Michael Powell


 

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Scripture & Practice 9

 

BUILDING SERMONS THROUGH THE SEASONS

 

 

Starting in 1988 and for upwards of ten ­years, my paid job was to be a full­time lecturer and tutor in the Department of the Built Environment on the Chelmsford, Essex campus of Anglia Polytechnic University, currently known as APU1.  As a Minister of the United Reformed Church, my `Additional Voluntary Contribution '2 to the life of the University was to be a member of the University Chaplaincy Team.

 

Often on Sundays I was invited to lead worship and preach in United Reformed and sometimes other Churches in the Chelmsford area. In preaching it was my practice when appropriate to relate to the particular season of the Christian year draw on my day job experiences and use the building metaphors that often came readily to mind. I found that gradually I had built up a comprehensive set of sermons and similar material covering the complete Christian year. It is a selection of these that I have brought together here.

 

I hope that this will be an encouragement to others who `work' from Monday to Friday and `preach' on Sunday both to persist and be creative in the discipline of relating work and preaching to one another in ways that convey relevance and connection and to contribute to coherence and wholeness in life.


WEEK

1 -9th SUNDAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS
2 - ADVENT (1)      
3 - ADVENT (2)  
4 - CHRISTMAS EVE         
5 - EPIPHANY
6 - CHRISTIAN UNITY (January)  
7 - EDUCATION SUNDAY (February) 
8 - UNEMPLOYMENT SUNDAY (March)
9 - ASH WEDNESDAY
10 - LENT (1)
11 - LENT (2)
12 - PASSION SUNDAY
13 - HOLY WEEK
14 - EASTER DAY
15 - AFTER EASTER (1)
16 - AFTER EASTER (2)
17 - ROGATION SUNDAY 
18 - THE ASCENSION
19 – PENTECOST
20 - TRINITY SUNDAY
21 - AFTER PENTECOST
22 - TRANSFIGURATION ( August)
23 - ORDINARY TIME (1)
24 - ORDINARY TIME (2) 
25 - ORDINARY TIME (3)   
26 - ORDINARY TIME (4)
TOPIC

AESTHETICS AND USEFULNESS
LEITOURGIA,
HIGHWAY
A COMMUNION PRAYER
HIGH WALLS AND OPEN GATES GLORY
ONENESS AND THE WORLD'S KNOWING
CONNECTING FAITH AND EDUCATION
GOOD EMPLOYMENT
MORAL INTEGRITY AND BUILDING
DAUBING OR WHITEWASH?
FREEDOM AND FORGIVENESS
PROPERTY BUSINESS
BEING A CORNERSTONE
GARDENS, HOUSES, GOLD
WATER FLOWING, JUNGLE YIELDING
A TUTOR'S QUESTIONS
SENT TO COVENTRY
DEPTHS AND HEIGHTS
RESOURCES AND POWER
COMMUNICATION
THE TOWERING INFERNO
EARTHED GLORY
FINE HOUSES
GOOD PEOPLE, BAD SITUATIONS
DANCE, OFFICE BLOCKS!
ADDED VALUE


1 – 9th SUNDAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS        AESTHETICS AND USEFULNESS
Genesis 2:9 The Lord God made trees grow up from the ground, every kind of tree pleasing to the eye and good for food

These trees attract my attention; they are pleasing to the eye and good for food. The original creative work of God, the authentic creative work, has these two qualities, being both pleasing to the eye and good for food.


Suppose that they were good for food but ugly, hideous to look at; or that they were good to look at but producing bad fruit. Neither of these could have been a creative act of God because the creative work of a good God must be good in all aspects. Inconsistency is a quality of the anti-creator, of Satan; only he makes things that are good in this or that respect but not in relation to the whole.

It seems to me that as the man with the breath of God in him, Adam, walked through Eden he saw and rejoiced in this good work of God, trees pleasing to his human eye and fruit tasteful to his human palate. He would have recognized that his work too could have those complementary qualities of aesthetic delight and practical usefulness, delight of another kind.

Although Satan has no victory now, he does still have influence. His influence is to bring about a tension and a contradiction between the beauty of things and the usefulness of things, of trees and of all things. Satan's work destroys the balance and the harmony.

A few years ago I spent some time trying to establish a biblical angle on the question of the quality of buildings. Should buildings just be useful? Should houses just be machines for living in, schools for learning in and so on? Was that the prime emphasis, the satisfying of human social need? Or do buildings have to have another quality, a quality of beauty, of pleasing-ness to the eye? We make some of our buildings completely, and most of our buildings partly, with timber, with the tree. Does it not follow that we, with the breath of the spirit of God in us, must use the timber of his making in ways that have regard to both delight to the eye and practical usefulness?

Of course, there is a debate about what is pleasing to the eye. Certain things are ugly by any stretch of the imagination. We may think many of the housing tower blocks of the 1960's to be ugly. We may or may not think the Canary Wharf tower and adjacent development pleasing. You may or may not incline to traditional views of what is pleasing, such as that of the Prince of Wales. Such divergence in view is part of the richness, indeed a gift from God. To me, what makes something pleasing depends on many aspects, including the place, the setting, the environment. An understanding of beauty and pleasingness is something to be searched for and struggled for in the company of the creator-God.

We have to struggle similarly with usefulness. Uselessness does not fit in with the ways of a God who is practical, involved and incarnate in the world through the body of his Son and his body the church. What constitutes usefulness is arguable but in that argument and in that search God is with us.

These struggles are part of the agenda of education. Education has to equip us for recognizing beauty and pleasing-ness, usefulness and practicality, when we see them. It needs to be a mixed and balanced process.

In one sense, Eden is the story of the world's beginning. In another sense, it is the vision of the end, of the destination towards which God is inexorably drawing us and all creation. Part of the final ascription of glory and praise to the creator by all things, will be the completed works of mankind, architecture and all other things, beautiful and useful, echoing those trees of Eden, pleasing to the eye and good for use, created by God and seen by Adam.
 


2 - ADVENT (1)        METANOIA

Luke 21:28    Stand up and lift up your heads because your redemption is drawing near.
Luke 24:47    Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all

Advent is a time of promise and repentance. The word translated as repentance, metanoia, means literally `a change of mode of thought and feeling'.

For me the last ten days has been a long time. Things have happened which have led me and others involved with me to new ways of thought and feeling.

Last Tuesday I took a party of students to meet a very interesting building and development company in Cambridge, to hear about a scheme they are preparing for a high quality office development to be built 10 miles or so outside Cambridge.

This was fascinating for various reasons. First the designers are starting by asking people who might work there what really makes an office building good to work in. Second the office will be built around two lakes, former gravel pits, which are specially protected areas for birds and wild life, and which are to be retained as key features of the development, to be enjoyed by those working there and by the public. Most importantly, this was a young firm, made up of young people, adopting a fresh and, to my mind, an extraordinarily good approach.

Over the following few days, several students said, in effect, We've never seen anything quite like that before. Our lives and careers could be like that. We could do that sort of thing. We don't necessarily have to be cogs in some gigantic money¬making wheel which is insensitive to people and the natural word.' Those students were experiencing a changed mode of thought and feeling.

Later that day we went on to Ely Cathedral to learn something of the building. We had an excellent guide who told us something that I had not fully realized before. Up to the time of the Reformation, the internal faces of the walls were not plain grey stone as they are today. Instead, they were a blaze of colour, of all colours but especially of blue. Visitors in the Middle Ages would have had wretched, cold journeys across the fens and then would come into this building, which was a blaze of colour, a riot of blue. For me, this was a complete change of thought and feeling. In penitential mode, I thought, `God forgive the puritans who took the paint off the wall and the joy from the people'.

This same ten-day period has brought to us the tragic death of a gifted and delightful young student, just eighteen years old. He fell accidentally from a moving train. This was a most awful experience for his fellow students and for us his tutors. As one colleague said to me, `It makes you look at everything in an absolutely different light'. We experienced metanoia, a change of mode of thought and feeling.

At the funeral on Friday morning in his family church, the Roman Catholic priest looked into the eyes of Michael's fellow University students and old school friends and said, `In the faith of the Church, you must respond to this event by living your own lives with great joyfulness and with great generosity'. That for me was the crucial Christian perspective that changes all other modes of thought and feeling. You look accident, death and tragedy in the face and say, `I will live with joy and generosity'.

In ten days, these three events: an example of a outstanding approach to office design and building, the discovery of a cathedral as a blaze of colour, a riot of blue, and tragedy confronted head on by the faith of the Church. Each shifts the way things are seen. In such shifts, God comes. Come, Lord Jesus!
 

