Present in our Midst

A sermon by Revd Richard Carter

Readings for this service: Romans 13.8-end, Matthew 18.15-20

There is a prayer that many of you will have read perhaps on cards you find in Cathedral gift shops, or on religious t-towels. It’s called the serenity prayer and it’s attributed to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Just at the moment in our world we seem to be surrounded by a lot of things we cannot change. Like many of you I have listened to the growing tension and threats being traded between North Korea and the USA- with rising fear. The worst thing about these threats to annihilate one another is that there does not seem any way at present of bringing about meaningful change. While the threat of violence seems to be intensifying the divisions- the fear is that doing nothing is also frightening. Last week also brought news of the ongoing devastation caused by changing weather patterns. Throughout the week the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, Hurricane Irma, has been advancing across the northern Caribbean, leaving a trail of devastation and death in its path. After hitting smaller islands such as Antigua and Barbuda on Tuesday and Wednesday, the storm hit the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday, the Bahamas on Friday, Cuba yesterday and Miami today. However much people may prepare, or try to get out of its way, no one can stop the storm. On a national level too in the UK we are facing a situation of uncertainty which we may feel we can do little to change. We are becoming more aware of some of the consequences of leaving the European Union and some of the inevitable implications it will have for people’s lives.

In the Gospel accounts there are often very disturbing accounts of all that threatens personal peace and security. Jesus repeatedly warns his disciples about the dangers and suffering that will come. Yet strangely he does not warn his disciples because he wants them to avoid the struggle, or escape the suffering. Rather it seems a call to be awake, to read the signs of the times, to be present in the time of tribulation: in the midst of danger to be attentive to God and to one another. He is saying you are about to face the reckoning and it’s now in these times that all that I have taught you is going to be put to the test.

Last week at St Martin’s we had a full staff meeting as we do every six months and we were given a talk by one of the police officers responsible for security and safety in central London. Not an easy job at this present time. And not easy to tell people how they should stay safe. What struck me about what he said is that he didn’t give us loads of rules and regulations like a fire evacuation procedure. What he did say again and again in different ways was be alert: be awake to all that is happening around you. He told us to look and read situations attentively and to trust our deepest instincts, instincts that we too often switch off.  He gave the example of someone who walks down the road on a mobile phone. They are so involved with their texting or what’s happening on social media, that they switch off the reality around them: they don’t realise they are causing an obstruction to everyone else, in fact they are so oblivious they can walk out into the road without even looking. It struck me this was a good analogy for our modern world.  Since he spoke I have noticed how true his warning was. I found myself on Friday in the middle of Waterloo Station trying to answer a phone call suddenly realising actually I was causing an obstruction in the middle of rush hour. I was meeting my young nephew and niece who were coming up to visit me and there I was first phoning and then trying to text them in the middle of a stampede of commuters. The strange thing was that after I had met up with them everything changed. I put my phone away. I had suddenly become incredibly attentive to them and their safety on London’s crowded streets. I was looking out for them, and holding onto them in the crowd, watching out for the potential threats of the crowded streets, the people around them, the movement of the traffic, like a shepherd making sure they didn’t get lost.  It was like my love for them had woken me up.

This sense of being attentive and alert got me thinking. It’s like being in tune. Rather than tuned out. It’s like being fully alive. Yesterday I had the good fortune of being invited to Lord’s Cricket Ground to see England playing the West Indies. Now as some of you may know I have never shown any cricket prowess on the St Martin’s cricket battlefields of choir or congregation. In fact I have never played at all. What struck me sitting next to Stephen Green and his brother Dudley –seasoned members of Lords, was how much more of the game they were seeing and  reading than I was. Dudley gave me a score card but I was so involved in our conversation that when someone was out I had no idea who had bowled him or caught him, or how many runs he had scored. I wasn’t even at times sure why he was out, as it was often all over in an 80 mile an hour cricket ball flash. But there was Dudley at my side, older than me, surely with no better eye sight- who had read it all. Knew the bowler, and the person who had taken the catch, the runs he had scored, the number of wickets that bowler had taken. What I am saying is that he was alive to the game, alert, in a say that I was not. Able to read the game and the subtext and its significance while I just kept missing it- or at least not being so fully awake to the brilliance of the moment that had just flashed by. Perhaps I was too busy trying to work out what to say in this sermon!

