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Sermon by Doug Gray from our 'More In Common' celebration

What does it mean - to have more in common?

I always tell my students in preaching class to focus on one of the texts - try to do one thing well - today I’m going to break that rule and I want to think with you about two of the scriptures set for today - the story we heard from Exodus 17 about the children of Israel in the wilderness and the story in Matthew’s gospel about the chief priests and the religious leaders who come after Jesus.

I want to think with you about what it means to be a prophetic church - a prophetic congregation. Sometimes we are tempted to think that to be prophetic means having to be extra-ordinary - we associate it with mighty women and men of God like Moses or John the Baptist - and that’s not wrong - but I also think that the work of the Holy Spirit is to enable the prophetic ordinary - and it might help us with that if we work with a very simple, but I think a very biblical definition of what it means to be prophetic - to be prophetic, to be a prophetic church, is to be people who are seeking to do and to say what God is calling us to do and to say, here and now, in this place and this time.

When we arrived here, in 1995 - we came to a tiny, exhausted congregation - which had been trying to be faithful in a falling down building, a building riddled with damp, where the massive space next door had become very hard to use - most of the basement had become unuseable - some of the floors had rotted away - but God was here - God’s hand was still on this community and this congregation - and the grace of what we came to was that a scheme for redeveloping the building was already in place - English Heritage were ready to fund the work - we had a fabulous architect called Terry Dacombe - who was an inspiration to work with - who held my hand when I panicked - who patiently solved all the problems as they came up. There were inspirational elders like Eric Matthews and Janet Hackett - there were women of God like Mrs Dillon and Mrs Bond - faithful men of God like Ron Hasler and Ron Ebdon - and people knew we needed to change - that the congregation had become a bit isolated from the community - that to renew our mission we needed to learn that we had more in common with our community.

Early on it became clear that one of the people who could help us to do that was a community worker called Chris Lawrence - with his wife Ali - they moved on to Powerscroft Road - we all set to work.

This had been a historically white congregation, with the help and advice of our small number of black leaders and elders and members, we all needed to find ways to work together build a congregation which had more in common with a community around us which was very diverse - to see our future as a partnership between people from African backgrounds, from white English backgrounds, from Black British backgrounds - even people from Scotland and Ireland and the USA.

Clapton had a reputation for being a violent place - Lower Clapton Road had been dubbed Murder Mile by the media - Hackney schools were struggling - standards were poor, exam results were bad - young people were under achieving - leaving them disadvantaged as they entered the job market - levels of mental health were poor, levels of physical health were poor. Many people in these streets lived parallel lives - they were separated by class and by income, by colour and culture and religion.

So God - what do you want us to do? Does this place have a future? Are you going to bring us through the wilderness - this congregation, this community, this neighbourhood, this borough?

The story in Exodus 17 is a very mixed story - its both troubled and troubling and hopeful.

The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann says that all through the Hebrew scriptures, we see a dialogue between God and the people - it’s a passionate dialogue - sometimes the people are singing Hallelujah - I said sometimes people are singing Hallelujah […] - and sometimes they are saying where are you God? Have you abandoned us? Sometimes they are saying How Long O Lord - I said sometimes they are saying How Long O Lord - [….]

This is a story about people who have been set free - Exodus people - people who have been liberated from slavery - delivered from genocide - there’s the Hallelujah moment - but now they are in the wilderness - How Long O Lord… Moses you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill us - why are they saying that? Because they have no water - they are thirsty - not just us, not just the grown ups - our children have no water - you think if your child had no water you wouldn’t complain? - you wouldn’t cry out to Moses, or to God?

We just sent Beth off to Nicaragua for 3 months, to work alongside Nicaraguan young people on a project called Wash - working to bring clean water and sanitation to very poor rural communities - they had a revolution in the 1980s - and there were some big Hallelujah moments - but turning the revolution into a society where there is justice is so hard for human beings everywhere - maybe you can fix the schools but you can’t fix the housing market - maybe you can fight for equal opportunities but white racism will still find new targets and go back to the old ones - and men will still turn on women and straight people will still struggle to support justice for gay people.