 3 - ADVENT (2)        LEITOURGIA, LITURGY, HIGHWAY

Isaiah 40: 3,5 Clear a road through the wilderness for the Lord, prepare a highway for our God. Let every valley be raised, every mountain and hill be brought low, uneven ground be made smooth, and steep places become level. Then will the glory of the Lord be revealed and all mankind will see it.

One afternoon last summer I was sitting in the garden reading a book by Timothy Sedgwick, Sacramental Ethics3. I read that the Greek word for worship or liturgy, leitourgia, did not originally have that meaning. It was adopted. Its earlier meaning was something like `public works done at private cost, such as the building of a road'. I made a mental note to remember that at Advent when we would be reading Isaiah 40. Now, here we are. I hear the early church saying to us, `Look, it makes sense to use the same word for your Christian worship as you use for activities like building a road'.

Isaiah prompts a graphic description of a civil engineering project. Muck shifting and rock-blasting going on all over the place, massive yellow machinery everywhere, and at the end of it all a road. Not the M1, M2, M3 or whatever but a highway for our God beginning at Bethlehem or Jerusalem and going round the world.

Now, if we are going to build a road for God, it had better be worthy of him, it had better be the best we can do, it had better be worship. If it is supposed to be level, it had better be level. When the Egyptians built the pyramids they got the bases level to within a very few millimetres by flooding the site with water and measuring down from the water surface. Today surveyors use highly complex electronic equipment and incredible accuracy is achievable. There can be a level road in the wilderness for our God. If it's for God it had better not crack up; that means good quality concrete. It had better not start to sink where it is built over filling or soft ground; that means good workmanship and good drainage.

Not only is God going to come along this road, there is a further test, `all mankind together will see it'. So it is going to be an extremely public `public work'. The journalists are going to be there and they are going to ask us how we discharged our road-building trust.

How many lives did we lose in the process? Seventeen as in the Channel Tunnel so far, or more, or less? The sanctity of life, the care for the worker, the man who has to go into the dangerous situation where water can suddenly rush in if proper care is not taken...

Or what, we must consider, about the powerless small firms carrying out specialist parts of a project and who can have their money willfully withheld by large contractors who keep it in the bank for a short time and earn interest on it unjustly? If this is a highway for our God and we are entrusted with making it, we must use powers with restraint and with justice.

And the people whose houses and villages were in the line of the road and who have been displaced, what of them and their deep feelings? Do they feel they count for nothing?

We shall soon be using the new Dartford Bridge across the Thames, a `public work' being built with private money. Is that money being offered as though to build a highway for our God?

This highway for God about which we are thinking - is it just a prophet's imaginative vision or is it real? Is it every road that is now being built, from the M40 extension from Oxford to Birmingham, to very minor projects? I remember last year watching men rebuilding the bridge that carried a tiny lane over a river in the Lake District. Is that too a highway for our God?

The Advent experience of God in Christ, suggests that the great road projects and the smallest, seen as worship, can indeed become highways for God.

 
4 - CHRISTMAS EVE4        A COMMUNION PRAYER

This table is our Bethlehem, the holy place to which the star guides us.
It is the place where we see the glory of God.
It is the place where for us peace from God's own heart is given to the earth.
It is the place to which we bring our shepherding, the duties and responsibilities of our lives,
that they may be gathered up into the mystery and miracle and meaning of the incarnation.

It is the place to which we bring all human learning and riches and kingship that they may be made holy.
It is the place to which we bring our gifts of bread and wine that God may become incarnate for us.
It is the place where we celebrate in sign and symbol the whole story of our faith
 
 

5 – EPIPHANY        HIGH WALLS AND OPEN GATES
Isaiah 60:1-11 Arise, shine Jerusalem...
Revelation 21: 9-2 The new Jerusalem

Isaiah writes of Jerusalem, a holy city, from which the people have been taken into exile, which has been occupied by others, which has fallen into ruin. But a city to which wonderfully and gloriously the people are now returning.... life is returning, wealth is returning. There is joy and thrill and pride, and glory is added to glory. In Revelation, John writes of a new Jerusalem, an eternal city, a city lit by the very glory of God, a city to which all that is splendid comes and from which all that is false and foul is excluded. These two are, perhaps, the same image but seen at different times. In one sense this is an earthly city, in another sense a heavenly one.

I was particularly struck by the references to the walls and the gates. Isaiah writes of foreigners rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and of the gates being open continuously, never shut by day or night. John sees a great high wall, a wall of jasper. In the wall are twelve gates, never shut by day, and there is no night. In both texts the walls are very prominent, but in conjunction with gates open all the time?

I think that if I were the public auditor, the person responsible for seeing that public money has been properly spent, I would be asking why gates are needed when they are going to be left open all the time. And, further, if the gates are to be left open, why are walls needed at all? This does not appear to be a proper use of public money. It ought to be spent on something else, or left in the pockets of the taxpayers. It seems economic madness to build a city wall, a very high one at that, and of jasper, not mere brick or stone rubble, and then leave the gates open all day, and if there is a night, all night.

Economic rationalism ... judging everything on the extent to which it does or does not make financial sense in the short term. Recently some students and I were looking at an oil company's new building. The walls are finished with a sort of metal-faced composite material. I asked the builder how long he thought it would last. He said about twenty years, and then it would all have to be done again. But there was, he said, a short term rationale.

Half-way round the M25 from that building, another oil company is also building an office block. This is being faced with Bath stone, a long-lasting material. The stone, we learnt, had been quarried in Somerset, sent in its rough state to Ireland where it was cut, dressed and prepared for the building, and then shipped back to England. That too was economically rational but it is still something of a funny approach.

It would be absurd to judge the city walls and gates of Jerusalem on the basis of economic rationalism. Isaiah and John are taking us into a different world, a world of symbols and deep meanings. The City of God must have walls for it is a place of gathering. In Revelation the wealth and splendour of the nations are brought into it. It is to be the home of those whose names are on the roll of the living. Isaiah's picture is fuller - of the sons and daughters of the city flocking towards it. Coming too are the wealth of nations and the riches of the sea, gold and frankincense, flocks and rams, all for the honour of the Lord our God. The high jasper walls signify the embracing, gathering arms of God. The gates are open to welcome all who come to God, whether by day or by night.

In our world, rational economics, the financial calculation, is too often looked upon as the final arbiter of what is good, right and appropriate. At Epiphany it is shown to us that there are depths of truth and meaning, not least in walls and gates, of which economics cannot speak.
 
 
6 - WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY (January)5        GLORY, ONENESS AND THE WORLD'S KNOWING

John 17:22 The glory which you gave me, I have given to them, that they may be one as we are one.... Then the world will know that you sent me.

At the beginning of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity there is nowhere better to turn than to the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, where he is talking to the Father about all who will come to believe in him. I feel myself amazed at these three things: glory, oneness and the world's knowing. This is his prayer for us. He has given us his glory, he prays for our oneness that the world, our worlds, may know.

I want to reflect with you on my experience as a Christian Minister working within the community of students and staff of the Anglia Polytechnic University here in Chelmsford - my world.

I do most of my work in the Department of the Built Environment. Some of our students are going to be builders or engineers or planners. Others will do work concerned with housing. Yet others are concerned with how we develop or conserve rural areas. Our perspective is worldwide. Here is young, gifted human creativity at its best. The source of that creativity is God and its object, although it does not always perceive it, is for most of the time something that I would call the glory of God. That amazes and humbles me. It all looks so prosaic and mundane, yet it is becoming revelation of the glory of God.

Our Department is rich in Christian people. I can walk along the staff offices' corridor and know that many of the people there are committed to Christ, some formally through baptism, confirmation and church membership, others less explicitly but no less completely. Alongside these people are other colleagues who share totally the Christian ethic but are more open and sceptical about the doctrine and belief from which it flows.

There is there a love and deep concern for the student body and a great commitment to good and honourable building work and building business. There is commitment to understanding and improving the complexities of the housing market, housing finance and the meeting of housing need. There is commitment to the wise and imaginative stewardship of the countryside, developing in one place, conserving in another. In these commitments, rarely spoken of, but quietly and painstakingly worked out, the inner church of the believers and the outer church of the love-¬filled sceptics, are one. One in commitment to the task. One in integrity. One in the optimism and hope for the future, which faith and sincerity alone make possible. One in recognition that we are for ever missing the mark, and yet being enabled to grow daily a little more towards it. In this daily task of being the Church there is no Anglican or Quaker, no Reformed or Orthodox, no Roman Catholic or Baptist, no ordained and no lay. There is simply the Body of Christ.

