical sense,
            but in a very tangible way.
The church is the body of Christ on earth,
            and its members are there because they have been called to be there.

Each individual member of the body of Christ
            has responded to the call of Christ to follow him.
We hear a lot about ‘calling’ at days like today,
            and I sometimes find myself wondering what it means
            to say that someone has received a ‘call to the ministry’.
The call of Christ on our lives is to follow,
            and everything else that we do,
                        everything else that we are,
            flows from our obedience to the call to follow.

Just as the fishermen beside the sea of Galilee
            heard in the call of Christ an invitation
                        to enter into a new way of being,
            so those of us who hear and answer that call
                        in our own time and in our own lives
                        find ourselves invited to enter into in a new kind of humanity.

If we are followers of Christ, our identity is in him, and nothing else.
            No longer are we defined by the stories of our gender,
                        our ethnicity, our sexuality,
                                    our social standing, our interests or our self-interests.
Rather, we enter into the story of the body of Christ,
            and our identity is now to be found
            in the one who invites us to follow him.

The alternative narratives
            of the alternative realities of being
                        available to humankind
            are no longer our narratives.
We are no longer defined by the narratives of money, sex, and power.
            Rather, we are part of a different story, a subversive story,
                        and it is the story of the gospel of Christ,
                        whose body is given for the salvation of the world.

And so it is within the body of Christ
            that we each find our new identity,
and it is to membership of the body of Christ
            that each of us has been called.
Each of us, mind, not just the minister,
            or the deacons, or the leaders,
            or the cooks, or the greeters, or the flower-arrangers,
                        but all of us,
                        whoever and whatever we may be.
We are each of us called to follow Christ,
            and to discover our new identity as members of his body.

There are a few places within Paul’s letters, including our passage for today,
            where he offers lists of what are often called
                        the gifts of the Spirit (cf. Rom 12.6-8 & Eph 4.11).
Some of these gifts we know well,
            and there are some churches and some Christians
                        that have made the possession of certain specific gifts
            a touchstone of whether someone
                        is genuinely a member of the body of Christ.

I tend to think it’s more complex than that,
            and indeed more gracious than that.

The gifts that Paul talks about aren’t given
            so that by exhibiting them we can tell who’s in and who’s out.
Not a bit of it.
            Rather, they are given for the building up of the body of Christ.

I put together a list of the various gifts that Paul says the Spirit brings,
            and there’s a representation of it on your order of service.
Just take a moment to hear these,
            and to rejoice at the diversity of the gifts of the Spirit:

wisdom, knowledge, faith,
            power, discernment, apostleship,
                        prophecy, teaching, miracles,
                                    healing, helping, organising,
            languages, interpreting, ministry,
                        exhortation, giving, presiding,
                                    mercy, evangelising, pastoring.

Paul clearly considers as ‘spiritual gifts’
            both those gifts that mainstream churches
                        have sometimes seen as central,
                        such as teaching or ministry,
            and also those which are sometimes regarded as ‘charismatic’,
                        or the gifts of the Spirit.
And the point he is making in our passage today from 1 Cornithians
            is that one should not look down on the other.
All gifts, including gifts like helping, and administration,
            are gifts given by the Spirit for the building up of the church.
They aren’t given for people to just enjoy the experience
            of receiving or exercising them,
                        however much joy might be found
                        in being fully who God has called us to be.
But the point is that the each gift God gives
            is given to the whole church,
            through the individual who has received it.

Paul also assumes that none of these gifts are given to everybody;
            it is only in church as a community of diverse individuals
                        who bring diverse gifts for the mutual building up of all
            that anyone can witness and experience
                        the full richness of the many gifts of the Holy Spirit.

And so Paul says, in verse 27,
            ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’[1]
Tom Wright suggests that these words
            should be engraved on the mind and heart of all church members,
but perhaps especially they need to be taken to heart
            by those called to more high profile office,
                        or those who have been given some special gift that,
                                    by thrusting them into the public eye,
                        brings on them the temptation to arrogance
                                    that was affecting some of those in Corinth.
The realisation that we are the body of Christ
            and individually members of it
is the basis of all true understandings of the church,
            and of all humble service within it.

This challenges any self-styled leader
            who may imagine that he or she is the church’s ‘answer’
                        without reference to the complementarity
                                    and needed gifts of others.
But it also challenges the members of our churches
            not to select or expect their leaders
            to embody the fullness of the gifts given to the whole body.
                        No-one can do it all, no-one has it all,
                        and thank God for that!
Those of us who have been called to the body of Christ
            need all the resources of God’s gifts
                        that are spread throughout the church,
            and are encountered through different individuals in different forms.

And so, here we are, to mark the induction of Louise
            to the office of minister at The Grove Centre, Sydenham.
Louise is a gifted woman,
            who has been called to follow Christ wherever that leads,
            and it seems that it has led us here, today.
This is the beginning of the next chapter in this particular story.

Louise has many gifts, but she doesn’t have all of them.
            She needs us, and we need her,
            just as we also need one another.
None of us gets off the hook here.
            Not all of us preach, or pastor,
                        or administer the sacraments,
            but each of us is called, and each of us is gifted,
                        and it is together that we are the body of Christ,
                        given for the salvation of the world.

And so the page turns, and the story continues.
            And when the Lamb’s book of life is eventually read out,
            each of us will be found to have played our part in the narrative.
Not for our own sakes, of course,
            or because of any goodness of our own.
But rather, because we have been called to the body of Christ,
            which is given for the salvation of the world.

The gospel of Christ cannot be reduced to four books in the Bible,
            written and completed two thousand years ago.
Rather, the gospel is the living story
            of Christ’s ongoing commitment to the world
            exercised through his body; that is through you, and me, together.

The gospel story is proclaimed
            as we bear witness in our lives
                        to the alternative way of being
                        that has come into the world in Christ.

The Liberal MP Sarah Tether came to speak
            at the 'Churches Refugee Conference' at Bloomsbury a few months ago.
She said that when faced with faceless systems,
            that dehumanise and disempower the poor and the vulnerable,
one of the most powerful things Christians can do
            is tell a different story of what it means to be human.

We who are in Christ are those who live by a different story,
            not for our own sake, but for the sake of the world.

We who are in Christ are no longer enslaved to those narratives of power
            which so often seem to dominate the world as we encounter it.

We who are in Christ believe that all are equal in the sight of God,
            that it is never right for systems, or people of power, to dehumanise another,
                        and so we cannot, and we must not,
                        accept the narratives so seductively spun
                        by society, the media, and vested-interest politicians.

We who are in Christ will find ourselves speaking up for the poor,
            advocating for the vulnerable,
                        holding the world to account for its actions,
            and bringing people back to a different way of understanding the world.

We who are in Christ tell a different story,
            and we are called to tell it and to faithfully live by it.

It won't change the world overnight, but it will change the world.

[1] The next two paragraphs make use of Tom Wright’s ‘Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians’