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‘Church should be changing us?’ – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Church should be changing us.
Sunday 11 August 2019 10am – Trinity 8
Hebrews 11.1-3,8-16 & Luke12v32-40

When you go and see your GP you prepare by thinking carefully about what you are going to tell him or her, because you know time is limited. When you are there you listen carefully to what he or she advises, usually you do as you are told and more often than not you get better.

When you go to the gym, if you do, you prepare by warming up your muscles, you follow the guidance of an instructor, do the exercises in the right way and generally get a bit fitter and a bit thinner.

When attending school or university you prepare by doing your homework, you listen carefully to the teachers or lecturers and hopefully your mind becomes more effective and you learn more things.

When you go to church you prepare by …… you share in the service and you listen and hopefully you are ……. changed?

I wonder if we give ‘going to church’ enough preparation and I wonder if we expect ‘going to church’ to change us in any way?

I sometimes think that we forget that all that we do here, all this ritual and music, all this reading the bible and sharing sacraments, all these prayers that we say, should actually affect us, all this should all be changing us, it should all be making us better disciples of Jesus and better people. I know this seems like an obvious thing to say but I firmly believe that it needs saying. One of the saddest things a parish priest has to do is to take the funeral of a faithful parishioner who was in church every Sunday and yet was deeply unhappy and unpopular because, despite being in church every week, they were selfish, unkind, gossipy and vindictive. It is possible to come to church every week and not take any of it in and not be changed in any way. In fact some people (ordained as well as lay people) use the church as the place they go to exercise their selfishness and their need for power and status.

Usually, before a wedding or a baptism I invite the congregation to be expectant that something might happen to them – I tell them that they aren’t in a ‘venue’ but in a church where, for hundreds of years, the people of York have been gathering to say their prayers in joy and in sorrow – this is a place where people encounter something unusual, something bigger than themselves. In other words, don’t just sit there like lemons looking bored, waiting for a drink or a cigarette and the party afterwards – engage with what is happening and see how it affects you. (I don’t put it quite like that, you will be pleased to hear).

Sometimes I wonder if we should give a similar notice at the beginning of our regular services. We all need to be more expectant of being changed by coming to church.

This week we have celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration, the occasion when Jesus glowed with glory on the mountainside. The goodness of God, the glory of God shone out of Jesus’ body. The Old Testament readings for the Feast of the Transfiguration speak of Moses whose face shone when he had been speaking with God. His shining face was so disconcerting for his family and friends that he took to wearing a veil all the time, only taking it off when he went up the mountain to speak with God. The point of these stories is that the glory of God is tangible. It can be seen, and should be seen, in the bodies of those who encounter God and live in step or in tune with God.

Do you think that when we leave the Minster after sharing in this Eucharist the people of York will see God’s glory shining from us? Will they stop and stare and have to shield their eyes because glory is shining from us? When I stand at the back to say goodbye as people leave, should I be handing out little veils so the poor people of York aren’t blinded by the glory shining from our faces?

Probably I am being a little bit optimistic, but the point is that everything we do here is supposed to affect us, it is supposed to make a difference, it is supposed to make us better disciples of Jesus, it is supposed to make us better people.

I have been thinking about this a lot this week and the main things that stop us being changed by what we do here are familiarity and self-righteousness! We get so used to doing what we do here we can forget it is supposed to be changing us. Also, we have a tendency to think that everyone else needs what happens here more than we do. You sit there thinking people like me need to listen more to what we say and preach in church, clergy can be experts in hypocrisy and self-righteousness! On the other hand clergy can look down from our lofty vantage point and imagine that you lot need all of this more than we do!

The truth is that we all need to be expectant and attentive during worship and we all need to be affected and challenged by what we do here. The great thing about services like this in our tradition is that they are made up of many elements, and different elements will speak to us in different ways week by week. For example this week there will be some of us here who really need to say the words of confession and hear the words of absolution, maybe we have lost our temper with someone or been unkind or been forgetful. There will be others here who need to bring all their thanksgivings for their blessings this week and they need their thanksgivings to be carried to God in the beautiful singing of the Gloria and the hymns. There will be others who may be grieving or worried who particularly need to feel God draw close to them in communion today and there will be some itching to be commissioned to go in peace to love and serve the Lord, to share the good news of God’s love in many different ways this coming week. The point is that we have to make ourselves vulnerable to being forgiven, challenged, loved and changed in services like this.

This is the prayer that will be said after we have received communion this morning. I thought it was a fairly modern prayer written for the modern rite we now use. It transpires that it is based on ancient words written in the fourth century by someone called St Ephraem the Syrian. This prayer makes it absolutely clear that we should be changed by all that we do in worship.

Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that have taken holy things; may the ears which have heard your word be deaf to clamour and dispute; may the tongues which have sung your praise be free from deceit; may the eyes which have seen the tokens of your love shine with the light of hope; and may the bodies which have been fed with your body be refreshed with the fullness of your life; glory to you for ever. Amen

So, over 1600 years ago St Ephraem the Syrian also thought that too many people were taking church for granted and not allowing themselves to be changed by sharing in worship. Thank God that he wrote such evocative and powerful words that have been repeated in many forms over the centuries, to constantly remind us that we should be being changed and made better people by what we do here. We may be a little way off needing veils to stop divine glory blinding our friends and neighbours but we should at least look and behave differently because we have encountered the living God of love in word and sacrament.

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