But there is also, sadly, a 'not-yet-oneness'. We cannot fully gather our practical discipleship into worship. We cannot yet, as one body, offer and break the one bread, offer and share the one cup. We cannot yet take one loaf and see it as the embodiment of all that we build with our hands and our materials, which through the great Prayer of Thanksgiving becomes Christ's body, and through our communion, our body, our work, our building. That oneness is not yet.

So, to me, being a Minister within a University community and within a particular Department, is one of the greatest privileges and joys of my life but it is, at the same time, a source of great sorrow, one that is hard to bear. I pray that we may come soon to oneness, so that the world, and all our particular worlds, may know the fullness of the glory that has already been given to them.
 
 
7 - EDUCATION SUNDAY (February)        CONNECTING FAITH AND EDUCATION
Isaiah 30: 20 The Lord may give you bread of adversity and water of affliction, but he who teaches you will no longer keep himself out of sight...

Today is observed in many churches as Education Sunday. The day poses the question about what the relationship is between the Christian faith and the whole world of education - including nursery school, primary school, secondary school, college, university, adult education, continuing vocational education.

It seems to me that faith and education are two of the most human aspects of life. To be able to reach out to God in faith and be educated both to understand and reason about what happens in the world and to respond artistically and creatively, that is to be human.

Making connections is not an easy task. It is easy to say `Let's get on with being faithful without worrying ourselves about all the scenarios presented by education' or `Let's get on with education... anyway, what has faith got to do with maths, science, technology, literature and all else that makes up a curriculum?'

In a way, struggling to make connections is like eating the bread of adversity or drinking the water of affliction. Isaiah says that it is just at those points we discover that God does not keep himself out of sight. The way may be rough but God will be seen and will be heard.

University students of Building often ask ‘What is reality?' Just now, answers include:

•    ½ million building workers unemployed
•    graduates finding jobs hard to get
•    suicidal competition in the construction industry
•    cases of corruption between developers and planners
•    incompetent building
•    grounds for cynicism

In the face of those realities, faith says,

•    God is
•    God can be seen
•    God can be heard telling you the good way to go
•    God heals what is broken and wounded.

If you can accept that in faith, you can come to see that reality is not all bad and black. There are pockets of good and currents of goodness. I can point to some right here in this town of Chelmsford. (My examples must have been given off the cuff - no notes kept!)

Faith says, `Go into education. Go where people are learning to build. Face up to the blackness of reality. But look beyond it to the activity of God and to all the goodness which, through his grace, is and is coming to be.'

Churches sometimes send their own special people into schools, colleges and universities to deliver their special message. I thank God with all my heart for people like that. But the real responsibility for bringing faith to bear, at rock bottom lies with the people involved - school governors, university governors, school and college staff, active and involved parents and above all students themselves.

The affirmation of this day, Education Sunday, is that the link between faith and education is indissoluble. Education deals in realities that can be exceedingly grim. But God is more real than any reality. God is good.
 
 
8 - UNEMPLOYMENT SUNDAY (March)        GOOD EMPLOYMENT
Colossians 1:15… his is the primacy overall created things... in him everything was created... and created for him.. all things are held together in him... through him, God reconciles the whole universe, all things, to himself

A few years ago when this country was contemplating unemployment figures of 2-3 million, Christian Action for the Unemployed was set up and a particular Sunday designated as Unemployment Sunday. Although in overall terms the absolute acuteness of the problem has diminished, it is right to continue the concern. We must not dodge the issue. In Colossians 1 Paul makes it absolutely clear that nothing is beyond the reach of Christ, beyond the reach of the gospel.

The central question is, `Why are employment and jobs matters of crucial importance?'

Often in the morning I pass a car carrying the sticker `I owe, I owe so off to work I go'. We go to work for money to pay the bills. They keep coming, even though they may change their name from poll tax to council tax! To be able to pay one's bills is adult, mature, responsible and dignified. Employment and money are necessary for well-being.

A few years ago, researchers at Loughborough University carried out a study on the motivations of bricklayers. As you would expect, one of the most important motivators was money. This was run a very close second by the opportunity to do good work, to be constructive, creative and useful. That is the second bind with unemployment, it takes away the opportunity to do something constructive.

On Channel 4 on Monday evening, there was a programme about a man of 40 with motor neurones disease. His muscles had wasted and his speech had become unintelligible. Life had lost all point. Then he was given a computer. Using a pointer strapped to his forehead he became able to write. All his life he had wanted to be a writer. Now he could! His wife said: `Now his writing is as if it were his work. It's his work, his creativity, his contribution. His work is published. He has become a Writer!'

A third reason why employment is vital is to do with the complementariness between a person's work and his or her prayer. In the Christian experience, work and prayer are two sides of an indivisible whole.

Last Saturday's newspaper included a fascinating article about a monastery of the Coptic Church in Egypt. The monks' prayer regime is rigorous, including a 4-5 hour morning liturgy starting at 3.30 am. But what of the monks' work? Many of them are graduates, highly qualified in agriculture and engineering. They have a major research programme into how the deserts of Upper Egypt, the Sudan and other parts of northern Africa can be effectively farmed. This work is crucial, bearing in mind the projected growth of desert areas as climates change.

I believe this monastery's purpose and credibility lie in the interweaving of its prayer regime and its urgent and practical research programme. I believe it is the destiny of every man and woman to know in their own experience the indivisibility of work and prayer.

Statistically, unemployment may go down. Please God it will. The message has constantly to be reiterated:

Every person should have employment so as to:
•    make their contribution and pay their way
•    be creative
•    experience the indivisibility of work and prayer


9 - ASH WEDNESDAY        MORAL INTEGRITY AND THE WORLD OF BUILDING
Psalm 15 Psalm of penitence

We meet as a United Reformed Church District Council on this poignant day in the Christian year, whose note is that of penitence. My special remit from this Council is to concern myself with that part of society which is concerned with the making and maintenance of buildings.

I want to reflect with you on Psalm 15. It holds before us a picture of great personal integrity - doing what is right, speaking the truth, not wronging a fellow, holding to an oath even to one's own hurt, integrity in lending money, not engaging in bribery.

It is my judgement that in the world of building there is a small minority who would say that they had no interest in living their business or professional lives in the spirit of that psalm. They consciously do bad work and engage in sharp practice when it suits them to do so.

There is another minority who, although they would never say so, are on the right track towards living out that ideal. They are the people who get invited back to do another job because their work is sound and their prices fair. They are reliable. Others enjoy working with them.

But who are the majority? They are those who look at the portrait in this Psalm and say, `yes.. but..'. There are, I think, two main `buts'. First there is the `but' of the person - builder, carpenter, bricklayer, architect, sales person - who says wistfully and longingly, `I do want my life from Monday to Friday to be like that but the gap is so wide.' Second there is the `but' of the jocular person, far from dishonest or exploitive in any way but who maintains that the psalmist does not understand the real world.

Both the wistful person and the jocular feel themselves to be the victims of the systems in which they have to work.

Perhaps our prayer for the first minority is that God will forgive them. But even more our prayer has to be that he will forgive us for not holding the light high enough to enable them to see.

For the second minority, our prayer can be of deep thanksgiving and petition that they may long be able to continue in the good ways of their choosing.

With the majority, our prayer needs to recognize that Satan, as it were, can get inside our systems and corrupt them, and ask for strength to influence otherwise.

Let me tell you a story.

    Once there was an authority who needed three blocks of flats refurbishing, two of 21 storeys and one of 22 storeys. For whatever reason, the contractor's prices turned out to be too low, bringing him the risk of substantial losses. Fortunately for him, the whole contract had to be re-measured. He hoodwinked the authority into paying him for two blocks of 22 storeys and one of 21 storeys, thereby making his contract profitable.

Allegedly true, but whether true or not, that story has hyperbolic power. What, I ask this URC District Council, must be our prayer of penitence in relation to it - the individuals involved, the contracting company, the public authority,' the system', and most of all us, the Church?

 
10 - LENT (1)        DAUBING OR WHITEWASH?
Ezekial 13:10b It is as if my people were building a wall and the prophets used whitewash for the daubing

Ezekial is berating bad leadership, in his terms bad prophets, in ours bad MP's or councillors or building professionals or even bad church leaders. They are bad because they say that all is well when all is not well. They mislead, they deceive, they are economical with the truth.

Ezekial likens such behaviour to the negligence and incompetence of people who build a wall in loose stones and fail to daub, render or plaster it on the outside against the weather. They deceptively just whitewash it. When the bad weather comes, it drives straight into the stonework and before long the wall collapses to become a heap of stones once more.

It's easy to say all will be well when all will not be well. Don't bother about the daubing, it will be alright. Our budget's run out and we cannot afford it. We'll take a chance. We only have very bad weather once in a hundred years.

