Doorkeepers of Heavenly Homes
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter – 14 May 2017 – St John the Baptist, Felixstowe.
Text: In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places (John 14v2)
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
In 2014 our Diocese (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) celebrated 100 years since it was created. Other dioceses of greater antiquity may scoff at this but, seeing as Suffolk itself only became a single county in 1974, we were way ahead of the game!
To celebrate our centenary the Diocese produced a book entitled ‘100 years, 100 treasures’ to show off some of the treasures in some of the 478 churches of our Diocese.
I had hoped that my previous parish of Whitton would have been included in the book. For inside St Mary & St Botolph is kept a treasure that goes right back to the origin of our Diocese; the original throne of the very first Bishop of St Edmundsbury. It is as if the whole of our Diocesan history has its genesis in a council estate in North Ipswich. Due to some archidiaconal chicanery (for the best archdeacons are always ‘poachers turned gamekeepers) when the cathedral renewed its sanctuary furniture with white oak the original plane throne somehow ended up first at the head of the Rector’s dining room table and then in Whitton parish church.
With such a treasure in our midst the PCC and I were perplexed as to why there was nary a mention of the throne in the centenary book. Also, personally, I have always wondered as to why, seeing as I had the care of an episcopal throne (a ‘cathedra’) I was not given the title of Dean of Whitton J. On enquiring of the Diocesan Advisory Committee as to why they had made this significant error of judgment in not choosing Whitton as one of the Diocese’s 100 treasures I was gently informed that the only criteria for choosing one church over another was whether the church was kept open during daylight hours. After all what is the point of a guide book point pointing people to locked churches? So Whitton, and it’s bishop’s throne did not make the list. However St John the Baptist Felixstowe – number 58 on the list of Suffolk’s top 100 – was included and so thanks are due to the faithfulness of those who unlock our church each day…
Suffolk’s 478 churches have far more than100 treasures between them but most of them are locked…
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places (John 14v2). A pity that the earthly buildings proclaiming God’s love are too often locked – physically and socially – against those whom Jesus desires to enter them…
The hope of Jesus was that not only would His disciples follow Him on the way of self-sacrifice but they would also encourage others to travel with them. And, to some extent, each of us is here in church today because the disciples conquered their fear and uncertainty, their questions and concerns, and called others to journey with them. Jesus in his own selflessness show us the Way homeward and flings open the doors to the ‘many mansions’ that make up our heavenly home. In response twelve disciples lived lives of such openness and generosity that they helped literally millions of others to follow in that Way.
Sadly the church has not always been eager to share this treasure. Often I have found the Way narrow and difficult, not only because of the snares of the world, the flesh, and the devil, but because of a capricious church and, that saddest of all oxymorons, selfish Christians. It seems as if we set out eager to encourage others to journey to heavenly dwelling places with us but, once our own future is secure, we slam the door in the face of God’s children and lock our churches and our common life against them.
I have said before, (and will undoubtedly say many times again) that one of the ways in which the Holy Spirit spoke to me about moving to Felixstowe was our simple, uncomplicated, loving motto ‘Open to God, Open to All’. We are an ‘open’ church and that not just between 9am and 5pm each day!
Last week was the first birthday of a crazy idea hatched in our Church Council following on from our discussions about Growing in God. Led by Graham Denny and Di Barnard we dreamed of starting a small charity grocery shop aimed at helping the most needy in our parish. Our decision was to try this once a month for three months and then review progress. The BASIC pop-up charity shop at St Edmund’s has opened its doors every Tuesday since, the number of additional shops elsewhere is fast approaching double figures, General Synod has on its timetable a resolution asking the nation to legislate to change our food waste laws and, most important of all, the lives of hundreds of people have been transformed because we simply opened the doors of a church.
We lay the foundations for our heavenly home by the welcome we offer God’s children in our earthly homes.
This is not easy work. It is costly for us and will require us to spend our talents out time and our treasure for the benefit of people other than ourselves. The problem with having an open church, you see, is that people come in! Mostly they are quiet and careful around holy things. But sometimes they are messy, disrespectful and offend our sensibilities. Hiding feelings and smiling through gritted teeth is an essential skill if you want to be a worshipper in a church that is ‘Open to God, Open to All’.
Very rarely do I enter this church and not find someone sitting here quietly. Sadly, some of them are not the kind of people with whom I would like to speak. So, like the priest and the Levite in the tale of the Good Samaritan, I am tempted to pass by on the other side and scurry off into the vestry. Each time I let my personal prejudices win, the gospel loses, and I may as well have not bothered opening the church doors in the first place.
To lay foundations for heavenly dwelling places we must be open hearted as well as having open doors. Our welcome must be warm as well as our buildings (for most churches that is not too difficult to achieve!) Our aim must always be to serve, guide and encourage and never to ignore, reject or censure.
If we fail in that task we give the lie to our motto of ‘Open to God, Open to All’ and making God after our own image turn people away from He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Bishop Thomas Ken wrote a famous prayer often displayed at the entry to many churches. An embroidered version of which hangs inside the porch of Whitton church, for though necessity requires that the doors of that church be locked the hearts of its people are open, perhaps we might do something similar.
The prayer reads:
make the door of this House
to receive all who need human love and fellowship,
to shut out all envy, pride and strife,
Make its threshold smooth enough
to be no stumbling block to children nor to straying feet,
But rugged and strong enough
to turn back the tempter’s power.
God, make the door of this house
a gateway to your eternal kingdom.
Amen. (Thomas Ken)
Thank you for doing what you have done so far to answer this prayer in your own service of our Lord Jesus Christ. My prayer is that we continue to grow in God and see the good news of God’s love spread ever further and deeper in our parish.