Sermon preached for Lent 1, 2013

Here’s the video.

And here is the text:

One of my favourite stories about St Mary’s is one that I’ve heard several versions of. It concerns one of my predecessors as Provost here.

He had been here for a couple of months and thought that things were going OK. And then suddenly a letter appeared from a member of the congregation. (It may be that person is still here and just about to write to me in similar terms, so I’m taking a risk in telling this story).

The gist of the letter was that its author listed the many ways in which the worship of the congregation had changed in those three months.

See here, the letter writer wrote – see all the changes that you’ve made.

And in the letter there was a list. In the version of the story I like the best there were 90 points listed but I don’t know whether we should allow a little bit of exaggeration in the telling.

And the Provost in question had to confess that up until that moment he was entirely unaware of having changed anything at all.

When I came here, I guess it was the same. Things certainly did change a bit. Some were intentional changes and some, I’m quite sure were things that I was unaware of meddling in.

I remember on my first Sunday I was trying to get my head around the basic norms of the congregation. I was trying to work out how the procession came in. And I remember trying to work out whether the procession came in, and the celebrant said the words grace and peace and then we sang a hymn, or whether it was that we came in singing a hymn and then had the grace and peace greeting from whoever was in charge.

It can be one or the other and to be honest doesn’t particularly matter in the grand scheme of salvation.

I decided to ask a couple of people what had happened int he weeks preceding my arrival.

The first person I asked said that the procession came in and then we had grace and peace and then a hymn. The second replied very confidently that we processed in singing a hymn and had the words grace and peace.

They were each pretty sure that they were right.

I had no alternative but to ask a third person who fixed me with a steely grin and said, “Well Provost, you’re the Provost here now and that’s what we did before you arrived too.”

It was an early lesson that sometimes in ministry like this someone has to be in charge and that being in charge is usually most clearly available to you over things that matter least.

However there was one thing I did change right from the beginning.

One thing I changed without any consultation with anyone.

No doubt some people noticed and rejoiced in what I did. No doubt others lamented.

But the change stuck.

The thing I did was to restore the saying of the Nicene Creed every Sunday, the congregation having got into the business of having different affirmations of faith which changed with the seasons.

I made that change for two reasons. Firstly because I thought at the time that we needed to calm down a bit as a congregation and simply enjoy finding the patterns and shape that the basic liturgy offers us once again. And secondly because I thought that it was important that this place, an icon and a beacon of hope for some looking for a confident, generous, liberal interpretation of the Christian faith should actually make a confident statement about core doctrine of the Christian faith at the heart of its worship. One of the things a church like this can be criticised for is seeming to the narrow minded to be able to embrace believe in just about anything. Now you know and I know that that isn’t true, but I didn’t want it to ever be said of us that we were any the less Christian than anyone else.

And so the creed came back. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe the other affirmations of faith. It is more that I was interested in us discovering the different, diverse and bountiful ways in which we do believe the core doctrines that are shared by all those who count themselves as God’s beloved.

In the first reading from Deuteronomy this morning you will find a creed. Or at least you will find a statement which many scholars think of as one of the first creedal statements written down by people of faith and recited.

My ancestor was a wandering Aramean, it begins.

Do you remember. The deal is, when you possess the land you take a proportion of the bounty of the land and go into the holy place and make your offering and the gist of it is this, “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean. Then we were enslaved. Then we were set free. And now, joyfully I offer the first fruits of the land we have now possessed”.

It is worth reading it over and wondering how the people of faith managed to get from reciting a formula which was all about being set free and offering thanks to reciting a formula which is all about the nature of God.
(That would make an interesting discussion group one way).

For now though, I ask you to think about that passage. Firstly to acknowledge that the principle of making an offering out of your bounty is a good one. I thought a lot about generosity when I was on my sabbatical. Not only the generosity of those of you who let me go but the generosity I saw practised as the church over there teaches people to give proportionately out of their bounty with thankful hearts. I’ll be saying more about that in the coming months, but let us just know that joyful, proportionate giving is a biblical model which is far removed from simply divvying up the bills and offering to take a share, which sometimes seems to be how we have imagined giving to be in this country.

But note some other big themes too.

We are moving into a new land. The story behind Deuteronomy is a chilling one of people displaced from their land by those who believed that they had a God given right to steal it.

The church has been complicit in that kind of domineering oppression for far too much of its history. Racism, ethnic cleansing, homophobia, the silencing of women and the abuse of the vulnerable have all been part of our story.

But we are moving into a new land. Gradually, painfully, horribly slowly the churches are edging into a new sensibility. The battles over those corporate sins are not over, and some of them have to be fought out yet most bitterly in the churches rather than with those who watch us in hope and expection. However, in God’s name those battles are already won.

The new land, the new space, the new settlement for God’s people is nothing unless it is a safe space for the vulnerable, a place where every voices is heard and a space where everyone’s gift can be offered and received with joy.

That is a new land. And we will enter it rejoicing. And as we enter it we will learn that the generosity that rises in our hearts comes from an already generous God who stirs us to give of ourselves and of our bounty.

The Lord has seen how deeply we have been enmeshed in the oppression business. But God is good. God will bring us to a new land. One flowing with milk and honey, with equity and equality, with love and compassion and with joy everlasting.



  1. Rosemary Hannah says

    For what it is worth – the story behind the Pentateuch and Judges is probably not historic. In fact, the Hebrews were either always in that Land, or just kind-of sidled in, quite harmlessly. It was largely AFTER they had been themselves brutally treated in the Exile that they retold the story, bigging themselves up. But that is another sermon…

  2. Suz Cate says

    Amen, amen, and AMEN!

  3. The congregation I am part of (and love being part of) is itself part of the possibly most conservative diocese in the Anglican sphere – the Sydney Anglicans. We follow a traditional pattern of worship, reciting either the Nicene or Apostles Creed each week and I do find great relevance in this form of worship. I long for changed attitudes in a number of areas but walking away from the people I’ve grown to love isn’t an option. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. AnnaMarie Hoos says

    I found very helpful the idea of “discovering the different, diverse, and bountiful ways in which we do believe the core doctrines that are shared by all those who count themselves as God’s beloved.” I hadn’t really thought of their being different ways of believing in doctrines before – even though I am constantly speaking up for different ways of acting/moving/leading in worship. I wonder where there is room (or if there is any use?) for talking about this more. Where, or who, would I ask “How do you believe in one God?” etc. รขโ‚ฌโ€ not to get at assent to the doctrine but at action flowing out of that belief. Hmm.

    Thanks for posting.

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