The general point I want to make is that bad decisions, incompetent decisions, decisions lacking in responsibility and integrity, are easy to make. They offer the easy option and the line of least resistance.

It seems to me that bad decisions are also quick to make. Don't agonize, whitewash the wall and get on to the next job. Such speed contrasts with the temptations of Jesus. He agonized for forty days, six weeks, twenty-four hours a day. Agonizing in the wilderness about what to do, about what sort of a leader he was to be to live out the commission given to him at his baptism. Was he to be sharp and clever, not daubing the wall, just whitewashing it and getting out quick before trouble started? Or was he going to struggle and get the decision right? Was he to go the slow way, the hard way? Was it to be six weeks of sleepless nights grappling with an issue that will not go away?

Good leadership, good decision-making in whatever field, are, like good building, slow and painful and difficult and costly.

That is what we are committed to through our baptism, confirmation and church membership.

We repent that we duck the issue too often.

We recommit ourselves to carrying out the daubing when it is needed. It is God in Christ who pays when we don't.
 
 
11 - LENT (2)        EXPERIENCES OF FREEDOM AND FORGIVENESS
Genesis 9:15 Then 1 shall remember the covenant which I have made with you and with all living creatures, and never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all creation
Matthew 12:31 So I tell you this: every sin and every slander can be forgiven, except slander spoken against the Spirit ....

Lent is the time when it is especially incumbent upon us to think about `sin', this condition we have of being out of harmony, out of tune, out of step with God. I want to consider two facets of this condition.

Last summer, I was in the University Management Library in the Old Bishop's Palace at Danbury browsing through back copies of the Harvard Business Review. I lingered long over an article called The Shaping Hand by one John Safer, a banker by profession, a sculptor for his hobby. He commented, as many do, on Michelangelo's sculpture of King David. Michelangelo observed that the image of David had always been inside the marble and it was the sculptor's job to let it out, to give it its freedom. It is, I believe, our ministry to one another to see in one another, the person, the design, that God put there and help it to come out. We serve God when we help the people in our office or in our class or down our street to come out of the marble and we sin when we don't.

In her text The David Solution coincidently reviewed in that particular edition of the Harvard Business Review, the management lecturer and consultant Valerie Stewart gives another quotation from the great artist, `You take the block of marble, and with your chisels and other tools, you chip away everything that is unlike David, so that at the end of your chipping, you are left with David, a perfect likeness' 6. Valerie Stewart says that in the course of her work she sees many people encrusted by a whole mass of material that prevents them from being their true selves. She is particularly concerned for people who become encrusted with bureaucracy, procedures, rules and fears and a million reasons why this, that and the other thing cannot possibly be done. Her longing is to chip away all that prevents people from being and creating, and to enable them to discover themselves. Such encrustation and imprisonment is one of the states of sin from which God longs to set us free.

That edition of the Harvard Business Review also contained a review by the well-known Christian management commentator, Professor Charles Handy of Edward de Bono's book concerned with what he calls rock logic and water logic7. de Bono's argument is that we make our world too rigid and that we are not nearly flexible and fluid enough. If we have different views on something, we think one of us must be right and the other wrong. What we need to do is to explore why each of us thinks as we do, exploring reasons and background. We need to change from the rigidities of rock logic to the ebbs and flows of water logic. We can perhaps say that God forgives our fearful, excessive rigidities and sets us free to ebb and flow with the water.

This Lent, let us let one another come out of enclosing, encrusting marble of every kind and let us repent of our over-rigidities and bring the ebbs and flows of water to bear in all aspects of our lives. In doing so, we shall experience something of the divine forgiveness for all sinful ways of thought and behaviour which make us out of tune with God.

In our prayers we will use the 13th century hymn containing the line, Flecte quod est rigidum, What is rigid, gently bend. And we remember that the rainbow, God's mercy sign, is not a rigid line but an all-encompassing arc.

 
12 - PASSION SUNDAY        PROPERTY BUSINESS
Jeremiah 31:34 and 32:15 All of them, high and low alike, shall know me says the Lord, for I will forgive their wrong¬doing and remember their sin no more.... The time will come when houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought and sold in this land.
Hebrews 9:14 ... his blood will cleanse our conscience from the deadness of our former ways and fit us for the service of the living God

Jeremiah is inclusive: all of them, all of us, knowing God, being forgiven, having sin no longer remembered. And the process of buying and selling houses, fields and vineyards and all involved will be in a state of forgiveness and renewal.

At the top of our road was a large house with a large garden, a doctor's house when I was a child and more recently a family house. 12-18 months ago it was sold to a developer and later this summer some 13 flats will be ready for sale, according to the estate agents board that has gone up this week. Let's just unpack that story a bit to note all the people involved:

•    The people who sold to the developer
•    Estate agents, lawyers etc
•    The developers who bought the site
•    The architect of the scheme
•    The local planners who commented and approved
•     All the trades people - bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, painters etc
•    All the materials delivery drivers
•    Various inspectors of the work
•    Estate agents again for the sales phase
•    The people who will buy the flats.

Like most human stories, this one will have had its good side: work well done, consideration for fellow workers, relationships that have shown quiet integrity and fairness about money. And doubtless it will have had its bad side too. The point we are making today is that it is within the scope of the forgiveness and renewal offered by God in Christ.

Turning from re-development, let us look at the use of fields. This term some students concerned with rural land use and I have been considering some scenarios. One concerned the projected use of two fields for microlite flying. This is a hobby for a few and relatively affluent people but the noise and intrusion of it will affect everyone in the nearby village. Would this possible change of land use from agriculture to leisure be a good change? Would it be good before God?

Another scenario was from a developing country where fields were being purchased from local people for the building of holiday hotels, in which people from rich countries could come to spend their holidays. Again the question is `Is this good and, from a Christian perspective, good before God?'

The imagery of vineyards is very significant at passion-tide: vineyards, grapes, wine, the blood of Christ. Dare we buy and sell, or is that too terrifying even to contemplate? In some ways, yes. Yet if we have reached out and taken the forgiveness that is offered, the buying and selling will slowly become filled with the grace, courtesy, consideration, justice, trust, respect love .... and that will be the Kingdom of God.

This passion-tide, look around you. Observe and see into all that goes on in relation to the buying and selling and using of houses, fields and vineyards. Think how the blood of Christ forgives, cleanses and renews even these particular parts of our lives. Your looking, seeing and praying becomes part of the removal of what Hebrews calls `the deadness of former ways. Jeremiah's time, the time of the Kingdom, will be arriving.
 
 
13 - HOLY WEEK        BEING A CORNERSTONE
Mark 12:10 The stone which the builders rejected has become the main cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing and it is wonderful in our eyes.
I Peter 2:4 So come to him, to the living stone, which was rejected by men but chosen of God and of great worth to him.

In this part of England, where we build mainly with brick, we don't see many stonemasons at work. However, we understand the basic system of building a stone wall.

If the wall is to be fairly thick, in the middle will be put all the small, fragmented bits of stone bedded in mortar. On the two faces of the wall will be reasonably sized pieces of stone cut to regular shapes, dressed on the surface and built to the profile of the wall. Around windows and doorways, the bigger stones may be used to give the wall both stability and a good and interesting appearance.

Most important of all are the comers. The biggest, best and strongest stones are used here. Strong, well-built comers give resistance against the wind and ensure stability. Whatever may blow down, the comers must not. The base stone at the bottom of the comer is in a most crucial position. The mason will search long and thoroughly until he finds the best possible stone for that position.

In the stone family there is an ascending hierarchy from the rubble infill, through the wall facings and window dressings, to the comers of the building and the cornerstones themselves. One can imagine the supper table conversation in the stone household, `If you don't get on with your homework, all you'll be fit for is to be the rubble in the middle. Look at your sister, she's sorted herself out and has become an attractive facing stone.' Every stone parent will want its stone child to be a cornerstone. And some will grow up with such an ambition.

But for some reason it doesn't work out like that. Young stone isn't chosen to be a cornerstone or even a facing stone. He doesn't even get a place in the rubble. He is rejected. He becomes one of the unused, unemployed, destitute, on the rubbish heap. That may be just bearable if those doing the rejecting are competent and have good reasons for rejecting. But what if they were incompetent or one time good masons who have become slack, indifferent and arrogant rejecting good cornerstone material for no good reason? How dreadful it must be for a great stone capable of being cornerstone in a great building to lie rejected on the tip for years and years amongst all the rubbish and filth, being laughed at and despised.

