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Sunday, 7 May 2017

The in's and out's of church


Here is my sermon from today's 10.00am Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

This Easter, at St Stephen Walbrook, we were involved in a two-part art work based on the Stations of the Cross and the Stations of the Resurrection. The first part of this project involved the artist Mark Dean in projecting filmed Stations of the Cross onto the central, circular Henry Moore altar at St Stephen Walbrook throughout the night on Easter Eve.

Mark Dean’s videos were not literal depictions of the Stations of the Cross, the journey Jesus walked on the day of his crucifixion. Instead Dean appropriated a few frames of iconic film footage together with extracts of popular music and then slowed down, reversed, looped or otherwise altered these so that the images he selected were amplified through their repetition. As an example, in the first Stations of the Cross video, a clip of Julie Andrews as the novice Maria from the opening scenes of The Sound of Music was layered over an extract, from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, of a car arriving at Bates Motel where Marion Crane would be murdered by Norman Bates. The blue of the sky and the innocence suggested by Maria’s religious vocation was in contrast with the footage from Psycho, which was indicative of the violent death to which Jesus was condemned.

In this way Dean brought images from outside church into church and made them central to the Easter Vigil by projecting them onto an altar which had been designed for people to gather as a community around the place where God can be found; the Eucharist, the central act of Christian worship, the re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice.

In St Paul’s Cathedral for the second part of the project, the staging was inverted as the dancers performed in the central space under the dome, whilst Dean’s video was played on television monitors placed around the edge of this circular space. The monitors appeared almost like a clock face marking out the boundaries of human experience. Five dancers emerged from the shadows around the edge of the stage and started to navigate the space, sometimes individually and sometimes in groups, to form tableaux which were visually reminiscent of the acts of protecting, comforting and carrying each other. The dancers regularly perforated the boundary, moving out beyond the stage and the audience, before returning to the centre and reconnecting in different configurations. As a result, the on-lookers found themselves within the action of these movements.

Among the themes that these projections and performances explored therefore were notions of being in and out with the crucifixion as an internal interior focus and the resurrection leading to an outward focus. Similar notions of in and out also inform Jesus’ teaching about the shepherd and the sheep (John 10. 1 - 10), which have traditionally been interpreted as being about the in’s and out’s of salvation meaning that the sheepfold has been seen as representing heaven. Being locked in to a sheepfold overnight seems a strange way of picturing heaven and so I want to explore the imagery of the sheepfold instead in terms of understandings of church.

One part of the role of the shepherd mentioned in Jesus’ teaching is to bring the sheep in to the sheepfold at the end of the day. Thieves and bandits are able to use the cover of night to attack the sheep if outside or not adequately protected in the fold. Jesus says that he is the gate which provides access to this safe space. Those who enter through Jesus are those who are legitimately in the sheepfold, whether sheep or shepherd.

This imagery pictures church as safe space in which rest, recuperation and healing can occur because we are sheltered for a time from the challenges and opportunities – the activity – of the daylight hours. Mark Dean’s decision to project his Passion films onto the central altar at Walbrook, the place of Communion, is in line with this teaching about church, as Christ’s Passion and the Eucharist which re-enacts that Passion is our source of renewal and restoration. Having said that, we also need to acknowledge that there are those for whom church has not been a safe space and hear those valid voices while seeking to build safe spaces in the churches of which we are part.

Gates, however, are two-way. They are entries and exits, because we do not experience fullness of life by being shut up in places of safety; if that is our only experience then we are in prison. The life that Jesus envisions here is one of protection during the darkness when thieves are at large combined with freedom to graze outside of the sheepfold in the light of day. Interestingly in Jesus’ teaching here, finding pasture, finding food, growing and developing, are all things that happen outside of the sheepfold. Jesus’ flock find safety in the fold but they find food outside the fold. This focus differs from the traditional way in which the in and out dimensions of church have been thought about in Ecclesiology, thinking about the nature and structure of church. The IN dimension of church has often been thought of as being about fellowship and community while the OUT dimension is generally seen as involving mission.