So Nicaragua found it hard to sustain its revolution - and so did Venezuela and so does Scotland and so does Hackney.

When the Old Testament looks back on this story - the people are given quite a hard time - you should have trusted God - you should have trusted the God of Exodus to make water from the rock - you shouldn’t have turned on one another and on Moses in bitterness and quarrelling and in fighting - We are meant to hear that - but we are also allowed to hear the cry of these thirsty, frightened people - Is the Lord among us or not? God is big enough and great enough and good enough and faithful enough for us to bring our anger and our fear and our despair and our doubt - we can be honest with God.

Sometimes what we have in common is a threat to our life - we have no water - it’s a threat to our community - racist politicians are trying to divide us - it’s a threat to how our society works - young people on ordinary incomes can’t buy a house, can’t get a house.

Sometimes what we have in common is the failure of our politics, whether church politics or world politics - we turn on one another - we turn to hate and prejudice and suspicion - sometimes what we have in common is our failure - which is why we as a congregation, week by week, confess our sins - try to humble ourselves - try to make the in common confession that we too are part of the problem - that this housing crisis is making some of us very rich…

Sometimes, the obstacles seem to be so hard, so difficult, so impenetrable - they are like rocks in the desert - and we need to cry out for God to strike the rock - because the people need water - and the children need water…

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In our gospel reading, Jesus has been making enemies. He has just arrived in the Palm Sunday procession to Jerusalem - it’s a Hallelujah moment, a Hosanna moment - and the crowds and the children are waving palms - they believe he is a prophet has come to help them - maybe the revolution is coming. It looks like that when he cleanses the temple - when he overturns the tables of the money changers - here in Hackney we have always lived in the shadow of the City of London - some of London’s poorest streets next to some of the world’s richest ones. In response to Jesus’ unsettling entry to Jerusalem - some have been waving palms and some have been wanting to throw rocks.

Jesus is confronted with the hardness of opposition - who gave you authority to do these things? You’ll get us all killed - the Romans will never stand for this - you’ve gone too far - And in the face of conflict - of official righteousness - of the hard condemnation of the powers that be - Jesus does three things:

·         First, he refuses to fall into their trap - meeting their question with a question - did John the Baptist - who also called for change, who also stood with the people, who also preached the revolutionary love of God - did he come from God? and his accusers are afraid - because the people think John is a prophet

·         Second, he tells a story. A story about what it means to be prophetic. About two men, one who talked the talk and the other who walked the walk. One who did, in his place and time, what God was calling him to do. One whose name was Moses and Martin Luther and Sojurner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks whose name was the name of ordinary people like Mrs Dillon and Janet Hackett and Chris Lawrence and  Jasmine O Connor and Mary Fagan and Vivi Boucher - and God willing, the name of ordinary people like you and me who are called to do what God is asking us to do - here and now - and the name of this Church

·         The Third thing he does is to tell it like it is - the prostitutes and the tax collectors - those you look down on and despise and exclude - those on the edges - they are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you - ahead of me - ahead of all of us who think we are better and worthier and more holy and more spiritual.

Jesus uses strong words, prophetic words, to strike the rock of their hostility and to let the gospel of God’s grace flow out.

It is that grace which brings us to this table. At this table we discover through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit - what we have in common - we are thirsty people who need this wine and hungry people who need this bread, we are sinful people who need the forgiveness offered here, we are people turned in on ourselves, who need to be turned out in love to the world God loves - turned out in love to the people in our neighbourhood with whom we have this in common - that we are made in the image of God and we are beloved of God. So we pray this morning for the Spirit to come down - for God to strike the rock and for that grace to flow into our hearts and our minds and our lives.

If we like the Israelites are asking: Is God among us or not? - By the grace of God, the answer is here on this table - where Jesus will come to meet us and to bless us.

So let God’s people say the Alleluia - and let the church say the Amen… AMEN.

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