But then one day, a new master mason, a prince of young master masons, comes along. He is looking for a cornerstone for his great building. He finds you, has you cleaned, has you cut to a proper shape, worked and dressed. Has you transported to where his building is under construction- Has you lowered into the critical comer position. Tests you, says that you are the right stone, says that you have existed from that job from the very beginning of the earth, since the time when you were molten lava.

Work commences and gradually other stones are built up around you and above you. You become what you are destined to be, the cornerstone. Your strength is recognized. Your true value is no longer in question. People come and see the building in all the beauty of its architecture. They look at you, the cornerstone, and see that it is you, in the crucial position, who make the structure possible. Once you were rejected and despised but now... now you have become not only a cornerstone, a dead thing, but a living stone.. You become the source and basis of the life of the building.

This is the strange pattern of Holy Week, rejection, the rubbish tip outside the city wall but then rescue and transformation. That was the way for Jesus. It is, I believe, the true way for the world.
 
 
14 - EASTER DAY        GARDENS, HOUSES, GOLD
Genesis 2:4-15 Creation of the earth
Colossians 1:16ff In him everything was created.... All things are held together in him.... the first to return from the dead
John 20:1-18 The resurrection

Colossians amazes us with the concept of `all things' and Genesis spells it out - the earth, the heavens, shrubs, plants, rain, dust, trees, rivers, streams, human beings, gardens, gold, gum resin, camelians. Not only the things stated but all that they signify. One commentary suggests that the four great rivers mentioned - Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates - includes not just the rivers themselves but all the civilizations present in their valleys.

All this is created and re-created in Christ, the one first to return from the dead, who brings it all back to life, back to its pristine newness. This is not reconstruction or restoration as a builder might think of it but transformation. The resurrection body of Jesus, the body to which Mary was told not to cling, wasn't simply the old body brought back into use. Perhaps it was the same material and it was clearly recognizable but it was transformed, different. It was the same but different in quality, capable of going on from resurrection to ascension.

I believe that is the same for the whole creation - all the natural things, for human beings, for human civilizations and even for gold - what will be raised in the new creation will be them, themselves, recognizable, but them transformed by the agency of re-creating love.

Let's think about gardens. A couple of weeks ago we had a farewell party for two colleagues of mine. One of our secretaries invited us to her home and garden. You go up a lane or track, past the home of the local MP (a Cabinet Minister) and come to this beautiful house and garden. This garden is its owner's pride and joy, to which she gives much time and care. Somehow, in the economy of God, this Essex garden will become part of the resurrection. It will go through a transformation process from which it will emerge itself yet wholly new.

Houses are part of the civilization of river valleys, of the Thames as well as of those mentioned in Genesis. John's Gospel refers to the Father's house and to mansions within it. I heard Bishop Stephen Vemey, a commentator on John, talking about this on the basis of his travels in the Middle East. Don't picture the Father's house, he said, as a sort of Elizabethan mansion. Picture it, rather, as a courtyard house with grass and flowers and fountains, with apartments grouped around it. I wonder if, in the resurrection, the rather tedious everyday houses of the Thames valley and estuary will be transformed into courtyards, places of community, still your house but in a different configuration.

What of gold? Genesis speaks of the land of Havilah where good gold is to be found. Someone I know comes from an Arab family. They love their inherited gold jewellery. It is made from gold as it is found, not as processed by laws and industries. The worth of gold is in both its natural qualities and in what is done with it, whether for good purposes or bad. In the resurrection, gold for what it is in itself and for what is done with it, will be recognizable but transformed into a new kind of beauty and goodness.

So our Easter vision is of gardens and their people, houses and their people, gold and its people, river valleys and their civilizations, all held together, all transformed. No longer drifting off on their own, no longer fragmented, shattered and splintered but held together. That is the supreme quality of the resurrection transformation, it brings together, it holds together.

The Lord is risen and together with him the whole creation will be transformed but still clearly recognizable.
 

15 - AFTER EASTER (1)        WATER FLOWING, JUNGLE YIELDING
Isaiah 43:19-20 Watch for the new thing 1 am going to do. It is happening already - you can see it now.... Even the wild animals will honour me; jackals and ostriches will praise me when I make rivers flow in the desert to give water to my chosen people
Matthew 28:10 Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me

Today I imagine the new things of which Isaiah speaks as happening in the Galilee region, to which Jesus has gone, the ordinary place where he used to live, any place, every place.

Just after Easter our task is one of seeing and looking, not just now of doing. The doing has been God's. Later, we can come to doing what we have seen.

Water flowing through the wilderness. There was a programme last Sunday evening about water in the Yemen, not that far from Galilee. The rain comes in a monsoon-like season and has to be husbanded and shared. A great deal falls on the high levels. Over the years the people have learned to control, to manage, the flow to the lower levels. Channels are constructed and maintained, with gates and small dams. First, the mountain water is for the use of the farmers on the high ground; then it is released to the lower hills; and finally to the flat lands. This all takes place under the direction of a Water Master.

Then so-called civilization comes. Young people move away, especially from the higher, poorer farms. The maintenance of the wadis and the terracing of the precious soil is neglected. Grain is imported at cheaper prices than it costs to grow. The channels dry up. The precious silt is lost. The whole system breaks down. Money from the West into the flat-land farms because they are the most `efficient'. There is heavy extraction of deep water by high-powered engineering plant.

Tragedy. But what is now happening is the renewal of gentleness, a renewal of the sense of inter-dependence, a renewal of the wise authority of the Water Master. Technical and economic aid from the ourselves and the Dutch is simple and appropriate.

This is not just an illustration of the new life of the resurrection, it is part of it. You watch your TV and you see God's new life happening.

What of the wild beasts? A few days ago I was in an office here in Great Baddow, only a few minutes walk away from this church. The people there were talking to me about some of our major construction projects and how sometimes they can become like a jungle. Every firm involved behaves like a wild beast, out for itself and its own advantage, preying on others. I was reminded of the 1930's US Christain teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr, who commented on the brutality, as he sees it, of all human organizations.

But now, in all Schools of Business and Management, including our own at Danbury Park and Chelmsford, there is a groundswell in the study of business ethics. A new generation of people and firms is fast growing, determined not to behave like wild animals in the jungle but to look for a new integrity and new ways towards mutual trust. You can, if you like, say this is just cosmetic or you can say `I see God, God doing a new thing, God already here'.

In the joy of Easter, go and look at things like water engineering and business behaviour. Discover for yourself the new life that is happening.

Praise God for it - and point it out to other people. It's a way of saying `Christ is risen!'
 
 
16 - AFTER EASTER (2)        A TUTOR'S QUESTIONS
Ezekial 34:1-16 John 10:1-18   Portraits of shepherds

Our readings focus on shepherds.

Ezekial condemns the negligent: feeding themselves, not the flock; failing to care for sick and weak sheep; failing to bring back the strays and look for the lost; letting the sheep scatter and become preyed upon by wild animals. In a word, not bothering.

John sees a bad shepherd too: a thief and a brigand. He is not taken notice of by the sheep; sheep do not feel they belong to him; he abandons them; they are attacked and scattered. He is not concerned; he is like a hired man.

Ezekial's good shepherd keeps the flock in view and brings it together when it has scattered. He finds good pasturage and shows the sheep where to rest. He looks for the lost, brings back the stray and bandages the wounded. John's good shepherd brings fullness of life, true life. He knows the sheep, has a voice to which they will listen and will lay down his life for them. For both writers, the sheep are people and the shepherds those who have responsibilities for them.

I am thinking just now of the 37 mainly young people who have been my tutorial responsibility from October through to March, the academic part of their `sandwich' programme. Many of them have been away from home for the first time, testing themselves in a higher education environment, being responsible in their own lives and work, coping with family problems which have included divorcing parents and the death of a parent. And their own problems, including one case of having to go to court for being drunk and disorderly!

As this period ends, I ask myself: do I really know them all, have I put myself where I could have them all in view, have I been a scatterer or a gatherer, have I fed myself or them, have I cared enough for the sick and have I sought the few loners among them? Have I been a true shepherd or have I behaved like a hired man?

As they go off to their first six-month industrial period, I wonder whether I and my colleagues have prepared them enough for the choices that will face them. Only on Friday a Sussex and London builder said to me:

    You have to choose where you are going to be in the values hierarchy. You can choose to run your business at or beyond the boundaries set by the law. Or you can elect to be a pleasant rogue. Or you can elect to be a firm of high integrity, high standards and high trust You have to know what your standards are.

Every student will find himself or herself in a firm that is caught up in this debate. Some firms give their staff and students a very strong lead on what the expected values and standards are - whether good, roguish or the least that complies with the law. The culture of other firms is much more open to individual choice.


