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Sermon for 5 November


Changed live>Changing lives

Today the church marks the great festival of All Saints. A day when we remember that we are only here today because of generations of other faithful Christians who have followed Jesus, prayed and passed on the faith.

And when we say ‘Saint’ - we usually think of the great people that you might see in stained glass windows in churches like this one - St Paul, St Peter and so on. 

But in the bible, especially in the New Testament, as the early church is just getting up and running, there are no big name "Saints’. Paul and Peter don’t refer to each other as Saint - ’saints’ just refers to those who are believers. You might remember from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which we’ve been looking at recently, that he ends by saying ‘Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus’. A saint just meant ‘Christian’. 

And in the gospel reading we’ve just heard Jesus describes some of the characteristics of ‘the saints’. The things that make us blessed, the way of life that will mark out those who are ‘the saints’.

And so All Saints is not just a chance to remember the great Saints of the past - the people who get halos round their heads - but all those who have faithfully followed Jesus, and given us the faith that we continue to live out here today.

And with that in mind, I want to speak this morning a bit differently than usual. I want to talk to you about our Diocese. 

Because we ‘re not just a little bubble, on our own, on a hill in Goudhurst - we are connected with other churches, with lots of other ‘saints’. And in particular, as an Anglican church, we are connected up with other Anglican churches through a system of Dioceses. There are 42 Dioceses in England, and every parish is part of one. * Here they are - and the two colours represent those associated with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. And * we belong to the Diocese of Canterbury, and we are right on the border of * Rochester, which starts at the bottom of the hill on the way out of the village to Horsmonden, and Chichester, which starts between Kilndown and Flimwell. 

So why this lesson in church geography?

Well, just as the saints of the past - both the big names and the ones we never hear about - had to figure out, in the middle of real life, with real issues, whether to do this or that, whether to pray for this person or that person, whether to give their time to this group or that group, whether to grow the church in this way or that way - so do we. The immediate context and issues might be different, but we are still doing exactly the same thing; trying, in the middle of all the possibilities of life, to discern what God is doing in and around us, and to join in.

And the Diocese of Canterbury, as a whole, has been doing to some very careful thinking and praying recently and has discerned that God is calling us to some particular things at the moment - and I want to share those with you. And I want to share them with you because we are part of Canterbury Diocese. We easily think of the ‘Diocese’ as being ‘those people over there in Canterbury’ - the Bishop and the people who work with him. But actually we are the Diocese - us and the other 250 parishes that make up Canterbury Diocese. And so it’s important that we know what’s going on, and that we play our part in it.

And as you probably know, the church - here in Canterbury and across the country - faces some serious challenges at the moment. Challenges that are rooted in a rapidly changing society, which has a different attitude towards faith, church, spirituality and truth than it did a generation or two ago. And one consequence of those changes is that the number of people who call themselves Christians, and particularly the number of people who are part of a church community, is dropping - and in some places is dropping fast. And you probably all know churches, nearby or further afield, where the congregation is really struggling. 

Now we can respond to that in different ways: 

We could say, ‘La, la, la’ with our fingers in our ears and pretend it’s not going to affect us. ‘We’ll be alright thank you very much, after all, we’ve been here 1000 years, of course we’re not going to disappear - and if we just keep on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll be fine.’ I think we all know where that will take us.

More positively we might say, ‘God will provide’, and trust that the church, which has lived through ups and downs for a long time now, is stronger than the changing culture in which we live. And there is truth in that - of course, the church isn’t just a human construction, it is God’s own community, held together in Jesus Christ. But……let’s not kid ourselves, the church in our country, as we have known it for 400 years, is genuinely facing an uncertain future. And I’m confident that God wants us to flourish and grow to his glory - and for that to happen, of course we need to trust God, but we also need to do some stuff.

So the third possible response to the challenges is to say - we can’t do everything. Let’s pray for God’s guidance and then focus on the things that are most important. And that is what Canterbury Diocese has done - and is doing. And because we’re part of the Diocese, I want you to know about it. 

And this is what has been named as our core vision.  This is what we want to be and to become as a Diocese. And it’s all summed up in this phrase ‘Changed lives > Changing lives.’

And the three key focusses are; prayer, growth and meeting people who are on the edge of our communities. Deeply prayerful means exactly what it says. More diverse means that we want our church communities to look more like the communities we serve - and in particular that means more young people - and shaped by those on the edge means that we want to do what Jesus did, and to let the unexpected people, the messy people, the people we are wary of, the people on the edge of things, be people that we are ready to learn from and to build church with.

