Sunday by Sunday clergy of all denominations get up into pulpits like this one, the length and breadth of this island, and deliver a message or a reflection that hopefully resonates with their congregation - something to takeaway - something to mull over - something perhaps to disagree with - but hopefully something for the week ahead or perhaps something that speaks to the experience of the week just past.
The reality is that despite these efforts less and less people see the importance of coming to our church buildings to participate in the liturgy or to listen to whoever it is that is nominated to preach and reflect on the scriptures.
There are other voices however that they do listen to and engage with and this weekend the nation mourns in Marian Finucane one who had become not just a voice but the voice of the weekend - her influence every bit as great as the combined outpourings of hundreds and even thousands of preachers across the various churches. That is the reality - One voice did that - and yes she had the advantage of broadcasting on the National radio service and therefore the potential to be heard by every soul on this island. But there is more to it than that - In a world of huge choice where live media is under threat she managed to achieve the highest figure for an individual broadcaster with a listenership of 374 thousand people on a regular basis.
Why and how? - Those are questions I have been puzzling over the last 48 hours and in listening to the extensive commentary on her legacy I think I know the answer.
She had huge empathy (having lost her daughter of eight years old) she knew what suffering was, she had an interest in people and didn't just look for the facts when she was interviewing someone but also a sense of the person - who they were and what motivated them - she also had no time for spin or waffle - she valued the truth and integrity in others.
And she walked the talk - I had no idea of the huge amount of voluntary work she did on the ground in
and how she was loved there by locals who had no knowledge of the other Marian
we all thought we knew.
And she was a true friend to those who needed her - so many having come forward in the last few days. I was particularly moved by Fr Brian Darcy's account of how Marian had reached out to him after an interview she had done with him at a time when he was going through his own dark night of the soul - she was so worried about him when he left the studio that she got hold of his mobile number and left a text message to ring her without disclosing her name - when he did she counselled him to get help and not try to cope on his own - no doubt speaking from her own personal experience - he said that nobody had ever done something like it for him before and was obviously hugely grateful. He the priest had been ministered to by the radio personality - no reason why not but it is still hugely significant and I think marks a very important moment of both crisis and opportunity.
All of that and more besides is I think why her death has left such a void - For people who had no other Church Marian created a community around her founded on empathy, interest and compassion in and for the other and she motivated people to be kind to each other.
I think her death can be a teaching moment for those of use who used to think of ourselves as the voice of the weekend (or at least Sunday) - We are not as important as we think!
This is a wake up call for churches across this island. I'm not suggesting that we are so arrogant as to think we can fill the void left by Marian - there may well be another voice waiting in the wings to carry the baton and that would not be a bad thing but we can still learn something by observing what it is that connects with the people of today.
This is the Eve of the Epiphany - the manifestation of Jesus the Christ to the wider world - How are we to share the Good News and connect with people in a world where so many churches are inclined to withdraw and isolate themselves from a world in which there are no longer the 'voice of the weekend'? There is an increasing tendency to keep Jesus safe from all that would taint and disturb.
Within our own Anglican Communion we see a move towards a New Puritanism which narrows and chokes the path of God's Grace in the Church and the World and finds comfort in the tidiness and security of absolute unity in doctrine within communities where diversity is aggressively discouraged.
That to me is not a viable way for the Church to be in the World - so what is the alternative?
It seems to me that its a case of back to basics and that means back to life and earthly ministry of Jesus Christ which was far more radical than the Gospel we are inclined to preach and live and one which no church on this planet could hope to control or circumscribe.
So unpredictable and even dangerous as this may be we do need to set this Jesus free.
The famous classic 'The Brothers Karamazov' by Dostoyevsky contains a poem within the book called the Grand Inquisitor - In it Christ comes back to Earth in
at the time of the
Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the
Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him at Seville Cathedral, but he
is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next
day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no
longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to the Inquisitor
explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the
Everything is under control and the people have been made compliant and do not need the messiness of Free Will or any of Jesus' other radical ideas to make things untidy.
If Jesus is released he will as Archbishop Michael Curry of the American Episcopal Church commenting on the same poem says "mess things up". Curry also observes the irony that "there stands Jesus of Nazareth whose life and teachings are a threat not only to the surrounding society but, sadly, to a church that professes his name but tries everything possible to keep him and his message hidden away from view......it has been so easy for the church in various generations, including our own, to disregard, disarm and domesticate Jesus to the point that he may not even resemble the Jesus of the New Testament.....Whenever Jesus of Nazareth - his actual teachings, his lived example, and his loving, liberating and life-giving way - takes centre stage, a revolution of love, a reformation of life and a renewal of our relationship with God, each other and all of Creation is at hand"
And so what is a daunting challenge can also become an opportunity - we in this parish cannot change the world but we can make a big difference in our little corner of it. And I'm not just talking in the abstract here - this is something that must come to more than words if we are to play an effective role in working for the
here on Earth. Kingdom
So where do we start - I think it must be again with the basics:
Scripture and Prayer
Could I suggest that we consider that portion of Matthew Chapter 5 containing the Beatitudes and the passage on Salt and Light which I think point to the radical roots of Jesus teaching - I have printed them out for everyone along with a prayer (see below) that we might say together in the weeks and months ahead as we try to discern how we can together as Church in this parish more fully present and reflect the person and love of Jesus Christ in all our relationships and encounters. I have some ideas but the Church is not me - it is all of us and following a time of reflection and prayer I would love that we could share our thoughts and ideas together.
To conclude with the words of Archbishop Michael Curry:
'This crisis may be a genuine opportunity to reclaim our roots, our origins, our true identity as Christians, by reclaiming Jesus of Nazareth and his way of love'.
5 When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Salt and Light
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Lord Jesus who taught us to pray 'Thy Kingdom Come', give us we pray a fresh vision of your Kingdom in this place and a sense of our shared and individual callings to discipleship. Give us courage to let you into our lives, and faith to follow you wherever you lead us. Forgive us for those times we have not responded to your calling and those occasions we have been obstacles to your loving purposes. You have called us to be Salt and Light - Renew us in this calling and where we have lost our saltiness and light restore us so that we may commit ourselves afresh to serving you. We wait on you Lord - Lord Hear our Prayer. Amen.