Dear Friends,

Sermon preached by Revd. Duncan Strathie, Sunday 3 December 2017, Advent 1

I have asked for a copy of my sermon at yesterday’s 10:00am service to be sent to all on our mailing list. I hope you might use it as a way of reflecting on what might shape your Advent journey this year. It also sets out some significant pointers for the direction the parish is looking to take and I want as many people to be aware of this as possible.

Please pray for our PCC, Churchwardens and ministry team as together with you, we journey towards Bethlehem this Advent and into God’s future for our parish. Make sure you have a copy of the Benefice Advent Prayer Calendar - follow it on Facebook or get a copy from the website.

May the Lord, when he comes, find us watching and waiting.

Revd Duncan Strathie
Vicar of St Mary and St Anne, Moseley

Mark 13:24-37

The Coming of the Son of Man

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

The Lesson of the Fig Tree

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

The Necessity for Watchfulness

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

Happy New Year! Goodbye to Matthew’s gospel and welcome to Mark. But what are we doing in the middle of Mark's "Little Apocalypse" at the beginning of Advent? Advent and apocalyptic? How much more can a preacher, or a congregation take?

A helpful entry point into this challenging text might begin with the literary context. At the beginning of chapter 13, the disciples are enamoured by the scale and beauty of the temple in Jerusalem and have a "Little Red Riding Hood" moment, exclaiming, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!". Jesus' response is to teach about the temple's coming destruction.

A "desolating sacrilege" will profane the temple along with many tribulations, including false messiahs and false prophets. It is no accident that these words about the temple occur just before the Passion Narrative in Mark.

The theological inference is that the temple will no longer be the location of God. We would do well to ask what difference this makes for Mark's theology, a theology that first and foremost asks, where do we look for God?

The answer, of course, is not in the glorious temple but on the cross. Not in the city proper but outside the city walls. Not in the centre of power and authority but in the wilderness.

Mark's primary theological question makes a good Advent question. Where will we look for God this Advent season?

As this apocalyptic passage of Mark’s gospel is brought before us today, it is brought not with a hope of inducing guilt and fear but of inspiring hope and the ability to see a bigger picture – a picture of God’s redeeming work for creation.

We grapple with this passage today not to cower under the judgements and pronouncements God makes, but to catch a glimpse of the awe-inspiring beauty of creation restored – Eden reopened - in the hope that through our lives individually and collectively we can embody these sentiments in our daily lives and so make real in Moseley the Kingdom of God.

To get from here to there requires us to change – and we need to change together.

When we choose to look back and view the past, we tend to do so with a sense of nostalgia and through rose-tinted spectacles. Things aren’t the same today as they used to be!

In recent years our world has begun to feel a less safe place. Strange things are happening when people are asked to vote and some countries are governed by decidedly odd people. Wars and rumours of wars persist, missiles are fired and we seem completely unable to learn any lessons from history. Where will it all end?

The previous 12 chapters of Mark describe Jesus’ ministry in and around Galilee and Palestine – a situation rooted very much in early first century life. Mark now shifts the focus and we are talking about events that have taken place in AD70 and the world, at least for the followers of The Way, has become a much less safe place.

Mark’s gospel, written to encourage Christians long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, pivots around chapter 13 as a point between Jesus’ early ministry and the passion narrative later in Mark. Chapter 13 breaks the flow of the story and moves directly to the end times and to the second coming of Jesus Christ.

The questions for us today are what encouragement can we take from this passage and where do we look for God?

The passage from Mark’s Gospel was what Christians needed to hear towards the end of the first century. What message do we need to hear today to encourage us in our faith? What can we take from what Mark has to offer?

Jesus says “It is like a man going on a journey”. He made his preparations, left his people in charge, instructed the door keeper to be on the watch. The man made his goodbyes and left and then everyone was filled with puzzlement as they did not know when he would return.

Picture the scene when every evening the doorkeeper peers down the long dusty road to see if the man is returning. Everyday at midnight the doorkeeper peers down the long dusty road to see if there is a lantern coming with the man is returning. Every day at cock crow and again at dawn and again at noon the doorkeeper peers down the long dusty road to see if the man is returning.

Day in, day out the people live with the constant expectation of their master’s return. It shapes their daily lives. Jesus said “Keep awake for you do not know when the master of the house will return”.

