Readings: Song of Solomon, James, Mark 7
Purposeful Direction & Generosity of Spirit.
As the summer ends and school term starts again, I hope you have experienced a change of rhythm this summer, whether you were at home or away. During August, with a more relaxed schedule, I try to catch up on reading and films and plays. One of the films I watched was Wim Wenders Pope Francis, and I was reminded of an interview between the Pope and a journalist who asked him, “Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?” The Pope paused before answering “About half.” Great question too for the Diocese of London and the Church of England. The readings for today give, however, a different perspective as Autumn beckons, we look ahead, encouraged by the readings set for today, and I want to give our looking ahead at this hinge moment of the year two headings – purposeful direction and generosity of spirit.
First purposeful direction. Most of us need this most of the time, and those who are in positions of leadership need it all the time. We see it clearly in all the readings set for today. Purposeful direction and Generosity of Spirit need to be combined in equal measure. If we only have purposeful direction, we become simply too task orientated, and if we only have generosity of spirit, we lose direction. We need both In the Song of Solomon, we hear an erotic love poem addressed to God, and we need the energy and passion of the lover to live the Christian life to the full. Without it, the Christian life can be reduced to grim duty or formulaic rituals. The New Testament reading is James then presenting the opposite side of the coin – we can have all the passion in the world, but if it doesn’t result in concrete action, then faith might be dead. And the Gospel reading combines both with the images of the outside of the body reflecting the inner life. Through all of the readings runs the theme of purposeful direction. Without it, we drift – like presently as we drift towards the potential catastrophe in March of a no Deal Brexit. One of the plays I saw was Alan Bennet’s Alleluia, set in a geriatric ward of a hospital. Towards the end of the play, the Indian doctor on the ward is deported for some minor immigration infringement. He makes a passionate appeal using these words “ Open your heart, England, before it’s too late.” None of us achieves anything without purposeful direction. If we were constantly blown off course by the slightest wind of opposition or criticism, then we would achieve nothing. That’s certainly true of leadership in the church at any level, where like a distorted Alice, we get six criticisms before breakfast. Let me quite specific now about our Parish of St John.
I believe we are extremely blessed and fortunate in our greatest resource, which is of course people. We are a growing Parish with our two electoral rolls. We have huge human diversity, many languages and different cultural backgrounds. Many people give of their time and their resources generously to make ministry happen in this place. In terms of leadership and direction, we express our aims clearly, simply, and specifically through our Mission Action Plan. This year we have been particularly blessed in having had a skilled spiritual guide help us look at ourselves and our priorities. You can see it on our website. This is our purposeful direction. It is not a woolly document, but it is visionary and realistic in equal measure. We could not have achieved what we have achieved in recent years without this purposeful direction, and I salute everyone who has helped to make our dreams reality. The areas of our success are obvious – the growth of the Filipino Chaplaincy, now in a new phase of planning for its future, the restoration of our building to serve God and the community, the restoration of the organ and the musical tradition of the place, and a new sense of beauty and vigour in liturgy. These are just some of them. Of course, there are areas of weakness – we have identified our children’s work as being an area for concentration, as well as stewardship, or our giving of money to enable the mission of the Church continues to be our Achilles heel. So what will give us this purposeful direction, and what is the difference between that and stubbornness or arrogance? Part of the answer must lie in the second point I want to make. Generosity of Spirit.
In both the New Testament readings set for today, we get something of this sense of this generosity of spirit. First, in respect of our attitude to ourselves and other people. A Christian monk, living as a hermit once expressed his vocation in these words “To fall and get up again. Fall and get up again.” In the Gospel set for today, we see the combination of purposeful direction and generosity of spirit which marks the Christian Way. Here we see generosity of spirit in action. So using this Gospel paradigm, we may want to ask ourselves the question, from where does this generosity of spirit come, and how we do we practice it, both as individuals and as a community? Generosity of spirit always comes in the context of deep personal knowledge. What I mean is this. All of us need this self-knowledge, and the more active and involved we are, the more its importance increases. The tools of classical Christian spirituality through retreat, through self-examination and reconciliation are an essential starting point, and from that starting point we can then go on to express our generosity of spirit in practical ways, including the giving of money. Let me again be quite specific. We have said very clearly as a Parish that our obligations to the Diocese, which we call Common Fund, should be met by our dedicated giving, which we call Stewardship. This year, our commitment to the Diocese (Common Fund) is £82,600, so by this time of the year we should have raised £55,000. At the end of August, we had raised £40,000 and were therefore £15,000 behind budget. So throughout this month of September we will be inviting all regular givers, and those who are not yet regular givers, to prayerfully review what we are able to give to enable the Parish and the Diocese to flourish. If we cannot meet our Common Fund through Stewardship it will have to be met from reserves, and that way is the way of oblivion - in 3 to 5 years it would be game over, and the doors clang shut, like House of Fraser. I also describe it as functional atheism, because it means that we do not believe that we have a future. But of course we do have a future, and our generosity of spirit will enable us to see this. Giving of money is a spiritual barometer, for we give as we understand, and our spending of money will always reveal where our priorities lie. Money, says Archbishop Justin, is theology in numbers.
So with these two things- purposeful direction, and generosity of spirit we will be properly equipped for the at times stressful business of ministry. I do believe that we are fortunate here at St John’s in that we do see these qualities in the Parish right now. How could it be otherwise for any community which places Jesus at the centre of the faith? The Jesus who both challenges us and leads us on all the time. Most of all, as we gather at this Eucharist, may we be renewed by the presence of the risen Jesus who holds us, and gives us that purposeful direction and generosity of spirit which all of us need all the time. Thanks be to God.