I ask myself whether my responsibility has expressed itself sufficiently:

•    in concern
•    in gathering
•    in pursuing the strays
•    in seeing them all, and all together
•    in feeding them
•    in speaking gently, so that they listen
•    in helping them find the pastures (and the firms) that will give them fullness of life.

Young professionals are themselves destined to become shepherds. Have I, have we, helped them to begin to develop the kinds of voice and ways that will make them, in their turn, good shepherds?

 
17 - ROGATION SUNDAY        SENT TO COVENTRY
John 16: 25-33 Now I am leaving the world again and going to the Father..... In the world you will have suffering. But take heart, I have conquered the world.

On this day we think not only about agricultural work and industry but about all kinds of work, industry and commerce.

Last Sunday I was in Coventry and was able to go to a service in the Cathedral. The building has always moved me, the new, modem cathedral standing at right angles to the retained shell of the gothic building heavily bombed in the 1940's, the two forming one whole.

After the service and the welcome coffee, I walked quietly round the old building. What struck me was the little chapels around the sides. Each of the medieval craft and trade guilds had its chapel where, as I understand it, it could remember its former members before God and have meetings about ordinary, workaday matters.

Next I walked across the road to the Guildhall of St Mary, a hall for the Mercers, Drapers, Fullers and Tanners. It is the place where for 600 years Mayors and Lord Mayors of Coventry have been elected. One of the main features of the building is a tapestry which includes the figures of St Mary the mother of Jesus and the twelve apostles.

What to me is important about both the old cathedral and the Guildhall is that they unify the worship of God, the business of the guilds and local government, exemplified in the election of each Lord Mayor.

I went on my way to the car park, noting the extreme emptiness of the city centre. Not a shop, not an office was open. Everyone was at home in the suburbs, mowing the lawn and roasting the beef. Just a few police officers were around.

Then suddenly there came into view a procession which must, I think, have been the newly-elected Council. I guess it had been to service at one of the city churches but now there was no one to see it, except the police officers - and myself!

Then suddenly the bells of the Cathedral began to ring out, presumably in greeting to the new Council. To me the bells were doing more than that. They were calling the City to discover again the unity of worship, industry and local government. They were not calling nostalgically to the Mercers, Fullers, Tanners and Drapers but to the Barclays, the Debenhams, the Abbey National and the multitude of small shops and offices there in today's business precinct, calling them into the relationship with God which challenges, transforms and gives a new kind of value to their commercial lives.

    Jesus says, `You will know suffering in the world'. Part of that suffering today is that we have largely separated commerce, industry, local government and worship from one another.

We cannot go back to medieval England and to its kind of unity. We must search for ways forward. We must discover in our time the unity of commerce and industry, civic life and worship which give form and expression to the unity God gives in Christ.

He has already overcome the dividedness!

 
18 - THE ASCENSION        DEPTHS AND HEIGHTS
Ephesians 4:9 Now the word ascended implies that he also descended to the lowest level, down to the very earth. He who descended is none other than he who ascended, far above all heavens, so that he might fill the universe.

Other translations say, `He descended right down to the lower regions of the earth' and `He came down to the lowest depths of the earth'. If we wish, we can interpret these lowest depths as the depths of hell itself. Robin Green pictures such descent in this way:

    God is prepared .... to visit, to enter into the darkest and deepest ravages of human accountability, into those places where the earth bums with the devastating power of pollution and waste, into the shadows of human existence where violence discovers its power8

We have to relate this general truth to our own experience and anchor it in the particular reality that we know.

One of the realities with which I and students of Building Management have to grapple is that of construction site safety and the responsibilities of managers for it, including trainee managers from day one of their industrial training experience. Dealing with the consequences of bad safety management or of unpreventable accidents is among the hardest of a Building Manager's tasks.

One of the greatest safety hazards is the ground itself and the work processes carried in the ground and under the ground. This matter has been focused for the public recently in relation to the Channel Tunnel where there have been six deaths in the last eighteen months and, over a somewhat longer period, some 300 reportable (that is relatively serious) accidents. All, of course, are related to the ground because that is where the tunnel is.

For the people affected by such deaths and accidents these are personal tragedies and examples of Robin Green's pollution, waste and violence in the depths.

What we must say is that it is to this particular depth that Christ is for ever descending. He shares, absorbs and bears all the pain and the agony, the fear, the violence, the waste and the pollution. As Robin Green vividly puts it:

    Jesus is the imagination of God: through the incarnation, passion and resurrection, we catch yet another glimpse of God imagining a different future for humanity and creation..... God is present in the hidden and secret places of the world, empowering and encouraging people to imagine a different kind of future

As tutors and students, as managers and engineers, we have to imagine the kind of future that God imagines. No future can be without risk and danger but a responsibly undertaken future raises our reality with Christ to glory.

 
19 – PENTECOST        RESOURCES AND POWER
Ephesians 1:19 How vast are the resources of power open to us who have faith..... the power of God's very self, the power that raised Christ from the dead and made him head over all things.

Dare we be Christians? Dare we put ourselves within a thousand miles of these resources of power?

This term I am exploring with a group of students the issue of Resource Management in relation to building. What are these resources? First, land; if there is no land there can be no development or building. We have to ask where the land is to come from, what should be paid for it and to whom it really belongs.

Second, materials. What is the story of the brick from the clay pit to the finished wall? By whom has it been made - by slaves as with the children of Israel in Egypt, and if so have we the right to use it? Timber, from the forest to the roof truss or expensive wall panelling - what is its story? Is it good that it should be used for this purpose or are their other, better purposes?

Third, people, the human resource. There is now some use of robots in building but it is essentially a people industry. What does it mean to be a manager of people, bearing in mind that every person is an individual with a past and a future.

Such questions can be fairly easily answered in terms of what is reasonable practice and what are common sense ways of thinking. But in my view, that is not enough for graduate and professional education. The questions have to be more probing.

As far as land is concerned, we've lived for a long time with the notion that it is a commodity that can be owned by individuals and bought and sold. The Old Testament takes a different view. Land is a gift from God. A North American Indian, faced with an offer for his land, `Sell a country? Why not sell the air, the clouds, the great sea. Did not the Great Spirit make them for the use of all his children?' The spirit's power within us says, `You are free to ask such questions, indeed you must ask such questions'. Perhaps the greatest power the spirit gives is the courage to ask the questions.

Materials management forces us to face the issue of waste. One group of 3 or 4 students has the task of identifying some site waste skips, seeing what is in them, where it goes and what is done with it. Is there good stewardship? Our Christian reflection is that in the resurrection God did not waste the dead body of Jesus but transformed it by his power into a resurrection body.

And what of people, the precious human resource? You can manage them efficiently, that great army of bricklayers, carpenters and tower crane operators, you can pay them fairly and offer them good rewards. But dare you, dare we, say that they are the sons and daughters of the living God, sisters and brothers of Christ?

Common sense says you can't run a major construction site and get yourself involved in thinking about the personhood of everyone doing the mucky jobs. But the power of God, the power that is within us, is about how impossible it is for God to take the slightest bit of notice of what we see as impossible.

To go back to my opening questions: Dare we be Christian? Dare we be the church? Dare we let this power within us work itself out in the questions we ask and the attitudes we take in the life of the world?

Obviously the scenarios amongst which you live are different from the ones amongst which I live but the question is the same to all of us .... `Dare we?'
 
 

20 - TRINITY SUNDAY        COMMUNICATION
Ephesians 1:9-10 God has made known to us his secret purpose, that all things should be brought into unity in Christ ... God's purpose is everywhere at work ... the spirit is the pledge of the inheritance that is ours.

The purpose and work of God is to bring about the unity of all things in God's own self. The three persons of God work in a coordinated, integrated way to enable their creation to find unity within itself and with and in God.

How, we need to ask, do unities come about? First, they are the outcome of relationships. This person and that, this organization and that, have relationships which, if they are constructive and wholesome, enable a unity of outlook to be reached.

Relationships in their turn are formed by communications. We talk and listen to each other. We are silent together. We look together. We draw things for one another. We use body language in relation to one another. Through these and other modes of communication, relationships are built up.

The subjects of relationships and communications figure prominently in Management education. My first year students do an exercise in groups of three, in which one speaks for three minutes on a prepared topic of his/her choice. The second student then engages the first in questions and discussion about the topic. The third observes this process of communication and relationship-making and talks about it to the other two. Each student has a turn in each role. In a plenary discussion, we draw out what has been experienced and learnt.

Second year Housing Management students this year have been doing a negotiation exercise on whether a residential home for elderly people can be registered. They play the roles of the proprietors, the social services inspectorate, the local authority and so on. They have to come to a collective, negotiated decision on whether a home can be registered.