Jesus’ command to his disciples was to be alert, to keep awake and to be on watch. How does that command translate into our lives today?

While the master is away have you observed anything happening to the social wellbeing of the people? How are the needy, the homeless, those without work and the hungry being cared for? How are the sick being cared for and how are the vulnerable – the young and the old being looked after? Have the terminally ill been properly prepared for their death? Is education provision equally accessible by all? Have Christian men and women been properly alert to what is taking place?

Jesus’ command to his disciples was to be alert, to keep awake and to be on watch. How does that command translate into our lives today?

Things must have felt different to those original disciples. Put yourself in their place and try to imagine what it felt like to see the master set out on his journey.

Initially they experienced the immediate presence of their Lord but then they had to watch as he was crucified and share in the trauma of loss, bereavement and grief.

Then there was excitement at the discovery of the empty tomb and the resurrection experiences of the Lord – imagine what that must felt like! Then the disciples shared the good news of Jesus ascension – how did that leave them feeling – bewildered, uncertain?

And then experiencing the coming of the Holy Spirit and feeling empowerment as they stood on the threshold of a new age. Things must have felt somewhat different for those first disciples – how would you have felt?

But as I have said, this thirteenth chapter of Mark is so different to the rest of the gospel – what are we to make of this apocalyptic discourse?

Do you hear the voice of Jesus revealing secrets about the end of the world? Or do you hear the puzzlement of the early church trying to reconcile Jewish expectations of a longed for Messianic age with the experience of the life of the new Christian community?

For more than 600 years Christians have met to worship on this site which was originally given to the Church by Elizabeth of York for a place or worship to be built on.

As we look at the wall above the ringing chamber we can see successive sets of holes indicating the ever expanding roof line of this building down through the centuries. This picture hangs in the sacristy and shows how over the centuries the footprint of St Mary’s has changed time and time again.

Even our oldest member was born just a few years after the last major work was done on St Mary’s – for nearly a century this building has largely been like it is now. Yes we have a new nave altar, electric light and a PA system but the church building has remained largely unchanged for a century.

Whilst God may not have changed during that time, we are a very different congregation to the one which worshipped here a hundred years ago.

Birmingham and Moseley are both very different in so many ways. Times have changed. Evolution in society and in the church are constant forces. Where will we look for God?

Today we use words which would have been an alien way of describing our church community to our Edwardian forbears. We talk of St Mary’s being an open, welcoming and inclusive church community.

Long gone are matins, replaced by a weekly Eucharist. Although the Book of Common Prayer remains the default liturgy of the Church of England, the majority of our services are now in contemporary English as we use Common Worship.

Not only do we have women priests but bishops too! And although canon law still requires that I wear a cassock at all times, few priests today do. Things change.

As a child I was sent to Sunday School on a Sunday afternoon – my parents didn’t attend church but sent me as their proxy! Today we are inclusive and employ people to work with wonderful volunteers to run programmes for our youngsters within our worship.

It was Archbishop William Temple who said the church’s task is to proclaim the never-changing Gospel to the ever-changing world! We have spent a long time as a church reflecting on the kind of community we felt God was calling us to be – who are we, where have come from, where are we going? Where will we look for God?

This year I have worked with the Vision 13 group as we have tried to distil the answers to those questions. Everyone was invited to be part of the Moseley Conversations as we sought answers. How can we bring something of that second coming vision to Moseley today?

One unifying strand that has emerged is that we feel God is calling us to be a place and a people of wholeness and healing in the midst of Moseley. Our world and community is fractured and bruised. So many people are struggling with relationships. So many with spiritual hunger that only God can satisfy. So many people dealing with long term illnesses and conditions. How can we respond to God’s leading?

We pride ourselves on being welcoming and offering hospitality. How comfortable do you feel right now? This building is designed to draw us to worship a transcendent God. It was not designed to maximise heat insulation or to let in maximum levels of natural light. It is often a cold and usually a dark place. It will take more than filter coffee to make us feel warmer! Where will we look for God?

A proposal is going to the Church Council when it next meets to begin taking the process forward in the next phase of our evolution together.

Our Victorian heating system is nearing the end of its life. There is only one contractor in the Midlands that is prepared to wrestle with large calibre cast iron heating pipes. One of our two boilers has received the last rites – we hope it will survive this winter and possible next but its days are numbered.

