Psalm 139:1-5,12-17 (BCP); John 1:43-51
Because some of us may have trouble really taking this in, I want to read back a bit of the psalm we prayed a few minutes ago. We said to God, “You yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.” (Psalm 139:12-13 BCP)
This morning, I’d like to convince you that what you just heard is true. You are marvelously made. And so are “they.”
Who’s “they”? You get to fill in that blank. “They” can be anybody, as long as they’re on the margins, on the edge of whatever circle of belonging we might draw. “They” are whomever we would choose not to include in what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community.”
Everybody does it. Even if we’re one of “them,” we do it. In the Gospel reading, Philip has this amazing experience of Jesus, and he runs off to tell his friend, Nathanael. Philip says, “We have found him about whom Moses … and … the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth” (John 1:45). And what does Nathanael hear? One word: Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks with a sneer (John 1:46). And this from an oppressed Jew in a rural backwater of the Roman Empire, a nobody if there ever was one. But hey, at least Nathanael could take pride that he wasn’t one of “them” from Nazareth.
Of course, Jesus blows Nathanael away once they meet. Jesus tells him he’d seen him under a fig tree before Nathanael ever talked with Philip. And that’s all it takes for Nathanael to believe Jesus is the real deal – no longer one of “them.” Jesus chuckles and says, Really? That’s all it takes? “You will see greater things than these,” Nathanael. Hang out with me, and you’ll see “heaven opened and the angels of God” moving effortlessly between this world and God’s kingdom. (John 1:51)
I was blessed to see some angels in England this fall – and not just carvings on old church walls. My sabbatical visits included parishes in the Church of England, which of course is the “mother” of the American Episcopal Church, the place where we were born. And while I was there, at the Abbey Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Tewkesbury and St. Barnabas in north London, I saw angels in the flesh – angels who look a lot like “them.”
Both Tewkesbury Abbey and St. Barnabas are strong, vibrant parishes with solid histories of ministry. They both do church well and in ways we’d recognize, though personally we might not care so much for one expression or the other. In their inherited forms, Tewkesbury Abbey and St. Barnabas are about as different as you get in the Church of England. Nine-hundred-year-old Tewkesbury Abbey is high-church Anglo-Catholic at its best. Chants and incense have been rising to God’s throne daily there for so long, the pillars seem like stalagmites of prayer. By contrast, St. Barnabas in London is all-out low church, proudly charismatic and evangelical. Worshipers lift their hands in praise and sing from video screens as the rock band plays up front. Words of knowledge and prophecy are uttered through the Holy Spirit. And healings are as common as they are miraculous.
But something deep unifies Tewkesbury Abbey and St. Barnabas in London. It is “one and the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:11) guiding and inspiring their sense of mission, their sense of being sent into the world God loves. And that same Spirit is guiding these two very different congregations along journeys to basically the same place: into ministry with “them.”
In Tewkesbury, the vicar, Paul Williams, had a vision of extending the Abbey’s ministry to a neighborhood just beyond the walls of the Abbey grounds – a government housing project called Prior’s Park. The people of Prior’s Park are among the poorest of Tewkesbury – the other end of the socioeconomic scale from most of the Abbey’s worshipers. Although Prior’s Park residents love the Abbey in the sense of community pride, frankly most don’t feel welcome there.
Well, almost six years ago, a seminarian came to the Abbey for an internship – a woman with the wonderfully English name of Wendy Ruffle. Rev. Wendy is a self-proclaimed charismatic evangelical, and Paul, the vicar, told me she came to Tewkesbury “to convince herself that Anglo-Catholics never mention Jesus.” What she found instead was a second conversion experience – the Holy Spirit’s power so intense in the sacramental mystery that it left her on her knees, sobbing. Unexpectedly, the Spirit later brought Wendy back to the Abbey once she was ordained. And the vicar, Paul, knew she was the right person to start ministry on the ground with the people of Prior’s Park.
So what comes next in this story? Let’s see: She found an empty space in the housing project, gathered a cool praise band, and starting having worship services, right? No. Not even close. Instead, she taught kids at the local school how to play ping-pong. Wendy used to be a ping-pong coach, and the local school received a ping-pong table as a gift just as she arrived in her new assignment. So she spent three years, every Tuesday after school, running a ping-pong club (among other things). As Wendy said, “It really showed them I was here for the long term and it wasn’t about Bible thumping.” She showed people she was for real, getting to know the families on the Park, walking the streets, shopping in the store, talking with people and praying for them in any given moment. She got involved with the preschool, where moms come for parenting help. Members from the Abbey joined her in the work. Eventually, the Abbey found a way to buy a house on Prior’s Park so the ministry could literally move “into the neighborhood” as an incarnation of Christ (John 1:14 The Message). And all that was part of the plan. Wendy told me, “I expected to be getting to know the community for about a year before I started ‘doing’ anything. You have to spend some time building community for what you’re doing.”
