This time last week I was in blissful ignorance of the tsunami of press coverage that was about to descend. I knew the Bristol local would run a story about the wedding owl who failed to deliver the rings, but I was astonished at how quickly the news spread. Reporters were phoning me up every ten minutes, there were interviews not just on local radio, but Radio 2, 4 and 5 as well. It seems as if every UK newspaper has told the story – and some in Australia, Canada and America too! It’s crazy!
You might say Owling mad.
It reminded me of two things: firstly that people are interested in the church – surely part of the impact of this story is the picture of the little barn owl perched up in the rafters, the combination of tradition and contemporary creativity. Secondly that it really mattered to me that listeners got the right message. Lots of the reporters wanted to make a joke of it – and it is hilarious, I don’t have problem with that. But I also wanted to say: God has made each of us unique, a wedding is the union of two special people who matter to him, so why not do something imaginative that reflects their interests? I really wanted that story to draw people just a little bit closer to Christ through his church.
For Jesus is at the heart of the church, and the church is pointless if it’s not about him. That’s what our reading from 1 Peter 2:4-12 says. In v.4 ‘come to him, a living stone’. The Methodist church where I grew up had been paid for by public subscription. All round the base of the building, as part of its structure, were fine stones, engraved with donors names. The largest donors got the biggest blocks, the foundation stones, holding the building up.
Peter says that Jesus is the foundation of his church. Or in v. 7: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner’. When you build an arch the most important stone is the keystone at the top – all the weight presses on this and it keeps the arch up. Jesus is like that, he is the rock on which we depend, he gives meaning to everything we do.
But how is that? Verses 4 to 8 explain. Jesus was chosen by God, he is the divine Son of God who perfectly shows us what God is like. However, his goodness and sense of justice was a challenge to those in authority who rejected and killed him. His death was not in vain, though, because God gave it an amazing loving purpose –Jesus took upon himself the punishment which should be ours for the wrong we have done. Christianity speaks of Jesus dying in our place so that, in v.6 ‘whoever believes in him will never be put to shame’. We can know forgiveness, cleansing and acceptance through the mystery of the cross.
And if we respond to that, we become part of God’s family, the church. If Jesus is the cornerstone, then you and I are like the other bricks built up around it, rough moulded, oddly shaped, different colours but all precious and valuable in God’s sight. In effect then, the church is not so much a physical place – this building, but a spiritual group – the people who are responding to God’s self-giving love.
Sometimes when I’m heading off to take a service, someone calls out: ‘Say one for me!’ Be warned, my reply is: ‘Come with me and we’ll say one together!’ Yet there is a real insight behind ‘Say one for me’. As v.9 tells us, the church is meant to be a royal ‘priesthood’, that means holding other people before God, praying for them, showing his love. Being light in a dark world, telling what God has done for us.
That’s why our members are here on a Sunday morning. Have you ever wondered why people come to church? Not for another social club – we’re all too different for that, nor for a special interest activity. No, we’re here because in some way v.9 describes our experience. God has turned our darkness into light. Maybe we’ve stumbled in moral darkness and God’s light has shown the right way. It may have been a darkness of uncertainty into which God has brought meaning, or a darkness of pain healed by God’s love. Maybe you’re very aware of darkness still, in which case do please keep the space open for God, keep seeking him, for he rewards those who earnestly look for him.
At its best, the church is a wonderful thing. I’ve belonged to many over the years and they’ve really helped me. I have learnt a lot, been drawn close to God and made friends that will last for ever. When my family has been through difficult times, the church has been incredibly supportive. When it works well, the church can be brilliant.
But let’s be honest, we also know the church isn’t always like that. One of the really sad things about my work is meeting people who’ve given up on God’s church, for a whole variety of reasons. Maybe they got ill and no one seemed to notice; they never got used to a new service; maybe life changed or they got busy; some fell out with the vicar or something hurtful happened. That is so sad to hear. And it can be very hard for those people to find their way back through the doors.
I apologise to anyone here today who’s been hurt by the church. Those things should not happen – the church is meant to follow Christ’s teaching. Yet it is made up of flawed human beings. Sometimes I hear people say ‘I’m not good enough to go to church’. But the church is not a club for the perfect – if so it would be empty!
Welby and Wonga is a good illustration of that. It was a great idea, the Archbishop didn’t whinge about payday lenders. Instead he offered practical help to credit unions. Justin Welby didn’t seek government regulation, instead he wanted to outcompete Wonga and make their business model redundant.
Just the thing the church should be doing, making a difference in society. Inevitably though some clever journalist found that the Church of England pension board had invested in a company which itself had shares in Wonga. It was a tiny sum of money but it risked undermining the whole campaign. Sometimes the ideals and the reality of living in a complicated world collide! The church does a great deal of good, but nothing’s perfect. And I think we need to be realistic about that.
For the church is both a hospital and a school. A hospital where our hurts are healed and a school where we slowly become what God wants us to be. Here we recognise our frailties. We accept God’s forgiveness, and God gives us his Holy Spirit who can transform us, step by step.
So remember, we are all human. If the church has hurt you, please give us a second chance. Allow us to try again. And within the church, let us do our best to be forgiving and charitable to one another. For how we handle our brokenness can allow God’s light to shine. That is at least as much an example as how moral any of us are.
I’ll end with a final thought: the church is the only society which exists for the benefit of those who are not yet its members. Yes we do sometimes get it wrong, and I apologise for the times when that has happened. But ultimately our aim is to serve our community and point to the love of Christ. As the words at the end of the communion service