To third year Building Management students, back from six or twelve months' industrial placement, we give a list some twenty topics such as leadership, motivation, conflict, planning, organization, communication etc. Students are asked to identify the topic that they regard as most important for good building project management’` ’Communication' implying `good communication practice' is always the one most commonly chosen. Reasons given vary but they frequently include expressions like, `It enables information to flow', `It enables good relationships to develop' and `It enables a common, unified purpose to emerge'.


I believe that:
•    When students study Communication
•    When they see how important it is in everyday work
•    When they learn to do it well
•    When they learn to identify things that impede it
•    When they recognize the damage that poor communication, and communications management, can do
•    When experience has shown that communication makes, mars or destroys the unity of purpose that is necessary for every successful building project

Then we are coming near to the heart of God.

The Communion in which we are about to share is a sign and celebration of the communion, the communication, the relationships and the unity which is God's will and purpose for all things - my things, making houses, towns, buildings - and your things, whatever they are.
 
 

21 - AFTER PENTECOST        THE TOWERING INFERNO

Genesis 4:17 Cain . . .. built a city and named it Enoch

The theme of our service is `Let the city rejoice'.

Cain's city was far away from the originally-created Eden of God's love and goodness. It was part of the fallen world, almost a kind of anti-creation. But through Christ it becomes a part of the new creation. It can therefore rejoice. We read from Julian of Norwich that `God makes all wrong to good'. The city, every city, can rejoice.

A few weeks ago I watched on television in the late evening the middle part of the film The Towering Inferno. There was this real estate guy who, in a US city, built a block 145 storeys high, the tallest in town.

Apartments and flats and, on the upper floors, restaurants and places for dances and parties where you can look out all over town.

Then one night there was a massive fire in the middle storeys and rising to the upper storeys. All the fire escape systems went awry. Many people got out but those at a party on the top floor were stranded. The whole thing was made worse by very strong winds. The builder of the block was himself at the party.

The people at the party could not get out because the lifts did not work and the stairwells were acting as chimneys. Because of the wind, helicopters could not land on the roof and get the people out that way. There was great drama as the party-goers were taken out one-at-a-time in a kind of bosun's chair to the roof of a lower adjoining block.

In all this, the film suggested there were three problems. The builder, it seemed, had cut corners on the fire-stopping between the floors. Fire that should have been contained horizontally in fact spread vertically. Someone at the party said to him, `It would have been better if you had cut a few storeys off rather cutting these comers'.

While there may have been personal irresponsibility and guilt, the builder was also part of the prevailing system, the anti-creation, the city of Cain, which says, `OK, take the chance build the extra storeys, get the kudos, cut the comers'. The system had led the individual into temptation.

In addition to the natural forces of fire and wind, there are also at work the all-consuming forces of evil.

The good news is this:

To the man or woman who cuts comers rather than storeys, and who repents, God gives his assurance of forgiveness.

To the system, to the city of Cain itself, to the whole mechanism of temptation, to the pressure that says `you must go higher with your tower than anyone else', if you as a system repent, you will be forgiven.

There is the assurance that the wind and the fire of the good spirit, of the Holy Spirit, are more powerful than any wind or fire raised by evil forces.

This is good news for the city.

Let the city rejoice!

 
22 -TRANSFIGURATION (6th August)        EARTHED GLORY
Luke 9:32, 36 They saw his glory.. The disciples kept silence

In our first hymn we sang `Jesus, these eyes have never seen /that radiant form of thine;/the veil of death hangs dark between/ thy blessed face and mine'. Later we shall sing, `God of mercy God of grace,/ show the brightness of thy face./.. be by all that live adored'.

Here is a paradox: the glory of God in Christ is not yet able to be seen, and yet it is. Our faith is that there is glory beyond our present capacity to experience it but also - a both-and situation - there is no floor below which the glory, the brightness and the light do not shine. God has ordered things so that right here there is an abundance of glory, more than sufficient for us. This I want us to think of as a kind of `earthed glory'.

What is this `earthed glory'? It is the glory that breaks in when something happens that gives us an entirely new perspective on life.

Not long ago, the architectural journalist Martin Pawsey was talking on TV about the gothic cathedrals - Salisbury, Chartres etc. He was explaining that the key feature of these buildings is their glorious windows and the stories the windows tell about the people of the Old and New Testaments and about the saints of the early church. These buildings exist for their windows. That is a tremendous breakthrough for those of us who are construction managers and engineers. To us the building is primarily about the stone, the structure, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, slendemess and height. Gothic is about these things but, we must learn, it is also about great windows unimpeded by heavy structure and windows in their colour telling stories of the glory of God.

Listening to Martin Pawsey, I realized this as it were for the first time. It was a new sense of glory but glory earthed in windows, colour and minimal structure. How else does glory break into the earth? The management teacher and consultant talks about transforming organizations by untying knots:

Transforming an organization and reclaiming your powerfulness, is not an overnight transformation, not n Lazarus job. It starts with doing one or two things differently - the things that are easiest to influence, the things within reach ... doing the doable. Don't wait for other people to make huge changes in order that you can throw in your two-pennyworth; don't sit there dreaming about new legislation, or a change in the board, or a charge in the world economic conditions. Big changes are more likely to happen as n result of small I changes than they are to be their cause. Do what is sensible, what is within reach; and then the other knots will come free10.

Enabling transformation, allowing as it were glory to break in through maximising small changes, is as true of lives as it is of businesses.

Having seen the glory of the transfigured Jesus, the disciples were silent about it. Valerie Stewart tells of a discussion she had about transformational leadership with a Maori woman in New Zealand:

'What do you do when you have to make n decision in a hurry - a war, an accident, some other form of crisis?' What she said set me rocking on my heels. 'From time to time we all spend a night together on the ground in total silence. When you have spent the night in silence with other people, using all your other senses for perception and communication, you know what you can ask of them.11

This is a complete breakthrough - leadership through sharing a night of silence sitting on the ground! What more `earthed glory' could there be than that?
 
 
23 - ORDINARY TIME (1)        FINE HOUSES
Deuteronomy 8:12 When you live in fine houses, do not forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery

Israel were slaves in Egypt, in Pharaoh's brickyard, making bricks from which the palaces and houses of the slave-owners would be built. Then a new time comes. They have freedom. Their labour can be used to build houses for themselves and their own families. Deuteronomy reminds them that when they are in that marvellous position they must not forget the Lord their God who, through Moses, brought them out of the brickyards of Egypt.

Fortunately we are able to live in houses. But do we think of them as `fine houses'? They're not historic country mansions or luxury flats in Mayfair, W1. They're just ordinary. I want to suggest to you that they are `fine' and that we should remember their fineness before God. So what constitutes a 'fine house'?

The first essential part of any house is the roof, something that simply keeps rain, snow, wind and excessive heat at bay. Second in importance perhaps are walls, devices for making more enclosed space under the roof. Third come floors. The ground floor is simply a device for keeping the dampness of the earth away from us.

At the simplest level, if we have a good roof, good walls and a good floor, we have a fine house. And we have it by the blessing and grace of God. From God's creation come the materials of tiles and rafters, bricks and doors. The skill of brick-maker and bricklayer, carpenter and tiler come from God, who is always present when men and women take materials and fashion them into something that is useful and good.

Perhaps our response should be more than thanksgiving. Wonder comes into it as well. Wonder that houses can be made which, through their stability and durability, serve us well. Wonder that there is order and consistency in the world, a reliability. If, in your roof, you have rafters of the right size and strength, and they are properly framed and jointed, they will not collapse, provided they are protected from damp and decay. As we build our houses we discover the laws of physics and for them we give adoration to God.

For us, there is more to a house than the simple fabric. There is all the apparatus that gives us ready water and necessary warmth. Have you ever looked at your boiler, your hot water cylinder, your thermostat, the insulation in your roof and walls and said, `Praise God, these things together with the skills of plumbers and engineers are his gift to me'? And the micro-processors that can now control everything in the house, they too are part of the fineness of our houses which we must remember before God.

Furthermore there is design. A fine house is one that is well-designed in terms of room layout, elevation proportions and in harmony with the surroundings. The feeling that a well-designed house, street, or whole neighbourhood stirs up in us, in its way brings us to remembrance, thanksgiving, wonder and praise.

As we develop the kind of spiritual sight which sees in the occupying of a house, the blessing of God, we shall indeed be able to remember him. Such remembering brings us to an awareness of the holiness of fine houses.

