The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Choral Evensong      13th October 2019
'How do you love?' Words and Actions for Dedication Sunday
Ayla Lepine

Today is our Dedication Festival. What is our Divine Creator up to, and what does God ask of us in this place? The Holy Spirit urges us on and fills us with Her hope. She calls us into territory that will be unexpected or risky, as well as joyful and profound.

The banners in the church are more than temporary decoration, or a collection of inspiring words. These banners are visual theology. Each one is a bright cloth sermon. Through colour, text, and image, they ask us to connect with God in new ways. In the corner, one reflects on perception, re-imagining the symmetrical Classicism of our church through line and form that makes us look again at the building, the community, the world around us. We look again, see afresh, and then, act on what we’ve seen. 

‘How do you Love?’
Jesus asks this question. Each of us asks this question too, of ourselves and of each other. When the theologian Henri Nouwen went to bed each night, he asked himself, ‘Did I love well today?’ Ask the question. See what happens. See in the banner that the words ‘You’ and ‘Love’ are arranged around the bright circle in the middle. When I see this, I see the elevated host, consecrated and offered as Holy Communion – the Body of Christ - for all God’s people. I see the glowing evening sun radiant in our windows on summer evenings.

‘Parish Notice’
The green and orange eyes, at first, are a fun counterpoint for the words, and the rays of light emanating from them. But what happens when we notice something? Glance at it, take it into our inner vision, allow what we’ve noticed to change us? This is a play on the parish notices, given week by week to everyone in the pew, and everyone on our email list. But do we notice the notices? This week: a pilgrimage to an ancient abbey of saints and monarchs; a woman who urgently needs a home; a new prayer group; music with beloved friends. What else can we notice? Someone who needs a shoulder, an encouraging text message, or a coffee? Something we’ve heard or seen that might cause us to act, whether it’s joining the Extinction Rebellion protests, send a message of solidarity to Jewish friends and neighbours fearful in the wake of recent anti-Semitic attacks, or signing up for our Winter Night Shelter, to serve food or sleep over with our homeless guests every Saturday? What have you noticed? What goes unnoticed, and why? Let’s notice things more, and tell each other what we’ve noticed. 

Right now the nave is embraced by expressions of life, love, and vision. There is prose, revealing the most personal experiences of what this place means to people. There is poetry, reminding everyone who enters that offering a true welcome is a process and not a given. There is also a board focusing on Black History Month this October, reminding us that black lives matter, that inspiration and wisdom flow in the lives of people of colour, and that where there is injustice – and there is too much injustice in this world – we may continue the work of dismantling the racist structures that continue to oppress and silence.

The prophet Jeremiah is bold with his hearers in our Old Testament lesson: it’s not just complacent but it’s no less than deceptive to proclaim again and again that a space dedicated to God ‘is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’. What does that really mean, if the people within that holy place are not truly paying attention to God’s invitation to change, to grab hold of life-giving things and turn away from the darkness that holds us back from being the people we’re meant to be? Whether you feel you have a little faith, are anchored deep in God’s abiding presence, or full of doubt, or have no idea whether you believe in God or not, being here, right now, is truly good for us. St Athanasius tells us, ‘What God is by nature, we become by grace.’ God’s love has been poured into our hearts. When we let that sink in, the world looks different. The people we pass on the street, and the situations that make us feel anxious or even lock us in despair can look different. The more we see with Christ’s eyes, and reach out with Christ’s hands, eager to connect, the more we can be the people of God together.

The people of God are known by who we are and what we’re like. We are known by what we do, say, and offer, as well as what we believe. Trust God, and do what you can to bring light into the world. Today in Rome St John Henry Newman, the Victorian theologian, has been canonised. May he pray for us. He was wise about how to recognise whether a Christian community is truly serving God. He said ‘Growth is the only evidence of life.’ This is not just about numbers of people in our churches or Christians in our city,  It’s about inward growth too. Maturity, change, insight. It’s about doing and seeing things differently because of Jesus.

How do we see Christ more clearly? Our Gospel reading suggests that we have to dare to make ourselves look foolish, and dare to take a risk. Zacchaeus, we are told, is short. He’s also hated, frankly. Complicit and colluding with the Roman government to exploit people, he is no friend of many in the crowd around Jesus. He was more like a local corporate executive with fingers in many pies than someone working for the equivalent of HMRC. The system was open to corruption and the implication is that Zacchaeus played that system. He uses the verb ‘sykophanteo’. Transliterated it means ‘talk figs’. It was slang for ‘extortion’.

For Zacchaeus, it was better to just stay as invisible as possible. Better to not be noticed. But he needs to see Jesus. His desire to be with Jesus is more powerful than his fear and more powerful than his desire to stay rich. And so he does what he needs to do to see. He climbs a tree. A disliked man does something that must have been humiliating, and he doesn’t care, because he’s more focused on Jesus than on how he looks or what the crowd might think. Socially, he’s in a lose-lose situation. With God, he can only ask for mercy. Jesus gets him to climb out of the tree, comes to Zacchaeus’ house, offers a blessing, and responds with love. Jesus accepts Zacchaeus’ repentance, but he refuses to collude with Zacchaeus’ shame. How do we see Christ more clearly? We have to become tree-climbers too.

Look around you at these banners again:

How do you love?

Action: What are you going to do about it?

Parish: notice.


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