Bishop Steven came to our church on 25th September as part of the project launch week and to celebrate the 180th anniversary of the consecration of our church. Please read his sermon here as it explores the vision for our project powerfully.
I have called you by name
25th September, 2016
St Mary and St Nicholas Littlemore
Psalm 71, 1 Timothy 6.6-19; Luke 16.19-end
Thank you so much for your welcome. It is a real joy to be with you this morning as we look back in thanksgiving and forward in hope together. This is the first time I have presided at the Eucharist in a parish church in the Diocese of Oxford since arriving a few weeks ago. It’s actually the first time I have preached a sermon since my farewell in Sheffield in July. It’s good to get back into practice before my inauguration in Christ Church on Friday. It is a great honour to be here both in Littlemore and in the Diocese of Oxford.
I read with great interest the material Margreet sent to me about the history of this church and about your plans for the future. There is much to celebrate and give thanks for over 180 years of service in this place. I love your hopeful, confident, compassionate, open handed vision for the future of your parish. I hope the building project is richly, richly blessed. I pray you learn many lessons of faith and love and sacrifice. I look forward to coming back to see how it’s going and to celebrate the completion of the project and all that it will mean for the people of this community.
I’m thinking a lot about new beginnings at the moment as I begin this new ministry. Around 30 years ago, I became Vicar of a parish in a poor community. The place was Ovenden in Halifax. It was the parish where my dad grew up and where my grandmother lived. The parish consists of large council estates built between the wars. Like this parish, it was one of the poorest in the Diocese at the time. The large carpet factory at one end of the parish closed the year before I arrived. The large biscuit factory at the other end closed just as I arrived. Ann and I moved there when our two sons were 3 and 1. Our daughters were born there. We stayed for 9 very happy years.
When I arrived the Church community were in debt. Giving had fallen. The finances were challenging. Work was needed on the building. A few months after I arrived, we discovered that half the chancel roof was infected with dry rot.
We did what churches do. We called a meeting. The new Vicar couldn’t see a way forward. I was all for trying to borrow money from the diocese. The core members of the church were much wiser. They hated being in debt. So they said, let’s set aside a day. Let’s come together and pray. Let’s invite people to give. Let’s trust God for the future.
They were my teachers. We did exactly that. We took as our text the verse from Matthew about faith moving mountains:
“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there” and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you”.
The total needed was £20,000. That’s a lot of money now. It was even more in 1987. It’s nowhere near your target. People came all day and said prayers. On the Sunday we had special services and people offered gifts. At the end of our day of prayer, a member of the church called Ken shared a conviction that when all the money was counted, the amount raised would be £17,500 but we were not to be discouraged. The rest would come in.
During the Sunday evening service, people gave as they came in and then Jack, our treasurer, counted the money in the vestry. Just before I got up to preach the sermon, Jack handed me a small piece of paper with the total raised. £17,538.50.
The rest came in by the end of the year.
It was an amazing moment. We stepped out in faith. People gave generously according to their means and sometimes beyond their means. God responded in grace. We had the money we needed to repair the church and move forward debt free. We tackled bigger projects in the years to come. But something deeper happened. Our mustard seed of faith had moved mountains. Our faith in God’s abundance was somehow rekindled. We had attempted something very difficult together and God blessed that work. God drew us together in that moment and gave us fresh vision and purpose and imagination for the future.
God set many of us free in that moment, for a time anyway, from the love of money, which is one of the besetting sins of our age. That little phrase love of money is in or near both of our bible readings.
In 1 Timothy 6 we read: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains”.
The same word is used in Luke 16, in the introduction to our parable, just before our gospel reading. “The Pharisees who were lovers of money heard all this and they ridiculed him”.
I’d love to be able to tell you those are the only two uses of the term in the New Testament but some of my books are still in boxes!
Love of money is surely the disease of our age. It remains the root of all kinds of evil. People sacrifice their lives to become a little richer. It lies beneath addictions to work and to gambling, the breakdown of relationships and a huge store of unhappiness. It shapes the career choices of the young and the bitterness of the old. Sometimes it pulls families apart. Love of money isolates us from one another and closes our hearts to human need. It affects many who are rich and even some who are poor in human terms. Jesus and Paul both teach in different ways that love of money can get in the way of our discipleship.
This parish church has stood at the heart of this place for 180 years to bear witness to a different way of living: a life lived not for what we can take but for what we can give; a life lived not by ourselves but in community; a life shaped bynot be a desire for worldly wealth but a desire for spiritual riches: for peace; for justice; for friendship with God and with others; for generosity to those around.
What you are seeking to do is equip this parish church for the next chapter of the story: the next one hundred years of service so that this can be a place where the whole community gathers; where disciples are made; where the bereaved find comfort; the lonely find friendship; the poor find care, where Christians of every age are resourced for life and ministry.
Take your faith as small as a mustard seed and move mountains. Let your giving and generosity be like medicine for your hearts and lives against the disease which is the love of money.
And finally, in the life of your parish, treat every person as an individual. Know one another by name.
One of the most striking things about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is that poor man is given a name and the rich man is not. Jesus turns upside down the way things are in life. We know about the rich. They have names and characters and stories. But we do not know about the poor. They form the crowd in the background, the strangers we pass in the street, the unnoticed and forgotten.
A parish church is a place where people are known by name. Jemima who laid the first stone of this chapel is still remembered by name as is John her son. In my story I told you about Ken and Jack who were part of the church in Ovenden.
This is a place where people bring their children to be baptized and to be named. Each one matters. Our new grandson was born on Tuesday, a little bit early. Everyone in the family wanted to know his name. He is called Judah and he is tiny and wonderful. This is a place where people come to be married and pledge themselves to each other by name and take each others names. This is a place where real people come to grieve their loved ones, to name them before God and commend them to him.
All through the gospels Jesus calls people by name: Peter, Matthew, Mary, Martha, Zaccheus, who is healed from his love of money. Even Lazarus in this story given a name. Every person in creation is different, is loved by God, is full of hope and potential and blessing.
May this be a place where faith moves mountains, where generosity overcomes greed, where everyone who comes, even the very poorest, is known by name.
Hear Jesus calling you in love, by name this day and commit yourself again to follow him.