When I was a parish priest in England, my church, St Mary’s, stood right in the middle of the town, and in many ways was at the center of the community. Every year on our Patronal Festival, we organized a week of celebrations, with a carnival and street market, and concerts and events taking place every day inside the church. A large proportion of the town community thought of St Mary’s as their church, even if they only worshipped there occasionally, or not at all! Many of them were baptized there, and expected to be married and buried there. We were open and welcoming to anyone who turned up.
The only other church in the town was one of the oldest independent churches in England. Its members were direct descendants of those Puritan men and women who set sail a few hundred years ago to land on these shores of New England. They took a very different view of the local community, having little to do with it, and certainly nothing to do with us. Those who worshiped with them had first assented to some very specific theological doctrines, and tended to keep themselves separate from the secular world, which they saw as essentially ‘fallen’.
My parish was very ancient, and part of the money raised to build the first rectory was given by Edward the Confessor. I was also, technically, still ‘lord of the manor’, but sadly most of the benefits had been removed (except my historic right to the first pint of beer drawn from each new barrel, at the 15th century pub next to the church. I occasionally took up this right, which may well not have enamored me to my neighboring church)!
The fact that St Mary’s was open and welcoming to everyone, regardless of their belief, or unbelief, was not because we happened to be particularly friendly, but is rather a sign of one of the chief characteristics of Anglican and Episcopal churches. It stems from our historical understanding of the nature of the church – our ecclesiology. And that goes right back to the time of Elizabeth I and the Reformation Settlement hammered out during her reign. It was the task of perhaps the greatest of all Anglican theologians, Richard Hooker, to define the nature and characteristics of Anglicanism. Among the pages of his magisterial Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity he describes how Anglicans understand the nature of the church, as contrasted with how Puritans understand it. Puritanism drew a very sharp distinction between the secular and the sacred. The church was very much contained within its walls. It was an assembly of ‘saved’ people, who knew they were saved, meeting and praying together. Hooker insisted though, that the church was far wider than that, and declared that the Anglican church refuses to draw such strict boundaries around its gatherings, or to draw such sharp distinctions between sacred and secular.
As Episcopalians, we are heirs of this tradition. It is not always comfortable. Denominations with a more exclusive ecclesiology accuse us of being too open, too broad, mingling too much with the world. But for me, I am an Episcopalian by conviction, for these very reasons. I loved being an Anglican parish priest because I was given the ‘cure of souls’ by the bishop for every single person in my town. So, I did not spend all my time with those who came to church, but with the whole community. Saints and sinners were not in two separate camps. And the marvelous and exciting thing was that the Kingdom of God kept breaking out in the most unexpected, the most unlikely places – even in the merriment of cracking open a new barrel of beer!
Jesus said in our Gospel today, “The Kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found. In his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” That man wasn’t looking for treasure; he certainly wasn’t expecting to find it, digging in the dirt. He was probably in the middle of a rather ordinary job, perhaps digging up a field to sow some seeds. But suddenly, unexpectedly, he stumbled upon this wonderful treasure. And that’s what the Kingdom of God is like, says Jesus. It’s not where you’d expect to find it. Not just inside the walls of a monastery or parish church. Not just in the sacraments, although God is there, because he has promised to be. God’s activity is not, thank God, confined to what we do when we assemble to worship, not confined to what goes on inside church. No. For “God’s Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John Ch.3 v.8) The Spirit of God will not be confined, controlled or contained. And this is so important to remember, particularly at this challenging time in our lives. We need now, I would say, during this time of pandemic more than ever, the spirit of Advent; to keep awake, to stay alert and full of prayerful expectancy, so as to recognize the activity of the Spirit, to see the Kingdom of God at work, in unexpected places. It is like treasure, just waiting for us to find it. God is at work in our lives, in our communities, even if our churches are closed. God is not in lockdown!
Because we are so often attracted to the spectacular, the novel, the extraordinary, we can easily miss the presence of God in the ordinary and familiar. There is a saying of Jesus recorded in the apocryphal gospel of Thomas which I rather like. It says, ‘Raise a stone and you will find me; cleave the wood and I am there.’ That great French Carmelite, Brother Lawrence, spent much of his working life in the monastery kitchen, amidst the dirty dishes, but wrote in his ‘Practicing the Presence of God’, “I felt Jesus Christ as close to me in the kitchen as ever I did at the Blessed Sacrament.” During this time, when many of us are confined, maybe bored, and are missing church, perhaps today’s Gospel is challenging us to ask, ‘So where are the signs of God’s Kingdom, right here in my home, in my kitchen? Where is the Spirit at work, here, now, in the midst of dull routine? Where is God in the ordinary, in the person we are so familiar with, whom we perhaps tend to overlook or ignore, in activities that we are bored with, and take for granted. But these might be the very people and places where God’s treasure is waiting to be discovered, waiting to transform our lives.
So perhaps at the beginning of each day, we might ask God to bless our eyes, our ears and all our senses that we may be alert to the signs of God’s Kingdom breaking into our lives. Lord, help me not to miss the treasure. There is a very beautiful Dominican prayer of the 13thcentury which I commend to you, and which would be a perfect one to start your day. I would like to end with it now.
Let us pray.
May God the Father bless us. May God the Son heal us. May God the Holy Spirit enlighten us, and give us eyes to see with, ears to hear with, hands to do the work of God with, feet to walk with, a mouth to preach the word of salvation with, and the angel of peace to watch over us and lead us at last, by our Lord’s gift, to the Kingdom.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.