 
24 - ORDINARY TIME (2)        GOOD PEOPLE, BAD SITUATIONS
Psalm 55: 7  I would escape far away to a refuge in the wilderness

One can read this psalm as the prayer of a good person feeling betrayed and caught in a bad situation. In his translation/paraphrase Donal Dorr says:

        I am worn out...
        I am upset.....
        I am gripped by fear....
        I am overcome with horror.....

        Violence and discord stalk the city
        The city is full of crime and trouble
        There is destruction everywhere
        The streets are filled with oppression and fraud
        My former companion proved faithless and we were afraid12

A few weeks ago I was talking with the director of a company located near here in the window and cladding industry. I had asked him to talk to me about trust. He said, among other things: The level of trust is going down between firms like his and builders, architects and surveyors.

There are people who lie repeatedly and others who don't keep their word Contracts are manipulated and some young surveyors incline to some very unpleasant business practices.

These views were borne out recently by a builder who said to me that maybe 10 years ago, if you had 12 projects running on 10 of them relationships would be good, with a sense of common purpose and fairness.

On the remaining 2 projects there would be difficulties of various kinds. Over the last 10 years, these proportions have changed for the worse.

It is generally thought that relationship and ethical problems get worse when the industry is in recession. It is now one year into such a period and the situation is likely to get much worse.

Faced with such situations, those two men and we ourselves might echo the psalmist:

        I wish I had wings like a dove
        I would fly far away
        I would find myself a shelter from the raging wind and from the tempest13

But we can't fly away or we don't want to. We are committed. Like the psalmist we must pray. But how? Donal Dorr, (a contemporary Christian in the Church of Ireland) says some useful things. First, prayer creates a space in which to view the struggle between oneself and the situation:

This morning ... I'm not drawn to pray in a cosy chapel or in the quietness of my room. I need to breathe, to be buffeted by the elements. It's Inshing rain.... I sense that walking in the storm will help me look a bit more objectively at what's happening in my head....14

Dorr further suggests that prayer is listening to Jesus: What does it mean to listen to Jesus in prayer in a time of struggle? It would be a serious mistake to expect Jesus to give me advice or instructions on a particular issue To ask 'advice' from Jesus about how I should act is to seek to get in touch with a barely accessible part of myself - the part that is 'conformed' to Jesus, that is committed to listen to him, willing to be challenged by him ..... God and Jesus trust me to come to my own conclusions; but those ... are likely to be radically different from the ones I would have come to if I had not given the time to prayer15.

Out of prayerful space and out of conversation with Jesus can come the capacity to live with integrity and with trustworthiness, not least in bad situations and contexts.
 
 
25 - ORDINARY TIME (3)        DANCE, OFFICE BLOCKS!
Revelation i8:2 Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great
Psalm 114:7 Dance, O earth, at the presence of the Lord

Babylon is code for Rome. John of Ephesus is saying: Fallen is Rome, Rome the great imperial city, city of the Forum and of the Coliseum, fallen, fallen. Fallen because of her uncleanness, her vileness, her demons, her political and commercial fornication. Down with her she takes the merchants of the earth, merchants in woods, ivory, bronze, marble and many other materials. And with the merchants go down their transport contractors - sea captains and sailors. Alas, alas for the great city.... in a single hour all goes down.

Babylon is code, too, for modem Rome, London, New York, Tokyo and all the rest. They too must go down, for their situation is very much that of ancient Rome.

But in the Christian perspective history does not stop in the hall of judgement. Indeed it is there for only a moment, for it takes up the song of the psalmist, `Dance O earth at the presence of the Lord'. The timbers and the ivory, the silks and fine linens, the bronze and the marble, they and all creation shall dance at the presence of the Lord, the Lord who turned the granite cliff into a fountain, the rocks into a pool of water.

In its reflection on Psalm 114, the compiler of the URC Prayer Handbook for this week lets himself go on this theme of dancing:

        Dance mountains and seas,
        Office blocks and motorways
        At the presence of the Lord

How, in our coolness and calmness, we may ask, do office blocks dance?

A modem office block is made of materials. When those materials are good, when a proper price is paid for them to the lands that produced them, when they have not been processed exploitatively, the dance can begin. When the workmanship is good, the people work in harmony and, again, are employed justly, the dance can continue.

The office block can sing and dance if the work that is done in it is good and just work, work that does not exploit. If, by way of example, it is occupied by a travel and tourism firm, that rapes the countryside to build hotel after hotel, it cannot sing. But if the travel firm cares for the lands and peoples to which it takes its travellers and tourists, then there can be singing and dancing in and by the office block.

Yes, all our cities are, like Babylon, fallen. The judgement of their fallen-ness is momentary. Their calling and their opportunity is to join in the singing and dancing of the earth. The themes of the music are the themes of justice.

Let them dance for their Lord and their God!

 
26 - ORDINARY TIME (4)        ADDED VALUE
Deuteronomy 22:8 When you build a new house, put a parapet along the roof, or you will bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if anyone should fall from if.
Matthew 16:25 Whoever cares for his own safety is lost, but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake, he will find his true self.


There is much talk at the moment about `added value'. If you buy something for £x, carryout some kind of work on it or with it and are able to sell it for more than £x, you have added value to it by the amount of the increase.

What value, I wonder, does Christianity add to what our everyday secular world would do or achieve anyway?

Take the matter of building safety. In Old Testament Israel it was, as I understand it, quite normal to use one's flat roof to entertain your visitors, to talk, to eat and perhaps to worship. Having a safety parapet or balustrade is common sense. We use flat roofs much less frequently and do much less sunbathing on them. But we often have staircases and balconies and for all these situations we have rules and regulations governing safety. It's all common sense and a matter of responsible care for one another.

What the Judaic-Christian tradition adds to the common sense position is that this is a matter worthy of scriptural reference. God is a party to the matter. The added value is the acknowledgement that in the case of accident or cavalier absence of law and guidance, the one who suffers the most is God.

Think about the wearing of hard hats on construction sites. In a few months time this will become obligatory under new Health and Safety legislation. A group of my Building Management students were arguing about this the other day.

The majority argued that a distinction needs to be made between the provision of hard hats by the company and the wearing of them by individuals. The provision should be a matter of regulation but every individual should be free to wear one or not as he wished.

The minority argued that this freedom of choice was a freedom that could not be taken. On a site, everyone is involved and there has to be mutual responsibility. It is impossible to stop things being dropped accidentally - bricks, hammers etc. You cannot lay on the person who drops the brick or hammer the burden of the guilt of shedding the victim's blood, even though he himself may have elected not to wear the hard hat provided.

As I listened, I felt the minority view was on balance the more biblical one. It may or may not have been a coincidence that the student leading this side of the argument is the son of Baptist missionaries. Was, I wonder, his Christian upbringing enabling him to add value to the majority view based on individual liberty?

These two issues tend to suggest that an awareness of the suffering of God and an awareness of mutual responsibility lead to some curtailment of individual freedom. Our brother, like us, is a child of God. His life has purpose and value and we cannot therefore take irresponsible chances with it.

That is not all there is to say. The call of Jesus, the ultimate Christian vocation, is a call to be ready to surrender one's safety and life. It is a call away from safety into high risk. It is a call to go up on to the roof, even if there is no parapet, even if the wind is so strong it may blow you off, even if the ice at the edge is treacherous.

The idea of surrendering safety, of taking the great risks of faith, that is something outside the world's perception and the secular experience. It is the greatest added value of all.
 

NOTES
1 Part of the challenge of this period was the evolution of APU from College through Polytechnic to University with its main campuses at Chelmsford and Cambridge.
2 A term used by pension providers that encapsulates rather well my role and that of my colleagues in the Chaplaincy Team.
3  Sedgwick, Timothy F (1987) Sacramental Ethics: Paschal Identity and the Christian Life Philadelphia: Fortress Press
4© Michael Powell and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, published first in All Year Round 1987 and in 2002 in Seasons of the Spirit: a compilation of prayers and meditations from All Year Round
5 This sermon was preached at Mass at one of the Roman Catholic Churches in Chelmsford
6 Stewart, Valerie (1990) The David Solution: How to reclaim power and liberate your organization Aldershot: Gower Publishing
7 de Bono, Edward I am Right- You are Wrong Viking
8 Robin Green (1990) A step too far: explorations into reconciliation London: Darton, Longman and Todd page 85
9 Green, pages 88-89
10 Stewart, Valerie (1990) page 15
11 Stewart, pages 132-3
12 Dorr, Donal (1990) Integral Spirituality. - Resources for Justice, Community, Peace and the Earth Dublin: Gill and Macmillan page 52
13 Dorr page 52
14 Dorr pages 42-43
15 Dorr pages 49 -50
 

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