Eventually, last winter, Wendy heard God telling her the time had come to build worship with the people she’d come to know. The gathering is called “Celebrate! The Abbey on the Park,” and it happens in the local school’s lunchroom. It begins with an activity – crafts, or sports, or puppetry, or drama – something that introduces a Bible theme to the 30 or so kids and parents. Then they have about 45 minutes of worship, with a song leader playing guitar and slides projected on a screen. The worship draws on lessons from the kids’ activity; and most weeks, it then moves into an intimate Eucharist. Then, the breaking of the bread continues as parishioners from the Abbey serve a lovely meal they’ve been preparing in the kitchen – chicken pie, the night I was there. It’s important enough for the sake of hospitality, but it also guarantees the folks get at least one nutritious meal that day.
It’s all about the Abbey being a partner in turning the love of God outward and making it visible, as it’s done for 900 years. The difference is how. Paul, the vicar, put it like this: In the majestic space of the Abbey, he said, “We can do transcendence by the bucketload, but we can’t do immanence. The people in Prior’s Park need a God who’s beside them, whereas the Abbey issues a picture of a God that’s beyond them. They’ve got enough of that – enough people telling them they aren’t good enough, enough people telling them what to do. What they need is a God who’s beside them.”
Now, at St. Barnabas in London, the inherited form of church already makes it very clear that God’s beside us, the Spirit pouring over people in worship there. At St. Barnabas, a similar fresh expression of church in a housing project is about something different: location.
St. Barnabas is in a beautiful, wealthy neighborhood. There, unlike here, poverty and wealth sit side by side, with housing projects in the midst of upscale homes. But about five years ago, St. Barnabas realized that people in a local housing project, Strawberry Vale, couldn’t easily get to the church. It’s about a 2-mile walk – I know, I walked it – and public transport costs too much for people to make it part of their day-to-day life. So people at St. Barnabas decided to go to Strawberry Vale instead, led by a member-turned-priest, Helen Shannon.
Rev. Helen’s story has a lot in common with the stories she finds on Strawberry Vale. She said, “I was this messed-up teenaged single mom, but the people at St. Barnabas saw who God had created me to be. And they allowed me, encouraged me, cajoled me to be that person. They let me lead ministries. They didn’t wait until I was squeaky clean and got it all sorted [out].”
Like Tewksbury Abbey, St. Barnabas also found a way to buy a house on Strawberry Vale where Helen and her family could move. Then they bought another. From that ministry base, she said, “We shared our lives with everybody in quite an outrageous way. … Our place was constantly open, people constantly knocking on the door. We knew we wanted to build a worshiping community, but first and foremost we wanted to see God’s kingdom come. For us, we knew God was already there doing stuff; we needed to find what he was doing and join in.”
So most of her ministry was and is about connecting with people – getting into conversations, throwing parties and barbeques, offering a monthly prayer brunch, slipping notes and goodies through people’s mail slots. “Any way that we could do it, we did it,” she said – “connecting with people and seeing what God was doing there.”
Now, that presence has become Church@Five, a community of St. Barnabas rooted in Strawberry Vale. Their worship is charismatic and evangelical like St. Barnabas, but different. They meet in the neighborhood community center, not a huge stone church. They sit around small tables, which facilitates both the Bible study during worship and the meal afterward. They take part in the homily, offering their own insights. The music is simple, led by a guy with a guitar. Helen said, “I want the congregation to be a worshipping expression of the culture and the community that it’s in.”
There’s a lot more to the story, both in Tewkesbury and in London. But here’s what I see drawing those stories together: Both churches have mission deep in their DNA. Both churches are incredibly receptive to the call and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, even when it leads in unexpected directions. Both churches have hearts conformed to the shape of God’s love, willing to play the long game of loving “them” and building relationships with “them” for years before any numbers go into computing average Sunday attendance. And both churches proclaim out loud that, yes indeed, something good can come out of Nazareth. I’ll leave you this morning with the words of Rev. Helen herself about the people of Strawberry Vale:
Society says they’re useless: You can’t do anything, you haven’t got jobs, you’ll never have jobs. So, society says, we’re going to keep you corralled in this [housing project], with literally one road in and one road out; we’ll just keep you over there. But then the kingdom of God comes in and says something completely different. The kingdom comes in and says, “This whole world that God is creating – it’s for you, too. God has plans and purposes for you. God has created you, and created you with gifts and skills. You are worth so much, and God has called you to do so much.”
Indeed, God says to “them” and to us all: You are marvelously made.