Sunday, 2nd July 2017
Readings: Habakkuk 2;1-4, Ephesians 2:19-end, John 20: 24-29
Facing adversity, Building Resilience, Finding Joy is the title of the New York Times best seller right now. Published earlier this year, it is no accident that this book sells so well, given the times we are in. So, with acknowledgment to the authors Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant, I want to use these three themes today when we commemorate St Thomas. For me, they describe the message and meaning of Thomas, the message and meaning of our times, and the message and meaning of our Parish of St John So I’d like to use these three themes of facing adversity, building resilience, and finding joy as we celebrate St Thomas and to encourage all of us to vision and engagement, as we launch our new Mission Action Plan for the year ahead.
Facing Adversity. This is true for our community right now, grieving the death of an unknown number of people in the Grenfell Tower which is now an open tomb, and latterly by the apparent collapse of politics as we have known it, both in our country, and more specifically in our Borough. We should not be surprised by the latter. Membership of political parties has halved since 1980. This is a statistic I have long been aware of and use to some irritation in Kensington & Chelsea, when secular fundamentalists smugly tell us that religious faith is a minority sport to be practiced only by consenting adults behind closed doors. Many of the general elections in this country in the third millennium have seen the lowest turnout in General Elections since universal suffrage was introduced. This is one manifestation of the spectator society, where output is more important than outcomes. Output means an interest solely in process, where outcome means conclusions. In leadership of course, this can be disastrous, be it in political or religious leadership. Joe Klein in his recent book Politics Lost put it like this. “Pundits like pollsters get most of their information by looking in the rear view mirror, whilst real leadership has involved the defiance of conventional wisdom and often breaking the rules.” The Bishop incarcerated in a military jail in the Philippines whom I was privileged to visit last week, is a prophetic leader who has refused to be bowed by the might of narco-politics in that country. But he is also resilient and joyful, as we sat together on the floor his cockroach infested cell. Thomas too faced adversity with the loss of His Lord and the apparent collapse of all that he had believed in. This Parish, in its contemporary form, born in 2003 was also born in and through adversity with the litigious manifestation of the collapse of the former Parish. In our own lives, we face adversity most often through bereavement. But this is only the beginning, for through adversity we can build resilience.
Now Building Resilience. The Prophet Habakkuk in the first reading puts it like this. “ Write the vision. Make it plain on tablet. If it seems to tarry, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not delay.” In other words, put your mission statement up in words of one syllable in easy to read print. Any successful business knows that, and churches which are successful know it too. What is the vision of an organisation - be that business, political party, or church? Be sure that if the majority of people who are involved in it cannot answer the question, then it will surely fail. This is certainly true of the political process where we are told that “Brexit means Brexit.” This is of course the language of Alice in Wonderland, so it should be no surprise that people are disaffected. But get the vision right first and communicate it, and the resources to facilitate it will follow – that means principally people and money. Let me give one tiny local example from 10 years ago in this church. It was something which quickly led me to understand how I should operate here. The benches on which you sit today were installed in this church 10 years ago. The project to replace the old and broken seating ran for 12 years, in which there was a high investment of energy in output, process, etc, which is sometimes called consultation. But it was only when an outcome was produced – i.e. saying what we wanted that almost immediately the means to carry it out came – literally within days. This is Vision preceding Finance. We could duplicate this again and again. It happened again with the restoration and I know it will happen as we move forward in the future. This is building resilience and one of the reasons we involve more and more people in the production of our Mission Action Plan which we launch this week. Nationally the same is true, for it is only when the Brexit process commands large cross-party support and community buy in that confidence will be restored – the same is true for our Borough facing the collapse of confidence in its ability to hear and act for the victims of Grenfell Tower. Get the vision right and the rest – especially money- will follow. Habakkuk put it like this, “the righteous live by their faith.”
Now Finding Joy. For Christians and people of faith, this comes from faith. For Thomas, it came from his confession of faith - “my Lord and My God.” We know already that membership of political parties is haemorrhaging, as one manifestation of the spectator society. This has been true in the same period for membership of mainstream Churches. The Diocese of London kicks this trend, and is growing. Many of its Parishes- including this one- are growing. But flourishing Churches will only be healthy when many many people are involved in the load bearing which is essential for churches to grow and flourish. A Church by its definition is the opposite of a spectator society. Its mission can only be carried out properly when all the baptised realise the commission to ministry which is baptism. The commission to ministry can be expressed in many different ways – often unseen and unspectacular, from the ministry of a practical man who unblocks a blocked drain to the ministry of an elderly housebound woman who prays the Jesus Prayer whenever the bells ring. The man who cleans the carpets in this church is Hungarian and he taught me the Hungarian phrase “sok kicsi sokra megy.” Many small things add up to a big thing. Take another parochial example. We are in touch with many couples seeking marriage and many families seeking baptism. The pastoral opportunity here is for these many different people to catch the vision which we offer, which will undoubtedly lead to engagement. The vision which we offer as a Church in this most divided of Boroughs in terms of the gap between rich and poor is in fact a heavenly vision of joy, which acknowledges none of the human divisions between rich and poor, skin colour, language or old and young. In this work, which is for everyone, the Church is far ahead of the rest of society, especially party politics. In this work, the church and the world does find, and will continue to find, heavenly joy.
To conclude, Thomas was the one who was the “no can do” type, which you find in every organisation. But he was offered vision, and from it his joy followed. In this case, it was sight and experience of the resurrected Christ. Doubting Thomas is the archetype of all who need that reassurance. Get the vision right, and the rest will follow. These are words of Jesus in the Gospel set for today, when we commemorate Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” So doubters and believers alike celebrate Thomas, celebrate the new energy and growth in this church, and always, always, may we have the courage to face adversity, build resilience and find joy.