On this basis, the IN dimension of church is described as being about fellowship and building community. Jesus prayed that believers would be one. This was a prayer for more than unity; it was a prayer for deep fellowship like that between the Father and the Son – may they be one just as you are in me and I am in you (John 17.21). Believers are to invite each other into their lives. The first Christians modelled this as we heard in our New Testament reading: All who believed were together and had all things in common (Acts 2.44). Church at its best keeps this tradition alive. In the Eucharist, for example, we are reminded that we belong to one another by sharing a common meal.

The OUT dimension of church is then seen as being about mission in its broadest sense. This mission, summed up in the phrase 'kingdom of God', is about bringing wholeness to the entire creation. Its sweep is therefore breathtaking! The mission of the church is seen in this wide context. The church is not the kingdom of God and we must not reduce the horizons of God's mission to the horizons of God's church. But the church is called to share in God's mission.

Although this thinking about the IN and OUT dimensions of Church has validity, as we have already noted, it does not completely accord with Jesus’ teaching here. This is, in part, because the Church has sometimes made an unfortunate separation between time together in the fold and time out in the world. When this has happened churches have tried to get Christians to spend as much time together in the fold as possible and have therefore focused primarily on church as the place when God is seen and heard. Such thinking overlooks the fact that Jesus’ parables are stories of everyday life, often of working life. They are stories of the kingdom of God being seen and experienced and that happens most clearly in our everyday lives rather than in church. When we gather together in the fold, in church, we expect to hear from and experience God, so it is when we then scatter to our homes, workplaces and communities that the real test comes. Do we also encounter and feed on God in those places too; in our homes, workplaces and communities? If we do, then we are experiencing and revealing God in the reality of our lives and that is what actually forms a real and eloquent witness to the reality of God in our lives and world. That is why mission is part of the OUT dimension of church.

Then, like Mark Dean bringing images from outside the church into the church to inform our reflection on crucifixion and resurrection, we, too, can bring back stories of encountering the reality of God in the reality of our lives into our gathering together in church to encourage one another that God is to be found both in church and also in the world he has made.

That thought can also help us with another concern that is rightly raised when there is talk of being in and out in relation to church or salvation; that is an understandable and right concern for those who are or who think themselves to be on the outside. Despite the language of in and out, Jesus’ teaching here is inclusive. The sheepfolds he used as his illustrations were communal. Everyone in the village who had sheep brought their sheep to the communal fold overnight. That is why Jesus talks of other flocks and of the sheep recognising the voice of their shepherd. Metaphorically he is referring to the Jews as one folk and the Gentiles as another to say that in God all will ultimately form one flock. Additionally, as we have seen, the boundary separating those on the inside from those on the outside is only for the creation of a temporary safe space and is then breached as the flock go back into the wider world during daylight hours.

The job of the shepherd – the role that Jesus says he plays - is not to keep the flock cooped up together in the sheepfold but to lead them out to find pasture because the sheep are to experience life in all its fullness and find God in this fullness. We see an example of this happening in practice when we look at the reading from Acts 2. 42 - 47 that we heard earlier. There, the early disciples spent time together in their homes, sharing what they had with each other – possessions, money, food – and learning together from their shepherds, the apostles. But they also left the safety of their own gatherings and went out into the city to the Temple and met and taught there too. So, in their practice there was the same pattern of coming in and going out that we have found in Jesus’ teaching. There was also the fullness of life that Jesus spoke about – we can sense the energy, excitement and enthusiasm of these people as they responded to all that Jesus had done for them by talking about him and sharing what they had with others. They had really come alive, their lives had meaning and purpose, their joy was to share all that they had.

We need this same pattern within our lives too; times of joining together with other Christians and with those who teach and lead us and times of being out in the world, in our families, communities and workplaces. Both are essential to us as Christians. If we are just out in the world without the support of times together in the fold we are likely to become lost like the sheep for which the shepherd had to search. If we just remain in the fold then we do not experience life in all its fullness and do not reveal the reality of God in the reality of our lives. When we leave the fold - the gathering of God’s people – we do not go out on our own, the good Shepherd, Jesus, leads us out and goes with us that we may experience life in all its fullness, finding God in the reality of our lives.

May we, like the dancers at St Paul’s, learn to navigate the spaces of church and world, coming together for protection and comfort then perforating the boundary and moving out, before returning to the centre and reconnecting in different configurations and, as a result, enabling others to find themselves caught up within the action of these movements.


John Rutter - Gloria.

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