The service was held at Castle Square. Treforest.
Phil’s final Communion Service
Building Egos and the Kingdom
Well, it’s been quite the month! I don’t know about you but I’m beginning to feel a little battered by the news…so I was grateful of the opportunity to spend a few days at a church conference on the other side of Europe where I could escape the bombardment for a time. And I had a great week or so.
Because of the United Reformed Church’s admirable environmental policy, I travelled to and from Budapest by train, ticking off quite a few European cities enroute. London, Paris, Munich; Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava; Cologne, Brussels, Pontypridd! And, though I only had an hour or two at some of these stopovers, I tried to make the best of my time at each, squeezing in a coffee on a square or a quick tour around the place. And on the way, I got to visit a few gorgeous buildings – both old and new.
And all of these – the sacred and the secular – seemed to me to be temples of worship to the human desire for power, domination, and self-aggrandisement.
In Budapest, there was the newly reopened Seat of the Reformed Bishop – Raday House – whose grand renovation was personally overseen by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban – he who has spoken about the need for ‘Christian culture’ – white, Islamophobic, women get back in the kitchen Christian culture – to be protected and promulgated. In Vienna, there was the stunning Schonbrunn Palace – summer house of the Emperor and built specifically to rival the grandeur of Versailles, and the ornate Church of St Peter – where statues of men look down with disdain – befitting their theology of men-only ministry, all services in Latin, and hellfire for non-believers. And then in Brussels, there was the Royal Palace – largely built on the blood of the people in Congo and, just to make sure that oppression could be done at home as well as away, there were the Royal Galleria, built on land taken from a deprived community, which led to a string of suicides, all so the elite could shop away from the contemptible poor.
Now, I know Europe’s got a bit of a love affair with war, colonialism, and empire but literally everywhere I went, the buildings told the story of man’s ego and greed, quest for power, and tendency toward injustice.
Don’t worry – in amongst all this, I really did have a good time!
But all this is to ask, quite unsubtlely at that, what do our buildings say about us? What do they say about our faith and our vision? Our priorities and use of money? Our care for the environment and for each other? What does…what might our premises at Gelliwastad Road or these buildings here, tell others about God’s realm? And what might we want them to say? That’s not a loaded question, but a genuine invitation to think. What could the buildings that we use as a church say about our beliefs and priorities? Let’s consider that for a moment, in a moment of quiet prayer…
We now sing a hymn which reminds us that whatever the future might bring us, wherever the future might take us, with God by our side, we might be courageous, joyful, and strong. ‘Father, hear the prayer we offer, not for ease that prayer shall be, but for strength that we may ever live our lives courageously’. Please stand as you are able.
Hymn: Father, hear the prayer we offer
Perhaps it’s because I’ll soon be on the move, but I really value the words of that hymn. That second verse in particular – ‘Not for ever in green pastures, do we ask our way to be; but the steep and rugged pathway may we tread rejoicingly’. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind hanging about those green pastures for a while!!! But, just as Jesus beckoned the disciples on to Jerusalem when they wanted to stop and build temples on the Mount of Transfiguration, our path with God will take us down a steep and rugged pathway or two! In fact, we join two pilgrims on such a pathway just now as we remind ourselves of a familiar story which might aid our discernment today. Let’s accompany Cleopas and co as they walk the road to Emmaus…
Reading: Luke 24:13-35
If there is one Biblical passage that will always make me think of my time in Pontypridd, it will be this one. With you, I have enacted it on Easter Sunday evenings and at Synod Big Days Out; with you, I have reflected on it in a Cardiff prison restaurant and a in chapel in Bethlehem; with you I have heard it read before the sharing of bread and wine in homes, hospitals, in this building and in the hall next door. The story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus has essentially become the theme tune to my ministry here…and I guess it’s easy to see why I love it. For a stranger is welcomed and Christ is recognized; a journey leads from despair to wild hope; a meal is shared and the best kind of heartburn is felt! Every time I come back to this story, I hear something different. Something encouraging. Sometimes challenging. And I wonder, today, what it might say to our discernment process. I wonder how it might help us on our path from uncertainty and despondency to faith and joy.
There’s so much that could be said…but I am aware that those pews aren’t at all comfortable…so let me just pick out three strands of the story through which God might speak to us today.
Firstly, then, the importance of story. Cleopas and his companion – probably his wife – are walking along the road, trying to process what happened in Jerusalem, where God is in the events, what to make of it all. That’s when Jesus as stranger – the form he usually takes post-resurrection – comes along and asks them what they’re talking about. ‘What’s going on?’ he essentially asks. ‘What’s your story?’.
This alone blows my mind. Jesus has had, shall we say, a bit of a time of it! Since he last saw any of his friends, he has been tried, tortured, humiliated, killed, buried, descended into hell – if you go with the Apostles’ Creed – and then resurrected. Risen from the grave. First fruit of the new creation. In other words, the whole created order has turned on its axis since he last spoke with his friends, and yet, the first thing God-in-flesh does when he meets them again is to walk alongside them and ask for their story!!! Such is the humility of our God! So there’s a lot here about listening to the other – about the holy gift of curiosity…but what I’d like us to really consider is the question ‘what is our story’? By that, I mean both ‘what is the story of the gospel’ – of course – what does it mean to you? To us? But also, ‘what is the story of St. David’s Uniting Church’? What makes you unique as a church community? What is your identity, vision, gifting? Perhaps in working through that, you might gain a clearer understanding of how buildings can resource your ministry. Or limit it. Either way, I encourage you to consider, what’s going on with you? What is your story?
