It’s been almost a year since I’ve been up here preaching, and that’s because it’s been a busy year at the RMIT University Spiritual Centre and Chaplaincy. Since 2004 St. Peter’s and the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne have renewed their presence and support for the Chaplaincy at RMIT and it’s paying off nicely as our ministries of liturgy, education, pastoral care, prophesy and presence grow and mature. In the last year, my third as Senior Chaplain, our interfaith and ecumenical team has grown from three to nine ministers and it looks like we might grow to eleven or twelve in the coming year. This, as well as teaching an RMIT class on Religion, Globalization and Conflict and a class on Spirituality and Prayer at the Theological School at Trinity College, makes some new and exciting connections between our parish and nearby tertiary institutions to the benefit of all.
But one of the reasons I love working at RMIT came two weeks ago when I led a morning discussion on “Spirituality and Customer Service”. I will readily admit it sounds very California, even Byron Bay; but talking about how we can practice the present of the present moment in everything we do can be an important conversation that cuts across all kinds of spiritualities, religions or lack of religion, hinging on the common hope that there just might be the possibility or dimension of holiness, integrity, justice and love in the center of the universe; and if there is, how we can respond to it in the present moment, how we can make that moment a present. It’s always surprising to me to see how many people respond to that, as if almost everyone has a secret hunch that the world is lit from within, brought forth and enlightened by love, and that’s often where our chaplaincy meets the world at RMIT.
That’s also a good place to start this Sunday, when we celebrate the lay ministries that proceed from St. Peter’s Eastern Hill, while the church season curves from Pentecost into Advent, the Sunday of Christ the King, Christ the Good Shepherd, Christ the coming child, who will give birth to a new innocence and a new beginning in the very middle of our lives. It’s a good time too to consider why we’re here. Philip Larkin wrote that people come to church because they need a place to “to take themselves more seriously”, but I think there’s more to that; perhaps we’re also here to find a serious centre, a touchstone, a founding place and focus to take up our calling as the ministry of the laity, the people of God, taking us out again to a world made new by what we see here, do here, made new by what we take out of this place, bit by bit by bit.
Some years ago an English theologian wrote about “God shaped events” that happen in every human life: instances of creativity, redemption, blessed surprise, sparking in the middle of the larger community; when the world ignites with connection, compassion, wisdom, justice, love. We come here to see those consistent God-shaped events continuing over time, shining brightly in the life of Jesus, a moving pattern of the will and the love of God in the middle of our lives, lighting up the whole world; a kind of keynote address of the Word made Flesh, a cornerstone for our remembering, but we also come here to become what we see! We come to eat and drink, to take in the refreshment and renewal of Christ, in order to be recalled and reminded, in order to serve as Gods’ continuously renewed presence in the larger world.
It’s a two sided action, we come here to take it in, so that we can take it out there on the road and live it out. As Richard Holloway, the former Primate of Scotland, writes, it’s the difference between orthodoxy (right belief)and orthopraxy (right action). And trying to keep the two sides together is not easy, working to close the connection between what we say and what we do. Again, that’s why we’re here. In Jesus Christ, God does what he says. In the life, teachings, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see the word spoken, acted out, done to death and rising in glory - the full story of the shepherd giving his life for the sheep. And we are baptized and co-missioned to be shepherds as well, so that’s our path, to go on in our own way.
For the ministry of laypeople (those of us baptized as children or adults, who affirm those baptismal vows every time we receive communion), that ministry is - like Jesus’ - highly personal; has to do with being who we are and where we are in the present moment. Being a word made flesh here has to do with being a particular servant, a one of a kind friend, a contemporary shepherd, and a sign of God’s outpouring love in every field where we meet God’s people. Spirituality and Customer Service might be one model for that, but there are other ways as well.
Some 20 years a film called “Wings of Desire,” was set in Berlin before the wall had fallen. There were angels stationed all over the city doing errands and acts of mercy, spending their days touching people in trying times, sending encouraging messages, being secret signs of hope. Other times they would meet in unlikely places to recall what happened that day: once in a closed library, another time in an empty Mercedes showroom: sharing stories of holy, ordinary day to day encounters, seen clearly in light of their great hope, encouraging human beings, enlightening in love
That’s another definition of our ministry, as well as why we need both to have and to be church, be here together in the back of the Mercedes convertible, remembering the how and the who and the why of it. That’s why this place needs to be special, why the smells and bells, words and music all matter, so that we recall how to teach the world to sing, so we can help the world remember how well it’s made, and why, to what end, That’s both the gift we receive and the gift we give: the present of the present moment. enlightening God-shaped events and opportunities in the middle of everywhere.
But there’s a paradox, for just as this place, and what we do here, needs to be lofty, lifting the mind and heart high with high liturgy and appropriate ceremonial; so the way we practice out there needs to be casual, almost undercover angels in mufti,; no major heroic action, no stained-glass vocabulary, no Bible in the right hand or Prayer Book in the left; no special clothes, nothing particularly noteworthy: nothing really except loving the world as God loves it. As people in the American South put it, it’s a “down-home” thing, nicely homely, shepherding the people that God shepherds, people you meet in your own way, being that message in all that you say or do as an ongoing exercise of very small intentions and attentions, God-shaped events extending over time, small beginning, little advents, shepherding good news. In all this, nothing special, no smells and bells, sometimes boring, going by rote, working with no clear directionals, with sometimes boring sheep, unthankful flocks, noisy, lonely, hungry, undervalued, imprisoned people who might just be angels and messengers of grace as much as us.
So we come together this Sunday, as the Church turns a corner to a new beginning, to claim the ministries that happen where we meet the world, in all our lives: family, children, partners and parents and pets, employers, employees, enemies and friends, pains and pleasure, past and potential; our longest shadow and our deepest yearning. Absolutely everywhere we walk with God, shepherding with God, creating, redeeming, and sanctifying every moment in time, every instant of the present. That is why I think we are here.
So I now ask you to stand, and remain standing for a little while. We always stand for the Gospel, and today we respond to that Gospel by remembering where we stand, and what we stand for, in our daily life, the places where we represent Christ. So take a moment and remember, in your life and ministry, where you stand for Christ, and when the Vicar asks you to come forward for a blessing on that ministry, stand at the altar rail and present your lives as a reasonable and holy and living sacrifice to God: remembering that Gospel, and all that God gives you in the present of the present moment. Please give it all up as a right and take it back as a gift and as a ministry of God. Be the body of Christ that you are and take up your ministry today.