In our Epistle we heard these words: “It is now time to awake from your sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers, the night is far gone the day is near.” We are called to cast off darkness and put on the armour of light. In the Gospel Christ is calling us to be alive and alert to God and alive and alert to our neighbour and the communities in which we live now. Not to live in the blur of self. You see this is the thing that all of us can change.  We can become attentive to the things of God. Look how divisions and misunderstandings grow. Our Gospel gives us a simple account of how we must address the things that divide us. Small rifts can grow into deep misunderstandings. Today’s Gospel is not about judging our brother and sister its actually about safeguarding our brother and sister and the communities we serve, its saying how sins impact upon a community and need to be addressed.  Its proceeded by the parable of the lost sheep and its followed by Jesus’ command to forgive the members of our community not seven times but seventy times seven. It’s the realisation that reconciliation begins with us. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can says that prayer I began with. What can we change? We can change the way we relate to one another, the way we relate to the world, and that begins with the way we relate to God.

The modern western world is rediscovering the transforming difference “mindfulness brings” They are introducing mindfulness everywhere into schools, and health services and day centres. It increases a sense of well-being and calm they claim. Of course it does. It’s not a new invention -it’s always been at the very heart of the Christian faith- be awake, be alert- do to others as you would have them do to you- be ready and waiting you do not know when the one you are waiting for will return- whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters you did it for me. This is Christ’s mindfulness- Christ’s awareness of God present in the here and now. The kingdom of heaven here in our midst- the treasure beyond price with us in the ordinary now.

“When two or three are gathered in my name. I am there among them.” You may have glossed over those words. Not really fully heard them. Been like me on the mobile phone with many other thoughts going on in your head, or like me at the cricket not really reading the game. But listen to those words again now. When two or three are gathered in my name I am there among them.

That means if we believe Christ, then Christ is here with us in this church now. Really with us. Though we may have tuned him out or not been listening, or not been attentive to his call. Over the last months since the beginning of Lent a small group of us have been coming to this church early in the mornings from 7.00-8.00am. You may have seen this contemplative prayer time mentioned in the newsletter. You may have thought it was madness. Who wants to get up at that time to sit in silence? It is common to jog or to go to the gym or take the dog out for a walk but more unusual to want to sit in the presence of Christ. But what I have realised in these periods of silence is how profoundly life changing it is to reconnect with the presence of God. To wake up to the fact that God is with us now.  And not only with us in the silence but through that silence to recognise Christ’s presence pervading the whole of our lives. This simple attentiveness to Christ- as simple as breathing in and breathing out, is the most simple but most overwhelmingly wonderful discovery. It connects you with the source of all you are and all you long to be- it connects you with the beauty and wonder of God in others and in this world. It does not take away the storm but with Christ our foundational cornerstone, who is with us at the very centre of the storm, in that still place, in that crowded street, and in eternity

You may think this sounds ineffectual or delusional in a time of crisis. What are we going to do?  Actually one of the most vitally important things we can do at this time is to wake from our sleep and pray for the peace of our world and for one another. Not because we think our prayers will bring about a miraculous Messiah type intervention but because Christ is already with us. He is here now. When two or three are calling upon him and living out of his love- he is present with us. But perhaps we have missed that presence or grown dull to it.  I know that all of us have your own times and schedules and ways of living and coping. But today our world does need our steadfast prayer. It needs us all to make time for God. I wonder if I can challenge us all today to make a space each day in your life for prayer and contemplation of Christ the one who has promised to be present in our midst… to shake off the darkness and to put on the armour of light.