What does all that actually look like?

Well it means that the Diocese is starting to invest in 3 areas; three new ways of doing things.

Prayer first. In the New Year, you will receive an invitation to join a new prayer network and to commit to praying, intentionally and regularly, for the churches of the Diocese, and particularly for these new initiatives and projects. The prayer network will take its inspiration from St Augustine - who landed here in 597 and planted the first churches in this country. We are, it turns out, here in leafy Kent, the launch pad for God’s mission in these lands. We inherit a tradition of missionary innovation and risk taking. All the beautiful ancient churches around Kent are here because a small group of Christians - of the saints - nearly 1500 years ago, dared to find new ways to tell people about God’s love and mercy. That’s our inheritance. And that inheritance is a call for us to pray like crazy that we might be bold and creative enough to follow Augustine’s today. So we’re going to pray.

Secondly, a church that is more diverse - and particular a church that is growing younger. The plan is to plant at least 4 new ‘hubs’, which will specifically focus on introducing Secondary school aged children to Jesus Christ, and offering them the opportunity to live life as his disciple. The first of these hubs will be in Sittingbourne, on the other side of the Diocese, where there are 5 Secondary Schools in one parish, an empty church building that would be a great location and a vicar who has ling experience in youth ministry.

And finally, those who are on the edge of society. 10 years ago, a vicar in Margate decided that his church didn’t have enough contact with the people living around them - and especially the street sleepers, the alcoholics and the drug users, the people who just weren’t managing, the people everyone else was passing by. And he started a new congregation called Ignite. It meets in the church, and he says of it ‘It’s church, but not as you know it’. They welcome people whose lives are really tough and who don’t fit in. And they welcome them unconditionally - drunk, sober, stoned, clean, messed up or left behind - everyone is welcome. And there are now 100 people involved in that church, and 2 other Ignite communities that have been planted in nearby parishes. 

And the plan is to plant another 9 Ignite churches around the Diocese, in the poorest parts of Kent, and to inspire other churches, perhaps where deprivation is more hidden, to pick up from their example and way of doing things. 

Prayer, young people and those on the edge - they are the focus of this new strategy. This new Diocesan way of doing things.

So what does that have to do with us? Well, not every church will be a Youth Hub, and not every church can plant Ignite, but we are all in this together. We are the saints together and Bishop Trevor, our Bishop, has urged us all to pray and to fast. To pray for these initiatives, to pray that we might rediscover that pioneer faith that brought Augustine to this country all those years ago; to pray and fast for the renewal of the church across Kent.

And he’s asked every person who is part of a church in Canterbury Diocese to pray and fast together on the 18 November. There’s a big event being held at Faversham church that day -  and if you haven’t been before Faversham is a fun place for a day out, and I can tell you more if you fancy the trip. But churches have also been invited to host ‘satellite events’ around the Diocese, and we’re doing that here. That means that on Saturday 18 November - 2 weeks time - we’ll be here in church between 11:00-12:30 to pray for renewal, for new life, for new growth, for God’s church to grow across the Diocese - in Sittingbourne, in Margate and then in new ways and new places right across Kent.

We understand the need to pray - we know that when we pray, God does things that just wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened otherwise. But I would guess many of us are less familiar with fasting. 

In the bible fasting often accompanies moments of great decision and great importance. So the disciples pray and fast before sending Paul and Barnabas off to spread the news of Jesus to new places. And Jesus himself fasts for forty days before he begins his ministry in Galilee. Fasting is a way of emptying yourself, in order that God can fill the space that’s left. It’s to make ourselves hungry - literally - so that we are better prepared for God to fill us. The classic fast is from food - and the Bishop is calling us all to consider fasting for 24 hours from Friday 17th to Saturday 18th November - but of course for some people, fasting from food is not a good idea, and so it is also possible to fast from other things - social media, using your car, or particular kinds of food. The key is to let go of something that you rely on, so that you need to rely on God instead. There is a leaflet with some more information at the back of church for anyone interested. 

So there we are. This is the next stage of being the saints in Kent.  A new focus on growing churches that are deeply prayerful, include loads more children and young people and are shaped by those on the edge of society. The next stage of allowing the changes God has made in our lives to change the lives of others.

We have received so many blessings from the generations of saints who have gone before us. This is what our Diocese will do to make sure others can build on the blessings we have received. Let’s pray

Posted: 05-11-2017 at 15:32
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