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Autumn Renewal

Below is the sermon I gave at Oldham Unitarian Chapel this Sunday just gone (20/09/2015). The sermon was shorter than usual and formed part of a service based on a liturgy from The Community of Aidan and Hilda, a Christian group hailing from Lindisfarne (Holy Island). The readings which accompanied the sermon were 'The Parable of the Weeds' and a Rosh Hashanah reflection from Rabbi Jill Hammer.

An ancient cross at Lindisfarne

The liturgy comes under the 'Celtic Church' banner which seems to be increasingly fashionable. For some, 'Celtic Church' represents a move towards a somehow more primitive, purer Christianity - a return to seemingly better times. This is an age old tendency within Christianity that has resulted in positive developments such as the Quakers, the Unitarians, the Methodists and so on.  However, it can also lead to a false purity because the truth is, the Christianity of 2000 years ago is just that. Any renewal effort is not really about rediscovering a lost Christianity of yesterday - as one might find a treasure chest - but, rather, discovering a Christianity for today.

It has occurred to me (and I may well be wrong) that the Christianity that will survive in Britain is the more charismatic, muscular Christianity found in evangelical Anglican churches and Pentecostal churches - a Christianity that enables to people to have a robust, compelling vision and opportunity, through worship, of an energetic outpouring. But this doesn't suit all needs and personalities - and so I wonder if there is perhaps an opportunity, albeit smaller, for growth amongst those seeking a more contemplative, doctrinally-looser Christianity? I base this primarily on my own experiences of meeting Christians and the observation that Buddhist meditation has grown hugely in popularity these past few decades.

Ultimately though, it is all an experiment - and an experiment with Oldham Unitarian Chapel in particular. I am thankful that there is a congregation at Oldham willing to try out new ways of Christian worship and one that will give honest feedback - which not only helps the wider evolution of the chapel, but also helps me as a newbie lay preacher.


'Autumn Renewal'

This week saw our Jewish neighbours mark Rosh Hashanah, the start of their new agricultural and civil year. The celebration – known in the Bible as the Feast of Trumpets - is significant also because it marks the creation of Adam and Eve. And even more significantly, the realisation of the role they would play in God’s world. That their lives matter.

A central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn. The cry of the shofar is a call to repentance - for Rosh Hashanah is also the anniversary of humankind’s first sin. Rosh Hashanah serves as the first of the “Ten Days of Repentance” which culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Despite the Jewish roots of our faith, we have little connection with such festivals. And as we enter autumn perhaps our minds are more focused on either eking out the last moments of summer – or for the more forward thinking – starting to buy bits and pieces for Christmas.

For me, I have found myself watching carefully the garden as it begins to turn. I’ve been watching with a quiet excitement the Virginia creeper I planted over a year ago as a seedling, now fully established on our fence, slowly turn red - whilst at the same time I’ve been mourning the loss of my tomato plants – still dotted with green fruits that have run out of time. Indeed, I often find it is in the simple quiet of the garden that I can almost see the presence of the God at work.

This might seem at odds with our Christian tradition with its teaching focusing primarily on our inner state and our relationship with others rather than the natural world. Yet, I put it to you that although the early Christians and their Jewish forebears did not make false idols of nature – they nonetheless lived in deep connection with nature.

We see this in the Old Testament with God’s presence represented as fire, as wind and as breath - and most obviously, as light. Similarly, in the largely symbolic stories of humankind being cleansed and renewed – such as the story of Noah – we see God’s power in water.

The Old Testament also provides practical wisdom in which the human condition is intertwined with the condition of the land. We see this in Leviticus where the ancient Jews are instructed to let the land – and perhaps more importantly, let themselves – enter a period of rest every seventh year. This of course mirrors the story of Genesis with God resting on the seventh day. And from there, there is the further instruction to forgive longstanding debts and contracts of service every 49 years – an action clearly designed to foster peace and justice within such communities. Here we see human history being ordered into forward-moving cycles, just as nature operates in cycles.

Similarly, the Psalms are rich in their reference to the natural world. We see this as soon as we open the Book of Psalms and read the first verse. Here we are told the disciple who diligently follows the path of God is like a tree planted by a stream, yielding great fruit.

In the New Testament, we see Jesus also use the pattern of nature to awaken his disciples and help them arrive at deeper truths.

In the Parable of the Weeds, the reading we heard today, we hear Jesus speak of the need to carefully separate the wheat from the chaff.

However, this is not just a psychological process – not just a case of Ancient Jewish therapy. In Mark we see starkly the power Jesus intends to work through his disciples firstly in the Parable of the Sower:

“A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”

Before following this with the Parable of the Mustard Seed:

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.”

Here we read that the intention is much bigger than self-help – there is a greater scheme of things, the building of God’s Kingdom.

So friends, I ask you – as we enter autumn – a season of dying to that which has gone before, what is it in each of us – as individuals, as family members, as members of this nation – that needs to be cut away in order to achieve new growth? To truly become stakeholders in God’s Kingdom?

We all have our bad habits, our addictions, our prejudices, our long-held grievances, our nagging regrets – that tendency to hold onto moments where we think “If only I had done X instead of Y, my life would be different…”

We naturally prefer the word forgiveness to the words sin and repentance, but actually these two great Christian ideas – these two practices for spiritual development - go hand in hand. I put it to you that we must embrace both. And we must accept perhaps, that they represent – as a whole - an ongoing process in our lives. A process which – like the seasons – is essentially cyclical rather than a finishable A to B route.

To continually grow, to experience the springs and summers of our lives, we must enter our very own autumn and winter periods. With reference to the long-held wisdom of our scripture – and by drawing upon the support of our little fellowship here at Oldham - we must sift our lives, we must let parts of our lives wither and die, we must work to cut out that stubborn dead wood.

We may not have the sound of the shofar calling us to repentance, as our Jewish neighbours do. But maybe - as we quietly observe the ways of autumn – the trees shedding their leaves, the once blooming shrubs retreating back to the soil, the earth being dug up ready for next year’s bulbs – maybe we too can recommit once again to our own paths of renewal.