A Pilgrim People

Exodus 16:1-3 - God’s people look back with rose-tinted glasses
Acts 11:1-18 - Peter is called to take the Gospel to the Gentiles
Reflection: Tradition

Who is this?
Answer: Topol – from the film: Fiddler on the roof.

At one point he says:  “Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many years. We have traditions for everything... how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and wear a little prayer shawl... This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask; how did this tradition start? I'll tell you - I don't know. But it's a tradition...
Because of our traditions, everyone knows who they are and what God expects us to do." 


We are thinking today about the balance between church tradition and church as a pilgrim people…

Q: Take a moment to reflect for yourself… what are some the traditions in your church or in you?

Things we always do the same way?

  • 'What do you like about that tradition?
  • How does that tradition help you - in worship, in your faith?

We have many traditions - at home - at Church

  • They are good
  • They give us a sense of comfort
  • They put us in a particular frame of mind
  • They help us to know where we are, what's coming up
  • They can challenge us - eg the tradition of giving something up for Lent!
  • They provide a framework for the structure of our year, our services the way we treat each other...

In my training – was with Anglicans who have some very strong traditions

BUT one thing a colleague said that struck with me:  
Sometimes – we follow our traditions blindly, without understanding why… because we’ve always done it this way?

  • that’s when faith can become empty
  • that’s when we can sometimes fail to see if what we are doing is actually helpful or not?

SO Let’s not be afraid to talk to each other and to God about why do we do it this way?

  • I wonder - is there a new and better way?

Reflection: the Church a pilgrim people

We are a pilgrim people. Rooted in the long-standing, Biblical, nomadic tradition of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God’s chosen people had been in slavery in Egypt, they were subject to terrible conditions and God worked many miracles to enable their escape and freedom.  And yet only one and half months after they had departed we find them moaning and groaning to Moses.  Looking back at their time in Egypt and imagining it to be better than their current freedom in the wilderness… Rose-tinted glasses - they existed then and they are still around today…. We seem to have an amazing and historically enduring capability to imagine the past as being better than today.  There are so many things that we do in church life - often unconsciously - that represent traditions.  Perhaps we sit in the same place? We’ve always had the communion table there?  We use archaic language that is difficult for visitors to understand. We do things without explaining them… But we’ve always done it this way…God knew this when tackling one of the biggest challenges of the early church.  In Acts 11 God calls Peter to take the Gospel to the Gentiles - the uncircumcised!  Outsiders, people who don't belong, people who are not of our faith or tradition, people who don't understand the way we do things.  People who weren't born by blood into the family of God…It's hard for us to imagine just how radical this calling was - and Peter was heavily criticised. So what does God do - to challenge the traditional view that Jesus Christ was the Messiah - only of God’s chosen people - that Jesus was theirs and no one else's! God takes one of the greatest most powerful, long-standing, deep-rooted traditions of his people - the laws of clean and unclean eating and breaks them! For God to encourage such a thing must have been incredible, outrageous, unimaginable….  Indeed we see this and sense this in Peter's reaction to God’s command to get up, kill, and eat.  By no means Lord - he protests!  Nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth!  God was saying - it's time!  It's time to look at things in a new way! But of course - whenever traditions are challenged - people get upset - these things are dear to us - so we must always walk and talk with respect and grace.

In the 1970s the Methodist Church brought out a hymnbook called Hymns and Psalms.  It soon became a great favourite, full of Wesley's hymns and rich in theology in song.  As a young local preacher,I always remember being reminded by my tutor to make sure that I had included a Wesley hymn and heaven forbid that I should do a service without one! Then along came Singing the Faith! And I cannot tell you how many complaints I heard about it! These new modern songs are so short-lived, they have no staying power and what about their theology?  There were even people counting the number of Wesley hymns and quoting the terrible reduction in Wesley percentage in the new hymnbook!  Now we know that Charles Wesley alone wrote around 6000 hymns;  that's equal to 115 years singing one new hymn every week OR or 16 years writing and singing a new hymn every DAY.

What does that tell us? It tells us that Charles believed in expressing his faith in poetry and song; that he believed in re-expressing his faith and capturing the essence of his brother’s sermons every week, for new situations and for new people, responding in a memorable way to the issues and challenges of the moment.

Charles was the Graham Kendrick of his day.  He fully accepted that most of his work was short-lived and for an immediate purpose.  I imagine that Charles might be a bit disappointed to find we are still clinging onto his old hymns… YES  - of course,a few remain because they are classics

BUT if Charles were here today I wonder what would he be saying to us?

I imagine he would be saying: where are the hymn writers and poets in your church? What new songs have you written to capture your experience of God today? How are we re-expressing our faith AFRESH in every new generation…

“Meekness and majesty, manhood and deity, in perfect harmony, the man who is God…”

What more beautiful poetry can we imagine that these words, words that capture the amazing mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ - human and divine. Not written hundreds of years ago but in our generation…

Please don't get me wrong - tradition is good!  Tradition is the gathered experience of many respected Christians over many generations.   It sets out who we are and how we live out our faith.  It is the compass of our path and the test of things new…But sometimes - we can become so focused on 'how we've always done it’, that we forget why.  And change becomes difficult…

As Church - the body of Christ, called together as one - with Christ as our cornerstone - we are a pilgrim people… And one of the consequences of placing our lives into the hands of God and choosing Christ's narrow way is that nothing ever stays the same.  The amazing Ignatian writer Margaret Silf puts it wonderfully like this: God’s future for us is not discovered but created and the journey there changes both the traveller and the destination.

Sisters and brothers - we sit amidst the chaos, uncertainty and grief of COVID-19.  In July it is possible that we will be allowed to meet again in worship and many may hope that we might return to church as it was before all this began.  We rightly cling to the comfort of that image…But the reality is that Church may never be the same again.  In the short term,it will not be worship as we know it.  Social distancing will radically affect our sense of place and fellowship and will limit how many of us can gather together.    Shielding will mean that many of our beloved preachers may not be safe or able to come out and lead us.  Yet despite all of this we are surrounded by incredible creativity within the church and a spiritual rebirth overflowing in our community.  Thousands volunteering, people standing on their doorsteps applauding the NHS, everywhere neighbours reaching out in kindness and generosity of spirit.  Revival is on our doorstep.

So I wonder - in the COVID-19 world - what dream God may be showing us that mirrors Peter’s?  What traditions might God be calling us to let go of? I wonder - what are some of the things we have done in the past that might limit God’s work with us and through us? I wonder - with excitement and a little uncertainty - what path God is calling us to travel down.  And I wonder - will I look back, with rose tinted glasses - or will I have faith and look forward - trusting in God.

Come - let's join hands together - even though we cannot do so physically. And step out in faith.
May we pray together – Lord build our church.
And may we accept gracefully the change this pilgrimage requires.