Secondly, once Cleopas and friend have shared some of what’s been going on with them, Jesus – after a little reprimand – takes them through scripture, inviting them to see how it might illuminate all that has had to happen. I wonder what would happen if we did the same? What would happen if we were to go through our scriptures to illuminate our current context – whether ministry, buildings, identity, or purpose?
It would, of course, be easy for all of us to prooftext – to pick out certain passages of scripture which back up our view about any given thing – but what if we engaged with scripture more prayerfully, with integrity, and asked what God was saying to us about the decisions we have to face?
One thing we might find is that there’s no getting away from the fact that the Bible has a…shall we say ambivalent relationship…to religious buildings. Whist God walked with us in Eden and journeyed with us in the wilderness, we determined that God should have a Temple – no doubt influenced by the other mighty Empires in the usual ‘my God’s Temple is bigger than your God’s Temple’ approach. And then we decided that even there God was a bit too accessible, so we made up reasons why women, foreigners, those differently abled or of a foreign ethnicity, could just stick just a leg or an arm inside the place. Only one man – one pure, powerful man – could enter the inner sanctum of God’s house on one special day of the year.
Then Jesus took on our flesh and moved into the neighbourhood. Once again, we were reminded that God isn’t confined to a particular building on a particular day but was in fact in our midst, challenging the Temple system, its cost, exclusiveness and idolatry; declaring that grace and goodness could be found beyond it; condemning the religious leaders for devouring widow’s offerings; and eventually warning that the time was coming when the Temple would be torn down and God’s people would worship wherever they might be ‘for God is Spirit and God’s people must worship in Spirit and in truth’.
And for a time we believed him. But soon we returned to our old ways. Special seats for elders and the rich. VIP access for members. Exclusive deals that could get you closer to God! Meanwhile, Jesus was still out meeting in taverns and homes, by roadsides and lakesides.
All of which isn’t to say that buildings are counter to God’s kingdom. Of course, they’re not! But our use or love of them can be.
So what might scripture say about the place, the people, the purpose of St. David’s Uniting Church today? What passages might we look to for guidance?
Finally – after a story is shared and scripture is expounded, Jesus is invited to a meal with his two travelling companions. Thanks is given, bread is broken, eyes are opened and hearts burn. One might say that the Spirit moved amongst them. So how might we listen to the Spirit’s prompting today?
The theology of the Holy Spirit is a complex one which I’m not going to get too side-tracked with today. But I do invite you to try to be open. Listening. Curious. Even with yourself. For we’re so adept about lying to ourselves about our true motivations. I wonder, what part does apathy or fear, control, care for others, imagination, hope, love play in your support for, or resistance to, moving here? Whose voices are heard and whose are being ignored? In the Emmaus story, Cleopas tells Jesus that some women knew the truth but that the male disciples were slow to accept it. Are we listening to those who might be speaking truth today? To those who have been through a similar discernment process before, perhaps? To the younger generations who will inherit the decisions we make? The Spirit can speak through any of us. Are we truly listening, for God is still speaking.
The path ahead for St. David’s Uniting Church – well, for any church in the age of post-Christendom actually – won’t always be smooth. But it never has been. Yet – as we just sang – through endeavour, danger, failure, God has been, is, and will always be, by your side. My prayer for you is that you will be aware of God’s presence and peace during your time of discernment. That you will see disagreement not as a sign of opposition but as a sign that people deeply care about the Church. And that, through the retelling of your story, the reading of scripture, the listening to the Spirit in prayer and in people, you will come to a common mind, a shared vision of who you are and might become as the broken, the beautiful, the beloved children of God. May God bless you with patience and generosity, wisdom and curiosity, kindness, energy, and a whole heap of love for the journey. Amen.
Prayers of intercession – John Henson
The familiar walk. -Luke 24:14
Two companions were on their way to Emmatown where they lived together. The road was very familiar to them. It was dark. Maybe the moon was shining, or one of them had an oil lamp. In any case they knew the rugged road very well, every twist and turn. It was the road to and from Jerusalem, the centre where they would do their regular shopping, in the markets or from little kiosks. They knew where to get the best bargains, so they would do the rounds much the same every time. They also went up to the festivals. In fact they were on their way home from the great Passover festival. Nothing can be said for this walk except that they had to do it. It was a trudge.
Some of us recognize this experience. Life is much the same round every day.. The hymn says-
The trivial round, the common task
Will furnish all we ought to ask.
Loving God, as we tread each day the familiar pathway, help us to keep our spirits up. Help us to remember that it was on the familiar pathway that two met with Jesus. We pray especially for the lonely and the shut in, and those personally isolated and downcast. Lift us and them with the light of your presence, for you are ‘not far from any one of us.’
