St Augustine’s, Rugeley
4 December 2016
Fr Richard Peers
Do you love the outrageous bling of Strictly Come Dancing? Or do you prefer the mind games of The Apprentice? Do you drop everything for Coronation Street or are you a fan of Country File? Are you grieving the end of Bake Off as we know it or are the new team on Top Gear your issue.
I haven’t owned a television since I was 20 but you don’t need to listen to many conversations to keep up with what’s happening.
In fact over the last few years I’ve watched quite a bit of television on my laptop and, you’ll be pleased to know, do have a TV licence to do so. I am a fan of Bake Off and I don’t mind Strictly being on in the background but I wonder if anyone else here today is a fan of my favourite programme?
The great catchphrase of my favourite is that of the chief presenter, “Every day’s a school day” he’ll announce at the learning of some new fact.
So, does anyone know what I like to watch?
Well, it’s a gardening programme called The Beechgrove Garden. It is made in Scotland and I think one of the things I like about it is that it is like television programmes were when I was growing up. There are no gimmicks. It is simply a group of gardeners gardening and talking about it. The main presenter Jim McColl has been presenting it since 1978, his sidekick Carole Baxter joined him a few years later.
Do watch it. In the midst of a world of uncertainty and violence it is an oasis of calm and a world at ease with itself.
Every day’s a school day, says Jim when he learns something new. Jim is in his eighties now and it is remarkable that he is still learning. Still finding out new things about plants and gardens and the parts of Scotland the programme visits.
Our teacher today is a rather different figure to the easy going Jim MColl. I can well imagine sharing a wee dram with Jim on a cold Scottish night but I don’t think I’d like to meet John the Baptist, an altogether different sort of conversation partner.
But John would approve of Jim’s catchphrase. For John the Baptist every day is a day for repentance, for preparing the way of the Lord, for knowing that the kingdom of God is near.
It was very good to be here in this church a few weeks ago when Fr David was made your team Rector. It is very good indeed to be back today. A new priest is a good time for a community to re-assess, to think again about what God is calling you to here in Rugeley. I know that you are all praying for that already and that God will make his plans known to you for this congregation and for all the churches of this town.
All of us in the Church of England face similar problems, our congregations are shrinking, we are getting older, the young are not coming to church. Nationally we are engaged in a programme of Renewal and Reform seeking ways to grow as a church in holiness and in numbers.
There are, according to Wikipedia some 24 000 people living in Rugeley. I don’t know what the total number of people will be in church this morning in all the churches of the town. Probably less than a thousand.
We could carry on doing the things that we have always done in the hope that it would suddenly seem attractive to our friends, families and neighbours, or we could have a revolution we could change everything we do, begin again and see what happens.
Well, I am not the Rector, and I have no idea what God intends for this congregation or the others here but I do believe that we need to read the signs of the times, we need to become prophetic like John the Baptist and we need to ask ourselves what is God saying to us in our times.
What is God saying in the election of Donald Trump as President?
What is God saying in the vote to leave the European Union?
What is God saying in the fact that our friends and neighbours would rather be at the supermarket, football practice or just having a lie-in this morning?
The Bishop of Burnley, Philip North wrote a superb article in this week’s Church Times about what is important to human beings and how the church is failing to address that. He identified three key aspirations that everyone has:
Church, if it is to thrive has to be a place where families are nourished and nurtured, supported through difficult times and celebrated at moments of joy. Our worship on Sunday must have sufficient depth to engage people of all ages. I am not a fan of removing children to Sunday school during the Eucharist. That is a modern phenomenon and it has not worked. If our worship is too dull for children it is probably too dull for adults as well, we are just too polite to say it. Children love mystery and adventure, visual symbols and rituals. Every playground game is a form of ritual, a ceremony with careful rules and conventions. Children need as in every good fairy tale to confront evil; to know that the world is a tragically unfair place, that the good suffer and the wicked often prosper. They need massive amounts of repetition not constant novelty. Dumbing down our worship patronises children and puts off the grown ups.
Family has to be at the heart of the church.
Family – place – work
When I visit churches I love to read the memorials around the walls and there are some final memorials here at St Augustine’s. I especially love the one for Rebecca Simpson who died here in 1849 aged 78 years:
“She was a native of this place, in which she passed her valuable life: being ever liberal and considerate, in relieving the wants and in proomoting the temporal and eternal welfare of her poorer neighbours.
She bequeathed munificanet legacies, to increase the endowment of the schools, in connexion with teh Churh of England, and the almshouses foundede by Mr Hopkins in this parish, by which she “being dead yet speaketh”.”
The Church of England has a massive gift in our presence in every community and in the sense of the local. They may not be part of the liturgical year but Remembrance parades, war memorials, flower festivals, mothering Sunday, All Souls’ services root us in place. You are the church of God in Rugeley. When Fr David told me of the hundreds of people gathered at your War Memorial recently I was delighted. Here is where the gospel is lived.
Family – place –work
Work helps us define who we are. What do you do? What’s your job? We ask people when we first meet them. Unemployment is debilitating because it robs us of identity, of that sense of self.
We need to help people to find God in their work. Our preaching and our praying should relate to the stresses and anxieties of the work place, to the difficulties we have with colleagues, to the problem of managing the family budget, to the dangers of a take over of our company. Churches are very good at cycles of prayer for local schools, which is fabulous, but how often are local employers prayed for?
Our church life needs to provide a space, a sense of meditation and simplicity so that people leave feeling nourished and ready for the week ahead, healed of the bruises that life causes. The old joke that the first Sunday someone attends church they are on a rota, the second on the PCC and the third a churchwarden contains an important truth. People whose lives are full need space not more demands.
And the church needs to be a place of prayer during the week, short simple services for people on the way to work, over a lunch time break. Not a long event with coffee afterwards – that’s fine for the retired – but short, simple worship on a regular, daily basis. So people don’t have to look up a rota or read in the parish magazine when things are happening.
Family – Place – work
People already have these things in their lives. As church it is our task to help one another to find God in our families, to find God in this place, to find God in our work.
The most important thing any of us can do is to be people of prayer. Prepare the way of the Lord, John calls. Every day is a school day, every day is a day when God is present in our homes, in our streets in our jobs.
This Advent and in the months and years ahead as God calls us, as a church to renewal and reform, God wants us to know his presence, he wants us to experience him so that people can see that we have something, someone in our lives that they too would want in their lives.
Spend time every day praying and reading Scripture. The kingdom of heaven has come near. It is as near to you as your breathing. It is the delight we feel at the winter sun on a crisp, frosty morning. It is the simplicity of a child playing. God is not far away, God is not distant. The kingdom of God is within you.
Our problem is not that God is not here, it is that we don’t notice him. It is not that God has withdrawn but that we don’t know how to talk about him. The experience of God is not different to the experience of a family life of living in a particular place or finding identity in our work. That is the experience of God, that is how God comes to us and we need to find the words to say it; the words that we read and meditate on in Scripture and in the worship of the church.
When we do that our families, our neighbours and friends will see that this is the most marvellous way to live a life, this is the life giving way that John proclaims.
Every day is a school day. May we learn more about God in our familes, in our places, in our work today, tomorrow and every day.