Sunday, 17 January 2010

St. Nowhere

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

In the 1980s there was an influential American medical drama / black comedy set in a Boston hospital, which served patients turned away from more prestigious institutions. The show had a cutting social edge that gestured towards what a proper health service might look like. It was called St. Elsewhere. This sermon is not about a medical hospital. It is, however, a picture of a hospital of sorts, the kind for sin-sick souls called the church, and this particular church has a similar name – St. Nowhere – and it too gestures towards what a proper church might look like.

Where is St. Nowhere? Well, … nowhere – or at least in Nowhere Land, a land known for its hills and sheep, its poetry and song, its cockles and cawl, a land often overlooked by its larger, more prestigious neighbour. So St. Nowhere was a good and fitting name for this church. It wasn’t called The Here-It-Is Church, or The Where-It’s-At Church, just, modestly, St. Nowhere. It’s a funny name, no doubt, but that’s because the folk at St. Nowhere would rather their church had no name at all: “a church with no name,” they said, “rather like God, who refused to give his name to Moses, because labels are libels.”

What kind of church was St. Nowhere? It was, er, just a church. “The church is here so that there can be Christians,” the people said, “Christians aren’t here so that there can be a church. We don’t market ourselves. We are not vendors of spiritual goods, nor providers of a religious service, nor masseurs of the so-called ‘inner’ life. We are here to witness, by the way we live the whole of our lives, to God’s peaceable realm among the nations, to the good news of God drawing near in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are here as the door of the kingdom, as a sign of welcome, inviting people into faith and friendship with Jesus himself. We are not into ‘success’, or even ‘growth’ as such, we are simply into calling people together to be apprentices of the Master, who teaches us how to be human. The main coursework – Humanity 101-102 – is the Sermon on the Mount.”

What denomination was St. Nowhere? I’ll give you a hint. Just off the sanctuary there was a chapel, the “Chapel of Saints” it was called, because around its circular interior there were portraits, icons if you like, of the “saints”, that is to say disciples down the ages who took the practice of faith seriously. From the New Testament church there were Stephen and Silas, Bartimaeus and Cornelius, as well as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Priscilla. Irenaeus, Basil, and Augustine were there from the early continental, eastern, and African churches. There too were the hermit Anthony and the monastic Benedict. From the Middle Ages, Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, and also Julian of Norwich and Hildegarde of Bingen. From the Reformation, Luther and Calvin and the Anabaptist Menno Simons. From the eighteenth century, John Wesley was there, and so too were Howell Harries and Daniel Rowlands. And from the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa. There were many others too. And in the last frame – odd, I admit, and make of it what you will – there was a mirror, where one would pause for “reflection” (if you catch my drift).

Another interesting feature of St. Nowhere was this: it had no walls. How they managed in the winter I don’t know, but no one was ever heard to complain of the cold. But fancy that – a church without walls! All and sundry could – and did – just walk in off the street, and then – sometimes sooner, sometimes later – walk out onto the streets again. “When the worship ends,” they said, “the service begins.” To save souls? “That’s one way of putting it,” they said, “but we prefer the expression of Jesus: to bring life, life in all its fullness.” The mad and the bad, the disabled and the deviant, the grey and the gay – they were particularly drawn to St. Nowhere. “A church with strict boundaries,” they said, “is like a house with a burglar alarm: anyone unscrupulous enough will probably find a way to break in, but people who have mislaid the key are defeated” (Helen Oppenheimer). Of course life was not easy at St. Nowhere, indeed it was often quite conflicted. But the folk there believed that the church is “the place where the people you least want to live with live there too” (Henri Nouwen).

Many Christians in the area shook their heads at St. Nowhere. They said that it wasn’t “Bible-based”, that it was too “political”, that it didn’t “meet people’s felt needs”, that it lacked an “identity”. These reproaches made the people at St. Nowhere smile. They replied, “In the Bible God is up to his ears in politics, and the church engages the state as one public engaging another public, not as some private sector facing the domain of government. Nor is ‘self-fulfilment’ a biblical theme, rather the human issue is always ‘self-denial’. For churches, like people, those that try keeping their identity will lose it, while those who risk losing their identity, for the sake of the gospel, will find it. We may not know who we are, but we know that we are God’s. We may not know what we will be, but we know that we will be like Jesus.”

As for St. Nowhere’s worship… It began at 10:30, though not really, because, the people at St. Nowhere would tell you, worship never begins, worship has always already begun – we enter the unceasing praise of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven – and so, in a very real sense, we are always late for worship. But in the 10:30 slot, what was worship at St. Nowhere like? It was formal and informal, serious and amusing, celebratory and contemplative, comforting and challenging. Someone always presided, but she acted neither as manager, nor a cheerleader, but rather as a catalyst in an ongoing experiment. “Worship is a ‘laboratory of the Spirit’ (R. S. Thomas),” the people said – and they added, “Explosions are to be expected.”

If you asked them why they worship God, they would answer, “What a silly question! We worship God because God is to be worshipped.” If asked what they get out of worship, they would answer, “That’s not the point: the question is ‘What do you bring to worship?’ Worship is not a utility but an offering, an economy of grace that interrupts the cycles of production and consumption by which the world lives. Which is why the collection is not just fund-raising but a critique of wealth and a judgement on greed. Not ‘materialism’, mind,” they hastened to add. “We are, in fact, a very materialistic church, and we like to eat and drink: we regularly consume the body of Christ, but while others drink to forget, we drink to remember.” Finally, if asked if God is pleased with their worship, they would say, “That all depends – depends on whether, with the prophet Amos, it leads to justice rolling down like Niagara Falls, and peace spilling over like the Mississippi in flood.”

And St. Nowhere’s theology? “You can’t pin us down,” the people would insist. “Or rather you can pin us down in the one place our Lord himself got pinned down: on the cross. It is only at this place of greatest danger that we are, paradoxically, theologically safe, where we are both broken and renewed. We have our convictions, but we walk by faith, not by sight. When we have doubts, God forgive us; when we don’t have doubts – God forgive us even more! After all, a deity who is bound to confirm our own opinions would be the god of a ventriloquist, but the God of the cross is free. God has a human face, but God is also cosmic mystery. And God is a playful God – and his favourite game is hide-and-seek – now here, now there, leaving traces, dropping clues, casting shadows, then hurrying on just as we catch up and calling back, ‘Follow me!’” But fancy that – the people at St. Nowhere actually enjoyed thinking, thinking about God together, and no issue was beyond discussion, ecclesiastical silence and denial yet another frontier that was, yes, “crossed”.

What more can I say about St. Nowhere and its people? Touched by grace, they lived with gratitude. Richly blessed, they rejoiced with gusto. Put under pressure, they acted with patience. Inundated with lies, they spoke the truth. Confronted with hatred, they responded with love. Tempted by violence and vengeance, they practiced peace and exercised mercy. They laughed a lot – “It’s our ‘way of crossing ourselves’” (Karl-Josef Kushel); they cried a lot too – “It’s our way of sharing people’s pain and powerlessness.” They would weep a lot over a tragedy like Haiti.

So there is a thumbnail sketch of St. Nowhere. Utopian – or what! If I have a prayer for this Week of Prayer, it is simply that St. Nowhere might be St. Somewhere, that the church-in-waiting that all churches are may be conformed to the church that we are destined, by grace, to become.

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