The unfamiliar walk. Genesis 12:1.
God said to Abraham, ‘Leave your own country, your kin, and your father’s house, and go to a country that I will show you.’ God told Abraham, whom he treated as a friend, to get moving. To get away from the familiar and explore the new and different. It was a courageous thing to do, and a humanly unnatural thing to do, for we all are more at ease with what we know and feel comfortable with, even if it gets a bit dull sometimes. Our history, recently, and going back to Abraham, is of a people prepared to move when God says ‘Go’. As long as we never settle down. Here or anywhere else.
Loving God, as we tread another unfamiliar pathway, give us adaptability and even more courage to follow your call whatever it might be. Save us from being over attached to wood and stone. Teach us that wherever we go it is you we serve and not our own predilections. Difficult, but essential.
The Heavenly Walk. John 14: 2-5.
Jesus said to his friends in Holy Week, “I am going to prepare a place for you”. God always gets there first. Thomas Twin said, ‘Leader, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus replied, ‘I am the way..’
The Christian Church in more recent years has become very reticent with regard to talking about heaven or the afterlife. We must beware of being obsessed about ‘pie in the sky’, we say. We have work here to do. But setting a pathway to heaven, both here and hereafter, is part of our task as Jesus’ s people. We sell people short if we take them down a road that leads to nothingness in the end.
Loving God, teach us that your way is about moving- walking, running sometimes. Only waiting to catch breath now and again, to make sure of the pathway you are setting out, and to feed on the good things you have provided. Above all, may we feed on your love, so that we may not destroy the bond with one another that we have with you. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
John tells us that on the evening of that first Easter Sunday, the disciples were gathering together in a locked room when Jesus came and stood among them, saying, “Peace be with you!”. Let us greet one another with a sign of Christ’s peace.
With peace rippling amongst us, Love bids us to come and eat.
So come you who hunger for bread and you who thirst for justice.
Come you whose lives are suffused with joy and you who are only just hanging on.
Come you who call this building home, you who want to worship here, and you who don’t.
Come you who love church tradition, you who love holy chaos, and you who love Gogglebox.
Come the woke and the sleepy; the laughing, the weepy, the sprightly, the creaky; the dull and the freaky –
Whoever we are. From wherever we have some. Whatever our story – we are welcomed to the feast where there’s always a space for us.
Together, then, we remember Jesus’ life; his teaching; and the stories we hear of the meals he shared with others. Stories of bread broken and shared, feeding a multitude, stories of being gathered together, the powerful and the poor, around tables, stories of unlikely guests revealing the face of the sacred.
One story tells us that on a night when people were celebrating the goodness of God many years before, Jesus gathered in an upper room with his friends. Sitting at a meal table – with plates and cups, conversations and jokes, friendship and betrayal – Jesus said, this is my body, this is my blood. Remember that. Remember me.
Another story tells us that a few days later, he broke bread again this time on a roadside, not with knowing friends but with those who thought him a stranger. It was when the bread was broken that his friends began to understand that the risen Christ was in their midst. May the same be true for us today. Let’s pray…
Living God, Maker of all that is:
we thank you for every good gift in the world –
for crisp autumn mornings and starlight in the deep night sky,
for the fruits of the earth from which we eat and drink;
for the church family around us and for the life you have given us.
Jesus Christ, Saviour, brother, friend, you walk beside us day by day.
It is encouraging to know that you lived a life like ours, walking in the sunshine, getting tired feet, wrestling with questions of religion, money, life. And it’s really good to know that you enjoyed your food and sitting down with friends, and strangers, for a meal.
You laughed and you cried, loved and lost, got passionate and tired.
We thank you that you lived on earth and died on earth
to show us how to find God in the middle of everything that happens.
We thank you that here and now, you meet us and feed us at this table,
just as all your other friends around the world meet you at theirs.
Holy Spirit, Breath of God, breathe on us now
and on these gifts of bread and wine,
As we taste the bread, help us to remember that God will provide for and bless us.
As we sip our cups, help us remember that you are God’s love within us.
Show us how to share everything we have with neighbours in need
and make the world a wonderful place to live, reflecting your kingdom here on earth.
And as often as we eat bread or drink wine in Jesus’ name help us to remember that your love will never let us go. All this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Sharing the elements
The body of Christ, broken for us all. We do this in remembrance of him.
With this bread that we break and eat Christ is present with us. Thanks be to God.
The blood of Christ, poured out for us all. We do this in remembrance of him.
With this wine that we pour and drink, Christ is present with us. We drink and rejoice!
Christ’s food in our souls. Our food shared like his.
Christ’s life in our hands. Our lives shaped by his.
Christ’s love in our hearts. Our love warmed through his.
Christ’s peace on our path. Our path following his.
May this be so. Amen.
May God’s extravagant love revive us,
Christ’s life and passion inspire us,
And the Spirit’s fire encourage us to do ordinary things
with extraordinary love.
And the blessing of God, Father, Son and
Spirit be upon us and remain with us always. Amen