Sermon for 10.30 Holy Communion at St Andrew’s, 25th August 2017

Ruth 1; Matthew 22:34-40 – click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=370733798 for the readings

 

What a lovely story the Book of Ruth is! ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ Such a loving, trusting thing for Ruth to say to her mother-in-law. It didn’t matter where Ruth had come from, that she was a foreigner: she had become ‘family’ to Naomi, and their bond was based on the two greatest commandments, love of God and love of neighbour. Nothing to do with nationality, or citizenship. They might even have been referred to as ‘economic migrants’, as they’d gone to Moab in search of a better life, and food to eat, in the face of a famine at home. It’s something to think about today.

 

When Ruth talked about ‘your God’ being ‘my God’, she was saying something very interesting. I know that people say ‘my God’ these days very carelessly, as a sort of low-grade swearing. I’m not talking about that.

 

In Old Testament times, in the ancient world, the Jewish idea of the One True God was by no means accepted wisdom generally. The Persians, Egyptians and Greeks all worshipped several gods; and worshippers would cultivate one or more of a variety of gods. One would be devoted to Artemis – like the Ephesians (‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’); others, if they were Greeks, would worship Jupiter, or Mars, or Dionysus, or Mercury. Egyptians or Babylonians had their gods too: Marduk and Baal, for instance.

 

But the Jews – our theological ancestors – worshipped just one God. When Jesus came along, the Jewish idea of God as one developed among Christians as Three in One, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

But in both cases it seems as though the idea of ‘My God’ might have come through the worshippers looking outside themselves. For them, there was something ‘out there’, something which created the world and sustains it now.

 

Or perhaps their God is inside them; if there is no benign figure with a white beard reclining in comfort in the heavens, if there is no God ‘out there’, then He has to be inside us, if He is anywhere in particular.

 

But there’s another sense in which I think people use the expression. ‘My’ God connotes, brings with it, a type of ownership. My God is better than your God, as soldiers have hopefully said. But I think we can only say that sort of thing because God is not physically present with us. If Jesus were walking about among us, bumping into us, we couldn’t think of Him as some kind of pocket deity, a god who looks and behaves like we want him to.

 

In a way, because God is not there, because we’re not confronted by Him face to face, we can sort-of appropriate Him, take him over. ‘My God’ is somehow in my pocket, He’s whatever I want Him to be.

 

If you stop a minute, and ponder this: if Jesus came into St Andrew’s now, what would he be like? What would he like or not like? After all, when he went into the synagogue, he had definite views about what good worship was. He didn’t like to see people lording it over their neighbours, or parading their piety, being hypocrites, ‘whited sepulchres’, for example. His approach to liturgy was really simple – one prayer, one prayer only: the Lord’s Prayer.

 

So if you’re a follower of Jesus now, what sort of God do you follow, and how do you go around the business of offering Him worship?

 

When I first started coming to St Andrew’s just over 20 years ago, a big factor – apart from the friendly welcome, which my young family and I surely did receive – was my feeling that our church here was rich, rich in ways of worshipping God and witnessing to the Gospel. It was anything but one-dimensional. The God that was worshipped here was a God approached in various ways, all under one roof.

 

There were people – and some of them are still around – who had followed a preacher called Gerald Coates and joined his Cobham Fellowship, which became the Pioneer People. We had a vicar, Sidney Barrington, who brought St Andrew’s and the Fellowship very close together, and then, very tragically, took his own life because, I believe, he had decided it was a wrong turning for our church.

 

But the theology behind the Fellowship is still alive. It is what is known as ‘conservative evangelical’ theology. According to it, you get to know God just through the Bible, and through prayer. The Bible is literally true. Often, people who follow those ideas are socially conservative: they believe, for instance, that homosexuality is sinful. Sometimes, people with this faith believe that illness and other misfortune come about as punishment from God for sin. But there are great positives too. There were missions to take Bibles to places where the Word of God had not reached, and where it was banned, such as China; and there was a great willingness to reach out to everyone in the village and involve them in prayer and knowledge of the Gospel, in services in a tent on the Leg O’Mutton field.

 

Then more recently, our vicar was Barry Preece. Barry was – Barry is – a ‘liberal’ theologian. He is very spiritual – he was for several years the Diocesan Adviser on Spirituality – but he did not believe that every word in the Bible is literally true. He was influenced by the great liberal (small ‘L’) theological movement in the 1960s following the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson’s, great little book ‘Honest to God’, which I bet some of you have on your shelves, as I do.

 

Liberal theologians are cautious about being very definite about what God is, or what He says. God is immortal, invisible, and infinitely wise. But He is beyond our understanding. We can know something about God because of Jesus. But we can use our reason to analyse the Bible, to acknowledge its contradictions and mysteries. We can understand certain things as symbolic rather than literally true. And we can be, we must be, tolerant of people who are different from us.

 

Just as the former Cobham Fellowship people are still represented at St Andrew’s, we have a number of people at St Andrew’s who are – perhaps influenced by Barry Preece’s teaching – liberal theologians. I am one.

 

And there’s yet another strand in the rich mixture of beliefs and witnessing to our faith at St Andrew’s. That is the ‘liberal catholic’ tradition, which Robert Jenkins taught. ‘Catholic’ in this sense means ‘for everyone’. Robert very much wanted our church to be involved with the community, not just a place where people go on Sunday. So Cobham Heritage had its big re-launch meeting at St Andrew’s: and the church’s outreach to Uganda, former Yugoslavia and now Nepal and South Africa, is all part of it. St Andrew’s had a big part in starting Cobham Area Foodbank, too.

 

But ‘catholic’ also means ‘Eucharistic’ – our worship is based on Holy Communion, rather than on what are called ‘services of the word’. There’s no Mattins or Evensong here. Barry Preece used to encourage a Sunday evening service led by lay people, not following a set liturgy. In Robert’s time we tried ‘Alive @ 6’, a more evangelical, modern service, in an attempt to involve people in the village who were not attracted by the more formal liturgy of Holy Communion, but it didn’t really catch on.

 

Now on Sunday evenings we practise what we preach about having a ‘united benefice’ with St Mary’s, and all join in Evensong at our sister church. That is a growing congregation, made up from both churches, and there are also quite a few newcomers, who are perhaps attracted by the music and the beautiful words.

 

The other thing to mention about our worship and witness here at St Andrew’s is our music. For 40 years David Fuge created and selected settings and hymns to bring together beautifully all the various strains of belief and styles of churchmanship and theology in this church. Kevin and Cathy are carrying on that work, which is so much a trademark of St Andrew’s.

 

Three distinct types of theology and a unifying musical tradition, all trying to bring the best of us to God in witness and service. The Parish Profile says we are ‘middle of the road’, [http://cdn.cofeguildford.org.uk/docs/default-source/about/Work-with-us/clergy-vacancies/cobham-parish-profile.pdf?sfvrsn=0] but I think that doesn’t tell you half of it! It’s much better, more positive, than that.

 

Now we are going to find a new shepherd, a new pastor for the flock. It may take time – and whoever it is, they will have to get to know the variety and depth of our love for God in this church. We will want them to be able to say, like Ruth, ‘Your God shall be my God’.

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