A couple of weeks ago we had a team of electricians in to change the dead lights – not an easy or cheap thing to do. This is a bright as our current lighting installation can be.

If we are to be serious about living up to our desire to be welcoming and hospitable, we need to improve our heating and lighting.

Our floors are not all on the same level. Last week someone on a mobility scooter almost drove down the step in the north aisle by the coffee table! We only have one door that offers level access into the building but our Lady Chapel remains out of bounds for those unable to climb stairs.

Listening to it, it’s hard to imagine that our organ might expire at any moment. It is due to Mick’s considerable skill as an organist that he gets it to do what it does when parts of it aren’t working properly. It urgently needs a major overhaul.

You may wonder where the children and the parents go each Sunday as they leave us for their activities. Can you imagine what 50 children and their parents crammed into our small meetings spaces looks like?

Every available square inch of space is used – the Courtyard Room, the West Room, the Choir Vestry and also the Wardens Vestry. Conditions are cramped and leaders of the groups do a tremendous job – but they and our children deserve better.

If the West Room is in use during the week, it is impossible to move between the church and the office. The West Room is in reality a corridor with some space around it. There is nowhere appropriate in St Mary’s to have a quiet meeting with someone. Not all conversations can be had in Lewis’ or Costa.

Perhaps if we had more space, here in the centre of Moseley, we could let it out and see more people coming into this place.

The question in all of this is, how does what we do and how we use what we have, help bring wholeness and healing to the wounded and hurting Moseley. Where will we look for God?

What we do flows from what we believe. That is why we are investing resources in helping people to develop their discipleship and grow in faith and their understanding of God. How can we encourage everyone to think more about developing their faith? How can we help you to have greater confidence in the gospel that makes it a 24/7 lived reality?

In all of these things prayer is a central and critical component. Not just prayers said here on a Sunday morning but throughout the week across the benefice. As we read our Bibles and say our prayers, so we grow in our faith.

It has been said that there three kinds of vicars – those who are caretakers, those who are risk takers and those who are undertakers. Which do you want me to be? Where will we look for God?

We stand at the beginning of a new church year on this Advent Sunday with a call to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’. Each Sunday in Advent invites us to draw on different imagery as we journey through Advent making our own preparation to celebrate the coming of the Saviour of the World.

On this Sunday we are invited to reflect on the Patriarchs – the founders of the faith – none of whom would have been there without a woman! Next week it’s the prophets and then John the Baptist followed by Mary and finally on the Eve of Christmas Jesus himself.

Take note of the collect each week and build its focus into your daily prayers.

This church community stands at a tipping point. We can either move forward together into the future God has for us here in the heart of Moseley, or we can carry on as we are which will inevitably lead to decline. Where will we look for God?

From the foresight and good management of our leaders over the past decade or so, we have the proceeds from the sale of Centre 13, our old community centre, invested. The PCC have earmarked £1M of this money to reorder our internal space here at St Mary’s and our planned maintenance will gobble up the remainder. Soon there will be no investment income to make up our £20K a year shortfall of income over expenditure. We will have to raise our game in terms of our collective and shared responsibility to fund what God is calling us to do and be in Mosley.

Pray for the PCC members – we’re trying to get the set of photos updated – as they lead our church community. Pray for Laura and Glyn our wardens who do so much around the place. Pray for the Ministry Team and for the many links that St Mary’s folk have into the local community.

My message to us this morning as we look out on the horizon of another new year in the church calendar is, are we prepared to step out in faith into the future we believe God is calling us into?

Are we in a position to make real in Moseley something of that vision of God’s reconciled creation that Mark points us towards in this week’s reading?

There is a bumpy road ahead for our diocese with large scale and dramatic plans that will effect how we pay for and deploy our ministers across Church of England Birmingham. Without a clear picture of where God is leading us here in Mosley we will struggle to engage with the diocesan processes of change.

Some may see what I have shared with you this morning as a litany of woes that lead us to depression. Far from it! I see it as a tremendous opportunity to build on the wonderful heritage we have received, that we might be faithful to it and entrust it to those who come after us.

This is exciting – and risky. This is the next stage for our life together and I ask you where in this will you look for God this Advent? Let us journey into God’s future for us together, with hearts on fire, faith renewed and a confidence that the God who calls, is able and willing to equip us and go before us!

We must beware, keep alert and stay awake!